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Behind the Official Narrative: China’s Strategic Culture in Perspective

An Interview with Christopher A. Ford

By Mengjia Wan
November 1, 2016

While material resources lay the foundation for national power, ideational factors play a key role in influencing how nations perceive and pursue power. The 2016–17 edition of Strategic Asia examines the sources of strategic culture for the major powers in the Asia-Pacific and assesses how each country’s strategic culture shapes its decision-making.

In this Q&A, Christopher A. Ford, chief legislative counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discusses the idiosyncratic characteristics of Chinese strategic culture. He argues that although the Chinese Communist Party’s official narrative depicts China’s strategic culture as essentially pacifistic and disinclined toward violence, its basic orientation is fundamentally realist.

Why is strategic culture important to understand the Chinese regime’s aims and behavior?

Humans are social animals, and they have cultures. It is important to understand the elements of a culture if you wish to know how its adherents will behave, and if you want to be able to interact with them more effectively. Strategic culture is not any less valid a concept than “ordinary” culture, and it can indeed shape behavior in characteristic ways that we should try to understand. This is especially true if we are to avoid simply mirror-imaging a strategic “other” by reflexively assuming that its decision-makers will react to events just as we ourselves would react. They may actually react differently, and in the foreign policy and national security arena, such miscalculation could have grave consequences.

That said, I think it’s also a mistake to reify the concept of culture, as if cultural differences were all-important, and as if they were deterministic influences on behavior. They’re not. How much one culture differs from the next can vary enormously, and cultures can be highly malleable, especially over time. The challenge is to identify whether, and the degree to which, particular groups really do have different strategic cultures, and to assess how much such differences matter in behavior.

Chinese strategic culture exhibits distinctive patterns that non-Chinese observers and policymakers should understand if they want to deal more effectively with China and avoid dangerous mistakes. Indeed, I think Chinese themselves would do well to study their own strategic culture more seriously in order to avoid falling into traps set by those in the regime who try to manipulate the concept of Chinese strategic culture for their own benefit.

In your chapter you describe Chinese strategic culture as realpolitik with distinct Chinese elements. Can you elaborate on these elements and their implications?

Chinese culture is fundamentally realist in its basic orientation. This is important because there has been a concerted effort—including by the Chinese government, for what are in effect purposes of strategic deception—to depict China as being essentially pacifistic and disinclined toward violence against others. Historically, however, China always seems to have been quite ready to use force whenever the opportunity has presented itself, and modern propaganda claims about how Chinese culture is nobly disinterested in coercive violence are just that: propaganda.

There are powerful realpolitik reasons for a rising and revanchist power to wish to seem nonthreatening while consolidating its position and marshaling its strength for later. This is what Deng Xiaoping urged his countrymen to do in his famous comment about the need to “bide our time and build up our capabilities.” At a time when China was weak, it indeed tried to act non-provocatively while working to build that strength. But this is not real pacifism; it is the prudence of a country with a clear agenda waiting for a better opportunity to act on it. As China has become stronger, it has increasingly been abandoning non-provocative postures, and seems today ever more willing to act like exactly the self-interested hegemon that official propaganda has denied it is culturally or even “genetically” possible for China to be. There should be nothing too surprising in this, but unless we pierce the conceit of Beijing’s self-Orientalizing narrative of benevolent pacifism, we will continue to be dangerously misled in dealing with China.

But that is not the end of the story, and I think idiosyncratic Chinese elements in China’s strategic culture still do help shape its behavior in interesting ways. Where I differ from some observers, however, is over the direction in which this distinctiveness pushes. Rather than moving Chinese behavior away from the violence-tolerance of classical realism, I worry that the moralistic tendencies inherent in much of China’s long-established, quasi-Confucian political culture might make the country more willing to turn to violent coercion than one might expect from traditional calculating realpolitik.

For many centuries, the official discourse of every successive Chinese dynasty or regime has had moralistic characteristics, being powerfully focused on defending the virtue of its leaders and excoriating the depravity of those who would threaten their hold upon such power. This “virtuocratic” culture may make China more prickly and irascible in international encounters than would otherwise be the case, and may also tend to disincentivize compromise with potential adversaries. Coupled with Chinese leaders’ emphasis on overcoming the “national humiliation” of abuse at foreign hands and achieving China’s “return” to global status and prominence, this emotional moralism helps feed a discourse in which essentially any use of force can be rationalized as morally justified. My concern, therefore, is that what is most distinctive and Chinese in China’s strategic culture may in fact make China more resistant to compromise and tolerant of violence than it would be if it were just a coolly calculating power of the traditional realist stereotype.

