Last week, President Hu Jintao urged the Chinese Navy to accelerate its transformation and “make extended preparations for warfare.” While perhaps unexceptional, the words caught the attention of the foreign media and that of China’s neighbors, which generally do not have much of a navy to speak of. That is natural. The small fear the big and the weak fear the strong. That is the natural order of things, and the Chinese know it well.

Thus, when China set out in the 1970s on the road to modernization, its leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, was keenly aware that an economically strong China would inevitably also be a military power and could be seen as a threat by other countries. That is why he repeatedly made assurances that China would never become a superpower and would “never seek hegemony.”

In a speech to the United Nations in 1974, when Chairman Mao Zedong was still alive, Deng provided a definition of a superpower. “A superpower,” he said, “is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder and strives for world hegemony.”

“Acting in the way of the big bullying the small, the strong domineering over the weak and the rich oppressing the poor, they have aroused strong resistance among the Third World and the people of the whole world,” Deng said.

In 1978, when Deng emerged as China’s new paramount leader after the death of Mao, he made a promise to members of a visiting delegation from Madagascar and, through them, to the developing countries of the Third World that even after China had become a powerful modern state, it would never seek hegemony.

By linking modernization with the promise not to seek hegemony, Deng showed that he was fully aware of how threatening a developed China might appear to other countries.

Chinese leaders today are fully aware of Deng’s promises and seek to live up to the principles held out by him.

Thus, Premier Wen Jiabao in April reiterated Deng’s promise that China would never seek hegemony. “We are not yet a developed country,” he said on the eve of a visit to Malaysia and Indonesia. “And even when China becomes a developed country one day, China will never seek hegemony.”

It is good that Chinese leaders are mindful of Deng’s pledges and are willing to periodically renew such pledges. This certainly should help to reassure the country’s neighbors as they see China developing into a strong military power, especially a naval power.

But they must be a bit confused over what China really stands for when they read articles in the Chinese press, such as one recently in the Global Times, which warned countries involved in territorial disputes with China that they should “mentally prepare for the sounds of cannons.”

Moreover, retired Gen. Xu Guangyu has said: “We kept silent and tolerant over territorial disputes with our neighbors in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task.”

This suggests that as China’s capabilities change, its attitudes and its policies would also change. This certainly undermines confidence in pledges about never seeking hegemony.

In his address to the United Nations, Deng went much further than promising that China would never behave like a superpower.

In fact, he made this extraordinary exhortation: “If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

Those are strong words. China’s leaders should keep them constantly in mind.

Of course, Deng had a special definition of superpower. Today, China is already the world’s second largest economy and it will overtake the United States within a couples of decades to become the world’s biggest economy, with commensurate increases in its political, diplomatic and military power.

Thus, China will be a superpower, whether it calls itself that or not. But, no matter how powerful it becomes, it does not have to behave in a hegemonistic fashion, dominating or bullying other countries. That was the promise of Deng Xiaoping. That is what the world expects of China in the future. China must not rule the world even if it has the ability to do so.

Frank Ching is a journalist and political commentator based in Hong Kong.

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