The Asian Century 6 18 July 2019.

Normally, China pursues a policy of self-regarding isolationism.  Britain’s “McCartney Embassy” of 1793 offers a good example.[1]  “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.”[2]  Occasionally, however, China abandons isolation for engagement with the outer world.  Neither isolation nor engagement offers China an un-mixed blessing.

Take the late 19th Century, for example.  China’s defeats in the Opium Wars led to the infiltration of Christian missionaries into much of the “Heavenly Kingdom.”  Many of Western ideas expounded by the missionaries clashed with widely shared Chinese beliefs and social relationships.  The Chinese proved much like Will Rogers’ minister preaching on sin: “He was agin it.”  Hostility to the enforced contact with the outside world boiled over between 1899 and 1901 in the so-called “Boxer Rebellion.”[3]  Widespread attacks on foreigners and a long siege of the foreign embassies in Beijing resulted in a multi-national invasion.  Western victory over China in the war that followed did not make China more Western.

A century of turmoil in Asia followed.[4]  By the first decade of the 21st Century, once-Marxist China had embarked upon the process of becoming a capitalist behemoth.  This required a renewed encounter with the West and its beliefs.  Chinese students, experts, and exports went abroad; Western investment, experts, and imports came in.  It proved to be a remarkable period of “opening.”

Since the 1990s, in what amounts to a new Boxer Rebellion, the Communist Party has begun to slam the brakes on certain kinds of contact with the outside world and on sources of dissent.  There are about a million Muslims in “vocational schools,” political activism outside the Communist Party is repressed, and a “Great Firewall of China” censors the flow of information and ideas.[5]

The government censors blacklist and block access to sites like Google, foreign social media, and news publications.  At the same time, the pull of the China market is so great that foreign technology companies may accommodate the government’s demands.  The censors also keep watch on China’s own social media platforms because these have a much greater potential to facilitate political activism of the sort that produced Egypt’s Tahrir Square movement.

China’s economic transformation has wreaked havoc with economies and political systems in many countries.[6]  Now it’s “techno-authoritarianism” may serve as a model for aspiring tyrants elsewhere.

There is a rationality to this effort that escapes many Westerners.  China’s economic transformation has been faster and deeper than the equivalent experiences of Western countries.  Much about the experience has been disturbing, even traumatic, for many ordinary Chinese.  The potential for massive unrest in response to that dissatisfaction could overthrow Party leadership and derail China’s transformation.  In case it isn’t obvious, that’s an explanation, not a defense.

[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] OK, that’s something of an understatement.

[5] James Griffiths, The Great Firewall of China (2019).

[6] See:


The Asian Century 5 17 July 2019.

In Asian history, China had always ranked vastly higher than did the little surrounding states like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.  Then, in the middle 19th Century, Japan began a partial Westernization much sooner than did China.  By the end of the 19th Century Japan was waging imperialist war against first China, and then Russia, while gobbling up the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.  Eventually, in 1911, the old Imperial regime governing Chin collapsed, giving birth only to chaos and warlords.  Japan sought to exploit the Western preoccupation with Europe during the First World War, but Western diplomacy during and after the war dashed many hopes.  Thereafter, the Japanese government saw the Western powers—Britain, the United States, France, and Holland—as the chief stumbling-blocks to the expansion of Japan’s role in Asia.

At the same time, Japan had built its prosperity upon exports of simple, low-cost manufactured goods.  (This strategy is no different from the strategy initially pursued by post-Mao China.)  Then came the Great Depression (1928-1939), which led to a collapse of international trade.  Japan lost export markets, so it also lost the means to import vital resources.

Faced with national starvation, in 1931, Japan seized the natural resource-rich Chinese province of Manchuria.  This act of aggression earned Japan international scorn.  However, “scorn” doesn’t solve many problems.  In 1937, Japan returned to its ambitions of the First World War: to dominate China.  Japan invaded China.[1]  Seeming to recognize their unfavorable population ratios, the Japanese commanders indulged in barbaric conduct in hopes of cowing their enemies: the 1937 Nanjing Massacre prefigured the later conduct of Japanese troops.

