Keeping China Safe

A Fletcher professor’s new book recounts China’s modern history through the lens of its grand strategy for survival amid internal and external threats

Before the Communist Party took power in China in 1949, the country had been slowly falling apart at the seams for hundreds of years. By the early twentieth century, warlords ruled what were essentially independent fiefdoms, while foreign powers carved out their own spheres of influence on Chinese territory. 

So it’s not surprising that China’s leaders from Mao onward have been obsessed with keeping the country both whole and free from outside influence. That’s the focus of Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Harvard University Press), a new book by Sulmaan Wasif Khan, an assistant professor of international history and Chinese foreign relations at The Fletcher School. It’s a history that speaks to the China of today, an economic colossus flexing its muscles on the international stage.

“At a time when hopes and fears of China are fervent and ill-informed in equal measure, it is important to explore the calculus behind China’s decision-making, to attempt to see the world the way China’s leaders do,” Khan writes.

In fact, the grand strategy that Khan speaks of was never really spelled out as such, but has been implicit in its leaders’ actions, he says. And it began long before 1949. Mao and his fellow communist leaders were focused from the early 1930s in consolidating territory, making concessions where they made sense, temporarily accommodating enemies of the revolution like Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, all in an effort to secure their position as leaders of China. The civil war of the 1930s and the subsequent fight against the invading Japanese had but one goal for Mao: founding a united communist China.

“Getting the state was always the goal; what that state would be—its borders, its peoples—was open to adjustment,” Khan writes. Keeping the state whole—safe from foreigners “who would carve up China again if given the chance”—was a key element in the grand strategy.

With the triumph of the revolution in 1949, Mao set about snuffing out dissent inside the country while expanding control of outlying territories like Tibet, and built alliances around the world in an effort to keep potential foreign interference at a minimum.

Not everything went according to plan, of course, during Mao’s long reign (he ruled until his death in 1976). There were spats with neighboring communists in the USSR, self-inflicted damage in the Great Leap Forward—the disastrous effort to quickly industrialize the country—and the Cultural Revolution. That movement, with purges of educated Chinese, mass displacement, violence, and executions, was created by Mao in 1966, and nearly undid the grand strategy, as chaos threatened the country. “He was an old, confused man, who in his arrogance and confusion had unleashed forces that could not be easily stoppered again,” Khan writes.

With Mao’s death, his successor Hua Guofeng, previously a faceless bureaucrat, was able to quash the Cultural Revolution, sidelining the Communist Party leaders known as the Gang of Four who had helped lead it. He also paved the way for Deng Xioaping, a leader who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution, to return to power. Deng had the audacity to “seek truth from facts,” as the slogan went, and realized that securing China’s future meant modernizing its economy and military, which he accomplished in relatively short order.

Sulmaan Wasif KhanSulmaan Wasif Khan

Under Deng’s watch, reforms were widespread and the country recovered from the worst of the Mao era’s excesses. But the reforms were economic, not political—the Tiananmen Square massacre happened under Deng. “Reform and opening had been meant to protect the state,” Khan writes. “It had not been a prelude to democratization. He remained as convinced as ever that the state required stability, to which democracy was inimical.”

Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Juntao, quietly kept the ship of state going in the same direction, displaying “the virtue of dullness,” as Khan puts it. But China had grown from an economically and militarily weak country to be the region’s superpower by 2013 when Xi Jinping took power.

The paradox of the Xi era, Khan writes, is that “on the one hand, China has come of age as a great power and never been stronger or more fêted in recent memory; on the other, this is as insecure as it has felt since the late sixties”—perceiving economic and political threats from the U.S. and neighboring countries.

As Xi continues to consolidate power—he is general secretary of the Communist Party of China, president of the People’s Republic of China, and chairman of China’s Central Military Commission—he’s still following the game plan of China’s earlier leaders, according to Khan.

“Xi’s grand strategy differs from his predecessors’ in degree rather than kind,” said Khan. “It is more assertive, more muscular; there is a hustle, rooted in insecurity perhaps, to it. And since it is being pursued with China at its current weight and heft, what China perceives as defense can be seen as aggressive by the outside world.”

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