Xi's Protracted War
What to do if you find yourself fighting an advanced, imperialist enemy who you think wants to destroy you?
Turn to scripture, of course.
Edgar Snow, the journalist who journeyed to visit Mao Zedong and his comrades in Yan’an in 1936, became Mao’s John the Baptist, spreading the Communist’s message worldwide with his bestseller, Red Star Over China (1937). The echoes in that title of the star over Bethlehem are no accident; for Snow, Mao was China’s political savior. He was no fool, but he had his head turned by some excellent United Front work, and missed the devilish atrocities Mao’s revolutionaries were already committing (on which more from me here and here).
But just as the New Testament is Christians’ go-to-place to go find advice on life’s biggest problems, as well as backing for whatever you’ve already decided to do, so are Mao’s writings are for CCP leaders. So when our modern-day Great Helmsman thinks about the US and how to respond to all the sound and fury from Washington, off to Mao he goes (as well as Han Feizi, as this excellent essay explores).
In recent months, Mao’s famous essay “On Protracted War (论持久战)”, based on lectures he gave in Yan’an in 1938 about the struggle with Japan, has attracted some attention. A new print run in 2018 got some Washington Post love. Nikkei’s chief China watcher had some interesting, meandering thoughts. A Global Times oped told us foreigners to move on, nothing to see here folks, all but guaranteeing the need for us to take it seriously. Thankfully, the Party’s own domestic propaganda had some thoughts here, which says things like:
“Our heroic sons and daughters have sacrificed life and limb and fought hard to “rid the enemy of bandits in the white mountains and black waters, and watch the flags flutter like flowers”; the Western world has continued to suppress and blockade.”
And the title phrase was even dropped into the July 30 Politburo meeting statement:
Translation (god, it’s so much more long-winded, and no clearer, in English): “The meeting pointed out that the current economic situation is still complex and severe, with greater instability and uncertainty, and that many of the problems we encounter are medium- to long-term, so they need to be understood from the perspective of protracted war [italics mine]. We should accelerate the formation of a new development pattern with domestic circulation as the main driver, and use the domestic & international economies to promote each other; we should establish medium- to long-term coordination mechanisms for epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development, adhere to the strategic direction of structural adjustment; rely more on scientific and technological innovation; and improve the design and adjustment of macroeconomic management policies to achieve a long-term balance between steady growth and preventing risks.”
So, what was Mao’s ‘perspective on protracted war’ with the Japanese invaders?
First, forget about both a quick win and an ultimate defeat; victory will come, but it will involve a long and hard struggle. The Japanese had over-extended and were under-resourced, so they could be ground down, but slowly. It might be easy to promise an easy, quick victory, as populists around the world are wont to do these days, but Mao understood that could backfire, so best to downplay expectations.
Second, Mao knew his ‘band of bandits’ needed the United Front with the Nationalists over in Nanjing, as well as other anti-fascist forces outside of China (Mother Russia!), to win. And he needed them desperately. Before 1937 Chiang Kaishek was pursuing an “annihilate the Commies and deal with the Japanese later” strategy, his own protracted war, but after the Xi-an incident in December 1936, Chiang agreed to a coalition (for the second time) with the communists.
Third, given their relative deficit in military equipment (the Red Army had few factories in their base areas and Mother Stalin was not a generous man with military supplies), engage in flexible, mobile warfare, capture Japanese guns and armor, and only as the balance of power shifted should bigger, more decisive battles be considered. Never engage unless victory was assured.
Fourth, Mao understood he had to bring the people with him, enlisting them in the struggle. So he always pushed for maximum land reform in areas the Reds won (i.e. kill the landlords, distribute their land, win the peasants’ loyalty). And Red army troops had to behave themselves. The barbaric, inhuman behavior of the Japanese occupiers, as well as the pillaging and burning that the Nationalists got up to, meant that winning hearts and minds was not that hard for the Reds. Of course, Communists like to bait and switch; so once victory was won, Mao could pivot to the opposite policy in the 1950s, stealing the land back from the farmers and making them work on the state’s disastrous collectives. Mao agreed to democratic reforms under the United Front and made promises of semi-autonomy to minority groups; only to jettison all that after 1949.