Japanese leaders seem to have expected a relatively easy victory.  For one thing, European affairs had reached a crisis, with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy on the rampage in Central Europe and the Mediterranean.  Britain and France had the means to fight one major war at a time (against Germany or Italy, or Japan), but not two (against Germany and Japan), let alone three (Germany, Italy, Japan).  For another thing, the United States had been pursuing an “isolationist” policy in the mid-Thirties.  Who would defend the existing order in the Far East if the United States would not?  Good question.  One with no clear answer until the end of 1941.

The anticipated easy victory in China for Japan remained just out of reach for the next eight years.  The better trained, better equipped, and better led Japanese troops inflicted defeat after defeat on the Chinese.  Yet, the Chinese government managed to avoid defeat, even as the government’s armies lost battle after battle.  In large part, avoiding defeat meant falling back from the coast to a geographically hard-to-approach position in the interior.  While this kept Chiang’s KMT government in nominal control, in reality the Japanese controlled virtually the entire coastline, the great cities, and the coastal plains on which most Chinese lived.  Thus, one question not much explored by Western historians is why and how the ordinary Chinese kept going in the midst of a brutal war.

In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States, and the British and Dutch empires.  A “War Without Mercy, on a Merciless Foe” followed.[2]  Thereafter, the Chinese theater played a small role in the global struggle we call the Second World War.  Rightly committed to a “Europe first” strategy, the United States and Britain waged war in the Far East on a shoe-string.  First, Marines and Army troops hung on, then won, on Guadalcanal after the US Navy ran away.[3]

Faced with war on trackless oceans and trackless jungles, the United States sought to maximize the Chinese war effort in order to divert Japanese troops from the real center of decision in the Pacific—the barrier of islands that barred the advance of American power from Hawaii to the Home Islands.  American military advisors, American supplies, and American airpower all sought to bolster the Chinese war effort.[4]  Unable to accept defeat or even stalemate, the Japanese government committed troops to China.  In the end, the Chinese front soaked up 800,000 Japanese troops.[5]  To no avail.

Chiang Kai-shek—called “Peanut” by the sour, acute American military advisor Joseph Stillwell–understood little to nothing of the global struggle.  To him, all that mattered was the struggle for mastery in China.  He saw a three-sided struggle raging between his own Nationalist government, the Japanese invaders, and the Chinese Communists.  Forced to choose his domestic allies, Chiang Kai-shek opted for the landlords and bankers, instead of for the peasantry.

All sides waged the Second World War in China with great brutality toward the civilian population.  All sides relied upon political repression.  The Japanese and the KMT tied in a race to the bottom.  The Americans decided the fate of the Japanese Empire, but Chiang’s “party”—the Kuomintang, KMT, Gearwheels—lost traction with the peasant majority and many others.

Recognizing the problems of the KMT in 1945-1947, the United States Government sent off emissaries to the Red Emperor, Mao Zedong, in Yenan Province.  These men—honestly—over-estimated the democratic intentions of the Communist, although they seem to have rightly evaluated the real strength of the Communists.  The KMT lacked support where it counted in a civil war and were going to lose.  The Communists were going to win and the United States should adapt to that reality.  The United States did not adjust to that reality.  In 1949, the Communists won the prolonged Chinese Civil War.  Many KMT survivors fled to Taiwan/Formosa.

Even the disturbing Communist victory didn’t have to start a downward spiral in Chinese-American relations.  Many informed Americans regarded Chiang Kai-shek as the man “who lost China.”  Many of the same people expected that the two countries would “let the dust settle,” then pick up relations.  But, in June 1950, the Korean War began.  The United States fought China in Korea, and reinforced both Taiwan and French Indo-China.  The Cold War became a part of East Asian affairs.  Later, the United States fought North Vietnam and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.  Not until the 1970s were China and the United States able to begin a normalization of their relationship.

The lesson?  The Second World War in China, rather than the Korean War or the wars in Vietnam, offered the first basis for the injunction “never fight a land war in Asia.”[6]  But to whom does that lesson apply?

[1] Rana Mitter, The Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (2018).

[2] John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1987).  Astonishing.

[3] In 1941-1942, Australians referred to the war in the Pacific as “the War of the Two Yellow Races”—the Americans and the Japanese.

