Chinese Diplomat Wu Jianmin’s Legacy
By Xiaoping Wu

Chinese Diplomat Wu Jianmin’s Legacy

Jul. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Wu Jianmin, one of China’s most influential and outspoken diplomats, passed away in a car accident in Wuhan on June 18, 2016. He was one of a few Chinese diplomats and public intellectuals who enjoyed having a big audience for his ideas both in the international community and among his own domestic audience. He was also one of a few Chinese visionaries who saw clearly where China is in world affairs, not just how the world sees China. His death is surely a great loss to the country. On June 24, more than two thousand people gathered in Babaoshan in the capital city Beijing to bid farewell to him. All seven members of the Communist Party of China’s Standing Central Committee sent wreaths and words of condolences to this distinguished diplomat; the show of affection is quite an honor for a Chinese official at the vice-ministerial level.

Wu Jianmin’s views on China’s security environment and open opposition to expanding nationalism and populism in China had made him a controversial figure, winning acclaim, criticisms and abuse. Now, his sudden death once again brought his legacy and ideas to the attention of the public. According to the BBC1, the hashtag #WuJianminDiedinCarCrash# on Weibo and Wechat, two of China’s most popular social media platforms, was read more than 180 million times and attracted 24,000 comments within a few days of his demise.

As a veteran diplomat who served his country for over half a century, he witnessed the momentous changes China has undergone from an isolated communist country to a globalized second largest economy in the world. He left behind a great legacy worth careful reconsideration for both his supporters and opponents.

Peace and Development: The World’s Major Trend

According to Wu Jianmin, factual assessment of the world is the first step for a nation to make sound judgements and policies to maximize its interests. Any wrong assessment of a nation’s security environment either by diplomats, policymakers or those in power can bring disaster to a country. China experienced that in the 1960s. This is where Wu and his opponents diverge in their opinions right from the start. Wu thought that the major trend in the world is moving towards peace and development. He said that the world has fundamentally changed from confrontation to interdependence. Despite regional conflicts and small-scale military confrontations, there are no big military blocs of countries confronting one another as what the world experienced during World War I, World War II, or the Cold War. As long as the two biggest countries in the world — China and the US — can think and act with sobriety and handle their bilateral relations skillfully, the world can enjoy peace for quite a long time, which is in the interests of all stakeholders.

Wu Jianmin was often labeled a “dove” for his view on China’s security environment which, to him, is characterized by “peace and development.” This is in sharp contrast to the gloomier idea that “war is coming or inevitable for China,” typically articulated by people from the military sectors, often labelled as “hawks.” Wu Jianmin’s televised debate with Luo Yuan, a professor from China’s National Defense University, on Phoenix TV in 2014 was a well-known case in point. Actually, “dove” and “hawk” are just two different approaches for a country to deal with its disputes with others — one way is to resolve it through diplomatic negotiations and the other through military confrontation —both of which are indispensable for a country’s foreign policy.

Wu Jianmin said that there are four major forces that are currently shaping the world and contributing to global peace. The first is the rising of a group of developing countries, including China, India, and countries from ASEAN, Africa, and Latin America. This is the first time in history that so many people (3.3 billion in total) can develop at such a fast speed. The second is the trend of globalization. Like it or not, this trend is irreversible. All countries have become more interrelated and interdependent with one another. The third consists of the severe challenges faced by all mankind, such as global warming, environmental deterioration, terrorism, and infectious diseases, which are global detriments that no single country can tackle on its own. The fourth are the lessons that everyone has learned from the Iraq war starting in 2003. US unilateralism in Iraq turned out to be abysmal. Instead of strengthening US national security, this war dragged the country into a more troubled quagmire whose residual impacts and effects are still being felt. These four forces, bound together, underpin the global political architecture — there are no large-scale wars in the foreseeable future. Wu agreed with Long Yongtu’s (former Assistant Minister of China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation) view favoring a more open China. Long said:

“The more open China becomes, the more security it will enjoy. It will enjoy the highest security when China forms a community of common interests with other countries.”2

Value of Diplomacy: Finding Commonalities, not Differences

Wu Jianmin was a seasoned diplomat who used to work for Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai as interpreters. He highlighted the importance of finding commonalities from divergences in opinions and interests. He said he learned this most valuable lesson from the late Premier Zhou Enlai. In his view, China’s most impressive diplomatic achievements are achieved through the application of this principle. The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” is the most prominent case in point. This set of principles was first proposed by Premier Zhou in 1953 in dealing with Sino-Indian relations. These principles took into account both China’s security interest and India’s concern of having a strong China located next to it. “One country, two systems” is another good example. The peaceful return of Hong Kong to China is a rare case in a world whereas most territorial reunifications have been achieved through force or military coercion.

Wu believed that the principle of “finding commonalities” also applied to the solution of the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. This was also what Deng Xiaoping said in the 1970s: “Shelving differences while seeking joint development.” Wu further said that if the parties involved cannot solve their disputes immediately, then they should at least not play it up, either by the governments or the media. If national sentiments are flared up, that will have disastrous effects on all parties involved and bring about bigger problems than the disputes themselves. Leaving disputes for the future generations to resolve could be a wise choice for today’s intractable disputes.

