Changing cultural dynamics in China: from the Chinese empire to the PRC

Understanding Chinese strategic culture is vital to explain the CCP’s firm stance on Taiwan. REUTERS

Zilin Tu, a second year IR student, writes about the contrasting strategic culture demonstrated by the PRC and the Chinese traditional empire respectively and how that affects China’s foreign policy. 

China’s unprecedented leap from a pariah state to an economic and military powerhouse in the post-Cold War international system has generated contentious debate on whether its rise to prominence should be perceived as a global threat or opportunity. Consequentially, a new wave of exceptional scrutiny on its foreign policies and security strategy has revitalized discourse on Chinese strategic culture. Amid distinctive interpretations, numerous scholars have concurred that there is an undeniable linkage between its historical strategic culture and contemporary stratagem (Zhang 2002, 73). This article explores similarities and differences between the strategic culture adopted in the People’s Republic of China and its ancient counterpart prior to the First Opium War in 1839. On the grounds of both Chinese and Western key thinkers, upon comparing and contrasting features from both periods, it highlights the role of a pivotal systemic change in the contextual background which spawns a shift in Chinese strategic culture. It argues that notwithstanding a mutual dualistic disposition of both Confucian moralism and defensive realism, the distinction lies in that cultural moralism is more prominent with traditional pre-opium war strategic culture, while the current one mirrors defensive realism more.

Among pervasive definitions with different focuses on military, political, social and ideological aspects, Scobell identifies the central paradigm and defines strategic culture as “fundamental and enduring assumptions about the role of war in human affairs and the efficacy of applying force held by political and military elites in a country” (2004, 2), which will be predominately engaged with in this discourse.

The strategic culture developed during the traditional Chinese empire is permeated with idiosyncratic characteristics, demonstrated through a predisposition of “cultural moralism” that embodies defensive nature. The term “cultural moralism” is first introduced by Zhang (2002, 74), which he conceives as a major Confucian influence on non-violent means to external threats. Confucius’s philosophical concepts have penetrated the whole Chinese social and political system since 551 BC, as a guidepost governing the rules of daily conduct and military doctrines. Irrespective of changing dynasties throughout those millenniums, Confucian thought has spanned most of the historical spectrum, with few exceptions such as Qinshi emperor who was an anti-Confucian legalist, thus granting paramount influence over Chinese strategic culture. As illustrated through three core values, ‘he’ (harmony), ‘ren’ (benevolence) and ‘li’ (rituals and moral standards), Confucianism states that only just emperors would be legitimate and promote a harmonious society that encompasses moral principles (Fung, 1954).

Based on these fundamental parameters, a moral world order with China at its centre is visualised. Sino-centrism, however, does not postulate aggressive intentions on the rest of the world; on the contrary, it contends peaceful governance as a universal paradigm for any nation, which gives rise to China’s leadership in the international system. Therefore, diplomatic means and negotiations are most advocated and regarded as the primary management method when encountering foreign aggression. Nevertheless, the legitimate use of force has never been denied, Confucianism suggests that violent means should only be used as the last resort when defending the integrity of the country and sustaining state survival. In contrast, excessive use of force against enemies would undermine the imperial order constructed under ‘wang dao’ (legitimate hegemony), as opposed to ‘ba dao’ (illegitimate hegemony). As a result, the primarily defensive nature of strategic culture has been rooted in three elements: “non-violence, defensiveness, and righteous war” (Feng, 2007, 19-26).

The most representative and influential Chinese military work Art of War written by Sunzi, which emerged during the warring states period, manifests Confucian pacifist beliefs and consolidates the defensiveness in Chinese military and strategic thinking. As indicated by Paquette (1991, 37-51), Art of War in essence differs from Clausewitz’s exemplary pragmatic military strategies. Even though Chinese military texts admit that war is natural, they nevertheless consider wars evil and only to be resorted for survivals, when any other preferred non-violent approaches are unsuccessful. Such conditionality, due to an ethical and moral consideration for the legitimacy of the ruling government, puts restraints on violence and war. Therefore, numerous tactics in Sunzi’s work highlight the significance of victories via peaceful means, such as the notion of “buzhan ersheng” (win without fight or use of force). Pinpointed by Waldron (1991, 25-36), “turbulent competitiveness, which westerners accept, was foreign to these early Chinese”, thus revealing an extraordinary value that Chinese put on harmony and righteousness.