[4] See: Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stillwell’s Mission to China (1953); Stillwell’s Command Problems (1956); and Time Runs Out in CBI (1959).  Or see Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the Experience in China (1971), for a highly-readable “popular version” of same.

[5] Japan lost 36,000 men in the Guadalcanal Campaign.

[6] See the classic expression of this truth:

The Asian Century 4 16 July 2019.

In 1976, Mao Zedong died.  For two years, Hua Guofeng occupied the nominal leadership of China.  Then, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power.  Both men, and many others, recognized that China’s vast potential had remained un-tapped during the long reign of Mao.  The party orthodoxy that peasants formed the backbone of a Communist society in Asia had stifled all economic progress.  Those peasants were themselves trapped in a vast system of collective farms that stifled initiative and productivity.  Marxist and Maoist economic ideas—the only ones taught to China’s educated elite—provided no useful guide to economic reality.[1]  To “save” itself, China would have to change.[2]  For one thing, it would have to become a truly industrial society.

To accomplish this transformation without re-inventing the wheel, China would need foreign advisors who knew how to run an industrial economy.[3]  Initially, these advisors came from the then still-existing Communist bloc.  Soon it became all too apparent that the Communist advisors didn’t have the slightest idea of how to build or manage an industrial economy.   Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, this reality imposed a frightening and unwelcome change of course.  China would have to turn to the capitalist West.  So it did.

The process began under Hua.  It took the form of a cautious experimentalism.  The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sounds innocuous enough, or even boring to anyone who has attended a scholarly conference.  However, it provided the home for intense intellectual debates about China’s path forward.  In Sichuan Province, the first experiments with dismantling the collective farms began.  Consideration began of the ideas that would lead to the creation of the “Special Economic Zones.”

The need to save China by changing China had a wide constituency among leaders.  However, it also faced dogged opposition among more traditional Communist Party leaders.  To overcome this opposition, and to sustain and speed-up the pace of change, required a leader of exceptional character.  Deng Xiaoping proved the right man at the right time.  He combined great political skill, a theatrical affability, and ruthless determination.

The speed with which China changed course is fascinating.  So, too, is the enthusiasm in many quarters for both change and contact with Western thought.  Western economists were invited to visit and confer with Chinese leaders.  Chinese scholars, officials, managers and engineers, and—most important—students began to go abroad in growing numbers.  They absorbed and brought back to China the ideas and practices of the West.[4]  China’s history has been one of prolonged periods of hostility to foreign ideas interspersed with briefer periods of openness to foreign ideas.  The spread of Buddhism from India to China, and the curiosity about the West that allowed the Jesuits to operate in China offer earlier examples of this openness.

Now, Xi Jinping seems to be slamming the doors.

[1] See: Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea.  As one fictional character summarized the real Communist achievement: “boiler suits, prison camps, and a damn long march to nowhere.”

[2] This same truth had been recognized by the Japanese more than a century earlier.

[3] Julian Gewirtz, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China (2016).

[4] Inevitably and predictably, many of these ideas and practices had nothing to do with economics.

The Asian Century 3 15 July 2019.

What do you want, freedom or prosperity?  “It’s an honest question.”[1]  For much of its history, the “West” has been able to achieve an acceptable mix of both.  Other places have not been so lucky.  Some countries climbed into the ranks of the Freedom + Prosperity group by first prioritizing prosperity over freedom.

China’s initial reforms under Deng Xiaoping both encountered obstructive resistance from “conservatives” within the Communist Party and inspired extravagant hopes among educated young people.[2]  Conciliating the conservatives would mean enraging the students; while satisfying the students would enrage the conservatives.  The problem divided even the Communist Party leadership at the center of power.  The party’s General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, favored a policy of political liberalization.

In Spring 1989, the controversy reached a crisis when massive student demonstrations broke out in Beijing.  Tiananmen Square became the focus of the demonstrations, and of international attention.  Forced to choose, the Party leadership opted for control.  Troops violently cleared the square, and Zhao Ziyang went into house arrest.

