Destiny Community: China’s Belt and Road Long Game

Belt and Road, Editorial

‘Community of common destiny’ is a recurrent phrase in Chinese foreign policy rhetoric. It’s also an important concept for those looking to understand China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Community of common destiny

If you’re interested in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but have no idea what the phrase ‘community of common destiny’ means, then you’re missing a trick.

It’s easy to dismiss Chinese political catchphrases, repeat ad nauseam by grey politicians, as empty rhetoric and boring platitudes, but as Qian Gang explores in this article, these phrases are not without meaning or importance.

‘Community of common destiny’ is a particularly central concept; it is basically shorthand for “what China wants to achieve with its foreign policy”. The phrase is widely used, but because BRI is Xi Jinping’s landmark project, ‘community of common destiny’ is especially relevant to the Belt and Road.


Side note on language:

The Chinese for ‘community of common destiny’ is 命运共同体 (mingyun gongtongti), which word-for-word means ‘destiny community’. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understandably prefers the translation ‘community of common destiny’, but you might also see the Chinese phrase translated in English as ‘community of common’, or ‘shared future’, with Xi Jinping seeming to prefer the latter version in recent years.

You might also spot two add-ons to the phrase: (人类) (renlei) humanity; and (你中有我我中有你) (ni zhong you wo, wo zhong you ni) me in you and you in me.

These prefixes make for very awkward literal translations, and the CCP often opts for official translations that aren’t much less awkward: ‘community of common human destiny’ and ‘community of common destiny, in which everyone has in himself a little bit of others’.

The history of ‘community of common destiny’

Destiny Community has an interesting pedigree. The term was actually popularised in the 1990s by the Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, who used the phrase to evoke the idea of a shared Taiwanese national identity.

Lee Teng-hui borrowed the concept from Peng Ming-min, who, in the 1960s, also used the concept as a way to solve divisions in society created by Guomindang rule.

We can trace the source of this intellectual transmission back to Ernst Renan’s ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’ (What is a nation?), which Peng Ming-min read in the original French. Peng was struck by Renan’s idea that ‘neither race, nor language, nor culture forms a nation, but rather a deeply felt sense of community and shared destiny’.

Essentially, ‘community of destiny’ has been used to conjure up a sense of shared identity in the face of divisions in society. Lee and Peng used the idea to gloss over differences within a nation, and you could argue that Xi is using the idea to overcome differences on the international stage.

‘Community of common destiny’ was first used by a mainland politician, Hu Jintao, at the 2007 National Party Congress. Interestingly, Hu was talking about relations between Taiwan and the mainland.

Four years later, the concept was expanded when the State Council of China issued a white paper claiming that the entire world had become a ‘community of common destiny’.

Big Daddy Xi’s take on ‘community of common destiny’

I’ve written elsewhere about looking at the popularity of ‘community of common destiny’ using quantitative methods, but I won’t bore you with that. Suffice to say that the phrase gets properly popular around Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013.

It’s an oversight to credit Xi with fathering the concept, or to say that the defining themes of his rule (i.e anti-corruption, party discipline , military reform, etc.) are all master plans that he set in motion on his own.

Nevertheless, as is frequently observed, the President is clearly the most important person in Chinese politics by a long shot. Therefore, what Xi says on ‘community of common destiny’ is worth consideration.

Xi’s usage in (brief) detail:

– Xi first started using the phrase in early 2013 to refer to China and Africa, which ‘have always been a community of shared destiny’.

– At the Boao Forum the same year, he urged leaders that, ‘as members of the same global village‘, they should ‘foster a sense of community of common destiny’.

– Between 2013-2014, Xi used the term for both regional relations, particularly the ‘closely-knit China – ASEAN community of common destiny’, and the international ‘community of common destiny in which everyone has in himself a little bit of others’.

– At the Conference on the Diplomatic Work with Neighbouring Countries, (October 25th 2013), Xi defined China’s new neighbour-friendly foreign policy, which analysts have labelled “peripheral diplomacy”, in terms of “destiny community”.

