1: Myths Embedded in Chinese Soft Power Strategy (2019)

In 1988, when he was director of the Institute of Political Science in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yan Jiaqi gave a speech titled ‘China is no longer a Dragon’. He argued that the symbol of the dragon gave China the image of imperial authority and unrestricted power, but that this was ‘inappropriate for a nation seeking to be a democracy. It should be replaced, he urged, by a symbol more consistent with the idea of the rule of law.’

The following year, on 4 June, came the ruthless suppression of the student democracy movement. Yan Jiaqi fled China and has lived in exile ever since.[1] The Communist Party has not taken the path he urged. Xi Jinping is the embodiment of what Yan argued against. Hence our concern here today about living with the Dragon – Xi and his ‘China Dream’.

But our specific focus is on soft power and its uses. Joseph Nye classically defined soft power as the art of winning over world opinion through cultural and persuasive means, rather than coercive ones. This is Gong Li, as Lady Zhao, in The Emperor and the Assassin, staring reproachfully - on account of his ruthless quest to dominate all under Heaven - at King Ying Zheng of Qin, the soon-to-be First August Emperor of China.

Gong Li as Lady Zhao

Gong Li as Lady Zhao


First conceived by Chen Kaige in 1988, the film was made in 1998 and released on DVD by Silkscreen in 2000. Like numerous films by Chen Kaige; Zhang Yimou, who often directed films starring Gong Li, and Ang Lee, in Taiwan, The Emperor and the Assassin is cinema at its best and shows us a Chinese culture that we could all celebrate and cinema we can all enjoy. This is wonderful soft power stuff.

When we talk about soft power in the statecraft and diplomacy of the Chinese Communist Party, however, it is not such films or such views of China that come to mind. It is Confucius Institutes, it is promotion of the so-called ‘China Dream’ of Xi Jinping; it is the suite of beguiling myths about China that would have us accept its rise as awesome, inevitable and benign. It is an art of imperial propaganda that has more in common with King Ying Zheng than with Lady Zhao.

We are here today to confer about the challenge with which this imperial vision confronts Australia – not least because the soft power of the West in general and of the United States in particular has suffered considerably in the recent past, leaving us floundering somewhat in our response to the rise of China.

My own acquaintance with China began in 1963 with a children’s story about Marco Polo that had superb coloured pictures. The pictures made an indelible impression and China arose in my young imagination as an exotic, faraway place where merchants used go to trade. But it was the soft power of the Anglosphere that I grew up on in the 1960s: children’s stories, magazines and history books published in London; American films, television and popular songs.

However, in Year 6, aged eleven, I bought, played truant from school and read Stuart Schram’s biography of Mao Zedong. That took my understanding of China to a whole new level. This was no children’s story. It was a serious study of large-scale and violent rebellion against the world of Western colonialism and merely exotic images of China. It wasn’t anyone’s soft power. It was a wake-up call to take history seriously.

Half a century or so on, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine wrote a new biography: Mao: The Real Story. Note the sub-title – the real story. Their introduction is titled ‘Myths and Realities’. They describe Schram’s book as the best of its era, but comment that writing an accurate biography of anyone is challenging and that the ‘difficulties are multiplied when the subject is the leader of a closed society that jealously guards its secrets.’

They show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mao was ‘a faithful follower of Stalin, who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty.’ ‘The truth’, they observe, ‘has long reposed in the secret archives of the CCP, the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International.’ What we need to pay attention to is the relationship between the Party’s soft power narratives and the kind of truth being evoked here by Pantsov and Levine - especially the soft power propagated by the Party’s vast apparatus of intelligence, diplomacy, thought control or united front tactics and the truth.

That’s what good history does; what good biography does; what good intelligence analysis does. That’s what enables us to get incrementally closer to ‘the real story.’ That’s what we need to do with regard to the myths with which the Party buttresses both its domestic rule and its foreign policy goals. That is my central purpose in my brief remarks here this afternoon.

