Peaceful Evolution theory

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The "Peaceful Evolution" theory in international political thought refers to the alleged attempt to effect a political transformation of the Chinese socialist system by peaceful means, primarily by the United States.

The phrase was formulated by United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the Cold War in the 1950s chiefly in the context of the Soviet Union, but has not subsequently featured in official discussions of U.S. China policy. Chinese analyses of U.S. foreign policy, however, hold that it has constituted part of the theoretical foundation for the United States' relations with the People's Republic of China since then.[1]

According to the thesis, the United States maintains a strategy to infiltrate and subvert socialist countries, notably China, by spreading Western political ideas and lifestyles, inciting discontent, and encouraging groups to challenge the Party leadership. The hoped for aim of this process, according to Chinese readings of the alleged policy, is that the socialist system is transformed from within.[2]

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has resisted the idea of Peaceful Evolution, beginning when the idea was first raised in the Mao era. The Party sees such a process as "the biggest threat to its continuous rule".[1]

Successive generations of CPC leaders have struggled against the Peaceful Evolution theory, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin. The theory is not currently part of the United States' official policy approach to the PRC, but communist military strategists consider it a cause of ongoing concern.


The precise locution "peaceful evolution" was a modification, by John Foster Dulles, of the doctrine originally outlined by George F. Kennan, who, in his Long Telegram of February 22, 1946, proposed that the socialist and capitalist blocs could reach a state of "peaceful coexistence."[3]

This was augmented by Dulles over a decade later, in speeches of 1957-58, to "promoting peaceful evolution towards democracy."[3]

In a speech, Dulles referred to "the use of peaceful means" to "accelerate the evolution of government policies within the Sino-Soviet bloc" in order to "shorten the expected life span of communism."[4] Western assistance and commerce were said to be two of the chief instruments of this plan to create a more liberal government in China.

According to Bo Yibo (father of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai) Mao Zedong heard about Dulles's remarks and took them seriously, ordering top Party cadres to study the speeches.[3][5] Mao saw the idea of Peaceful Evolution as a serious policy threat, a "much more deceptive tactic" to corrupt China, and a war against the socialist powers by military means.[3] Mao felt that the war was already being waged, with some effect, against the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese communists became more concerned about the strategy.[5]

Uses of the term

The term Peaceful Evolution has been used in the context of China and modernization outside the sphere of international relations. Scholars of China's media environment have used it to refer to the marketization of the press in China, where state control by the Communist Party lessens while the forces of commercialization take hold—though whether the media sphere in China has really evolved along such lines is disputed.[6]

While Peaceful Evolution ideas are often attributed to the foes of China, observers have suggested that some officials in the Chinese communist system—such as Wen Jiabao—support the process. These allegedly reform-oriented officials, however, are not considered part of the Communist Party's mainstream.[7]

Scholars have argued that the typical Chinese uses of the term—as a conspiratorial plot—are too "vague and all embracing; its meaning ranges from dark conspiracies involving the alleged plotters of the counter revolutionary rebellion [a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre] to the broad spectrum of cultural, social, and economic exchanges with the outside world."[4]

The overall utility of the term for Chinese analysts is that it sums up a range of the threats to the regime's political security, faced by the Party in the post-Cold War era. These threats are mostly connected with the United States, and are seen as part of the United States' own foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.[4]

However, the term is now often used by Chinese scholars to condemn any foreign activities (including cultural, economic, social) that are seen as problematic for the Communist Party—not just those that are actually intended to undermine it. It is also used to dismiss out of hand United States criticism on the Chinese government's human rights record, on the theory that the West is simply attempting to undermine the Chinese people's respect for the Communist Party.[5]

Post-Tiananmen protest

Chinese sensitivities to the idea of a Peaceful Evolution strategy by foreign powers were heightened by the post-Tiananmen crackdown climate of 1989, and the series of regime collapses in Eastern Europe later that year. Initially, Chinese communist leaders deemed the regime changes in the European countries as an "internal affair." In their own meetings, however, they declared them a matter of foreign subversion, also known as peaceful evolution.[2]