In the same vein, a good diplomat should take into consideration the interests of all the parties involved, not just those of his own, since only the “commonalities” or common interests can form the basis for negotiation. This is especially important for China, an economically vibrant country that started as a minor and alienated member of the global community in the late 1970s (GDP: USD 218.5 billion in 1978) and subsequently rose to become the world’s second largest economy (GDP: USD 11,006.13 billion in 2015), within less than three decades. This progress stunned the whole world, requiring all parties to take time to adjust, even China itself. Being a weighty power in the world today, China should have a bigger picture of global interests in its mind other than merely calculating its own national interests. It should work out concrete proposals to show its genuine concern for the world and mankind as a whole, which will win respect from the international community. The selfish and narrow-minded nationalistic mentality may hinder and even ruin China’s development and prevent the country from realizing its own national interests in the long run. Arrogant and rude behavior in China’s diplomacy should be avoided in practice, for it can make people think of the “great-nation chauvinism” which is particularly detrimental to China’s sustainable development.

Wu was one of the earliest supporters of China providing public goods to the international community, especially to its Asian neighbors. Being the second largest economy in the world and the biggest one in Asia, China should share the fruits of its economic development with its neighbors. In 2011, he proposed that China should take some money out from its huge foreign reserve to set up an “Asian Fund” (as he named it then) to benefit the economic development of Asian countries. This would not only help Asia maintain its economic momentum and security stability, but would also help China attain a leadership status in Asia. Meanwhile, generosity can also help relieve tensions between China and its neighbors over their territorial disputes. This proposal was exactly in line with China’s current Silk Road Fund and the “One Belt One Road” strategy.

Nationalism and Populism: Dangerous for China

Wu Jianmin became controversial and received much abuse from netizens for his open criticism of the expanding nationalism and populism in China. Some netizens even labeled him a “traitor” for what he said. His spoken words are discussed below.

He said openly that nationalism and populism are the two most dangerous enemies within China now. These two trends could drag China into a disaster again if not controlled and handled properly by the government and those in power. He published an article called “Oppose Narrow-minded Nationalism” in the Global Times in May 2012, which was quickly followed by a counter-opinion article “China Does Not Have Narrow-minded Nationalism” written by Dai Xu, a “hawkish” scholar from China’s National Defense University. It is from then on that Wu was labeled a “dove” for his advocacy of rational and peaceful means for settling disputes. The most famous debate between the “doves” and “hawks” took place in 2014, between Wu Jianmin and Luo Yuan. At the time, this debate was quite a sensation in China. Wu became a symbol of the “dovish diplomats” who were blamed by many self-proclaimed “patriotic” netizens for not being tough enough in defending China’s national interests. Wu did not care about how other people treated him or how they attacked him for his dovish views. What he actually cared about was whether he was doing the right thing for the interests of the nation and its people. The more abuse he got from nationalist netizens, the more he felt obliged to let his people see the real picture of China and its relations with the world. He kept on explaining the dangers of nationalism and populism to people, an opinion that many sober-minded people shared with Wu but were not courageous enough to speak about it openly in the public. Just two weeks before the car accident, he was still on his mission at the “Sino-US Relations and the World Order” forum warning people of the dangers of nationalism and populism3.

Wu said that nationalism and populism are the two most dangerous enemies within China now. These two trends could drag China into a disaster again if not controlled and handled properly.

In Wu’s article “Keep Alert about the Dangers of Nationalism and Populism” in the People’s Tribune, he explained that populism is defined as the inclination to oppose the authorities in the name of defending the interests of the masses, by any means possible. Nationalism has a twofold meaning. One of them is to love one’s own country and people, which is nothing wrong in itself; the other is to oppose and exclude other countries or people in the name of defending one’s own national interests, which is quite wrong. Both these thoughts can deceive the Chinese people since they can appear in morally “right” ways. Populism can be dressed up as “appeals made on behalf of people” while nationalism is often promoted under the banner of “patriotism.” Actually, both schools of thoughts are wrong prescriptions for China’s problems and can direct China to the wrong path. People should know that the essence of populism goes against the policy of reform, and the essence of nationalism goes against the policy of opening up to the world. He went further to point out that the mentality of isolation, feudalism, and revolution contribute to the popularity of nationalism and populism in China today.

When asked to write some words of wisdom for the young students of the No. 1 Nanjing Middle School where he used to be a student, he wrote “Love your country and love mankind” — not the commonly expected nationalistic message of “Love your country and love your people.” He just wanted to tell young people that thinking only of one’s own country or people is not good enough; they should also show concern to other people from countries around the world.

Chinese People: Learn How to Communicate with the World

Wu Jianmin’s life-long service to China’s diplomacy and his two decades of overseas working experience made him one of a few officials in China who had a good understanding of both China and the world. From his rich experiences with the Foreign Ministry, he found that many negotiations and business deals failed because of misunderstandings caused by ineffective communication. Despite having the Open Door policy for more than three decades, many Chinese still don’t know how to communicate effectively with foreigners. He attributed this incompetence partly to the impact of China’s traditional values which do not regard eloquence as a merit. This can be seen from the often quoted sayings such as “A gentleman should be slow in speech and quick in action” or “All of one’s troubles come from his tongue.” These notions are totally wrong in the information era with increased exchanges between nations, as effective communication is one of the most important skills to bring about a successful outcome either for an individual or a nation.