So, how did this strategy work out?
The Red Army of course won China’s bitterly long civil war, but Mao’s strategy was only one reason for this success. Imperial Japan was defeated by the Americans in the Pacific War, not in Mainland China by the United Front. And Tokyo’s litany of strategic mistakes (bombing Pearl Harbor being the most lethal) largely lost them the war. Then after 1945, with Japan out, the Red Army fought Nationalist forces which had already been mostly decimated by the Japanese army for two decades. Chiang got all the blame for all the horrors of the 1920-30s while Mao was free to promise honey and modernity. And Chiang never had control of his warlord allies, and he made some horrible strategic mistakes too, like deploying into Manchuria where the Reds had all the cards. And Red Army generals like Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao were pretty good military men.
It’s probably fair to say, though, that ‘Protracted War’ holds up; it was never going to guarantee victory, but it was the best of a bunch of bad available strategies. Without the United Front, Mao was doomed; any full frontal assault would have decimated them. Without the Americans Mao’s fight would have been even more protracted; guerilla-like operations against the Japanese occupiers could have lasted for years, particularly with Stalin’s help.
And so to today…
There are some big differences with Mao’s fight with Japan, to state the bleedingly obvious. The United States is not occupying large chunks of China, it is not a military dictatorship, yet, and it is not murdering hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Meanwhile, our Great Helmsman is not stuck in a cave commanding a rebel band of young idealists happy to eat millet all day long.
So, given this, what is the use of this phrase “protracted war” signaling?
First, and simply, use of the phrase adds an appearance of ‘depth’ to any CCP document, like throwing in a line of Job into a sermon. Some of Mao’s strategic shine might rub off.
Second, I think Beijing has probably determined that this is, indeed, a war of sorts, albeit one that’s going to be fought in the economic, technological and financial fields, i.e. mostly cold, but with the possibility of going hot. Mao was very clear on what war meant; ensuring one’s own survival while aiming to destroy the enemy. Of course, Beijing will officially deny such a determination, if only to try to lull the US back into ‘engagement’. But the economic war prep seems to have started. It’s much easier to understand, say, Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, which carry potentially huge costs, if you assume such paranoia.
Third, the long-term nature of this conflict - “get used to this folks” is the message. That, plus the belief that only over time will the balance of power shift. “Japan’s economy will crack under the strain of China’s long resistance”, wrote Mao. Like today’s CCP leadership, he believed that inherent contradictions would destroy capitalistic societies from the inside (a proposition which looks more on the mark these days than then). And that, with time, China can grow power, whether in developing its own technology, rolling out its own RMB payments systems, boosting “domestic circulation (以内循环为主)”, whatever the hell that means in practice, and becoming less reliant on external demand.
Fourth, unite the front. So focus on being as nice as possible to foreign business in China, keep up all the talk of opening up, offer banking licenses to JP Morgan et al. and make sure Elon remains a happy trooper down there in Shanghai. But that’s as far as implementation goes. Neither the MoFA’s Wolf Warriors nor the PLA upper ranks seem to have digested their Mao. A border conflict with India that has not been put to bed, on-going incursions into the Senkakus to provoke Japan, and the ever more thuggish threats to Canada, Australia and the UK. Call me an armchair general, but Russia, North Korea and Wall Street doesn’t seem like a winning coalition to me. (And the wolves seem desperate to undermine even that; I saw ‘Professor’ Jin Canrong the other day calling for China to take territory back from Russia and Mongolia.)
Fifth, no big engagements, but flexible, mobile ‘warfare’. So Beijing signed the Phase 1 deal, avoiding a bigger tariff battle. It avoided attacks on big American businesses, Burger King’s ‘sanitary’ issues aside. Ever since Washington finally figured out how to blow-up Huawei’s 5G infrastructure ambitions there’s been speculation that Beijing would finally go after Apple, and now with Tik Tok, perhaps Microsoft. But no, nada. Of course that may change, but so far Beijing has avoided such self-harm, preventing the US a better story upon which they can escalate. Instead, they’re decided that they can absorb the blows, and are on balance happy to let the Americans overextend.
