The Role of Traditional Chinese Culture in CCP Policy

Posted on Thursday, August 11, 2016 by Project2049Institute

(source: - The Party by Richard McGregor)

An Interview with Richard McGregor
By Jacob Larsen

In recent years, Secretary General of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping placed new emphasis on traditional Chinese culture, specifically on the teachings of Confucius. On September 24th, 2014, during remarks made on the 2,565 anniversary of Confucius' birth, Xi Jinping called Chinese Communist Party (CCP) neither "historical nihilists, nor cultural nihilists" as he made the case for utilizing Confucius teaching in society, self-education, and governance. Xi's high profile speech emphasized Confucius' central role as the "soul of the nation" stating that neither a country nor a nation will be able to stand on its own if it loses its soul. This shift towards traditional culture in general and Confucius specifically, a figure the CCP previously reviled, may signal broader changes within the Chinese government.

Against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea over historical claims and struggles for legitimacy on the Chinese mainland, Richard McGregor, author of The Party and a visiting Research Fellow at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at The George Washington University, discusses the role of traditional Chinese culture in the Chinese Communist Party.

How does the Chinese Communist Party utilize certain aspects of traditional Chinese Culture for its own means?

I think the use of traditional Chinese culture by the Party is, relatively speaking, pretty recent. In the early decades of the party's rule-post 1949, under chairman Mao, they openly and aggressively trashed traditional Chinese culture. There's a number of obvious manifestations of that, most obvious is the denigration of Confucius, who was attacked by Mao very explicitly. In addition, there's the physical degradation of traditional or ancient China during the Cultural Revolution when people would seek out old artifacts and smash them in an attempt to create a blank slate for Chinese Communist values to build on. The ancient city walls surrounding Beijing and other cities like Xi'an were pulled down and destroyed. I think the restoration you see these days of traditional Chinese culture has three aspects to it: First, is it's post ideological. In other words, if communism as an ideology doesn't work out, then you have to find something else to do the job. The second aspect of it is a search to find some values. Traditional Chinese culture and philosophy is obviously not a single line, but it has certain values of respect and hierarchy and the like that can be used by the Party. Third, it's a real thing. They're not making up traditional Chinese culture, and history exists, and the Party is probably smart enough to try and enlist that for itself.

What does Xi Jinping's recent emphasis on Confucian values indicate about the future of the CCP? Is it a bid for legitimacy?

The important thing to remember about the CCP is that everything should be brought under its wing. They would have no alternative centers of power, so all of history is sort of rewritten to fit their template. And I think that traditional culture is like that as well. Certainly Xi Jinping himself used to like traditional Chinese poetry when he was young. He suffered in the Cultural Revolution and saw traditional Chinese culture attacked, so I think for him it's quite possible it might be a genuine, heartfelt, long overdue restoration. In terms of values, there's a big debate about whether Confucius provides a ground for activism, to challenge rulers, or whether he is in fact a passive philosophy where you submit to hierarchy. In my opinion, there is no doubt that Xi Jinping would see the latter, or the Communist Party would see the latter. The value is that it offers some a type of foundation and ballast to the Communist Party which it has to rebuild without Communist ideology.

In relation to the idea of the CCP using whatever it has to bolster its own legitimacy, is it a misconception that Chinese culture is more susceptible to autocratic rule than other nations?

That's a difficult and massive question, and I'm not sure whether I have a complete answer.  Look at Russia for example, some people say that its history lends itself to autocratic rule. China certainly has a lot of cruelty in its history and not a lot of idealism in there. If you look at some of the films that came out once China started to open up, there's the famous film called Raise the Red Lantern where traditional Chinese culture just dishes out the punishment. I don't know whether I could say that China is more susceptible [to autocratic rule] than other nations, but it certainly is susceptible to autocratic rule, and has been exploited as such for a long time. But remember there are strands of Chinese culture: Confucianism and legalism, is much more susceptible within Chinese cultural parameters to autocratic rule. You want to be careful about considering Chinese culture as a monolith. But, aspects of it, undoubtedly, have been used for autocratic rule over centuries.

Do you think that the Chinese Communist Party's turn towards traditional Chinese culture in efforts to strengthen their own legitimacy is an indicator of a crisis within the country? within the party? or a loss of foundation?

