Which China?

If a human mind contains multitudes and contradictions, so too does a strategic culture. Americans contemplating war in Iraq might hear the echoes of Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich…or the memory of the Vietnam quagmire.

This is also true of other states. Consider modern China. Its might and potential rise as a new superpower presents us with the temptation to locate its timeless, fixed and uniform culture.

So Andrew Nathan’s simple but powerful observation should be bellowed across every seminar room, policymaking bunker, think tank and chat show. The Chinese tradition is no monolith:

It offers room not only for collectivism, state domination and social order, but also for individualism, civil society and rebellion. Besides Confucianism, the Chinese tradition includes Legalism, Taoism, Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions.

Within Confucianism there were tensions between the educated man’s duty to the ruler and his obligation to honor his own ethical precepts (“What is called a great minister is one who serves his prince according to what is right, and when he finds he cannot do so, retires”), and between the power of the ruler and the primacy of the people (“The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler”).

Such tensions have opened the way for culturally Chinese people to advocate liberalism and democracy—and in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, to bring such values into practice. The monolith is a myth.

Alastair Johnston’s imperishable work on Chinese strategy supports this point from a similar direction, arguing that its celebrated medieval texts on war and statecraft contained multiple and competing ideas about the utility of force.

According to its mythical self-image, China was a sleeping dragon, and its statecraft was inspired by a Confucian-Mencian skepticism about the utility of force, and was non-expansionist, non-aggressive, and preoccupied with internal order.

Chinese rulers who pursued policies of conciliation and compromise often appealed to thistradition, claiming that they were in tune with ancestral wisdom. But this they happily abandoned when they saw opportunities to go on the offensive. Ming rulers did so with great frequency, externally against Vietnamese, Koreans, Uighers, Mongols, and Tibetans.

To justify a more aggressive posture, they could appeal to an alternative tradition which was also to be found in their strategic texts – a philosophy of watchful aggressiveness. In this tradition, offensive force was desirable, to be mediated by sensitivity to the enemy’s relative capabilities. Force could be used when the time was ripe.

Strategic traditions did matter, but often only so far as they accorded with the hard-headed calculations of elites. This kind of opportunism was and is possible precisely because the notion of a clear, homogenous and unanimous culture is artificial.

The notion that China is intrinsically authoritarian, therefore, is as misguided as the assumption that it has a single pattern of strategic behviour. Chinese who favour liberalisation and dictatorship, aggression and restraint, are not imprisoned by their culture but can use it as a weapon.

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