As was the case in the European Revolutions of 1848, repression gave way to a new course by enlightened conservatives.  Deng Xiaoping used the crisis—and the fear of a recurrence—to force the conservatives to accept a dramatic acceleration of economic change.[3]  China would exploit its low labor costs and massive population to launch a dramatic acceleration of economic development.  The strategy would be export-based growth through engagement with the world economy.  The benefits of this policy would not be equally shared.  Wealth would flow to the elites and middle classes who supported it.  For the rest of the Chinese there would be low wages and a scanty social safety net.  However, the gamble Deng took reflected a belief that key people would prefer prosperity to freedom if they had to choose.

The effects in the rest of the world have been dramatic as well.  Chinese competition has wreaked havoc with many Western producers and their employees.  And China’s economic success makes it a credible model for people who find the contemporary liberal political and economic arrangements deeply dissatisfying.  Much the same was true in the Thirties, when the Great Depression in the capitalist West made Stalinist Russia look to some observers like a more reasonable alternative.

Despite the bitter divisions that are all too evident in Western democracies, it seems most likely that the countries that will imitates China’s economic and political model will be found in the developing world.  Freedom + Prosperity has become so deeply engrained in the West that incremental reforms are likely to resolve—or diminish to a tolerable level—those divisions.  In other places, where Freedom + Prosperity is new or non-existent, outcomes may differ.

Or perhaps not.  Prediction is a tricky business.  History is more reliable.


[2] Of course, many/most young people weren’t very educated.  They did not necessarily share the values of the urban educated elite.  However, urban educated elites are easy to meet and talk to if you are a Western diplomat, journalist, or traveler.  Same thing happened at Tahrir Square.  I haven’t seen much hand-wringing among journalists about how they got it wrong.

[3] Johan Lagerkvist, Tiananmen Redux: The Hard Truth about the Expanded Neoliberal World Order (2017).

ChiMerica 3 14 July 2019.

In the late 1500s, Richard Hakluyt collected the stories and reports of the English mariners who had explored the Atlantic world.[1]  He wanted to celebrate these doughty adventurers, but also he hoped to encourage others to emulate them.[2]  Hakluyt’s basic approach became a staple of the reference shelves.

Now we have the equivalent for the entrepreneurs who have raised up China into the “second economy in the West.”[3]  Sort of.  A bunch of American business school professors interviewed Chinese executives to supplement their library research.

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms started everything, but Chinese entrepreneurs had to muscle through hordes of bureaucrats who failed to adjust their old thinking to new realities.  Thus, “If it were not from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and open door policy, none of us would be able to achieve much, regardless of how capable we are.”  At the same time, owing to deeply-ingrained anti-capitalist prejudice, “the lowest thing you could do in the early ‘80s, as a scientist, was to go into business.”  So, early Chinese entrepreneurs had to make it up as they went along.  Much like the industrialists of the American “Gilded Age.”  The Chinese adapted to prevailing conditions.

Some of them fell into error along the way, which is easy to do in China.  They over-promised and under-performed.  They aligned with the wrong factions and fell victim to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drives.  They just made bad decisions.

Chinese entrepreneurs take a long-term view.  Quarterly profits and share prices don’t mean much to them.  The pursue what some call a “lean architecture” that gives the companies nimbleness in responding to new situations.  American companies, in contrast, haven’t entirely reduced the massive bureaucratization of the 50s-70s.  However, Chinese government support for Chinese businesses in competition with American businesses plays an important role.  For example, Didi Chuxing Technologies, the Chinese Uber, spent like a drunken sailor in order to defeat the American Uber.  By 2016, Didi was drawing four times as many customers in China as was Uber.  This suggests that a.) Didi didn’t worry much about banks breathing down its neck, and b.) that the Trump administration may have to negotiate limits on non-tariff Chinese government support for industries.  Then, China’s systematized, even industrialized, theft of Western intellectual property play a large role in the success of Chinese industry.

One issue here is that systems reinforce what has worked in the past, rather than seeing each successive situation as new.  (That’s called a heuristic device.)  Will China’s previous success with state-sponsored business development lead the country to double-down in the future?  If so, then the potential for conflict between the United States and China will grow.

It is a little bit like many people didn’t want to “come out of the closet” about China’s abuse of its international trade relationships.  Now, that “that man in the White House” has done so, will more and more people fall into line?  Or will there be a counter-vailing swing in the next election cycle to return to the policies of yore?