But it is possible that this narrative can also sometimes act as a constraint on Chinese behavior. Lacking democratic legitimacy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must, in effect, depict itself as a modernized, collective version of an idealized sage-king of ancient imagining, making the case at every turn that its behavior is benevolently selfless and wise. This exerts at least some pressure on the government not to do things that are so obviously selfish and malevolent as to call into question the CCP’s “mandate of heaven.” If the party cannot explain away or successfully deny unvirtuous behavior, it risks losing its claim on legitimacy at home, as well as Beijing’s claim to some special status as a norm-shaper for the international community.

In your chapter you argue that the CCP promulgates a narrative that Chinese strategic culture is continuous. What are some of the reasons it does this?

One of the attractions for the CCP of what I call the “eternalist” narrative of Chinese continuity lies in the role that narrative plays in justifying party control. CCP governance does not rest on consent by a sovereign population: rejecting democratic elections and dedicated to preventing any form of political life it does not control, the party cannot claim to rule through popular consent. It consequently cannot point to any democratic basis of legitimacy even in the most traditional cultural core areas of ancient China—let alone a right to rule territories such as Tibet or Xinjiang, or a right to seize areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Such claims require an alternative basis of legitimacy, and this is one reason why I think an eternalist conception of China is so important to the party.

The CCP seeks to justify its rule of such far-flung domains by encouraging the belief that there has always been a China, that this China has always covered more or less the same territory that it does today, and that the historical destiny of all the pieces of this China—including some parts that are currently ruled by others—is to be part of a single whole. The party cannot admit that this eternal China is an ahistorical conceit linked to modern notions of the territorial nation-state that ancient Chinese people would themselves scarcely have recognized. It cannot be admitted that the actual existence of something like China over the ages has been highly contingent and historically variable. And it certainly cannot be admitted that China’s imagined modern unity is principally the result of the invasion and conquest of other peoples, especially during the Yuan and Qing periods, when Mongols and then Manchus invaded and conquered Chinese dynasties and imposed their own multinational imperial forms on the region. To help make a case that all of this sprawling, patched-together China is theirs without polluting their legitimacy narrative of benevolent virtue, Chinese rulers seek to make all this awkward invading and conquering fade away as mere family squabbles between sibling “Chinese peoples” within a greater China that has “always” existed as a serene whole above the fray.

This is also how concepts of monist political authority play in. The party’s narrative cannot concede the legitimacy of any form of rule over any part of this great China other than its own. If it were to admit the possibility of a plural China, it is not clear where such subdivision should stop. Going back all the way to the Warring States Period—where it seems to have been axiomatic that the main question for rival states was not about how to live alongside one another as coequal sovereigns but rather about which state would eventually rule the whole—Chinese political culture has been addicted to the ideal of unification.

Confucian ethics contributed to monism, too, inasmuch as a deep assumption of Confucian theory seems to have been that political authority radiates from the virtuous ruler and that imperium will naturally coalesce around the most virtuous ruler in the system. This conception is antithetical to horizontal pluralism, given that admitting the legitimacy of a coequal sovereign would tend to impugn a ruler’s own virtue. The monist virtuocracy of China’s traditional political culture thus tends to promote bureaucratic centralism.

Are there examples of elements of continuity in Chinese strategic culture?

One of the strong continuities in Chinese strategic culture—arguably going back even to the point at which the Zhou Dynasty is said to have supplanted the Shang Dynasty—is the emphasis that each dynasty or regime has placed on telling stories that amplify its own claims to be wise and benevolent and that demonize its predecessors and opponents as corrupt, selfish, brutal, and unworthy. Mandate of heaven thinking of this sort, in which political authority naturally accrues to the virtuous and is naturally forfeited for the malevolent, is a powerful element in Chinese political culture. So also is a monist conception of political authority, as can be seen in the ancient saying that “just as there are not two suns in the sky, so there cannot be two emperors on earth.”

