Understanding China’s Political Culture

No activity in the field of foreign policy is more important than spending time understanding the people you’re dealing with, getting inside their culture, their motivations, their values, their history, and most importantly, how they see themselves and how they see you.

China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization, with the world’s oldest political and bureaucratic culture, yet until a very few years ago, Western commentators were quite willing to treat it as simply another communist state trying to lurch its way into the modern world without giving up Party rule. The result, as Joshua Kurlantzick or any of the more perceptive China scholars will tell you, is that China has played a truly masterful game on every level throughout the past decade, both in foreign policy and in development, without most of the Western policy establishment noticing.

I am neither pro-China nor anti-China, but I think it is critical that the people responsible for dealing with China in the rest of the world understand it for what it is, and likewise understand that whatever pluses and minuses accrue from China’s rise are the result of interactions and perceptions on all sides.


If you want to understand how China works, or rather how to make China work, study Confucius, and especially the concepts of reciprocal obligation and guangxi. It may sound like a cliché, but how many in the Western foreign policy establishment have actually gone and done it? You cannot understand China’s foreign relations without this equipment. An example is former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s well-known visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Having promised Hu Jintao he would cease these visits, he later resumed them, but in a personal rather than official capacity, a distinction that Japan, with its ability to shift between Western rationalist principles and Confucian principles could understand, but which China could not. In the West, official life is distinct from private life. In Confucian relationships, a promise is a promise.

Similar problems come into every collision of Western and Confucian diplomatic cultures. Many scholars have argued that the notions of mianzi (“face”), guangxi (“relationship” or personal leverage), gift-giving and trust dominate Chinese diplomatic positioning but are simply not understood in the West. An American diplomat expects to serve his country’s national interests. To that end, he promptly voices complaints and criticisms, and takes positions that are of immediate advantage to his country. Confucian principles demand more respect for the relationship, and respect for the other’s face. The Chinese have classically tried to avoid losing face through either argument or admission until accumulated grievances erupt.

It was through applying a Confucian principle that China won one of its greatest diplomatic victories, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). At every stage of the game, China made more concessions than it demanded, allowing ASEAN to negotiate collectively rather than bilaterally but tailoring specific economic concessions and incentives for each Southeast Asian economy. They called it “Giving six, taking four.” The economic benefit to China was almost inconsequential compared with the face of having been the first to gain such an agreement and the relationship it established.

The Middle Kingdom Returns

To understand why China appears to be unreasonable on territorial issues, it is necessary to read Chinese literature on the “Century of Humiliation” and the unequal treaties. Asking the Chinese to be reasonable about territorial issues is rather like asking the French to be “reasonable” about the German occupation in World War II. The Party’s face depends on defending China’s territorial integrity. But this is not the only reason for China’s recent trend toward bullishness and away from Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “Hide our capacities, bide our time.”

It may seem that China’s veneer of Confucian good manners is wearing thinner as the country begins to see itself as a power that has arrived. But that is also part of China’s self-image as the Middle Kingdom, and a function of the psychology of re-emerging into what it believes is its rightful place in the region. It is also mirroring what it sees in the United States and the behaviour of other great powers.

As with every step in the project of creating the new China, great power status was something studied and planned for. During the period of reform and opening, it was realised that the theory of foreign policy which depended on class struggle and Mao Zedong Thought was unsustainable, and an alternative was actively sought. Realism, the theory which traces its origins to Thucydides and Hobbes, was thought to be the theory which, in practice, had the greatest influence on the foreign policy of the United States. If the most successful global power was doing it, then clearly it was behaviour a nation aspiring to great power status should emulate.

As with previous emerging powers, China is testing the boundaries of the international order, to see how far it can extend its interests without a costly attempt to revise the entire international system, exactly as Realism would suggest. One can see the logic. The United States has consistently treated Latin America as an American hinterland. Russia has its buffer states. In that context, a few islands aren’t much to ask, and present the opportunity to force neighbouring states to acknowledge China’s new status.

Hope as a Function of Approach

In more optimistic moments, I like to read Zhu-ge Liang’s Way of the General. Zhu-ge Liang is the Chinese ideal of the upright official, and everything that China aspires to as a civilization in its better moments is reflected in this brief work. It is still possible for a sensitive policy community to appeal to the virtues that China holds dear, on the basis of a Confucian relationship of mutual respect. As long as we avoid doing so, we are simply another group of barbarians- and China has three thousand years of experience dealing with barbarians. Even when the barbarians won, they lost.


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