In 1989 as I was covering the ill-fated occupation of Beijing’s sprawling Tiananmen Square by pro-democracy demonstrators, I bought a book entitled: “Thick Black Theory.”
Of all the books I have read about China and the Chinese mind, this book by a Chinese scholar and politician named Li Zhongwu was the most revealing—and that includes “The Art of War,” the ancient treatise written in the 5th century BC by a Chinese general and warrior named Sun Tzu.
Li’s book went a long way in explaining how the Chinese government could mercilessly and dispassionately murder thousands of students occupying the square.
“Thick Black Theory,” which was penned in 1911, describes an approach to the wielding of political and economic power that is based on ruthlessness and hypocrisy.
“When you conceal your will from others, that is thick. When you impose your will on others, that is black,” Li wrote.
In other words, having a thick face means concealment, hiding your thoughts and your intent from the other person. Having a black heart means possessing the determination and ruthlessness needed to get the job done, even if others suffer as a result.
Li’s ideas are well-known in China. They were studied and embraced by Mao Zedong, the architect of the modern Communist Chinese state before he launched his merciless Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Today, it is “President for Life,” Xi Jinping, who has blended the philosophy of Thick Face, Black Heart into his aggressive political and economic strategies.
I spent more than a decade in Asia, covering just about every country from Japan to Afghanistan. During that time, I watched China emerge from an economic backwater into a technological and financial powerhouse—often with the enthusiastic, if naive, encouragement of American politicians, entrepreneurs, industrialists, and investors.
Who cares if the ruling Chinese Communist Party executed thousands of students in Tiananmen Square? There was money to be made in a nation of 1.2 billion people. China was ripe for the plucking, and the plucking was good. So American proprietary technology and valuable intellectual property were poured imprudently into China, along with billions of U.S. dollars.
The question Americans and Western Europeans should be asking themselves today is this, “Just who got plucked and fleeced?” The US trade deficit with China in 2022 was almost $1 trillion ($948.1 billion)—the largest on record.
Using the philosophy of Thick Face, Black Heart, the Chinese managed their information shrewdly, deviously hoarding what was useful and only revealing that which was necessary. They employed strategies such as distraction and deception to prevent foreigners from guessing what knowledge they held and what their intentions were.
They are still doing it.
Thick Face, Black Heart is an amoral, unscrupulous idea. It posits that there is neither good nor bad in its execution.
I recall a conversation I had with a Chinese businessman during which he demonstrated how that concept works.
“Let’s take a gun. If the gun is used to kill a murderer or an enemy, it is good,” he said. “If the gun is used to kill a decent, law-abiding person, it is bad. But being bad or good has nothing to do with the gun.”
“It is the same when a man uses Thick Black Theory in politics or business. If he uses it for good, he is good; if he uses it for bad, he is bad. But whether he is good or bad has nothing to do with Thick Black Theory.”
In other words, in business, diplomacy, or politics, Thick Face, Black Heart at its rawest level has no moral connotations. It is merely about focusing on how to get what you want. Thick Face at this level is totally unconscionable; Black Heart is absolutely ruthless.
Think about what China is doing in the world today—its political and economic incursions into struggling nation-states in Africa, poorly-run countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and the Indo-Pacific region.
The Chinese government is seeking to become the world’s greatest superpower through predatory lending and business practices, systematic theft of intellectual property, and brazen cyber intrusions. China’s efforts target businesses, academic institutions, researchers, lawmakers, and the general public.
As it moves toward its goal of global political and economic dominance, China’s Thick Face, Black Heart practitioners are ignoring criticism and vilification from others while carrying out their tasks as they see fit.
This is obvious when you examine what China has been doing in the United States over the past few years. Chinese companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. while launching what appears to be a secret cyber war against it.
Not long ago, for example, the Internet security firm McAfee revealed a widespread attack against 72 organizations, including the United Nations, U.S. defense contractors, and several other corporations, in what a McAfee executive called “the biggest transfer of wealth regarding intellectual property in history.”
It didn’t stop there. More recently, some 48 chemical and defense companies were victims of a coordinated cyber-attack that has been traced to China, according to the security firm Symantec Corp. Computers belonging to these companies were infected with malicious software known as “Poison Ivy,” which was used to steal information such as design documents, formulas, and details on manufacturing processes, Symantec said recently.
While Symantec did not identify the companies, it said they included several Fortune 100 corporations that develop compounds and advanced materials, along with businesses that help manufacture infrastructure for these industries. Most of the infected computers were located in the US and UK and included companies that developed advanced materials used in military vehicles.
McAfee warned that hackers working in China broke into the computer systems of five multinational oil and natural gas companies to steal bidding plans and other critical proprietary information.
Computer hackers from the Chinese military interfered with two U.S. government satellites four times in 2007 and 2008 through a ground station in Norway, according to the Congressional Economic and Security Review Commission. Security experts say the Chinese are continuing their satellite meddling today.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies use satellites to communicate, collect intelligence, and conduct reconnaissance. While the Commission doesn’t accuse the Chinese government of conducting or sponsoring the four attacks directly, it says the breaches are consistent with Chinese military writings that advocate disabling an enemy’s space systems, particularly “ground-based infrastructure, such as satellite control facilities.”
There are tens of thousands of Chinese students at America’s best universities, earning doctorates and postdocs in computer science and information technology. When they complete their studies in the U.S., many return to China with their U.S. degrees and improved skills.
But, some remain in the U.S. as covert operatives who funnel intelligence, corporate secrets, and other valuable information back to the CCP.
Are these examples of Chinese practices and tactics iniquitous? Most Americans would say, “Yes.”
However, as Li Zhongwu wrote in his Thick Face, Black Heart treatise, “The world has a tendency to accept our own judgment of ourselves. Through his absolute self-confidence, the thick-faced person instills confidence in others. They see him as successful and allow him the latitude to succeed.”
The United States and other Western nations “allowed” China “the latitude to succeed“ economically by sponsoring its membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001. China responded by flaunting WTO rules, and it continues to do so.
China’s disregard for those rules helped accelerate America’s deindustrialization—a fact that the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute says directly resulted in the loss of 3.7 million U.S. jobs from 2001-2018.
There is little doubt that America is at risk–not only from traditional armies and military equipment but from digital warfare and espionage.
If Americans still prefer to believe that China is nothing more than a friendly economic competitor, as Joe Biden continues to insist, they had better wise up fast. We are facing a new kind of warfare, and China is the primary adversary.
China is stealing our secrets, our technology, and our intellectual capital at a rate unseen in history. And if we continue to let it happen, there is little doubt that the American Empire will soon be on a respirator. Some people believe it already is.
“I have seen many people grow old, but not graciously,” Li wrote in his Thick Face, Black Heart treatise. “Their eyes reflect pain and disillusionment. They have been beaten by life; they have so many broken dreams. The hope and expectations of youth have vanished — only death awaits. Unlike the warrior who accepts harsh discipline as a privilege and honor, these people are like pieces of grain caught in the millstone, ground down by the wheel of life, in agony and in pain.”
Li could have been talking about the United States of America today.
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