China’s Strategy of a Thousand Cuts

Although China proclaims its desire to have good relations with its neighbors, it is aggressively pursuing unilateral action on the disputes regarding the border with India in the Himalayas, and control of the Paracel and the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. After constructing a string of artificial islands, it is building deep-water ports, military-grade airstrips and strategic infrastructure to the alarm of its neighbors and the United States.

China’s greatest trading partner is the US, so one would imagine that it will generally be sympathetic to the US position in international conflicts. But WikiLeaks shows that whereas China presents a façade of being reasonable and responsible in its actions, it is actively supporting American adversaries in various theaters. China has supplied nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan and North Korea. Is there a deeper consistency to China’s actions?

The difference in the international dealings of US and China are a consequence of their different cultural styles. These styles get expressed not only at playfields but also in business, diplomacy and war. The Chinese style is based fundamentally on its imperial memory with its emphasis on ceremony, loyalty and the sense that it represents the center. This style is best represented by the Chinese board game weiqi, better known in the West by its Japanese name go.

The Game of Weiqi

Weiqi is played by two players who alternately place black and white stones on the vacant intersections of a grid of 19×19 lines. Once placed on the board, stones cannot be moved unless surrounded and captured by the opponent’s stones. This is a game of controlling territory and the object is to surround a larger portion of the board than the opponent. Groups of stones must have at least two open points to avoid capture and, therefore, placing them close together helps them support each other. Stones far apart create influence across more of the board and help occupy more territory. The strategic challenge of the game is to find a balance between conflicting interests of staying close for safety and going far to capture territory. It is the perfect game to learn imperial strategy.

In contrast, the game that captures the way West sees its sports and war is chess in which the players perform tactical maneuvers to attain winning material advantage or to mount a successful attack on the king. This can involve real sacrifice for the sake of victory. Although, primarily tactical, the game does have strategic elements that involve piece mobility, center control and pawn structure. The chess player maneuvers to force and consolidate a winning material advantage. The history of the West is about exploration and conquest. It has celebrated clear resolve and victory as in Caesar’s famous proclamation: “Alea iacta est,” or “the die is cast” when he crossed the Rubicon.

The Qianlong Emperor and Macartney

For many centuries China had little intercourse with other countries but after trade began European nations found their commercial relationships with China to be unsatisfactory. For the English, viewed as a nation of shopkeepers and traders by Adam Smith, trade was the key to their power and prosperity. In the 1790s, the British government of William Pitt the Younger wished to consolidate their power in India by cutting through the restrictions of the Canton trading system imposed by the Qianlong government on European merchants in 1760. George Macartney, colonial administrator of Madras and diplomat, was chosen as British envoy to the Qing Empire.

Once in China Macartney refused to kowtow and finally it was negotiated with the Chinese legatee that he could go down on one knee. The meeting itself went smoothly but Macartney was never able to negotiate business with the emperor or his representatives. In fact he was told that he should leave.

As Macartney’s embassy was leaving he was given a reply from the emperor for King George III. In this, amongst other matters, he was criticized for not following the court protocol: “I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of Our Celestial Empire.” He followed this by expressly denying the requests to open various ports to British ships, permission to establish a warehouse in Beijing, small island near Chusan for a warehouse, a site in the vicinity of Canton for the Navy, and permission to proselytize. In regard to permission to spread Christianity, the emperor added that the Jesuits “in my capital are forbidden to hold intercourse with Chinese subjects; they are restricted within the limits of their appointed residences, and may not go about propagating their religion. The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict and your Ambassador’s request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable.” The failure of the Macartney mission was determined by conflicting cosmologies of China and Europe.

In his memoirs, Macartney wrote about the poor quality of life for the Chinese under Qing rule. He realized that the Qing state faced fundamental structural problems. He wrote: “The Government, as it stands, is properly the tyranny of a handful of Tatars [Manchu] over more than three hundred millions of Chinese.” He also foresaw a serious internal challenge to the power of the Qing China: “The frequent insurrections in the distant provinces are ambiguous oracles of the real sentiments of the people. The predominance of the Tartars and the Emperor’s partiality for them are the common subjects of conversation among the Chinese whenever they meet together in private. There are certain mysterious societies in every province, who, though narrowly watched by the Government, find means to elude its vigilance, and often hold secret assemblies, where they revive the memory of ancient independence, brood over recent injuries, and meditate revenge.” The Taiping, Nien, and the Boxer Rebellions were to follow in the next several decades and the last Qing emperor abdicated in 1912.

Weiqi and the Strategy of a Thousand Cuts

If we see the encounter between China and Macartney through the lens of weiqi, England was a small country in a faraway place that did not deserve any investment of the court’s energy. Modern China may be viewed as a restoration of the Qing Empire, with the difference that the court has been replaced by the Communist Party.

Weiqi is profoundly strategic, but with incisive and complex tactics. The game proceeds with the players trying to balance conflicting and yet complementary objectives of territorial acquisition, projecting “influence”, maintaining access to the center, and attack and defense. The tactics used in the game involve diversions and pincer and broader attacks and sacrifices. In weiqi, the consolidation of territorial borders takes place between safe opposing armies.

If chess is about decisive victory by vanquishing the enemy by taking the fight to the place where the king is located, weiqi is about consolidation of territory. This is the reason that the Qing emperors were busy fighting to keep the empire together, rather than advancing it elsewhere.

If Europe emphasizes conquest, for China, the Middle Kingdom, the focus is on consolidation of its power. This difference between the styles of chess and weiqi explains Chinese history and why the Chinese did not go out to explore and conquer other nations. Another aspect of weiqi is a relentless pursuit of strategic gain, which may be called lingchi, or the strategy of a thousand cuts. The term lingchi derives from the notion of ascending a mountain slowly, where one requires a thousand small steps to reach the top.

Beijing’s warnings on economic consequences for those who challenge its political orthodoxies are consistent with the weiqi style. The punishment to those who don’t heed the warning comes in a thousand forms. China’s relentless pressure on Taiwan for reunification in fulfillment of its imperial vision is not only in terms of missiles fired across it on multiple occasions but constant shrinkage of its diplomatic space. Chinese doles out punishment to those who welcome the Dalai Lama. Even Barack Obama met with Dalai Lama not in his office or in public but in the basement, and the Lama had to leave through the backdoor of the White House.

The Gathering Pushback

Without knowing the weiqi style, most people will not understand that the Chinese don’t want to settle border or trade disputes. They want to keep them active to use as leverage against adversaries, and to this is added a litany of historical grievances and how their honor has been violated. A similar bullying is used be the Chinese government to deny democratic rights to its own people.

By making the weiqi style the foundation of their relationship with neighbors and potential trade partners, China has ended up alienating nearly everyone. For some time their style was seen as one of the inscrutable ways of the East, but by now the world has caught on and one can only expect there will be serious pushback on many fronts.


This is adapted from a chapter in my book The Loom of Time, DK Printworld, New Delhi (2016).



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