The Emperor and the Assassin is theatre, but based on real historical events of the 3rd century BCE, set down by Sima Qian in The Grand Scribe’s Records about a century later. Chen Kaige and his team modified that history in order to make a critical point about the King of Qin and centralized power. They invented the character of Lady Zhao, who turns against the King because of atrocities echoing the massacre of the democracy movement students in Beijing in 1989. The film is a compelling piece of modern Chinese soft power, but a clear challenge to the Party dictatorship.

The Party revises history a great deal; as theatrically as Chen Kaige, but with very different intentions. If we don’t know the history itself, it’s difficult to tell how history is being reinterpreted or distorted. Since even the best historical writing entails interpretation and since sustained inquiry is required to master even a part of history, how are we to grapple with the Party’s large-scale myth-making, which is propagated relentlessly and with a straight face?

We haven’t done very well at this in Australia and we need to do better. In a newspaper piece last year, I had a stab at doing a little of this work and I offer a revised version of that here, as an inducement to discussion. I listed seven myths that need to be dismantled if we are to have a clear-eyed view of China under the Party – what John Fitzgerald, in a forthcoming book now calls the ‘cadre nation’.

Here is a fresh take on that piece. Each myth is stated briefly and then concisely debunked:

Myth 1: The Party’s rule is justified because it liberated China from foreign imperialism.

The Party did not liberate China from foreign imperialism. It could never have done so from where things stood by 1937, when the Japanese made the reckless decision to attempt the conquest of the whole of China. Overwhelming American military power defeated Japan. The Soviet Union came in late, occupied Manchuria, handed masses of weaponry to the Communist guerrillas and so made possible their victory over the exhausted and demoralized Nationalist government.

This is the Japanese statesman Yoshida Shigeru. He and others, in the 1920s and early 1930s, urged that Japan seek to rise peacefully in Asia, cooperating with the Anglo-American powers and building economic hegemony rather than attempting wider conquests. Had their policies prevailed, instead of the militarists launching their war on China in 1937 and then on America in 1941, things would probably have turned out very differently for China and the world at large.

The Communist Party might well have been snuffed out by Chiang Kaishek, or drawn into a national unity government in the manner that American special envoy George Marshall attempted to bring about between 1945 and 1947. China might have benefited from less totalitarian government, Japanese investment and American good will.

There would have been no Pacific war. There would have been no US bases in East Asia and probably no North Korea. Think of the implications and consider that the Yoshida faction has its Chinese counterparts now – getting on for a century later.

But the Party claims legitimacy based on its Marxist-Leninist governance of China since 1949. One is reminded of Arthur Koestler’s reflections on Communist revolution and industrialization in his 1940 novel, Darkness At Noon.

The Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, purged for his misgivings, ponders whether the supreme leader, ‘No. 1’, will be judged by ‘that mocking oracle’ History as justified in all the killing done in the name socialism with Russian characteristics.

Rubashov is brought before an interrogator, Ivanov, who declares that No. 1 is leading a great social experiment requiring stern measures. Millions of people die every year around the world of epidemics and natural catastrophes, he says, but no-one asks why or what for.

Yet when we kill a few hundred thousand objectively harmful elements, such as allowing the rich peasants to starve to death in a once-off surgical operation for the greater good, humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth.  Thus Arthur Koestler in 1940.

Chen Yi, one of the real military heroes of the Chinese civil war and Mao’s Foreign Minister between 1958 and 1972, remarked according to historian Tang Tsou, that Stalin killed millions of people, but ‘that not important’. Chen was a Chinese Ivanov.

All the same, the Party, still suppresses state records of the many millions it has killed because, at least as regards soft power, it’s not a good look to admit that you have killed such huge numbers of the people you claim to have liberated.

Myth 2: The Party has ‘lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty’.

Let’s get perspective here. The Party under Mao caused the greatest famine mortality in recorded history between 1958 and 1962: some 35 to 45 million deaths[2] and kept China poor for thirty years. Then it opted for what Bill Overholt, in the early 1990s, called the ‘East Asia model’ of development; restructured its economic institutions and opened up to foreign investment.