However, not all scholars interpret Chinese military texts’ implication of “using force under unavoidable circumstances” as a proof of moralist and pacifist thinking influenced by Confucianism. Johnston termed it as merely a “linguistic construct” (1995, 27-68) that transfers the responsibility of bellicose behaviours onto the adversaries. By further examining the Ming dynasty and disclaiming the existence of real practices of pacifist cultural moralism articulated through Chinese military texts, he argues that Chinese traditional strategic culture has resembled parabellum or hard realpolitik. Nevertheless, his argumentation is problematic due to a misinterpretation of translated Chinese military works (Feng, 2007, 30). Furthermore, his selection of Ming dynasty to demonstrate the warlike and offensive nature of Chinese strategic culture omits the long entirety of Chinese traditional history which comprises other relatively more stable dynasties, thus should be deemed unrepresentative.

Ming dynasty’s long-lasting war to unify China, as a consequence of the weak Yuan dynasty and Mongolian invasion, was inevitable and justified as it was necessary to ensure the future harmony of the state. Moreover, aside from military and cultural texts which asserted Confucian moralism as the backbone of Chinese traditional strategic culture, its defensive character was also apparent in the chronic building of the great wall for the purpose of national security, guarding against nomadic invasions from the north. The scale of enlargement was especially huge during Qin, Han and Ming dynasties. Hereby, despite the presence of war, defensive elements could still be found within Ming; thus not contradicting the prevailing traditional Chinese strategic culture of pacifism and cultural moralism with defensive characteristics.

Before moving on to an exploration of the People’s Republic of China’s strategic culture, it is crucial to highlight the changes in contextual backgrounds that generated a shift of importance between Confucian moralism and defensive realism. The relatively minor role played by defensive realism in the Chinese empire until 1839 was the result of a strategically advantageous position within the international system. Contextually, China had always enjoyed material primacy and strategic security within East Asia until the first Opium War marked the official end of such supremacy and persistent stability. Despite frequent power alternations as seen from dynasty changes within the country, China had generally maintained peaceful hierarchical relations between the heartland and its periphery in the tributary system that it sustained (Zhang, 2002, 75-77). Such precedence was decided by numerous factors.

Geopolitically, China, as a continental power influenced by Confucianism, had no interests in expanding control beyond its immediate peripheral states. Moreover, due to the limitations of technology and maritime transportation, there were few real threats menacing China’s coastline, creating a benign and secure environment for the state. In addition, economically, owing to an advanced agricultural industry, China was able to construct a self-sufficient economic sphere without reliance on commerce with external countries. As asserted by Huang (2001, 183), such autarkic characteristic of the Chinese empire gave rise to “a national cultural psychology of preference on permanent settlement to migration, as well as persistent search for and maintenance of social stability”. As a result, the Sino-centric world order was upheld through political obedience from vassal states and a universally accepted Confucian value of non-coercive measures to assure regional peace and stability.

Stone statue of Confucius in Yantai, China | XixinXing/Getty Image

In sheer contrast, the current international system in which the PRC resides in since 1949 no longer guarantees such superiority that the traditional Chinese empire had been endowed with, thus requiring a prioritized emphasis on defensive realism. As the unprecedented technological advancement and ambition for trade concretized in colonial aggression brought Western powers to Chinese land, since the first Opium War waged by Britain against the Qing Empire, China began to undergo a transitional period characterized by colonization, bloody anti-fascist wars against Japan, revolutions and civil wars – known as the century of humiliation. The PRC was born at this critical point, driving the new China onto a trajectory determined to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty, while placing state survival and unification with Taiwan at the top of its strategic security and foreign policy agenda (Chen, 1994, 92-124). This was especially apparent during Mao’s rule, where the world saw an antagonistic political divergence between the East and the West.