– Then, at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, Xi explicitly stated that China’s goal is to ‘turn China’s neighbourhood areas into a community of common destiny’. This 2014 conference was significant in that it reaffirmed China’s focus on regionalism and its periphery, whilst defining ‘destiny community’ as China’s ultimate foreign policy goal.

– In 2015, Xi gave another keynote at the Boao Forum, entitled, ‘Towards a Community of Common Destiny and a New Future for Asia’.

– Xi also spoke to the UN for the first time in 2015, using “destiny community” in his keynote title.

– In 2016, China hosted its first G20 summit, and Xi called for a ‘community of shared future for mankind’.

– In 2016, the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the “rise of the right” in Europe led to an impression that anti-globalist forces were overtaking “the West”.

– This phenomenon was contrasted, firstly by Hangzhou hosting the G20 summit, and then by Xi’s starring role at the World Economic Forum early 2017. Xi’s Davos speech received a great deal of attention in international media, largely because of his vehement defence of globalization and free trade, both of which Xi said could serve China’s ‘goal of building a community of shared future for mankind’.

– Xi’s visit to Geneva about a week later was less of a defining moment in international media, but it received a lot of coverage inside China. In his keynote delivered to the UN, Xi stated: ‘China’s proposition is this: build a community of shared future for mankind and achieve shared and win-win development’. Afterwards, the concept was even incorporated into a UN Security Council resolution.

Xi Jinping Davos Economic Forum
Xi Jinping at Davos World Economic Forum

But what does ‘community of common destiny’ mean?

So far we’ve dealt with the more physical side of ‘community of common destiny’ – where the phrase comes from, and how it’s been used. But what about the meaning of the idea itself?

This next part gets a bit… conceptual, but considering that ‘community of common destiny’ is a concept, that’s pretty inevitable.

Destiny community and BRI: Theory and action

BRI is essentially China’s practical, strategic plan for bringing about the theoretical ‘destiny community’. BRI is action, destiny community is theory. BRI is battle plan, destiny community is objective. BRI is body, destiny community is soul. You get the picture.

This is less obvious from Xi’s speeches, although he did say in his Davos forum, that ‘Great visions can be realized only through actions. Actions hold the key to building a community of shared future for mankind’.

BRI is such an action, but you need to delve into the wider literature to really explore this relationship. For instance, Chinese academic Ming Hao writes that the ‘strategic path’ provided by BRI ‘means that the “human destiny community” possesses the possibility of realization’.

Meanwhile, an article in Xinhua claims that ‘by means of win-win cooperation’ BRI will ‘forge the great realization of the human destiny community’.

One author, Xu Hainuo, spells out the relationship in pretty certain terms. He says that destiny community is ‘theory’ (理论) (lilun) and BRI is ‘practice’ (实践) (shijian), that BRI is the ‘route’ (路径) (lujing) of destiny community, which is the ‘goal’ (目标) (mubiao) of BRI.

Another author, Liu Chuan-chun complicates this relationship slightly, writing that ‘on the one hand, the concept of human destiny community nurtures and drives BRI; and on the other, the implementation of BRI provides a material basis for the construction of a human destiny community’.

Here, the author acknowledges the usefulness of ‘destiny community’ in forging the BRI narrative and actually getting the initiative off the ground.

Ultimately though, the relationship between BRI and ‘destiny community’ as a concept is pretty clear, even when it gets a little bit Zen.

Community of common destiny is transcendent!

If one adjective can define the grandiose concept of ‘community of common destiny’, it is “transcendent”.

In fact, Wang Yi, a prominent former diplomat and scholar, has an entire section entitled ‘The Belt and Road Initiative Will Transcend History’.

The book is published by “New World Press” (NWP), which is owned by a state-run publishing group that is essentially a party instrument. Other titles from NWP include ‘The Chinese Dream: What it Means for China and the Rest of the World’, which features photos of smiling Chinese school children under the chapter heading ‘stories of dream pursuers’. Ominously, the book is written by ‘Ren Xiaosi’, who is not a real person, but the ‘name of a team, which is composed of several experienced media professionals’.

