Xi Jinping says world has nothing to fear from awakening of 'peaceful lion'

President issues message of peace, but use of quote attributed to Napoleon shows desire for more assertive foreign policy, analysts suggest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 9:08am

Xi Jinping's decision to compare China to the proverbial "king of the jungle" yesterday was seen as the latest sign that the president intends to pursue a more muscular foreign policy.

Xi used the lion metaphor in a speech in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France.

He introduced it via a quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte more than two centuries ago: "China is a sleeping lion. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world."

Watch: Journalist activists protest in Paris during Chinese president's visit

Xi told an audience that included French President Francois Hollande: "Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised."

The remark could signal a subtle but substantial shift in how China - the globe's second largest economy since 2010 - wants to be viewed by the rest of the world, analysts said.

In recent years, Communist Party leaders have sought to avoid any language that might feed into perceptions that China's military and economic rise was in any way threatening.

Former premier Wen Jiabao used the term "peaceful rise" to describe China's expansion into world affairs during a visit to the United States in 2003, only to have president Hu Jintao exchange it for the more innocuous sounding "peaceful development" the next year.

Jin Canrong , a professor of international studies at Renmin University, said Xi's speech suggested he was less afraid of stirring controversy than his predecessors.

"I am surprised by [Xi's] remarks," Jin said. "Xi is basically admitting that China is powerful, and that he is aware that some countries will be nervous about it, but they have to get used to China's status."

China has been more assertive since Xi came to power in late 2012, getting tough over regional territory disputes and vowing to develop a new model of international relations with the US.

Yesterday, Xi was careful to say that if China was a lion, it was a docile one. "Chinese people treasure peace and hope to seek, maintain and enjoy peace together with other nations in the world," he said.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the political science department at the Hong Kong Baptist University, said Xi's remarks represented a warning.

"Have you ever seen a peaceful, civilised and not aggressive lion?" Cabestan said. "A lion is a big, wild and predatory animal, very much like China in its relations with other countries."

The lion quote cited by Xi is well known, but historians are divided about whether the words were uttered by Napoleon.

One popular account has it that the French leader made the comparison while warning British ambassador Lord Amherst about conflict with China.

Kerry Brown, a professor of China studies at the University of Sydney, said Xi appeared to be using the lion metaphor to say China needs to be looked up to as a big player on the world stage.

"Xi, like other Chinese leaders, really wants to be regarded as a key important leader of a country which is reacquiring its position as a major player," he said.

Pang Zhongying , another professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China had long been focusing on economic ties with other nations, but it remained relatively weak on global security and diplomatic affairs.

"China needs to be, and is going to be, more responsive with more actions over global incidents that affect peace," Pang said. "Compared to the economic side, China is indifferent in political engagement."

Xinhua did not mention the lion metaphor in its report, but it released the full transcript of the speech. Other state media, such as the People's Daily website, released commentaries describing China as a large but responsible nation.

Xi arrived in Berlin yesterday and said China and Germany shared broader common interests and new co-operation opportunities.

"I look forward to working with German leaders to map out the blueprint for the development of China-Germany relations … to discuss co-operation and build up friendship and bring the China-Germany strategic partnership to a higher level," he said.