In addition to Chinese worrisome domestic issues on Tibet, Xinjiang and economic stagnation, as the US’s containment policies in east Asia – especially its continuing support for the Nationalist party in Taiwan and growing influence in Korea – posed a real strategic threat to China, it could not risk an international situation which could potentially endanger its national security; thus, Mao led China enter the Korean War in 1950. Some scholars argue that Chinese voluntary participation in the Korean War and later Vietnam war denotes the view postulated by Johnston (1996, 217) that Mao was an offensive realist. However, as suggested by Feng (2007, 32), strategic culture has a dual conceptualization with one focusing on the “political/philosophical part” and the other on the “operational/instrumental part”. Employing this perception, Mao’s decisions for war should only be seen as offensive on an operational level, but “active defensive” in nature (Zhang, 1999, 178). When confronting crises with high level of external threat, parabellum strategies adopted in war were the only resolution for future peace. With hindsight, the success in both wars proved to have prepared China with a relatively stable international environment and strategic situation for it to develop internal strength and national power.

According to Kenneth Waltz (1979), defensive realists, in contrast to offensive realists, aim to maximize security rather than power. The PRC’s contribution in wars under Mao can be justified as its objectives were closely associated with state survival instead of additional territorial gains or power projection. Such defensive realism was also evidenced in Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy, which indicates a shift in the national focal point from politics to economy. Politically, upon the official establishment of diplomatic relations, China entered a new phase with the US since 1979, with frequent high-level meetings and improved ambassadorial dialogue. Rapid economic development burgeoning along China’s coastline, following the economic reforms introduced in 1978 termed as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, was perceived positively by the West as Deng embracing values of capitalism. As a result, scholars and leaders saw this period of China under Deng as pacifist.

However, despite prevailing Confucian moralism, Deng stood in line with Mao on the issue of Taiwan, and illustrated the same conditionality for using force. Three Taiwan strait crises, as seen in 1955, 1958 and 1995-1996, witnessed a quick escalation of tensions between the PRC and the US, with military mobilisation within China and a potential for violent military engagements. The mutual stance taken by Mao and Deng during these crises demonstrated the boundary regarding when and where to use force. Wars for the purpose of Chinese unification, the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity, whether in the traditional Chinese empire or contemporary PRC, have always been granted with legitimate and righteous justification. Therefore, China’s strategic culture during the Cold War was defensive in nature, notwithstanding leaders’ beliefs and perceptions of domestic circumstances and external threats (Feng, 2007, 80).

China’s economic and political aggrandizement in the post-Cold War international system dominated by the US, especially under president Xi, has elicited suspicion from the West; engendering more ambiguities and uncertainties in the world order. The China threat theory, represents this spiralling security concern that China’s power pursuit underlines threatening implications to American national interests and Asia-Pacific security (Broomfield, 2012, 265-284). Due to this egoistic American interpretation of China’s emergence as a great power as well as increasing attempts by western media to alienate China as expansionist with an aggressive attitude and intensions to disrupt the existing international order, China’s manifestation of strategic culture is twofold. On one hand, in order to continue to enhance its strategic security and interests in the South China Sea due to its geopolitical and geo-economic importance, defensive realism is a must in consideration of China’s strategic position; on the other hand, to rise peacefully via snowballing of soft power accumulation, while reducing hostile speculation from the West, China is required to present itself more with a Confucian style of strategic culture, depicting itself as a pacifist with a clear signpost of non-hegemonic aggression.

Whether China’s rise will be peaceful, Chinese strategic culture might give us a hint. | News 163

This dual composition of strategic culture – an interplay between realpolitik and Confucian moralism, is highlighted by Andrew Scobell’s “Chinese cult of defence”. However, his comprehension of Chinese strategic culture resembling realpolitik is flawed as he asserts that Chinese elites justify any use of force as defensive in nature, which is not the case (2003, 1-15). As articulated earlier in the literature, restraints on use of force by the PRC have been substantiated through non-interference in foreign affairs and no employment of military means unless for the purpose of safeguarding maritime territories and realizing a tenacious millennium mission for the unification of China. Having witnessed colonial invasions from the sea to the land, especially as Japan which was previously seen as a nondescript country had defeated a long-established empire, China had learned the lesson of fortifying a defensive sphere in its backyard in order to ensure maritime strategic security. The PRC, on the ruins of century-old humiliating memories, with fears of separatism and division, opened a new chapter for Chinese history. With constant US military presence and interference in its strategic compass; indubitably, the Chinese government would undertake the route of defensive realism to forestall any potential strategic threats.