According to Wang’s book, BRI follows a ‘new development model’, which will promote the formation of a ‘new global political and economic order.’

Wang writes of this “new order”, that it is a ‘community of common destiny’, which ’embodies China’s understanding of power, stressing equality and fairness, cooperation focusing on mutual respect and win-win results.’

The ‘community of common destiny’ is achieved through a ‘community of shared interests’ and a ‘community of shared responsibilities’. The ‘community of interests’ roughly corresponds to a situation in which countries have a stake in one another’s prosperity. This is economic interdependence, or ‘completing each other economically’.

The ‘community of responsibility’ roughly corresponds to the political and security realms, a situation of ‘complete political mutual trust’, or a comprehensive security community.

Both aspects are needed for the realisation of a true ‘community of common destiny’. Therefore, we can understand ‘community of common destiny’ in real life terms as a sort of a situation of complete political trust and economic interdependence.

‘Community of common destiny’ is a new concept

A crucial thing to understand about ‘community of common destiny’, is that it is a new idea.

Guo Jiping (likely a Psuedonym for the International Department of the People’s Daily) writes that the concept, ‘by means of win-win cooperation, embodies a new type of international relations’.

For scholar Ji Wenya, BRI is the embodiment ‘of China’s new diplomacy concept’ and ‘destiny community’ is constructed under ‘new historical conditions’, by Xi Jinping, who is leader of the ‘new generation’.

There are more examples, but let’s just say that ‘community of common destiny’ is new.

But if ‘community of common destiny’ is a new concept, what is it replacing?

Here we need to revisit the Chinese scholar Ming Hao, who gives a fascinating, if slightly wild account of ‘community of common destiny’.

Ming Hao’s four ages of man:

According to Ming Hao, humankind shares a common ancestry, so it’s obvious that it is a ‘community of common destiny’. But in prehistoric times, humankind’s isolation and lack of historical memory meant that they were in a ‘prehistoric state’ that stopped the evolution of a true ‘community of common destiny’.

Ming says that the early history of the Eurasian continent is one of nomadic war and the settlement of civilization. Once various empires were established, they each claimed to rule the world. But the worlds they ruled were necessary limited by contemporary navigation technology.

These old, limited empires are the ‘continental imperial civilizations’ of China, Egypt, etc.

Next up is the age of ‘maritime/industrial civilization’. Only with the discovery of the “New World” did humankind ‘really see the world’, opening up the ‘construction process of the community of common destiny’.

But due to its guidance under ‘marine civilizations’, this construction process created huge imbalances in the global community (ones that still exist today). Maritime civilizations (European empires) enriched themselves at the expense of the new peoples and lands they colonized, leaving the ‘once glorious continental civilizations’ (China, Ottoman empire, etc.) behind in their wake, later to be carved up themselves by the Western powers.

Thus the history of modern globalization is essentially a story of domination by maritime civilizations. The maritime and continental civilizations are diametrically opposed: ‘the human community is divided into two worlds: one is flourishing… the other is dying’.

The second stage of this tragic era was the ascendence of the ultimate maritime civilization, the United States, which rapidly became the ‘new world overlord’, and led globalization with its economic weight and naval supremacy.

The next age that Ming delineates is the current one: the ‘information / post-industrial age’, during which BRI will bring about a true ‘human destiny community’ – a goal that in previous ages was ‘only a dream’. Thus BRI aims to conclude the ‘rise of the old continent’ (Asia) by developing the impoverished interiors of the world.

Rebalancing against the new order

Okay, so Ming Hao’s story is a little crazed. It obviously deals in spades of essentialism and weird ethno-civilizational ideas. However, destiny community really is widely thought of in terms of an old/new binary.

The old model is characterised by an economic imbalance between colonial and developing powers. This is a historical imbalance that BRI seeks to correct. Internationally, it seeks to do this by developing impoverished Central Asia and Southeast Asia; domestically, BRI has been launched as a part of China’s ongoing effort to modernise it’s restive interior provinces.