Set free to take initiatives, seek new jobs and form businesses, hundreds of millions of Chinese people then lifted themselves out of poverty. First, the peasants were told that they could grow cash crops. Food supplies trebled in short order. Who was lifting whom out of poverty here?

When Deng Xiaoping decided to experiment with special economic zones to bring capital and technology into China, he reached out to survivors of the old Chinese capitalist elite, many of whom had been on pig farms during the Cultural Revolution.

He asked them to tell their diaspora relatives that China was opening for business again. Within a few years, foreign direct investment began pouring into China. Who was lifting whom out of poverty here?

The OECD countries worked hard, in the 1990s, to draw China into the World Trade Organization, while retaining its status as a ‘developing’ nation, postponing the anticipated privatization of its strategic industries and financial system, or the creation of a normal stock exchange. It still has not done these things. It remains overwhelmingly mercantilist. Who has been lifting whom out of poverty here?

Clearly, Deng and his advisers took important steps after Mao died and for many years the Party listened to serious experts, often foreign, learning how to create the economic institutions that facilitated the surge of growth from the 1980s on.

But here’s the thing: this would almost certainly have happened had there never been a Communist revolution, since it happened right across East Asia without such revolutions, starting with Japan.

Overholt’s opinion now is that Xi Jinping and his circle have stopped listening and are suffering from growing hubris, so that the time for confidence in China’s future is over. We need to think in terms of divergent scenarios.[3]

 Myth 3: Liberal democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture.

It is certainly incompatible with the Chinese tradition of centralized imperial rule and Maoist totalitarianism. But it was also incompatible with the Japanese imperial shogunate before 1868, or with Korean culture until the late 20th century. Both Japan and South Korea are now thriving democratic polities.

Taiwan is the key test case. Systematically developed by Japan between 1895 and 1945, it was taken over by the Chinese Nationalists in 1945 and ruled so badly that the Taiwanese rebelled. They were crushed by Chinese military forces, many thousands of people were executed (estimates range from 7,000 to 20,000) and martial law imposed for forty years.

However, in the late 1980s, Chiang Chingkuo – the son and heir of Chiang Kaishek - opened up the political system, choosing to do what Deng Xiaoping refused to do on the mainland in those same years. Chinese culture was not the issue, nor was Leninism an insuperable obstacle.

Chiang Chingkuo had, after all, been to Leninist training school in Moscow with Deng himself in the 1920s. What was required was political leadership and strategic choice.

Myth 4: Social media will lead to the liberalization and democratization of China.

Bill Clinton declared, in 2000, that IT innovation, combined with the immense benefits of joining the WTO and accepting waves of foreign investment would democratize China, as it had the rest of East Asia. Liberty would be spread by mobile phones and cable modems. This was the great engagement gambit. The Communist Party had other ideas.

As Evgeny Morozov pointed out in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and as James Griffiths argues in The Great Firewall of China, dictators, terrorists and criminal cartels have been very quickly learning how to turn these new technologies to their own advantage and none more so than Xi Jinping’s China.

China now leads the way and is systematically using the supposedly democratizing tools to buttress dictatorship, not to liberalize.[4] Moreover, it is now seeking to export this model of surveillance and censorship.

Myth 5: China is simply resuming its ‘natural’ position as the world’s greatest power.

The kernel of truth to this is that, when all countries were agrarian and China had the world’s largest population (by far) it naturally had the world’s largest economy in gross size. This is uncontroversial and trivially true.

But this never made China the world’s ‘greatest power’. It was simply one among a number of substantial states around the world. This map shows the various major and minor states in Eurasia in 200 BCE, at the beginning of the Han dynasty in China.

Note the size of the Xiongnu Khanate to its north, the Mauryan empire to its south west or the Seleucid empire in Persia and the Levant.

