I am not a Chinese culture, language, of history specialist. I am an observer of Chinese behavior and a proponent of recognizing narrative war as the active philosophy of war at the present. As I observe the actions taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the last several years, its emphasis on and adherence to what I label narrative war is clear and those who do not understand narrative war often misinterpret CCP actions and motivations.
Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a Massachusetts congressman (1953-1987) and former U.S. Speaker of House (1977-1987), reportedly used the phrase “all politics are local” in his first political campaign in 1935. He is famous for this saying though it didn’t originate with him. Tip O’Neill was correct, all politics are local. It is also true that all foreign policy is local. National security decisions have much more to do with domestic politics and the internal narrative of a nation than anything happening outside the nation. The idea that all foreign policy is local (or domestic) is important in a proper appreciation in why one needs to understand the narratives of each nation and particularly those nations or states with which a country may be considering conflict.
That means, to understand a conflict with China, one must understand China’s narrative and the story of the current CCP leadership with respect to that narrative.
What is the Chinese Narrative? (Very Briefly Described)
When I took a film class as a college undergraduate, I was told that every film has a theme that can be stated in one or two sentences. I think that is true. I also think that every national narrative can also be expressed in one or two sentences. Here is my expression of the Chinese narrative as desired by the CCP.
China is the Middle Kingdom.
For most American readers that statement may seem overly simple and possibly confusing. What does the “Middle Kingdom” even mean, a reader might ask. The concept of Middle Kingdom in my words is that China is the belly button of the world. The source of all harmony and fortune and the place through which, from which, and to which all good things should flow. This is overplaying it a bit, but the CCP sees China as occupying the supreme and central position in the world and all nations, states, and international organizations should defer to it and its conceptions of the world order. This doesn’t mean that all nations must be subservient to China as powerful nations will not be, but all nations, even the most powerful ones, should acknowledge the Chinese position of preeminence.
For those thinking this is overly arrogant, consider that since World War II, the United States has in some measure behaved this way. It set the world order. It established the United Nations, first as an alliance against the Axis Powers in World War II and then as a global body. It established or coordinated with other like-minded states to form legal codes defining humanitarian behavior, financial interactions, and global commerce. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact that expresses a part of why China rejects so profoundly this American (and Western) established order and feels that the world needs to be placed back in harmony by reestablishing China as the Middle Kingdom.
In a 1988 article, a Chinese political influencer and future power behind the throne, Wang Huning, wrote a profound piece titled in English, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture.” I will reference this article a bit as I believe that Wang captures the heart of the Chinese narrative war strategy behind what we see in the world.
In his article, Wang identified a fundamental problem in China. I ask you to remember that this was written in 1988. Matthew Johnson, a scholar writing an introduction to the English translation of the article summarizes Wang’s thoughts this way:
“Wang’s argument is simple: it is a society’s cultural factors (rather than its economic organization) that create its politics. Changes in what Wang calls social “software” – values, feelings, psychology, and attitudes – can therefore shape a society’s political future. … Wang has a solution: to rapidly “re-engineer” and renew China’s political culture by purifying the traditional, modern, and Marxist-socialist structures that still remain, and build a unified “synchronic” political culture on top of these. As China’s population becomes more widely exposed to the process of political socialization, he implies, a new value system will begin to more fully emerge.”
Wang argues in his article that Western and Chinese social software are in direct opposition. They are not the same and they do not pursue the same objectives. He characterizes Western political culture as placing emphasis on external regulation whereas Chinese culture places emphasis on “virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness, loyalty, filial piety, brotherly love, forgiveness, and courage, rites and sacrifices, such as those to the heaven, the earth, the ruler, ancestors, and teachers, and Neo-Confucian formulae like “aligning affairs, extending understanding, making intentions genuine, balancing the mind, refining one’s person, aligning one’s household, ordering the state, setting the world at peace," which emphasize the unity of heaven and man and the objective of becoming an “inner sage” and an “outer king.” That sounds wonderful until one understands what that means.
Chinese culture places emphasis on social harmony. Anything unharmonious needs to be corrected such that harmony resumes. This statement should cause one to reflect on the significance of the Chinese social credit system. This is a collective form of societal control that rewards those who do things that promote harmony and chastises (my word) those, and their family and social connections, who promote disharmony. Thus, if a person posts something that harms the harmony of the state, consider this as expressed in the form of the CCP, those people lose status in their social credit and so will all those connected to them. This will affect credit, the ability to make reservations for services, and a host of other business, recreational, and basic life functions. All done in the name of harmony. It sounds great in the expression of Wang but sounds eerily Orwellian in my explanation.
