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China’s hottest new read: ‘On Protracted War’ by Mao — with a Trump-era twist

A portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
A portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)

BEIJING — The book is so popular that the publishers have ordered print run after print run. A Chinese thriller? A romantic page turner?

Not even close. It calls for the Chinese people to gird themselves for a long war against a hostile foreign force, and suffer short-term setbacks along the way to final victory. It’s about resilience and perseverance, refined fighting skills and an absolute belief that you can win.

“We should be prepared to see this stage last a comparatively long time and to weather its hardships,” the author implores. “It will be a very painful period for China.”

The book, however, is not entirely new.

It’s called “Re-reading On Protracted War,” referring to the collection of speeches that communist leader Mao Zedong gave in 1938. That was 11 years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China and amid a Japanese invasion that would take eight years for China to repel. Known as the Pacific theater of World War II to the outside world, it is still known here today as the “War of Resistance Against Japan.”

Earlier this year, with the 80th anniversary of Mao’s speeches approaching, the state-run People’s Publishing House decided to reprint the book, supplementing it with historical background and applications to contemporary times.

“It is of great significance for us to scientifically analyze the situation at home and abroad in the new era, to plan the path of development and progress in contemporary China, to carry forward the spirit of making unremitting efforts in the new era, and to uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the state-run Xinhua News agency reported in its trademark turgid style.

A modest run of 10,000 copies was planned to commemorate the classic “On Protracted War.”

Little did the publishers know that President Trump was gearing up for a trade war that would make Mao’s lessons of 1938 strangely relevant today. They ordered 30,000 more copies printed. Then 50,000 more.

“I hope we don’t have to print too many of these books,” Ren Chao, the executive vice president of the People’s Publishing House, said with a laugh. “If we print a lot, it’s a sign of how tense the situation is.”

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Trade friction between China and the United States is unlikely to go away. The two sides are working under a temporary tariff truce to try to reach an agreement by March 1 on rebalancing their trading relationship.

But even if they agree to a deal — and China agrees to buy large quantities of American products — it will not address the broader structural issues about market access and fair competition.

In other words: A protracted war, trade style.

So Ren is finding his decision to republish the Mao classic rather prescient.

“The trade fractions between China and the United States can’t be compared with this war between China and Japan,” he said in an interview.

December marked the anniversary of the beginning of 1937-1938 Nanjing massacre, during which Imperial Japanese soldiers went on a killing and raping spree that left some 300,000 Chinese people dead.

“But still, we can learn from his strategic thinking about battle strategies,” Ren said.

Those lessons include maintaining strategic patience, playing the long game and making unremitting efforts, he said.

Faced with an invasion from a much richer and more advanced adversary, Mao formulated a strategy to use China’s one big advantage: its geographic size. Mao drew the Japanese invaders out into China’s vast interior. Then he urged a guerrilla-warfare approach, with a steady onslaught of small confrontations to cut supply lines and cripple the invaders.

This message to focus on the bigger picture and the longer term is being applied to the trade war, both in Mao’s original words and through China’s state media. 

China is prepared for a protracted trade war and does not fear sacrificing short-term economic interests for long-term gain, the nationalist Global Times wrote in an editorial. “Considering the U.S.’s unreasonable demands, the trade war is an act that aims to crush China’s economic sovereignty and tries to force China to become an American economic vassal state.”

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The Guangming Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said in an editorial about the publication of the book: “We should work on long-term plans and better strategies, make our voices heard, draw our sword and bravely fight back.”

Many Chinese readers seem to agree that Mao’s lessons of 1938 can be applied to modern economic warfare.

“Republishing this book now has profound political significance,” Mozhouboya wrote on the Weibo microblog, using an alias as is customary on the Chinese Internet. “Since the trade war started, there are many theories online about how we are bound to lose or to win a quick victory. At the moment it is really necessary for our society to reread ‘On Protracted War’!”

Another Weibo user noted that the book was relaunched on Oct. 16, the anniversary of China’s first test of a nuclear bomb.

“Choosing to publish it today is to announce to the Chinese people that China will not be an appendage of the west but will firmly take its own path,” the reader wrote. “All things owned by Chinese people — our creativity, culture, thought, products, lifestyle and so on — will emit huge amount of energy, like the explosion of the atomic bomb.”

Yang Liu contributed to this report.

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