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'Win Without Fighting': The Chinese Communist Party's Political and Institutional Warfare Against the West
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is applauded by members of his government as he arrives for the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is applauded by members of his government as he arrives for the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

'Win Without Fighting': The Chinese Communist Party's Political and Institutional Warfare Against the West

John Lee & Lavina Lee

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When compared to Western forms of diplomatic conversation and strategic discussion, phrases emanating from Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can appear peculiar, platitudinous, and so ambiguous as to be devoid of practical content. China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping speaks frequently about a ‘community of shared future,’ a ‘common destiny for mankind’ as part of his ‘China dream,’ or of his country’s ‘rejuvenation.’ He promises to pursue and achieve a ‘new type of great-power relations’ with the United States that will ‘expand the converging interests of all and build a big global family of harmony and cooperation.’

Yielding to the temptation to dismiss these phrases as glib and meaningless or as empty promises to the world would be a serious mistake. Emerging as the victorious side after the world was reshaped in the aftermath of the Second World War, and, more recently, the formal end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies have generally enjoyed dominance in all forms of power. The challenge and threat of China is largely understood in the context of its increase in material power, which is relatively easy to understand and quantify. In contrast, far less attention is being paid to non-material power, which is, admittedly, more nebulous and difficult to assess.

However, China’s focus has been on relentlessly building its ‘comprehensive national power’ (CNP), that is, the sum-total of its powers and strengths—economic, military affair, science and technology, education, and resource—and influence. Thus, CNP encompasses both material and non-material power, and China’s buildup of both of these forms of power best explains its strategic and diplomatic successes. Chinese ‘rejuvenation’ is also not just about building GDP or having the world’s largest naval fleet. Rather, the CCP’s vision of a ‘community of shared future for mankind’ is very much about displacing the dominance enjoyed by the US and other advanced democracies in shaping global discourse and conversations, norms and standards, and influence within and through institutions.

The advanced democracies have taken these less obvious forms of power for granted, a complacency that Beijing has exploited. As the CCP recognizes, “In the final analysis, the rise of a great power is a cultural phenomenon. It (that power) must be accepted by the international community. Be accommodated by the international system, rely on the international system, and be recognised by international norms.”

To be sure, there is a rich and growing literature on the CCP’s various information, influence, and institutional resources and activities, and this report does not seek to reproduce the excellent work already in the public domain. Rather, it begins from the uncomfortable but growing realization that the CCP believes it has long been at war with the US and its allies, even though kinetic force has been used in only a few instances. It looks at why this war is being waged, what the hallmarks of success for Beijing look like, and how the use of non-material strategies in the form of political and institutional warfare complements and augments China’s better known material approaches in the CCP’s determined attempts to win this ongoing war or struggle.

The report seeks to emphasize that, in understanding the challenge and threat of China, political and institutional warfare should not be treated as optional or interesting adjuncts to traditional notions of warfare or that their effects are peripheral to core strategic and even military objectives. On the contrary, non-material approaches are essential to the Chinese strategy and have real-world outcomes that are often the same ones that the use of force or economic coercion is intended to achieve. Just as the CCP views comprehensive power as encompassing material and non-material elements, its notion of waging and winning a war may or may not include a military element. We need to do the same when countering, deterring, and, if necessary, defeating Chinese strategies and actions.

Moreover, the CCP’s approach is not just about putting its views forward in overt or veiled ways in the hope that it will change our minds about various issues. Instead, Beijing’s strategy is much more proactive and profound than that. The CCP’s political and institutional approaches are about fundamentally changing and shaping even the way we begin to think about or analyze an issue or what we perceive to be its ‘first principles.’ It is designed to shape the way we talk (or do not talk) about an issue, the presumptive and analytical frameworks we employ to do so, and the discourse regarding it that is accepted and deemed acceptable. At first glance, such a deeply cognitive approach might seem fanciful and impossible to implement. However, this report offers two recent case studies of instances where the CCP enjoyed considerable success in melding the material and the cognitive—with tangible and real-world results.

This report then offers a summary of the real-world strategic effects and their impacts on the tactical decision-making of countries and their elites that should concern those in charge of our political, economic, military, and diplomatic policies and activities. In conclusion, it suggests some general responses to the CCP’s strategy, approach, and actions in these contexts.

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