The powerful and expansionist T’ang dynasty (649-907), was militarily defeated by Silla (South Korea) in 676 and by the Arabs and Tibetans, in 751. Over the past millennium, northern barbarian dynasties ruled the Han Chinese for far longer than the Han ruled the barbarians:

The Khitan (907-1125), Jurchen (1125-1234), Mongols (1271-1368) and Manchus (1644-1912). These empires weren’t ‘China’. They conquered all or much of China. The Ming dynasty, which was Han Chinese had nothing like the borders of contemporary China – and they didn’t rule the Mongols.

No dynasty before the Manchus ruled Taiwan, not even the Mongols. The Manchus also added Mongolia, Inner and Outer, as well as Manchuria itself, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet to their empire, but never conquered the Middle East, India and Russia - as the Mongols had done.

Chinese nationalists in the early 20th century, however, declared the whole Manchu empire to be the new nation state of China, only to see it fragment in the 1910s and 1920s.

Myth 6: China’s strategic culture, unlike ours, is non-expansionist and pacifist.

The name ‘China’ derives from the state of Qin which, in the 3rd century BCE conquered all six other Han states in a series of ruthless wars to ‘unite all under Heaven’. This is what The Emperor and the Assassin dramatizes.[5] 

Here are the Qin and Han empires, compared with the current borders of China:

And here, by contrast, is how China looked when swallowed up within the Mongol empire some seven hundred years ago, followed by the Ming and then the Manchu or Qing empires:

In a book length study in 1995, Alastair Iain Johnston showed that the Ming dynasty chastised the barbarians when strong, appeased them when weak and fought many wars. Yet it was one of the more introverted Chinese dynasties. China is now fast becoming both very strong and very extroverted in its ambitions.[6]

Myth 7: The Chinese elites have a wise, long-term view of the world.

If Chinese elites are given to far-sightedness and wisdom, why have Chinese dynasties again and again lapsed into decay and been conquered by foreign barbarians?

If modern Han Chinese elites inherited such powers, why did they fail to build a viable republic in the 1910s; fail to find a way to prevent a communist victory in the 1940s; fall in line with Mao Zedong in the 1950s and fail to adopt the East Asian model until Japan, South Korea and Taiwan had demonstrated how well it worked?

Why does it matter that we debunk myths of the kind I have so briefly addressed here? I think we all, more or less, know why. We are the anchor, in this part of the world, of the global liberal internationalist alliance and intelligence system that the United States built after the Second World War. That order of things has served us and many others very well. It is now in jeopardy on multiple fronts.

Xi Jinping’s China is systematically seeking to roll back the American order and to assume a radically new place in the world. Confucius Institutes, meddling consulates, agents of influence, suave diplomats and ‘friends of China’ who have drunk the Kool aid or taken the coin are able to do their work in considerable measure because of the prevalence of the kind of myths I have mentioned here.

If we are to hold our own, to say nothing of flourishing, in the order that Xi Jinping envisages, we have our work cut out for us. Foundational to any serious strategy on our part must be a greatly enhanced capacity to counter the Party’s mythologies with soft power of our own, including, let it be said, a sophisticated understanding of, to use Pantsov and Levine’s sub-title ‘the real story’ – of China and Asia.

Moreover, we need to develop that capacity within the institutional constraints set by an open society, not attempt to mimic the Party and merely try to get everyone in this country singing from the one song sheet. That’s the task ahead of us. I’d like to think we are up to it.

Like the finest dissidents in the past century of China’s history, Lady Zhao, in The Emperor and the Assassin, spoke for a humane view of power and social order. Huge numbers of such people were persecuted by the Party during the Anti-Rightist campaign in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the crushing of the democracy movements of the 1970s and 80s, the suppression of the Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gong and dissidents and activists of many kinds since 1989. Lady Zhao embodies all these people. She is their soft power.

Ours is that of the open society and flourishing civil rights. In January this year, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, George Soros warned expressly against Beijing’s high-tech surveillance regime. China, he stated:

…is not the only authoritarian regime in the world, but it is the wealthiest, strongest and technologically most advanced. This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of open societies.[7]

We here live in an open society; imperfect no doubt, but open beyond the dreams of most people elsewhere and in the past. China is not an open society in this sense.