China’s conception of its international identity is heavily involved with its weird status as both a great power and a developing country. Just as America is leader of the “free world”, China is the self styled leader of the “developing world”, and BRI is part of China’s image as championing the “rise of the rest”.

But as well as correcting an economic imbalance, BRI sets out to correct a moral imbalance.

Basically, BRI and ‘community of common destiny’ are new models of happy, harmonious relations, which transcend the old “zero-sum” model exemplified by the United States.

The Western model is not only old-fashioned economically, but wrong morally. BRI is “win-win”, and opposed to the ‘outdated mindset’ and ‘Cold War mentality’ of the past (Xi Jinping’s own words).

There is little pretence, even in Xi’s own speeches, that this doesn’t refer to US and broadly Western foreign policy attitudes (or anyone who opposes China’s territorial ambitions, for that matter).

According to Wang Yi, ‘destiny community’ is new because it transcends the ‘mentality’ that has occupied human history for thousands of years – that of “my interest comes first”.’

Xu Haina writes, ‘for a long time, the law of the jungle has held back developed Western countries; adhering to the winner-take-all zero-sum game has been the root cause of conflict and war’.

The claim is bold: ‘Destiny community’ transcends the normal operation of self interest in international politics.

The Head Cannot Remain in the Past

However, the new way of thinking is not only desirable, it is necessary and inevitable.

A saying of Xi’s develops this point: ‘the body cannot enter the 21st century if the head still stays in the past, in the colonialist expansion of bygone times, and in the cold war thinking, zero-sum old ways’.

Xi’s point is clear: the reality of the modern world demands a different attitude. It’s already a ‘community of shared interest’ because the world is so economically interdependent. The only valid way to look at the world is as a ‘community of common destiny’.

Likewise, the 2011 State Council white paper claimed that the world is a ‘destiny community’ whilst also demanding that China promote ‘destiny community’ consciousness, so as to create a ‘destiny community’.

In this way, ‘community of common destiny’ is paradoxically both an observation of the current situation and a desired end point. It either possesses a duality, or it’s a question of degrees,  as in Ming Hao’s story. It’s like an adjective: we should try to become even more ‘destiny community’, until we’re at the optimum level of ‘destiny community’.

Ultimately, the fact that a ‘community of common destiny’ is already in being means that an ever truer ‘community of common destiny’ is just around the corner. Of course, there’s a scary determinism to this logic.

The theory of destiny community: a recap.

So, a ‘community of common destiny’ is the end game objective of BRI.

This community is a heavily utopian vision of deep economic interdependence, ‘mutual respect’ and ‘cooperation’ yielding ‘win-win results’ between nations.

This vision is set up against an outdated, zero-sum lens, which is associated with the Western powers, particularly the US. The West’s way of thinking is already outdated by the standards of our times, because we already exist in a tentative ‘community of common destiny’.

A disclaimer:

I’m not suggesting that this exploration of destiny community provides a profound insight into some big master plan behind BRI. We shouldn’t assume that the scribblings of sometimes fringe academics are in tune with what goes on in Xi Jinping’s head (although many of the authors quoted are pretty legitimate).

However, these scribblings line up with things that Xi has said, and ultimately, ideas matter and often have a life of their own.

There’s a tendency to dismiss phrases like “win-win” as empty jargon, designed to placate international audiences and smooth over Chinese misbehaviour in the South China sea and elsewhere. But there are important concepts behind these snippets of official rhetoric.

Even if Xi Jinping doesn’t personally believe in the ‘community of destiny’ as an idea, what he says, and what the literature says, serves as a guide for how others are to behave.

To understand Chinese foreign policy, it’s therefore incredibly important to understand ideas like ‘community of common destiny’.

Note: This isn’t an academic journal, so I haven’t bothered to cite sources for speeches, Chinese journals, etc, but if you would like to know where quotes come from, The China Road can provide that information. Just email and spell out your query.

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