Kremlinology 101: Tools for Understanding Secretive China

By Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.
January 4, 2022Updated: January 10, 2022


China remains closed off, but a careful examination of history and available sources tells us a great deal.

Communist regimes remain secretive about their behavior, which requires analysts to glean insights and clues based on the little bit of public information available. This skill is called Kremlinology. It was developed by scholars who had to use small and subtle clues to assess the Soviet Union, and generally refers to any study of a closed, communist regime.

With China’s upcoming 20th Communist Party Congress, the analysis has focused on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Most Kremlinology offers many details and terms that most readers would be unfamiliar with. But the average reader can still understand pertinent points by studying history and remembering some basic points.

The first point is to try and connect small facts to larger trends in history. While the details are often different, human beings are incredibly similar and the nature of a secretive, top-heavy regime—whether Russian or Chinese Communist—remain the same. In Russian history, Joseph Stalin was not the natural heir to Vladimir Lenin. But Stalin outmaneuvered to consolidate power and eventually took total control. It was only after he assumed total control that he launched some of his worst campaigns, including the five-year programs and the purges.

Chinese history faced similar maneuvers. Mao Zedong was not the natural Communist Party leader. Despite his reputation, Mao was weak in military thought and took much of the military credit of his right-hand man, Zhu De. Mao was fortunate to be out of power during communist failures that led to the Long March, and he could offer hypothetical examples of how much better he would have been. Like Stalin, once Mao was firmly entrenched, many of his bold and disastrous policies, like the Great Leap Forward, were implemented.

Epoch Times Photo
Employees of the Shin Chiao Hotel in Beijing build in the hotel courtyard (background) a small and rudimentary smelting steel furnace during the period of the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961) in October 1958. The ensuing famine cost China some 30 million lives. (Jacuet-Francillon/AFP via Getty Images)

This is a high-level summary that leaves out many details. Mao’s disagreements with comrades includes items like the Li Lisan Line and the use of bandit soldiers; while Stalin’s disagreements included Lenin’s New Economic Policy. But the maneuvers to consolidate power were similar.

At present, Xi is using the issue of corruption to attack, neutralize, and remove powerful rivals and insert those loyal to him in key positions. This suggests that Xi won’t do any big moves until after the Party Congress solidifies his power within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Other sources of Kremlinology include parsing public statements and policy documents. The difficulty in this is that a person must wade through long and dry policy documents and parse anodyne public statements, which are open to wide interpretation. Moreover, government documents tend to be pollyannaish about the authorities’ ability to fix problems. As American conservatives often point out, government is good at mission statements but bad at executing. For example, much of Beijing’s talk focuses on upgrading China’s Navy to challenge the United States for supremacy. But China has a poor history of modernization.

In the late 19th century, the self-strengthening of China faltered for many reasons. Disagreements among regional governors and court officials led to haphazard improvements. Modern ships and armies lacked standardized equipment and spare parts. This was a common theme until the end of World War II, as China at various points in this period obtained Soviet, German, Japanese, American, British, and French advisers and equipment.

Assuming that China did have working equipment, doctrine and training was still very uneven. Even with the best equipment, China didn’t always apply them in a conflict due to factional infighting and didn’t use them properly in combat. China uses more internal development, though it still relies on limited Soviet technology for both jets and aircraft carriers. China has numerous other problems such as a lack of battle experience or peace disease in army leadership, army generals dominating the leadership in what would likely be a naval-based war, and lack of coordination between branches.

Modern communist equipment might be better, but we can glean more from the Chinese military’s training exercises during peacetime training—not how the military will perform in battle. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that rote training will mean Chinese soldiers and pilots will not perform well in battle.

All the above items suggest that while we can glean a great deal about the Chinese regime’s actions, there is still a great deal we do not know. History suggests that Xi is maneuvering to gain power. The CCP’s policy documents and publicly stated budgets and weapons development suggest that China is modernizing to project power globally. And China’s training exercises suggest more sophistication. But the Chinese are still limited in what they can do, and there is a great disconnect between their stated words and goals, and the ability to achieve them.

Moreover, what we do know often creates a strategic blind spot in many Western analysts, who seem to default to the scariest and most sinister interpretation of communist behavior. Everything the Chinese regime does is laced with grave implications. It’s true that the Chinese communists are aggressive and we should be reasonably concerned. But the concern transforming into paranoia leads to an overinflation of their capabilities. For example, recent stories suggest China is building a string of pearls, or bases in the Atlantic Ocean, but those stories ignore how Beijing’s behavior is causing an astounding increase in negative perceptions of China and made Australia move firmly into the U.S. orbit. American overreaction that could be counterproductive, such as overextending aid to allies, was a danger in the Cold War with Russia.

The Chinese regime is very closed and it has been rather aggressive, which makes analysts use Kremlinology. But those analysts can’t exaggerate based on a single piece of information. Instead, they must carefully consider leaked information compared to public sources, and keep those public sources in a broader context. Xi is consolidating his power like Stalin and Mao before him, and the CCP is expanding its objectives and using the military to accomplish them. The Chinese military has many problems and Beijing’s aggression can be counterproductive. We can expect more aggression after the 20th Party Congress.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.