Whenever you read about China, it's always in one crisis or another. It's like what people used to write about Japan.  Japan was always at some turning point, but it turned out that Japan was stuck at the same crossroads for 30 years or so. It certainly could be a crisis. It's very hard to predict with China, we don't really know what's going to happen there, but if it is a crisis I think you can expect that the Chinese Communist Party is very alert to it. They have a massive apparatus for building up their legitimacy through the rewriting of history, a massive apparatus to restore Chinese culture, as well as the permitting and then promoting of Confucius. If you go to Confucius' hometown in Qufu, a lot of money is being spent. I think the Party does have a major issue in maintaining legitimacy, but what I think is underestimated is that they're on to it in a big way in terms of staying ahead of the problem. They may be one inch ahead of the curve or a lot further ahead of the curve, but I think the big thing they have going for them is that for Chinese people a lot of old Chinese culture is very attractive to them, and if the Communist Party can kind of cloak itself, wrap the flag of Chinese culture around them, then that's a pretty potent weapon.

To what degree do you see traditional Chinese culture being used by the CCP to justify its foreign policy with respect to security in the East Asian region?

I don't think it has much to do directly with foreign policy, this is mainly domestic policy. If you're building, as they are, this sort of entire edifice, an entire history of the 'China Dream' then I think if at the same time you've got these territorial claims - as outlandish as they might look to you and me - I think protecting them becomes part of that. For example, take the South China Sea. The Nine Dash Line is debated internationally with a lot of people pointing out how ridiculous the claim is. If you go to China, most people, even so called "liberal friends" would say, 'What are you talking about, of course it's ours. Just go away.' There's no doubt among most Chinese. Because of propaganda they believe it's theirs. So if you want to knit it all together I think there is a connection, but I think the main focus of rebuilding and repossessing Chinese culture for the Communist Party is domestic in nature.

Jacob Larson will be attending The College of William and Mary and participated in a mentorship at The Project 2049 Institute. 

Taiwan’s Future Submarine Program: A Deep Dive

Posted on Monday, August 8, 2016 by Project2049Institute

(Source: The Project 2049 Institute)
Watch a video of the conference here.
By Julia Bowie and Baldwin Mei

The People's Republic of China (PRC) has embarked upon a military modernization program that is prompting increasing naval buildups in the Asia-Pacific region. Submarines are of particular interest. Like other defense establishments in the region, the Republic of China's (ROC, referred to as Taiwan) Navy has a long standing, legitimate requirement for a fleet of diesel electric submarines that could provide a credible and survivable deterrent against the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Thus strengthening Taiwan's strategic position in any potential cross-Strait political negotiations and in the region at large. Though U.S. support for Taiwan's submarine program has long been a contentious subject, recent developments in Taiwan's indigenous program could herald in a new wave of cooperation.

Expert Conference on Taiwan’s Submarine Program

On December 1st, 2015, the Project 2049 Institute hosted a conference titled "
A Deep Dive: Taiwan's Future Submarine Program." One presentation highlighted the complex nature of Taiwan’s submarine program and the reasons why an agreement between the U.S. and Taiwan has failed to move forward. In addition, a panel of experts discussed Taiwan's submarine program in relation to the PLA's force modernization and Taiwan's defense strategy, and identified key policy goals for U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The panelists agreed that a Taiwan submarine program would play a key role in the defense of the island, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the PLA's coercion tactics. This would have an important strategic effect on regional security.

Given Taiwan’s important role in regional
security dynamics and strategic positioning in the first island Chain, any use of force against Taiwan would alarm other countries and thus destabilize the Asia-Pacific. A Taiwan submarine program would support regional peace and stability by providing Taiwan with a credible deterrent, and help to achieve a more stable cross-Strait balance.

With regards to U.S. support, the experts agreed that the U.S. has a role to play in Taiwan’s submarine program and that the U.S. should work to support the design and building of submarines in Taiwan. There are many ways the U.S. can become involved in a “low key” fashion-- through technical assistance, engineering, and technology transfer. As a first step, the U.S. government should license the domestic defense industry to contribute to the submarine program through program management, technical assistance, and direct commercial sales of submarine systems and components.

The Necessity of Submarines for Taiwan’s Defense and Maintaining Regional Stability

Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) has identified submarines as a priority for territorial defense, and has sought to acquire a fleet of 8-12 diesel electric submarines since 1969. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, the U.S. is committed to provide Taiwan with necessary defense articles and services. Based upon the initial findings of two U.S.
assessment teams sent to Taiwan to evaluate its naval modernization requirements, the Bush administration agreed to assist Taiwan in its acquisition of submarines in 2001. However, complications have hampered the program until today, prompting Taiwan to invest and build its indigenous submarine program.

The ROC Navy currently possesses four submarines, however two out of four of those vessels are outdated and cannot meet the requirements of modern warfare. Though recent
life extension programs (LEP) were awarded in April 2016, the LEP's do not address operational requirements nor does it account for future combat environmental factors. Given the fact that most other regional maritime powers have expanded their submarine fleets, a new Taiwan submarine program is necessary to ensure Taiwan’s undersea warfare capabilities.

