Today is the anniversary of the Communists’ Zunyi Conference in 1935 whose purpose was the embrace of failure and whose result set the stage for the thriving modern China we know today.

The conference was organised by party leader Zhou Enlai to examine the many and deep military failures of the Red Army to date. Like any failure, there were many contributors not least of which was Zhou Enlai himself and some of the decisions he has made. But at the conference he acknowledged his mistakes and took full responsibility for them. His ownership to these failures impressed the participants at the conference and in a subsequent Politboro shake-up, he was one of the few leaders whose career survived. Zhou became a resolute supporter of an up and coming military leader, Mao Zeung.

Mao military success from that point forward in 1935 could also be attributed to his embrace of failure. That is, the tactical use of retreat and ‘nonengagement’. Contrary to the strategy advocated by rival revolutionaries of engaging the Nationalists head on, Mao avoided confrontation and retreated to a remote region in southwest China where they would be removed from the threats by the Nationalist. The Communists were able to regroup and refocus for their eventual return to battle which successfully drove the Nationalists off mainland China.

Mao’s ‘Long March’ was one of several examples (along with Lieutenant General Jan Smuts North African campaign in World War I, Frederick the Great of Prussia’s campaign in the Seven Years War, and Moses Exodus of the Jews) cited in Robert Green’s book ‘The 33 Strategies of War’ of strategy #11 “The Nonengagement Strategy”…

  • “Retreat in the face of a strong enemy is a sign not of weakness but of strength. By resisting the temptation to respond to an aggressor, you buy yourself valuable time – time to recover, to think, to gain perspective. Sometimes you can accomplish most by doing nothing.”