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The 36 stratagems

The 36 Stratagems is an ancient Chinese text. Like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, it is a guide on military tactics. The 36 Strategems teaches us that deception is how to win a war.

Supposedly, anyone in China (or raised in a Chinese household) would know this. Chinese children learn the 36 Stratagems the way American kids recite nursery rhymes. Every Chinese person knows that beat the grass to startle the snake means to stir up trouble before asserting your true interest.

If this is all true then my parents have failed. I have only recently discovered The 36 Stratagems. They explain so much about Xi Jinping and his attacks on Hong Kong.

Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul

#14 of the Stratagems is an attack strategy. If a tactic (like a Trojan horse) worked in the past, why not try it again?

Take an institution, a technology, a method, or even an ideology that has been forgotten or discarded and appropriate it for your own purposes. Revive something from the past or bring to life old ideas, customs, or traditions and reinterpret them to your advantage.

Davia Temin, “Ancient Wisdom for the The New Year: The 36 Chinese Stratagems for Psychological Warfare” in Forbes, 2 Jan 2017
Confucian stratagems
Confucius, San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Take Confucianism. In the days of the dynasties, emperors used Confucian principles of duty to keep an unruly population under control. Then Mao called Confucius one of the Four Olds to be eradicated during the Cultural Revolution.

Xi Jinping has chosen to revive Confucianism for his own particular purposes.

Xi’s version of Confucianism emphasises hierarchy, obeying authority and the maintenance of stability. Xi’s emphasis on Confucius’ teachings is part of his project to consolidate his leadership and engineer a population that sees him as their teacher and leader.

Kate Clayton, “Confucius technology and power consolidation under Xi Jinping” in The China Story, 3 July 2020

In Hong Kong, Xi cannot rely on such an indirect approach. His stratagems include muzzling the independent media and arresting the opposition. These are tactics that worked for Mao, repurposed for the age of Xi Jinping.

Hide a knife behind a smile

One-sixth of the 36 Stratagems focuses on the enemy. #10 advises you to charm and ingratiate yourself with the enemy before slipping the knife between his ribs.

Last summer, Beijing sought and received support for its new National Security Law before imposing it on Hong Kong. It consulted with pro-mainland legislators, business tycoons and advisors to the Hong Kong executive council. As Xi knew,

even totalitarian states rely on the consent of their citizens, especially those who make up the regime’s “pillars of support”—bureaucrats, business leaders, loyalist media, and so on.

Andrew Marantz, “The Anti-Coup” in The New Yorker, 23 Nov 2020

This month, Xi dispensed with such niceties. Beijing did not consult with loyalist politicians like Regina Ip about Hong Kong’s sweeping election reforms. The new Beijing system will award seats in the Hong Kong Legislative Council to patriots.

“[Carrie Lam] will govern day to day, but the office is like a big brother with his arm around her shoulder,” one government official said.

Primrose Riordan and Nicolle Liu, “China turns its back on Hong Kong loyalists” in Financial Times, 7 Mar 2021

Long-time China observer Louisa Lim tweets: We are back to the colonial days when the governor appointed legislative committee members. Just a different sovereign this time.

Loot a burning house

Tibet stratagems
Tibet: Colonialism with Chinese Characteristics, The Little Red Podcast, 24 Feb 2021

The pandemic has offered unexpected benefits to Xi in his drive to control. While the world struggles to quench the fire called Covid-19, Xi loots a burning house. He is ethnically cleansing Xinjiang province of its pesky Uyghur population. He has colonized Tibet. The world notices Xi’s actions but takes little to no action.

To loot a burning house is to attack an enemy when he has his own problems to deal with. Beijing used Covid-19 as its excuse to cancel legislative elections last September. Those elections have still not taken place.

A fine corollary to looting a burning house is #12: take the opportunity to pilfer a goat. By postponing the elections, Beijing has saved itself the headache of a formally elected opposition. It has gained time to disqualify many of the would-be candidates for being insufficiently loyal to Beijing. Win, win.

But these stratagems smack of opportunism. Whereas Xi is the kind of guy who plans ahead. What is his long-term goal with Hong Kong?

Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree

When Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher negotiated the Hong Kong handover, we thought Hong Kong would be safe. It was, after all, the goose that lay the golden eggs. Beijing would never risk Hong Kong’s status as a financial center. It turns out Hong Kong isn’t a goose at all. It’s a plum tree about to be axed.

This seems like quite a price to pay. But Xi is willing to brave a diplomatic row over Hong Kong, conscious of his failures at home. He has not eradicated poverty as promised. Corruption has worsened despite Xi’s aggressive campaigns. His signature Belt and Road Initiative founders. Xi needs a win.

A military conquest always looks good on TV. Taiwan would be quite the coup. But the risk of failure is high, too. It’s possible that not even Xi could survive such a loss of face. And so all eyes turn to Hong Kong.

The lower-hanging fruit is to bring Hong Kong back into Beijing’s fold: China’s president is plucking away at that one.

Yi-zheng Lian, “Why is Xi so hard on Hong Kong?” in The New York Times, international edition, 3 Mar 2021

Decorate a dead tree with silk blossoms

In the West, we call it putting lipstick on a pig. In The 36 Stratagems, the idea is to re-frame the discussion. Xi tweaks common UN phrases ⏤ democracy, socialism and human rights ⏤ to give them Chinese characteristics. Take, for example, the Hong Kong National Security Law or the re-education camps in Xinjiang: both hailed as good governance.

Public order, social stability – i.e. the absence of protests – and provision of economic growth are seen as key benchmarks of success. The strong emphasis on the higher common goods of public order and security means that even laws that heavily restrict civil liberties are seen as important pillars of good governance.

Katja Drinhausen, “Good Governance” in The Decoding China Dictionary (Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Mar 2021)
Tree stratagems

There must be a purpose to all these stratagems. It could be personal aggrandizement though I don’t believe that’s the case. Hong Kong plus Xinjiang plus Tibet add up to a larger picture. It is the vision of the Chinese Dream, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Xi wants to reinstate ancient borders and catapult China into the center of global power. His aim is to transforming China into a modern-day Middle Kingdom. If the price to pay is Hong Kong, so be it.

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