The so-called realpolitik and offensive elements contended by Scobell might be traced to People’s Liberation Army’s military writings, but strategic culture should never be analysed solely through symbolic orientation indicated in military texts as they usually are fused with hawkish operational and tactical analysis, which inevitably reflect features of parabellum. Nevertheless, due to an emblematic relationship between the military elites and political elites in China, the PLA, proclaimed by Johnston as a “culture-bearing unit”, wielding decisive influence over national foreign policy and contingency management, can be seen as the “gatekeepers of Chinese strategic culture”. In light of a detailed analysis of PLA’s writings, Ghiselli states that the PLA has critically revisited the strategic culture informed by Sunzi and other ancient military strategists to adapt it more to the current international situation (Ghiselli, 2018, 172).

Despite the utterly distinctive contextual backgrounds in which strategic culture has developed between the ancient Chinese empire and the PRC, there are some associated linkages between them that sustain the resemblance of both versions. As raised by Zhang, Chinese narratives draw an analogy between the future strategic environment and the Warring States period (770-476 BC). In retrospect of the strategies gained during the warring states era to prevent destruction “at the hands of a predatory hegemon”, the underlying premise suggests a framework for China to thrive in the existing international system, in which the US hegemon has endeavoured to undermine China to constrain its growing influence within the Asia-pacific region and beyond (Zhang, 2002, 80-81). As a result, given the current volatile unipolar international order, this dynamic and potential power transition between the US and China induces a tendency for China to re-incorporate more elements of pacifist Confucian moralism into its strategic culture.

Nevertheless, the strategic motives behind the resurgence of Confucianism differs fundamentally from its traditional counterpart. A representation of the PRC as a peace-loving, Confucian great power serves three functions. First, to declare itself as an anti-hegemonic seeking country that does not engage in expansionist behaviours. As officially stated by Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, “no matter what stage of development it reaches”, China will not seek hegemony and will pursue a defensive policy (2017, ChinaDaily). Secondly, to ensure a strategic outlook that would not cause Western wariness and thus eventually lead to an escalation of tensions. In the context of globalisation, increasing economic interdependence between great powers predetermines that China’s future relies on a cooperative international environment to smoothly develop its material capabilities and defence systems. Lastly, to reassert China’s legitimate international standing by projecting its soft power via cultural exchanges, as seen from the establishment of Confucius institutes across the globe (Paradise, 2009, 647). Thus, in spite of the nadir that Confucian moralism suffered within the PRC’s strategic culture during the cultural revolution, as a by-product of “Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius” campaign started by Mao, Confucian moralism has gradually regained its strategic importance in Chinese foreign policy and grand strategy (Zhang, 2002, 87). Overall, regardless of different foreign policies pursued by key leaders either before or after the Cold War, the contextual situations in the contemporary international system have required the PRC to embody a dualistic characterization in its strategic culture: with a re-emerging emphasis on cultural moralism while following the approach of defensive realism steadily.

To conclude, having examined the strategic culture adopted by the Chinese empire until 1839 and by the People’s Republic of China, a tangible similarity can be identified: both are characterized by a dualistic composition of defensive realism and cultural moralism. The difference is located in an alternation of preceding preference between the two core elements, which are reshuffled by systemic changes over the transitional period from the fall of Qing to the birth of the PRC. Therefore, different purposes served by the employment of defensive doctrines and Confucian influence underscore another distinction between the strategic cultures of the two periods. Except for such nuances, the general outlook of Chinese strategic culture has remained the same. This constant existence of dualistic disposition in Chinese strategic culture, manifested throughout numerous structural changes under different international systems, implicates a consistency in strategic policies and cultural dogmas endorsed by China that extends from the ancient eras, to the current age, and possibly to the foreseeable future.


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