[1] See:

[2] Extremely well educated, Hakluyt doubtless took as his model Plutarch’s Lives.

[3] Michael Useem, Harbir Singh, Liang Neng, and Peter Cappelli, Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies (2017).

The Asian Century 2 12 July 2019.

In the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle believed that the bi-polar international system of the Cold War would eventually give way to a multi-polar system.  This—correct—belief led him to imagine that the future world already had come into existence.  He pursued policies that put up the hackles on Americans, without advancing the interests of France.

Fifty years later, de Gaulle’s vision has come true—kinda-sorta.  It’s fair to say that America has been living through a prolonged dark hour.  The Soviet Union has collapsed into something more than a “regional power” but less than a superpower.  Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East count for little in the councils of the world.  The European Economic Community of his day has grown stronger and larger, and then has begun to go into retreat for the moment.  The Peoples Republic of China has emerged as an economic and military powerhouse.  Today, many smart people are uncertain of what the future holds.

Early in the Trump Administration, the highly-intelligent and highly-experienced journalist Gideon Rachman[1] took a stab at prognostication.[2]  The new multi-polar world is, Rachman thinks, “unstable and dangerous.”  The Chinese American relationship stands at the center of the new world order.  The competition between these two states is likely to spread into every corner of the globe.  The core area, however, will be the Western Pacific.  Since 1945, these waters have been an American lake.  Many of the countries surrounding that “lake” are American allies or under American protection: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines.  Now Chinas economic growth is enabling it to increase its own military power.

Is “Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline” unstoppable?  Hardly.  For one thing, China isn’t all of Asia.  Even if Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not China’s equals, they are prosperous societies which have benefitted greatly from the American-sponsored global economic system.  If Xi Jinping hopes to reverse China’s “century of humiliation,” these other countries won’t want their own humiliation forced on them by China.  For another thing, while China may want to construct its own global system, Westerners know how to work the actually existing system.  Finally, like every other country, China has its own vulnerabilities.  At the heart of these vulnerabilities is the very thing that has made China so strong.  The Communist Party has led a rapid industrialization of the country.  That industrialization has sucked tens of millions of people out of the countryside into urban slums.  It has generated immense wealth, but distributed it very unevenly.  It has degraded the environment.  And the Communist Party is an in-bred elite that protects its own interests ahead of those of the people.

Nothing is written.  It can blow at any seam.

[1] See:

[2] Gideon Rachman, Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline (2017).

ChiMerica 2 12 July 2019.

For decades, the United States built its Far Eastern policy on a deepening engagement with China.  Richard Nixon “played the China card” to shift the terms of the Cold War with Russia.  Jimmy Carter sponsored a full normalization of relations with China.  Aside from the old-fashioned balance-of-power rationale that had driven Nixon, a further rationale for engagement developed.  Ever-deeper economic relationships would build a strong bond between the two Pacific giants.  In time, economic development might nudge China’s leadership toward political liberalization.  This engagement intensified after Deng Xiaoping could use the collapse of the Soviet Union as evidence for important policy changes.

More recently, China seems to have drawn far more benefit from the economic relationship than has the United States.  At the same time, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has turned back toward authoritarian government.[1]  Doubts have been growing for some time about the wisdom of the long-standing American policy.

Now President Donald Trump has used tariffs and sanctions on companies like Huawei to bring the Chinese government to negotiate a new economic relationship and continued the pressure during the on-and-off negotiations.  His confrontational stance has alarmed many people.  A group of 150 China experts, both scholars and former officials, recently denounced the approach as “fundamentally counterproductive.”[2]  However, others—including Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer—have begun to see real merits in the new course.

The lingering fear is that President Trump will not sustain the pressure for long enough to force the Chinese into a long-term deal that fundamentally restructures the relationship to better the position of the United States.  With an election barely a year away, some fear that he will settle for less in order to have a bragging point.  However, even if he settles for half a loaf, he appears to be shifting the broad consensus of opinion toward the need to confront China.

[1] Edward Wong,” America’s Gamble: Shatter enduring Strategies on China and North Korea,” NYT, 12 July 2019.

[2] Like the old policy was “productive”?