‘Sleeping Lion’ China Awakened, Says President Xi Jinping

Evoking Napoleon during his visit to France, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country is an awakened lion that is “peaceful, pleasant and civilized”.

Xi Paris talk

On March 27, 2014, Xi gave a speech in Paris to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France. Screen grab from Youku.

Xi made the remarks in a speech in Paris on March 27, 2014 commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, part of his seven-day Europe tour as he sought to strengthen trade ties with the continent.

“Napoleon said that China is a sleeping lion, and when she awakes, the world will shake. The lion China has already awakened, but this is a peaceful, pleasant and civilised lion,” he said.

Once dubbed “the sick man of East Asia”, and now the world’s second largest economy, China has been keen to project its image overseas in the past few years. But it has done so largely through government-sponsored initiatives that range from Confucius institute establishments to the overseas expansion of Chinese media conglomerates.

Xi’s lion metaphor marked a departure from the mundane public speaking style that was typical of China’s previous leaders. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, talked about “China’s peaceful rise” during his visit to Europe in 2005.

Former Chinese ambassador to France Cai Fangbo told a Beijing newspaper that the lion remark by Xi is a “skillful” and “persuasive” response to the so-called “China threat” theory, a proposition that perceives China's rise as a destabilising force in the international arena. “The speech by Xi Jinping indicates that China has taken a path of peaceful development,” Cai commented.

However, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at the Hong Kong Baptist University, had a different take. “Have you ever seen a peaceful, civilised and not aggressive lion? A lion is a big, wild and predatory animal, very much like China in its relations with other countries,” Cabertan was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying.

Xi’s colorful spin on his diplomatic philosophy came as the world watches the rising tensions in the East China Sea, where China and Japan are locked in a row over a set of uninhabited islands known to the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands.

Under Xi's leadership, China announced in March this year that it would increase its military spending to nearly 132 billion US dollars, up 12.2 percent from the previous year, a move that drew criticism from the West and Japan. China defended its decision to bolster the military budget, citing a need to safeguard national security and world peace. 

With China's declaration of a new Air Defence Zone over the East China Sea last year, Xi has demonstrated a more proactive stance on the front of diplomacy. The US and Japan have defied rules by flying aircraft unannounced through the zone, raising concerns of potential incidents that could ripple into larger geopolitical regions.  

On popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, the president's Paris talk has prompted mixed response. 

Shanhe Baidu, from China's capital Beijing, seemed to be proud of the lion metaphor:


Let the West listen to the lion roar from the East 

 Writing in response to Shanhe Baidu's pride, Yanzhi Fengwei argued


The true powerful ones will not roar

Beijing's Heibai Chongdong wrote:


The lion now is not the lion then. How would China's [fortune] be compared with that of the world during the time of Napoleon? Should we take this statement as encouragement or does it have other meanings? Time will tell…… I hope the censors will not delete [my comment]……

“Panlaosi can't drink Qingdao beer” wasn't convinced that China is like a lion: 


Forced demolition of houses and land grabs, [local governments] act like very powerful lions toward its people. Officials are corrupt, market monopoly persists, the gap between the rich and poor, wide disparities between the country's west and east regions, and the low quality of national character. Has the lion awakened? I thought it's more like a dying cat.

Repeating part of Xi's speech that China will be a member of the international community, Zhu Sanfeng, a businessman from the coastal city of Xiamen, was hopeful: 


“China will integrate into the big civilised family of international society.”— This has not been easy! This is some big historic progress.

Paotian Qipa from the western city of Kunming vented his frustration:


The issue of the Diaoyu Islands hasn't been solved, and [China] hasn't shown its real attitude toward the missing Malaysia flight, have we really awakened?


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