The Debate | Opinion

To China, Spades Are Trumps

China has inherited the confidence of Khrushchev’s famous declaration to the West: “We will bury you.”

By Harry Harding for
To China, Spades Are Trumps
Credit: Unsplash

In my previous interview with Juan Zhang and Shannon Tiezzi, published by The Diplomat, I used suits of playing cards as metaphors for understanding the importance that Beijing assigns to different types of national power. In so doing, I built upon Samuel Huntington’s insight many years ago in “Political Order in Changing Societies” that the military could seize power in uninstitutionalized and unstable developing countries because in such societies, “clubs are trumps.” I suggested that China overvalues both clubs (military force and other forms of coercion) and diamonds (providing access to China’s markets and, increasingly, investment capital), while undervaluing hearts (appeals to values and identities). In other words, I suggested that Beijing mistakenly believes clubs and diamonds will always be its winning suits and fails to see the importance of softer forms of power.

To be sure, recent developments could certainly call that assessment into question, given China’s tacit approval of the recent arrest of large numbers of opposition legislators in Hong Kong on what will likely be charges of sedition; its frequent military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to persuade Taipei to recommit to eventual unification; and Beijing’s success in signing an investment agreement with the European Union over the objections of the United States. These events doubtless reinforce China’s view that, whatever the backlash it may eventually produce, the use of clubs and diamonds works quite well in the short and medium term to advance China’s goals.

But an even more intriguing question soon emerged. A friend wrote to ask why I hadn’t mentioned spades – the missing suit. In thinking about what spades might represent, I eventually recognized that that they are, literally, shovels, and then recalled Khrushchev’s oft-quoted remarks at a reception at the Polish Embassy in Moscow in 1956 in which he told the Western ambassadors in attendance, “We will bury you.” That was later interpreted to mean not that Soviet Union would crush the West in a military confrontation if the Cold War turned hot, but rather that socialism would outperform capitalism and thus the Soviet Union would outlive the West and be present at its funeral.

I then realized that China may actually see spades, more than clubs and diamonds, as its most important trump suit.

Many Chinese leaders and policy analysts believe that, because of their country’s size, energy, and national ambitions, all mobilized by what they regard as a far more effective system of governance than the gridlocked pluralistic democracy that is trumpeted by the West, they will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy and will eventually displace Washington and its allies as the most important power in the Western Pacific. Their argument is, essentially, the same as Khrushchev’s: China’s rise, and its eventual supremacy in its region, are inevitable because of the superiority of its system. Neither confrontation nor competition, but rather cooperation and accommodation, are the only realistic strategies for others to adopt toward China. Or, to borrow the familiar phrase from one of the Star Trek films that makes the point more bluntly, “resistance is futile.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

As the West debates the best way to address China’s rise, this may be Beijing’s most potent argument – more powerful, in fact, than the promise of wealth, the threat of force, or even an appeal to common values or common interests. Of course, Khrushchev’s boast proved hollow because of the fatal flaws in the Soviet model of autarky, central planning, and authoritarian controls. And certainly China has many problems of its own, including growing corporate and local government indebtedness, persistent corruption, demographic decline, and the mistrust of its neighbors. China will have to manage these problems effectively so that they do not become crippling, let alone lethal. But the fumbling response of many Western countries to the COVID pandemic, the sluggish growth and increasing inequality in wealthy Western economies, and the polarization of American society – most recently evident in the storming of the Capitol on January 6* by mobs seeking to block the certification of Biden’s election – have reinforced perceptions of the United States’ decline and China’s ultimate preeminence.

Some in the West are beginning to conclude that competition with China is a game that the U.S. and its allies are ill-positioned to win and cannot afford to play. Accommodating China, rather than pushing back when it threatens our interests, is the only feasible option. This idea is reflected in the writings of a number of prominent analysts, including Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World,” Arvind Subramanian ‘s “The Inevitable Superpower: Why China’s Dominance Is a Sure Thing,” Hugh White’s book subtitled “Why We Should Share Power [with China],” and most recently Kishore Mahbubani’s “Has China Won?” If it spreads, that fatalistic outlook will increase the prospects that spades may prove to be China’s winning suit after all. And if so, this will confirm the insight of the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “breaking the enemy’s resistance,” and “winning without fighting” is the ultimate victory.

Harry Harding is a university professor and professor of public policy and a senior fellow in the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

*The month of the storming of the Capitol was previously misstated and has been corrected.