In addition to aiding Taiwan’s defense capabilities, the submarine program would also have an impact on Taiwan’s long-term peacetime competition with the PRC. Competitive strategies seek to induce a country’s competitor to devote more resources to capabilities that the country views as unthreatening. A new Taiwan submarine program may stoke longstanding
PRC fears of an island chain blockade, inducing China to devote greater resources to anti-submarine warfare (ASW). This may be beneficial, as strong ASW capability is difficult and expensive to develop, and is an area of long-running PLA organizational and technological weakness.

Complications for U.S.-Taiwan Submarine Program Cooperation

Over the years, complications on both sides have delayed progress for the U.S. and Taiwan to cooperate on the submarine program

Political considerations and U.S.-China relations: Even though the submarine programs of many other countries are considered defensive, in the past, the U.S. avoided selling submarines to Taiwan or cooperating with Taiwan on its submarine program because it considered Taiwan’s submarines offensive. Since then, pursuing a stable and constructive relationship with the PRC, which vehemently opposes arms sales and defense cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, has affected U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Increased prioritization of the U.S.-China relationship limits the flexibility with which the U.S. can cooperate with Taiwan.

Domestic debates on Taiwan: Initially there was debate on Taiwan about whether to pursue a submarine sale through foreign military sales (FMS) channels or defense commercial sales (DCS). An FMS requires the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)to work through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to contract with U.S. defense industrial companies and the Taiwanese defense ministry, whereas, a DCS, requires the two defense departments to work together directly. This debate long stalled progress on the program. Furthermore, there were significant Taiwanese domestic interest groups that wanted Taiwan’s domestic defense industry to undertake construction of the submarines. Eventually, with consensus between KMT and DPP,
Taiwan declared an indigenous submarine program in 2014.

Perceived cost effectiveness (in U.S.): The disparity in defense investments across the Strait has led to the consideration of the opportunity cost of the submarine program within the United States. Since Taiwan’s military expenditure is low, a number of U.S. analysts have suggested that the funds for Taiwan’s submarine program could be best allocated to improving other defense capabilities. Within Taiwan, however, there is no debate about whether or not a submarine program is necessary, but rather how the submarine program should be pursued.

U.S. operational considerations: The U.S. is concerned about the
water space management issues that could arise by having more Taiwanese submarines in the region. However, the U.S. has resolved those concerns with other countries and could do so with Taiwan as well.

Indigenous Developments

In 2016, progress has been made in Taiwan’s submarine program, with a
$12.35 million LEP approved for Taiwan’s two Hai Lung (Zwaardvis) class submarines. Designed to keep the units operationally effective for an additional 15 years, the LEP will likely include hull, mechanical and electrical upgrades, updates to the electronic support measures and combat systems, and replacement of legacy technologies with more modern alternatives for sustainability. The contract was awarded to two unnamed European companies, with the Ship and Ocean Industries Research and Development Center also serving a major role in the project. Due to Taiwan’s lack of prior submarine building expertise, it is expected that European or American technical assistance will be brought in to aid the program. This can be seen as a prelude to Taiwan’s indigenous development efforts, providing Taiwan’s R&D personnel to get firsthand experience with key submarine systems before developing their own.

In addition to the LEP, Taiwan has also begun the
design process for its own indigenous submarine. Vice Admiral Mei Chia-Shu stated that the design process is expected to be finished by 2019 and the first submarine constructed by 2024, with a total program budget of $3 billion NT ($93.5 million). According to a report received by Kyodo News, the presumptive construction company CSBC Corp Taiwan will need significant foreign assistance during the construction process in key areas such as the turbine, motor, combat, and hull systems. This claim is reinforced by similar comments made by Admiral Pu Tze-Chun and CSBC’s recent establishment of a submarine development center to support the submarine program. However, significant outside political and economic pressure (primarily from the PRC) is stalling the search for potential foreign aid.


Taiwan has a legitimate, long-standing requirement for a modern fleet of diesel electric submarines. With the first stages of the indigenous submarine program underway, experts agree that the time is ripe for the U.S. to provide assistance to this groundbreaking program. Additionally, the TRA requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with military articles and services based on military judgments alone rather than political considerations. Therefore,
the U.S. should not allow Beijing to co-manage how it relates to Taiwan in terms of their defense needs. As such, the U.S. should offer fair considerations to export licenses and technical assistance with regards to Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program and grant the necessary export licenses based on well defined criteria rather than other, intangible factors.

Julia Bowie is a Master's candidate at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Baldwin Mei is a rising senior at Cornell University majoring in physics and minoring in operations research and history. Julia and Baldwin are former interns at the Project 2049 Institute.

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