Last month the government issued a 32-page white paper full of comforting words explaining what it wants the world to understand by that phrase.
"There have been misunderstandings about China's foreign policy," said Wang Yajun, the Communist Party's top foreign-policy wonk, presenting the document to the press. "There have indeed been suspicions."
The white paper's key message is that China threatens no one, that its rise will contribute to world peace, and that "the central goal of China's diplomacy is to create a peaceful and stable international environment for its development. China could become strong in the future. Yet peace will remain critical for its development, and China has no reason to deviate from the path of peaceful development."
"China does not want to, nor will China, challenge the international order or challenge other countries," insisted Mr. Wang, pointing to the white paper declaration that China has "broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony."
Not everyone believes this, even in China. "Humanity is making progress," argues Wang Xiaodong, a prominent nationalist ideologue whose views are proving increasingly influential among the Chinese public, "but not so much that China will be unique in human history. The idea that China will develop its power but not use it is diplomatic verbiage."
China's Southeast Asian neighbors might well agree. Until earlier this year Beijing had been unusually assertive in pushing its competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, worrying smaller nations. But the way it has eased off in recent months in the face of complaints suggests it cannot do just as it likes.