Instead, Beijing has scraped, for instance, kicking out ‘unfriendly’ journalists and trying to replace them with super-low-quality foreign ‘reds’ who increasingly populate CGTN, etc. (And whom even Edgar Snow would have seen through as talentless hacks.) I think Beijing also determined that Hong Kong was a ‘small’ fight they were guaranteed to win, though that might have been a mistake.
And then, finally, there is the appeal to the Chinese people - who will pay the price, of course. “The contest…is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale,” wrote Mao. So morale has to be corralled, the American government lambasted as not only an enemy of China, but also as betraying American ideals (which the top of the Party knows are still attractive, at least in the abstract, to its own middle class).
Which brings us to perhaps the most important question; will this ‘protracted war’ strategy, albeit imperfectly implemented, work?
Protracted War, or Protracted Peace?
I think not, and the reason is that the strategic situation Xi faces is very different from Mao. He has, I think, likely fundamentally misjudged the situation.
Beijing is still laboring under the official determination that they are dealing with an unprovoked American economic offensive, rather than defensive moves in response to CCP overreach. Here one can draw attention to the militarization of the South China Seas, the wholesale hacking of every American server (with the notable exception of those holding Trump’s tax fillings?), funding construction SOEs in potential military chokepoints like Djibouti and Malaysia, developing a space program while your military waxes lyrical about destroying American satellites on Day -1 of conflict. Today’s Great Helmsman will find gaining international support much harder than his predecessor. He needs a better message than “We’re the new Superpower, get used to it”.
Instead, as the great Edward Luttwak has argued in The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy, a “We’re really scared of Beijing United Front” of sorts is emerging on China’s borders. That coalition is not perhaps as firm as Luttwak originally envisioned (look at how easily the Philippines partly flipped columns, and how much Japan and South Korea hate each other), but it’s still a big problem for Beijing. Over in Europe, they’re slowly waking up to the challenge, even if the industrialists and their political mates need some work.
At home, the sympathy will last longer as folk rally around the Red Starred flag. Prising the “Chinese people” away from the CCP may be the White House’s aim, but they have no idea how to do that. But Xi owns all the pain that’s coming, in a way Mao never did while Chiang ran the Nanjing government. And a smarter US president should be able to position as more sympathetic to the Chinese people. (Bonus points could be won if the Trump gang end up in jail; that would be a potent signal to the Chinese people which keeps getting bombarded with news about American corruption and decline.)
Finally, are the dynamics really going to move over time in favor of Beijing, as they did in the civil war? That is not clear. COVID-19 may have knocked the US and European economies back a year or two, but they’ll come back. China’s economy has recovered pretty well since March, but its medium-term prospects don’t look great. Productivity growth has gone to zero, as this excellent recent paper shows. It’s going to take time to develop the suite of technologies they need to be independent, and that will suck up an enormous amount of resources.
And Beijing’s paranoia will push it towards more errors. I’m not the first to note this parallel, but Japan interpreted President Roosevelt’s cutting off of American oil in 1941 as an act of economic war, when Washington intent was to mould Tokyo’s behavior, not destroy it. And with that determination, their fate was sealed.
The road not taken, huh? If our very own Great Helmsman put down his Mao, and read more Japan’s imperial/military history, he might realize that he has a bigger choice here. The Americans are not the Japanese; they will never invade, they have more than enough of their own problems, and you do not have to be Sun Tzu to realize they don’t even have an incoherent plan for regime-change in Beijing, let alone a coherent one.
The smart strategic decision would be to not categorize this as ‘war’. It would be to recognize Washington views you as the belligerent - and that your country would benefit from a wholesale change in its strategy. Call it protracted peace.
Close down the Xinjiang camps as Pei Minxin argues here, reallocate a big chunk of PLA expenditures to education and healthcare, enter into meaningful negotiations over sharing the South China Seas, promise Taiwan will never be taken with missiles and bullets - “We would never do that to our Chinese compatriots living there”. Stop hacking everyone’s servers. None of this would hurt China or undermine the Party’s monopoly on power. Imagine how history would judge Xi then.
Unfortunately, though, it looks more likely that we’re fated to rhyme the 1930-40s history. Just not in the way Beijing expects.