Why Beijing leaders should read Sun Tzu’s 'The Art of War' again

October 18, 2018 14:03
Amid a trade war with the US, China’s leaders are learning that sometimes it is better to maintain a low profile rather than constantly brag about the nation’s achievements and goals. Photo: CNSA

Just one year ago, Chinese leaders were still very assertive and eagerly bragging about China’s various achievements through state propaganda apparatuses.

These included the documentary film "Amazing China" that opened across the nation in March this year, the notion repeatedly pitched by mainland officialdom that the Belt and Road Initiative is saving the world economy, as well as the hyped “Made in China 2025” plan which, according to the portrayal of state propaganda, will enable China to overtake the United States in high value-added manufacturing.

But in recent months Beijing suddenly made a 180-degree turn on its propaganda policy, with the  “Amazing China” documentary getting pulled from commercial video websites and the media banned from mentioning “Made in China 2025”. Also, the Belt and Road Initiative is no longer tom-tommed in a high-profile way.

What is more, in order not to further provoke US President Donald Trump, state media has also been ordered not to openly and directly criticize Trump, in relation to the coverage of the trade war.

The latest example of China’s sudden humble posturing is an order that mainland officialdom should avoid mentioning in external written notices “The Recruitment Program of Global Experts”, known as “The Thousand Talents Plan”, an initiative that had been spearheaded by the central government to draw overseas-educated Chinese elites by offering them juicy cash rewards.

The reason is that “The Thousand Talents Plan” has recently come under intense scrutiny of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and some of the mainland elites who took part in the program have been indicted by the US authorities for espionage.

Beijing’s sudden retreat in its propaganda policy suggests that its previously high-profile and aggressive approach was a strategic mistake.

Forty years into its economic reforms, China has undoubtedly come a long way in terms of its economic, military and technological strength.

Still, the country is still lagging far behind the US, the world’s superpower.

For example, even though China has become the world’s second largest economy, and is expected to surpass the US and become the world’s No. 1 by 2025, its current GDP per capita only roughly equals that of the United States 40 years ago.

Moreover, despite the fact that the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claims to the world’s largest armed force in terms of number, technologically speaking, the PLA is estimated to be 30 to 50 years behind the US military.

And when it comes to civilian technologies, although Beijing has been eagerly boasting about the so-called “modern-day four great inventions”, and bragging that China is gradually outperforming the US in realms such as artificial intelligence, big data and supercomputer, the truth is, the West still has a firm grip over the key technologies and components.

The fact that ZTE Corporation, the world’s fourth largest telecom equipment manufacturer, was immediately brought to its knees following a US ban on components supply, it is unmistakable proof that China is nothing more than a paper tiger when it comes to hi-tech.

As is shown throughout human history, the so-called “Thucydides Trap” is often unavoidable whenever a rising power is attempting to challenge the hegemony of an established power.

The question is, as an emerging power, does China have the sufficient capacity to take on the US? And is China well-prepared for an all-out US counter-offensive?

Judging from what we have seen so far, the answer is apparently negative.

In the past, Beijing had to keep a low-profile on the world scene and swallow whatever intimidation and suppression were inflicted on it in order to avoid provoking the US and other nations in the West and triggering a western containment.

Nevertheless, as China’s economic heft continued to grow into global scale in recent years, it appears the Chinese leadership has let success go to its head, and simply couldn't wait to make its presence felt and throw its weight around across the world, thereby arousing deep suspicions and vigilance among Western governments as well as repulsion among the public in those societies.

To make things worse, by eagerly advertising its initiatives “Made in China 2025” and the "Thousand Talents Plan”, all Beijing did is make known to the entire world its strategic agenda and precise roadmap towards global prominence.

The former has allowed the US to specifically impose tariffs, while the latter has made it easy for the FBI to find clues for indictment due to the open nature of the plan.

It seems the Beijing leaders are pretty ignorant about a famous doctrine espoused by the great ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in his "The Art of War", which suggests all warfare is based on deception. When we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 13

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]



Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor