In Chinese political discourse, the concept of composite national strength is used by strategists and theorists of international relations as a general measure of power and rank. Sometimes translated as “comprehensive national power,” the concept was developed in the early 1980s by strategic analysts in the PLA Academy of Military Science who believed that standard measures of military power–such as naval tonnage or army size–did not capture the true strength of the two Cold War superpowers. They argued that any accurate estimate of national strength must incorporate the full suite of economic, scientific, diplomatic, political, and cultural resources that might contribute to international success. This aggregated measure of all potential elements of national power is a country’s composite national strength.
The concept of composite national strength dates back to the reforms of the 1980s. As the PRC reestablished diplomatic relations with the West, a wave of Chinese academics and theorists began to study Western political science and adapt it to Chinese conditions. An analyst in the strategic studies department at the PLA Academy of Military Science named Huang Shuofeng introduced the phrase as a translation of “state power,” a term he encountered while studying the realist school of international relations theory. He would present his version of the concept to his colleagues in a 1985 conference on the strategic problems posed by Soviet-American rivalry. There Huang defined composite national strength as “the total strength (both material and non-material) and international influence that a sovereign state wields for its survival and development” (Huang 1999, 5). Huang argued that this type of national power can be naturally divided into seven components: political strength [政治力], economic strength [经济力], scientific and technological strength [科技力], military strength [国防力], cultural and educational strength [文教力], diplomatic strength [外交力], and natural resource endowments [资源力] (Huang 1999, 12).
This complex of ideas spread across the Chinese strategic community in the decades that followed. Since 1985, the Chinese Academy of Science, the Chinese Academy of Social Science, the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, and the Academy of Military Science have all sponsored research projects or conferences devoted to different theories of composite national strength (Jia 2015). However, there is no universal schema for calculating a country’s composite national strength. While there is general agreement among analysts that both material factors (such as industrial capacity) and less tangible factors (such as global cultural influence) must be integrated in any calculation, there is no consensus on which specific factors must be included, nor on the relative importance of any given element of power vis a vis the others. Thus even the most empirically rigorous attempts to calculate international rankings of composite national strength rely on the idiosyncratic judgments of individual researchers.
The concept is employed far less wonkishly by generalist intellectuals and leading communist cadres. Deng Xiaoping was the first CORE LEADER to use the phrase. During his 1992 “Southern Tour” Deng employed the concept to justify further market reform. In place of the old ideological standards cadres used to use to evaluate policy, Deng proposed three “chief criterion” [三个有利于] for judging the failure and success of a new measure: “[does] it promote the growth of the productive forces in a socialist society, increase the composite national strength of the socialist state, or raise living standards?” (Deng 1992). This usage is typical. In the rhetoric of Chinese communism composite national strength is not a precise measure but a vague policy aim that can be loosely tied to development planning, security theory, technology development, or any other policy that might feasibly hasten the REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION.
Deng Xiaoping. 1992. “Excerpts From Talks Given In Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai.” The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping; Jia Haitao 贾海涛. 2015. Zonghe Guoli Yu Wenhuali Xitong Yanjiu 综合国力与文化力系统研究 A Systematic Study of Comprehensive National Power and Cultural Power. Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe 中国社会科学出版社 China Social Science Publishign Co.; Pillsbury, Michael. 2000. China Debates the FUture Security Environment. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press; Huang Shuofeng 黄硕风. 1999. Zonghe Guoli Xinlun: Jianlun Xinzhongguo Zonghe Guoli 综合国力新论：兼论新中国综合国力 A New Theory of Comprehensive National Power: With a Reflection on New China’s Comprehensive National Power. Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe 中国社会科学出版社 China Social Science Publishign Co.