Should the Party remain in power and should its practices be further propagated, our core institutions and values will be put under pressure. They are already being put under pressure. That this is so, I submit, is why we are here today. If Xi Jinping was the Chiang Chingkuo of China, things would look very different. He is not.

So, as Lenin famously put it, what is to be done? Well, the wry American wit Henry Louis Mencken famously quipped a long time ago:

There is always an easy solution to every problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.

I don’t have a neat or ‘plausible’ solution to offer you. I wish only to emphasize that there is a problem and that there are many ways to get things wrong in tackling it. Our need is to avoid as many unnecessary errors as we can, while steering a course consistent with the liberties we cherish, in what are in many ways for us uncharted waters.

[1] Yan became a political advisor of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang during the 1980s, and was one of the leading intellectuals supporting the student movement in 1989. After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, he fled to Paris, where he participated in forming the Federation for a Democratic China and was elected the federation's first president. He was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party in 1991, but is a member of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association and has suggested the formation of a Federal Republic of China.

[2] See, among other studies:

Dali Yang Calamity and Reform in China (Stanford University Press, 1996)

Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun China’s Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians and Provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward 1955-1959 (M. E. Sharpe, New York and London, 1999)

Yang Jisheng Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2008) Frank Dikotter Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-62 (Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2010).

[3] William H. Overholt China’s Crisis of Success (Cambridge University Press, 2018). China’s problems, Overholt argues, are solvable only through a vast reform effort. But he points out that a massive conundrum confronts Xi Jinping: if the reforms are all done quickly, they will encounter simultaneous resistance from every powerful interest group in China. Yet they need to be done quickly. Without them, China faces a future of very low growth, as Japan has done since the early 1990s. At its current level of per capita GDP, which is much lower than Japan’s was in 1990, this would be a recipe for social upheaval. Having prevented the development of alternative civil or political organizations over the past thirty years, the Party has nothing to fall back upon if things go pear-shaped. Xi’s hyper-concentration of power may be an attempt to pre-empt a looming crisis and give the Party the instruments to override opposition. But it means everything now depends on Xi getting his strategic judgements right and the Party machinery implementing changes well. In fact, there is little sign that Xi and his circle intend to push through with the reforms in question.

[4] See also:

Fred Kaplan’s Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War (2016)

Alexander Klimburg’s The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace (2017)

David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age (2018).

[5] I discuss this film and its significance at some length in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (Scribe, 2005), Part III, Chapter 8 ‘Ancient History, Modern Cinema and Political Allegory’. There I contrast it with Zhang Yimou’s film, Hero, released in 2002, which told the same historical tale, but without any Lady Zhao and with the King/Emperor depicted as a formidable figure who overawes the would-be assassin with his vision for a great empire and his personal, implacable demeanour. The assassin is declared a ‘hero’ precisely because he does not kill the Emperor. It’s hard not to see this as a response to The Emperor and the Assassin, which pointedly favours the Party against the dissidents.

 The title of my book in 2005 was borrowed from a poem by Lu Xun (1881-1936), written in 1934 in protest against human rights abuses and the suppression of civil liberties during Chiang Kai-shek’s White Terror, his attempt to crush the Communist Party. But Lu was not a communist. He was an admirer of John Stuart Mill and wanted to see China cast off its backwardness and become a modern and open society. There seems little doubt that, had he been alive in 1988, he would have been closely aligned with the thinking of Yan Jiaqi. The Conclusion to my book was a withering critique of the Party’s claim to authority in the name of setting China free, when it systematically suppresses the freedoms of its own citizens.

[6] Xiaoming Zhang Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict Between China and Vietnam 1979-1991 (2015) is an illuminating study of modern Chinese strategic culture under one of its most astute leaders, at a time when decades of Maoism had seriously hampered the country’s modernization and left its military in a dilapidated condition. Xi Jinping has far greater military power at his disposal than Deng ever had and clearly has considerable strategic ambitions.

[7] New York Post 19 January 2019.