He felt it was an urgent task to teach the Chinese, especially the young people, how to be good communicators in foreign exchanges. He opened a course called “Communication” soon after he became President of the China Foreign Affairs University in 2003. He wrote textbooks and personally taught the course to college students, which is rare for a university President in China. He had many valuable points on how to deliver good speeches and practice effective communication, among which the below three points are the most impressive.

First, a good communicator should be the one who can tell good stories, not the one who just echoes words from official documents. The official rhetoric, though politically safe and exact, usually cannot be well understood by foreigners, not to mention convincing or touching them on an emotional level. What touches people are real stories, not empty words or rhetoric. The ability of telling good stories is an essential quality for people whose job is to explain China and its priorities to the world. He pointed out some typical problems in China’s communications with the world:

“We talk more about principles than stories, more about government achievements than ordinary people’s success stories. We talk in the idiosyncratic Chinese way which the world does not understand well.”

He said that China should turn to its rich history and traditional cultures for genuine and touching stories to tell the world what it likes and dislikes, which is a much better and effective way than repetition of empty slogans or showcasing of grandeur.

China used to spend large sums of money producing “China’s National Image Films” and the purpose was to present the image of a peaceful and prosperous China to the rest of the world. Impressive as they are, in terms of photographic techniques and their cast members, most of these films were not well received by foreign audiences simply because they did not understand the films and many saw them as government propaganda. One simple reason for the failure reflected in feedback from the foreign audience was that they saw too many of the elites’ stories, not that of the ordinary Chinese people in the films.

Wu said the genuine historical event of Zheng He’s voyages in the Ming Dynasty can be a very good story to tell the world that China is a peace-loving nation. Zheng He’s peaceful trade and cultural exchanges, as opposed to the West’s territorial and treasure plunder, stand in sharp contrast to what the Europeans did to the newly discovered American continent. Zhu Geliang’s (a famous strategist in the Three Kingdoms historical period of China) story of catching and setting free the minority rebel leader Meng Huo seven times is another useful story to show China’s philosophy of settling disputes through winning people’s hearts rather than exterminating them, a contrast to what European conquerors did to the Native Americans. When made into films, these stories can present a more real and convincing image of a peace-loving and civilized China to the world than most of the other officially-made propaganda films.

Second, Wu said a spokesperson should be someone with credibility and integrity, otherwise people will not believe what he says. Although frequently challenged with tough and politically sensitive questions, Wu always stuck to his basic principle of not telling lies. He said it is understandable that a spokesperson does not offer all the information he knows to the public due to political reasons or other considerations. Yet, what he decides to communicate cannot be lies. One should never tell lies to the public. If he does so, even just once, his credibility will be ruined.

Wu had a new role as a scholar in his later years, for which credibility played an equally important role. He said the most important quality for a scholar is to be objective and neutral, making judgements based on facts rather than personal preferences. He said a good scholar should be well-informed, rational, and independent in making his own judgments and that he “never defends what does not hold ground.” Some scholars today who are influenced by nationalism just blindly rush to defend China without conducting sufficient background research. They cannot be called real patriots, and their views are not convincing enough either.

Third, Wu highlighted the importance of common sense in communication, especially in diplomatic communications. Divergent as nations are, in terms of their economic development, political ideas, cultural traditions, etc., there was always a consensus in the exercise of common sense. Common sense is in fact the starting point for successful negotiation and cooperation. It is actually common sense rather than the so called “marvelous ideas” or “cunning tricks” that lead to the successful solution of difficult issues.

A nation in the world is just like a person in the society. If you behave rationally and are considerate, you will be treated in the same way by others. In Wu’s numerous speeches and articles, he kept explaining the importance of common sense to people which include studying the world carefully before designing proper policies; telling truth and not lies to others; defending one’s own interests with the consideration of others’. These are all plain common sense, yet not obvious to many either because of lack of general knowledge, or willful ignorance.

In an article written by Zheng Yongnian (Director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore), he regarded Wu Jianmin as a torchbearer of foreign affairs knowledge for the Chinese people, which is indeed a very proper and apt title for him.

Wu Jianmin spent all his life introducing China to the world and explaining the world to China. Now he has left, in such an abrupt way, shocking both his supporters and opponents. His sudden death has become an important call to the Chinese people. It was actually his last effort to call his countrymen’s attention to his views, the essence of which is to be rational and sober-minded in loving your country and dealing with international affairs.


1. Ni, V. (2016, June 22). China Ambassador Wu Jianmin’s death sparks foreign policy debate. BBC. Retrieved from

2. Media interview of Long Yongtu. See: Wang, Y. (2009, July 29). More openness, more security. Sina. Retrieved from

3. Wu Jianmin on the dangers of nationalism. (2016, June 21). China Digital Times. Retrieved from

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