SINOGRAPH China mourns loss of policy
prophet By Francesco Sisci
In early 1998, the niche-market Chinese
journal Strategy and Management published a hefty
bilingual report on the years 1997 and 1998.
There, a then little-known author, Zhang Xiaodong,
a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued for a
new Chinese policy on the Middle East.
said China should be more proactive in the Middle
East and Central Asia because the Middle East was
a huge concern for Chinese Muslims; because the
region provided virtual and concrete support to
the pro-independence Uighurs in Xinjiang; because
in 1996 China became for the first time a net
importer of oil; and most importantly because
Beijing could use its support
for Iran as a bargaining
chip to influence American support for Taiwan's
This last argument was
extremely important, as just two years before
America had stepped in to avert a confrontation
between Beijing and Taipei, when the latter was
pushing almost for a unilateral declaration of
In fact, for the first time
in its history, China was stepping out of its
historical area of influence, and for the first
time a scholar was suggesting a new foreign policy
in a region traditionally of little interest in
order to gain advantage in a core problem for
Beijing: Taiwan, the island de facto independent
but formally still part of one China.
Zhang Xiaodong was breaking with the
traditional vision of Chinese foreign policy. He
saw that for the first time China had to develop a
global worldview to uphold its interests even at
Iran or China's Middle
Eastern policies had to become bargaining chips to
gain advantage with America. After all, back then
the US was far more concerned about the Middle
East than Taiwan or China, and thus Washington
would give in to China on Taiwan, as it saw it
could get an extra advantage in the Middle East.
Back then, as the Soviet Union had
disappeared and Russia was pulling out of the
region, China could become a point of reference
for militant regimes like those of Iran and Syria.
To gain backdoor support from China would be
advantageous for America.
The idea was
shocking for some American China-watchers, to the
point that allegedly during a visit to Beijing
later that year US president Bill Clinton asked
then Chinese president Jiang Zemin about the
essay. Jiang didn't know the essay or the author
but later inquired.
This was when Zhang
Xiaodong shot to great fame in China's
foreign-policy circles. He was indeed already
famous among experts, as he was the only one who
correctly forecast that in 1991, during the first
Gulf War, America would fight in Iraq. Then most
Chinese experts thought the US would not go to
Yet it was after the 1998 essay that
Chinese foreign policy took a different turn.
Israel started to pay great attention to the China
factor and went on to develop a military exchange
program that was later blocked by America, as it
was transferring US technologies to China. All of
this occurred also because Zhang had shown a new
way to look at foreign policy both to China and
Certainly Mao's China
also had a global view, but it was only with a
naive vision of ideological influence. Pro-Mao
movements were supported and financed all over the
world, but while this gave a huge boost to Mao's
personal ego, it did nothing but damage to China's
overall interests in the world.
different: he saw and illustrated the
interconnection between China's growing global
reach and the possibility of bargaining with
America and other countries on many issues,
political and economic.
developed this vision a decade later in his
research on Afghanistan and Iraq, while the
American intervention was unfolding there. This
vision created a new intellectual spirit in China
and might also have contributed to the official
acceptance of the still very controversial Chinese
theory of peaceful development.
became politically open to the world and no longer
closed in its regional shell as it had been for
It is then a huge loss for
China - and also for the countries dealing with
China's foreign policy - that this scholar passed
away at only 51 years of age in the early hours of
Without his keen intelligence
and sharp eye, trying always to align global
interests with those of China and looking for an
opening to advance China's interests without
upsetting the world order but creating greater
harmony, Beijing was made weaker.
his friends and brothers of decades, his departure
makes the world emptier and life a little more
meaningless. Goodbye, Xiaodong.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist
for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be
reached at email@example.com