Wang Zhen sought to arm Chinese troops with the ideological shield to guard against Western idea—while on a military inspection tour of Xinjiang he said "unswervingly follow the socialist road... the road may be winding and the struggle fierce... In our opposition to peaceful evolution, a key tenet is to fortify the brains of the entire party with Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought."[2] Jiang Zemin, the Party leader after June 4, said that peaceful evolution posed a "major danger" for communist countries.

A three-part article was published in the People's Daily after the massacre titled "On Peaceful Evolution." It argued that the collapse of communist regimes in Europe were a result of "bourgeois liberalization," which refers to Peaceful Evolution, and that the democracy protests in China had also been an attempt to "negate party leadership by political pluralism, and negate public ownership in the economy by privatization." The CPC's crackdown was able to "crush the peaceful evolution strategy of the imperialists," according to scholar Jialin Zhang.[2]

Perceptions in China

Among state-affiliated intellectuals and strategists in the PRC, the term and theory of Peaceful Evolution is a threat and an attempt to undermine the Communist Party's rule. The hard line scholar Huo Shiliang of the Chinese Academy of Social Science's says that after Dulles, the Americans' policy of attempting to peaceful transform China has simply accelerated:

Before June 4 China considered the United States as a trustworthy and friendly country, but since June 4 the United States has become the main source of instability in China. Peaceful evolution is the main threat to China's stability today. The ideological struggle will be the most important factor in future Sino-American relations. The U.S. will again become the major threat to China, but not a military one. The Taiwan problem will remain important. but the ideological struggle—particularly peaceful evolution—will be primary.[8]

The theory of Peaceful Evolution is a key part of Chinese official assessments of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In bracing themselves against the Americans' "soft power" approaches, and attempts to undermine the regime, they have advocated a series of countermeasures. According to Li Jingjie, the director of the former Soviet-Eastern Europe Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there are eight lessons that China must draw from the Soviet collapse, due in part to the infiltration of Peaceful Evolution:[9]

  • Concentrate on growth
  • Be ideologically flexible
  • Learn from capitalist countries
  • Maximize the "comprehensive power" of the state, but lift living standards also
  • Expand inner-Party democracy, struggle against corruption
  • Treat intellectuals fairly
  • Comprehend the complexity and causes of ethnic problems
  • Carry out economic reforms, and include some political reforms


  1. ^ a b Wu, Zhong (January 11, 2012). "Hu warns successors over 'peaceful evolution'". Asia Times Online. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Zhang, Jialin (1994). China's response to the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Hoover Press, Stanford University. pp. 6–10.
  3. ^ a b c d Saussy, Haun (2001). Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China. Harvard Univ Asia Center. p. 237.
  4. ^ a b c Ong, Russell (December 2013). China's Security Interests in the Post-Cold War Era. Routledge. p. 117.
  5. ^ a b c Roy, Denny (2013). Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security. Columbia University Press.
  6. ^ Lee, Chin-Chuan; Pan, Zhongdang (2000). Power, Money, and Media: Communication Patterns and Bureaucratic Control in Cultural China. Northwestern University Press;. pp. 95–104. ISBN 0810117878.
  7. ^ Gardels, Nathan (October 19, 2010). "Wei Jingsheng: Blocking 'Peaceful Evolution' Will Lead to Instability in China". The World Post. The Huffington Post. Retrieved June 8, 2014.
  8. ^ Shambaugh, David (1993). Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 1972-1990. Princeton University Press. p. 275.
  9. ^ Shambaugh, David (2008). China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. University of California Press. p. 76.

External links

  • China Heritage Quarterly: 1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution
  • People's Daily editorial: Peaceful Coexistence — Two Diametrically Opposed Policies
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