In 1988, Wang identified the primary problem for China was the disruption and disintegration of Chinese culture by the interaction with Western culture. He recommended in his paper emphasis on reintegration of the culture. There needed to be one Chinese culture. In my words, one, and only one, Chinese narrative. My argument is that what we observe in China’s actions with the world since the elevation of Xi Jinping to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 is an effort by the CCP to enforce an integrated Chinese narrative across the entirety of the Chinese population.
Wang recognized that the effort he recommended was the creation of a new narrative or at least a modification of the then prevailing route of the current narrative into a new narrative based on the “original” or older societal narrative. Wang says it this way by using the phrase value system rather than my use of narrative: “… the most urgent task in the transformation of Chinese political culture is to form a new value system. We of course cannot conjure this value system out of thin air; on the one hand, it must accord with objective political, economic and cultural developments, and on the other, it must promote a higher-level cultural and spiritual atmosphere that will contribute to the objective development process. Only when the new value system is established and fully socialized will the situation we have been discussing finally change.”
That singular and integrated narrative is ethnocentric. Yes, China is the Middle Kingdom, but that Middle Kingdom is Han Chinese. Thus, there is no such thing as a Uyghur or a Hong-Konger, or a person of Shanghai, or a Taiwanese. They are all Han Chinese under CCP control. If such a person thinks or acts like they are not Han Chinese then that person, group of people, or population is treated as if they are outside the norm – ignorant or crazy and therefore dangerous to the harmony of the state. They need to be reeducated, corrected, punished, or controlled.
From this perspective, there is no genocide in Xinjiang, China as there is no identity of Uyghur to be removed or destroyed. These are simply confused people who need to be properly educated or they are dangerous rebels who need to be punished. I am not justifying CCP behavior. This isn’t a judgment on the morality of their actions. This is an explanation of the thinking behind those actions.
The suppression of Hong Kong protests that began in 2019 was another expression of this emphasis on enforcing a common narrative. I argue that the locking down of Shanghai in 2022 and Beijing and other major cities across China under a zero COVID policy had and has nothing to do with COVID-19, but was and is an expression of CCP power to define, enforce, and control the narrative. Everyone has to be in harmony with that narrative or they will be punished.
Thos who believe that the CCP will cease to do this when sufficient economic pain begins are wrong. Xi Jinping and possibly many other CCP leaders are fully committed to this integrated Chinese narrative, and they are willing to do EVERYTHING necessary to establish such an integrated narrative.
For those who believe efforts to achieve this integrated narrative will fail, I simply say wait and see. I believe that we will see how much pain and violence is necessary to establish a common narrative across 1.4 billion people. I believe that it will take significant pain and violence, but the CCP was willing to allow tens of millions to die in pursuit of previous narrative efforts including Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is unclear how many Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and residents of major Chinese cities have died since Xi Jinping came to power in pursuit of these efforts. Don’t ever count out those who have the power of life and death and are willing to use it.
How is the Narrative Being Shaped and Promulgated
For those who read this and wonder why this matters to you. I think that is a good question. Other than the ongoing humanitarian tragedy resulting from the current Chinese narrative war that compels an integrated singular narrative on its own massive population, I believe that there are three reasons why this should matter to the rest of the world.
A narrative is how a person or country makes meaning of the world. A story is how that person or country expresses that narrative to itself or others. China is the Middle Kingdom and the CCP is expressing that by convincing the world that it is the indispensable nation. All the world is connected to China and all benefits come from or through China.
The CCP Belt and Road Initiative or the One Belt and One Road Initiative is a way that China is enacting its story in the world. It is connecting the world (or the world that matters anyway) to itself.
Because a narrative is often unconsciously understood, it is often enacted without consciousness regarding how people develop stories or messages. In that sense, an actor in the world that expresses his or her story may be doing so in a way that appears duplicitous or deceitful but can be justified in the mind of the actor as necessary, honest, and valuable. I am not saying that every time a CCP official lies in making a promise or a statement that this is somehow an honest mistake or misperception. In some cases, it is an outright lie, but that lie is being given (from the mind of the speaker) to establish a proper global harmony. In a way, this can be understood as an end justifies the means type of argument.
Taiwan is the most obvious way that the CCP enacts its narrative in the world. Taiwan is part of China and is Han Chinese. There is no such thing as Taiwanese. Claims to being independent are responded to as if the CCP is a parent dealing with a rebellious teenager. As of the time of writing this (August 2022), the most recent punishments of Taiwan come in retaliation for the Taiwanese government welcoming and hosting the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives. Such a welcome was perceived as nothing more than pointless lashing out at the Middle Kingdom’s authority and economic, military, and social sanctions began during and immediately following the visit.
The best expressions of CCP story promulgation came in the 2008 and 2022 Olympics hosted by the CCP. These events communicated the message of China as the Middle Kingdom to which the world came and from which harmony flowed. The particular message of the 2022 Olympics was that China was the only country capable of gathering the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence of CCP success in this narrative is that American-born freestyle skier, Eileen Gu, competed and won a gold medal for China during the Olympic competition. By her actions, she communicated that prestigious athletes in America see China as the Middle Kingdom.