Together, these strains help form China’s virtuocratic tradition of aspirational centralization and unitary rule, which feels compelled to defend such rule with narratives tied to the allegedly superlative virtue of the ruling elite. Much changed in China with the coming of Communist rule in 1949, but I think there remained much continuity in this regard even through the Maoist years. For instance, one driver for the Sino-Soviet split was Mao Zedong’s unwillingness to impugn his own virtue by continuing to accept “little brother” status to the Soviet Union and a second-fiddle role in Marxist theory. I think there is also a powerful quasi-Confucian resonance in the revolutionary voluntarist conceits of the Cultural Revolution that moral reform in one’s heart would catalyze dramatic change in the external environment, and that self-criticism and compulsory psycho-social re-education would reorient unvirtuous persons toward righteousness.

Today, the quasi-Confucian elements in Chinese political culture no longer have to be wrapped in Marxist clothing. Indeed, the regime has turned increasingly to the cultivation of self-consciously ancient themes of harmonious authority in hopes of finding an antidote to the aspirations of the Chinese people for political rights and freedoms. This trend began years ago, but it accelerated under Hu Jintao and now under Xi Jinping. The latter publishes books designed to show himself both as steeped in ancient Chinese wisdom and as a paragon of the virtues it extolls. The CCP’s legitimacy narrative stresses “Chineseness” as a badge of authenticity, a source of nationalistic pride, and a means of repudiating Western political concepts such as democracy and civil rights. Abroad, diplomatic postures and propaganda stress the selfishness and immorality of those the regime regards as adversaries and demand constant apologies from those regarded as having hurt the pride of the Chinese people. Chinese scholars and officials also dream increasingly openly of a coming world in which the rest of the international community looks again to the Middle Kingdom with awe and respect, and in which China is once more regarded as the ultimate exemplar and arbiter of virtuous conduct. This attitude has very deep historical roots in China and seems to be alive and well in the modern party-state.

What elements of Chinese strategic culture should U.S. policymakers keep in mind when considering how to respond to China’s rise?

The two facets of Chinese strategic culture that I discuss in my chapter—its realpolitik “bones” and its quasi-Confucian “flesh”—each present U.S. policymakers with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge presented by China’s virtuocratic political culture is that the insecurities and moralism inherent in this culture may make Beijing more inflexible and inclined to self-righteous anger than might be the case for a more conventional realist power. If Washington can manage this potentially volatile emotionalism with sufficient caution and cleverness, however, it might be possible to take advantage of the regime’s sensitivity to perceptions of unvirtuousness. In reading the CCP’s propaganda narratives, I tend to view such prickliness over issues of image and reputation as a kind of Rorschach test by which party leaders inform us of their own vulnerabilities, letting us know how we might more effectively pressure them to behave at least somewhat better.

As for the realist bones of Chinese strategic culture, the obvious challenge is that there is in reality nothing inherently pacifistic or virtuous about China’s international behavior. As its power continues to grow, so also will the country’s willingness to bully its neighbors and seize advantages for itself in the international arena just like any other rising power and would-be regional hegemon. At the same time, however, the very realism of the Chinese strategic tradition suggests that Beijing may be willing to moderate its behavior if those bullied neighbors—and the friend they have in the United States—stand up to China’s hegemonic behavior. Fundamentally, a culture that understands and responds to power shifts, and that moderates its behavior on the basis of anticipated risk and opportunity, is one that can be persuaded to behave responsibly when confronted with the prospect of being overmatch. China’s history of realist calculation and behavioral modulation in response to perceived shifts in power suggests that careful but firm and coordinated resistance from the other powers of the Asia-Pacific can persuade even today’s increasingly aggressive Chinese regime to moderate its behavior.

Mengjia Wan is an Intern with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.

Christopher A. Ford is Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a former U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state and intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The opinions he expresses here are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else in the U.S. government.

Strategic Asia 2016–17: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific, the sixteenth volume in the Strategic Asia series, examines how the region's major powers view international politics and the use of military force. Learn more.

Related Event

On November 16, Mr. Ford will participate in a discussion and reception marking the release of Strategic Asia 2016–17. Learn more and RSVP.