The CCP has been successful in coopting a variety of influential spokespeople for the Middle Kingdom narrative even if it is never spoken this way. One example is the National Basketball Association that has lucrative business contracts with the CCP. In 2019, the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted out “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The general manager effectively apologized and the NBA made numerous statements kowtowing to CCP authorities. The Houston Rockets were the most popular team in China because of their former player and Chinese great Yao Ming. The business connections forced a major American entertainment industry to change its behavior and perspective on free expression because of recognition that China is the Middle Kingdom.
In 2021, John Cena, one of the stars of the Fast and the Furious films, F9, referred to Taiwan as a country during promotions for the movie. For the effrontery of challenging the CCP narrative, John Cena issued a 68 second apology in Mandarin Chinese where he regularly said that he was sorry. In effect, he had to reestablish that China was the Middle Kingdom. John Cena was a professional wrestler and, in many ways, perceived as an icon of American masculinity and even he acknowledged China in its proper global position.
There are numerus other anecdotes of major American entertainment figures, politicians, and thought leaders acknowledging the greatness of China and, in effect, declaring it as the Middle Kingdom.
I make no distinction between Chinese business and the CCP for several reasons. One, most large corporations in China are at least in part owned by senior CCP officials. Two, most, if not all, corporations that function in China do so at the behest of the CCP and therefore guidance and direction come from the CCP when deemed necessary and that guidance and direction is followed. Three, the social controls previously referenced as part of the social credit system mean that even if a business had no CCP ownership and received no direct guidance, its senior officials would still be controlled through the social credit system and under the direction of the CCP. In short, there is no such thing as an independent company or industry in China.
China has become a direct challenge to the U.S. film industry. Chinese made films often gross in the hundreds of millions of dollars and ninety percent or more of those earnings often come from Chinese audiences alone. These films communicate to us the CCP story. I want to reference one specific film though I believe that these ideas are present in most of the other big budget Chinese produced films. The film that I want to discuss is the 2015 film Wolf Warrior. This film was not as financially successful as its successor Wolf Warrior II, but I believe that its expression of the CCP story is much more simply given.
The main character is a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) special forces sniper who, at the beginning of the film kills the brother of a powerful drug lord. The main character is subsequently welcomed into the elite opposing force for the PLA training center called Wolf Warriors. The drug lord sends a mercenary team lead by a navy SEAL into the training center to find and kill the sniper. We are told multiple times that the mercenaries fight for money. Once it is clear that the mercenaries are killing PLA soldiers in the training center the Wolf Warriors are given live ammunition and they replace the unit patch on their shoulder with the Chinese flag with the phrase “I fight for China” written under it in English letters. During the fighting, the PLA soldiers risk their lives to save wounded leaders and they sacrifice their lives in pursuit of the enemy.
This is a B action movie analogous to the Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Sylvester Stallone movies of the 1980s. Despite its lack of cinematic profundity, the film is tremendously valuable in understanding the CCP story. What are the major messages that the CCP want the Han Chinese people to know?
It may seem simplistic to say that a film is the expression of the CCP story, but I think that successful films regularly express the story of a society. Other popular Chinese films reinforce these same messages. The most successful Chinese films during the COVID-19 pandemic have been a series on the Korean War and the enemy is an evil, depraved, and weak American military that was driven out of Korea by the valiant and honorable soldiers of China.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the films relay historical reality. Films often convey metaphorical truth. In the case of the movies referenced, it is a truth of the relative positions of America and China in the world and of the honor, power, and capability of China to be the Middle Kingdom.
Narrative isn’t just about words and stories. It is about understanding the narrative space terrain on which one operates. Who are we and who is our opponent? What is our narrative? What is their narrative?
China’s narrative war isn’t limited to the military and its efforts in cyberspace aren’t limited to actions against corporate America to steal intellectual property. China is reshaping its people to have a common integrated narrative across more than a fifth of the global population. This is a herculean effort that may succeed through Orwellian excess.
For all those who promote the endeavor to have a common American narrative through some form of compelled speech or coerced thought I ask you to observe what China has and is doing and note that the only way to achieve such ends is through massive amounts of government power and government expressed violence.
The CCP is waging a seventy-year war to change the American narrative space terrain. It has been successful in achieving some significant gains as it controls the speech and maybe the thoughts of popular athletes, prominent business leaders, and much of the American culture. I haven’t even mentioned Tik-Tok and the purposeful efforts of that platform to transform a generation of Americans in thought and action. This is serious stuff, and we must be aware. War with the CCP isn’t about aircraft carriers, submarines, and bombers. It is about thought, speech, and action inside the United States of America and every other country on Earth. All national security policy is local.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,