The Asian Century 13.

            From the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603, r. 1558-1603), England had a special intelligence service dedicated to thwarting the schemes of foreign enemies.[1]  Other countries took longer to reach this institutional goal.  Many countries assigned this task to intelligence departments of the military, with military attaches in foreign countries operating as case officers for spies.[2]  Impressed by the achievements of the British in the Second World War, the United States soon created the Central Intelligence Agency.[3]  On the other hand, revolutionary movements caught up in the struggle for power have to improvise.  The Bolsheviks created the “Cheka” in 1917.[4]  Later it became the OGPU, then the KGB, and now the FSB.[5] 

            The intelligence service of Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) followed a recognizable track in its own development.  It began as a branch of the Peoples’ Liberation Army in the era of the struggle against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government.  It continued as such during the wars with Japan, with Kuomintang again, and then with the Americans in Korea from 1937 to 1953.[6]   The Ministry of Public Security handled the repression of domestic resistance. 

Military domination of intelligence-gathering matched poorly with Deng Xiaoping’s decision to dramatically reorient China after the death of Mao.  An opening to the West would involve allowing Westerners relatively unrestricted access to China.  This would pose a grave security threat.  However, an opening to the West would also permit greatly expanded espionage directed not only against foreign military power, but also against economic and technological targets.[7]  In 1983 Deng created the Ministry of State Security (MSS). 

In comparison to the Soviet Union, the PRC began at a disadvantage.  Many of the Westerners who spied for the Soviets were recruited during the “Devil’s Decades” of the 1920s and 1930s.  Social, political, and economic crises created large numbers of foreigners who were true believers in Communism.[8]  That intellectual commitment had died long before the MSS began its work.  Instead, it has relied upon a combination of lots of money to human agents and lots of technology to invade foreign computer systems. 

Has it worked?  Yes: spy scandals are becoming ever more common.  How much difference has it made?  It’s hard to tell because China’s astonishing ascent as a military and economic power has so many roots.  Still, in the judgement of experts, “China is today the greatest intelligence threat to U.S. interests.” 

[1] Now called MI-6, the Secret Intelligence Service.  Domestic counter-intelligence is the province of MI-5, the Security Service.  See: Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985). 

[2] See, for example, Peter Jackson, France and the Nazi Menace: Intelligence and Policy-Making, 1933-1939 (2000). 

[3] Unfortunately, one of the British advisors to the early CIA turned out to be the Soviet “mole” Kim Philby. 

[4] The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. 

[5] See Christopher Andrew, KGB (1990). 

[6] Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage (2020), reviewed by Michael Auslin in WSJ, 2 March 2020.  . 

[7] Despite President Obama’s huffing and puffing, this was hardly a new approach to hurrying industrialization on the cheap.  See Doron Ben-Atar, Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power (2004). 

[8] See, for examples, the Rosenberg spy ring in the United States, the “Cambridge Five” in Britain, and the “Red orchestra” in Germany and elsewhere. 

The Asian Century 12.

            China has a huge stake in continuing economic growth.  For decades, Communism delivered little to the Chinese people but poverty and suffering.  Only a brutal police state kept the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power.  After the death of Mao, the CCP re-founded Chinese Communism.  Prosperity gained through rapid industrialization and entry into the global market would legitimize CCP rule.  Having made this bargain, the Party would have to keep the economy growing faster than either population or the expectations of the Chinese people.  A crash or even a serious slowdown would strain the Party’s claim to both omniscience and power. 

            China has an unbalanced economy.[1]  China laid the foundations for its post-Mao economic ascent with investment in heavy industry and mass production of consumer goods for export.  The Chinese have a high savings rate that limits the domestic demand for consumer goods, while also limiting the impact of foreign lenders.[2]  The government pursued a policy of easy money with interest rates held down regardless of market conditions. 

China’s excess of enthusiasm led to over-investment in productive capacity.  Even before the 2008 financial crisis, political considerations forestalled a clean-out, so mills and mines proliferated beyond actual demand.  The same forces prevented raising interest rates. 

            China responded to the global recession triggered by the American financial crisis of 2008 with a gigantic stimulus program.  After 2008, government-owned heavy industry splurged on adding more productive capacity in basic industries.  All of this happened because the central government provided easy credit.  Local governments did the same with their own locally-controlled businesses.  Private industry—notably property developers and construction companies—built whole “ghost towns” on credit. 

            China ended up with a more distorted economy as a result of that stimulus program.  “Zombie” businesses walked the land like a Chinese opera version of “Twilight.”  This led many Western observers to predict a financial collapse that would shake Chinese politics and society.  Why didn’t that happen? 

            China has robust means to resolve its economic problems.  It’s not a Western capitalist country or a democracy.  Real power rests with the Chinese Communist Party.  Zi Jinping has been consolidating control of the Party and of the government in his hands for some time now. 

China operates a powerful set of controls on capital flows out of the country, so the savings of the Chinese are readily available to the government.  The same controls help shore up the international exchange value of the currency. 

Ownership of so much industry and control of the banks allowed Zi to begin shoring-up the financial system from early 2016 onward.  China did what Japan had balked at doing years before.  It forced mergers and write-downs on loans, sometimes expanding the state’s ownership stake in businesses through taking equity positions.  The government pulled back on lending, both by banks and outside the banking system.   

Will these reforms suffice to hold off disaster?  Probably not.  Political concerns limited the clean-out needed for real stability.  Meanwhile, real estate and consumer debt have ballooned.  There’s always someone who says “This time it’s different.”  It never is different. 

[1] Thomas Orlik, China: The Bubble That Never Pops (2020), reviewed by Edward Chancellor, WSJ, 27 July 2020. 

[2] Foreign lenders, operating with a more capitalistic mind-set, might well have tried to drag on the reins. 

The Asian Century 11.

            After the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1989, other countries that believed in centrally-planned economies had a Road to Damascus experience.[1]  The scales fell from their eyes: adaptation to capitalism and the global market offered the only path to political survival for the elite.  China and India embarked on this path with energy and determination. 

            Along with forced-draft industrialization came an amazing amount of pollution.  For example, both steel and cement, two mainstays of China’s economic progress, burn huge amounts of carbon.[2]  Local governments have encouraged industrialization though their sponsorship of Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs).  The TVEs have long enjoyed a high level of freedom from any meaningful regulation.  The coal mines and smelters they operated spewed pollutants[3] into rivers, waste land, and the air.  The concentration of China’s population in the great river valleys and along the coastal plain concentrates pollution in those areas as well. 

            The auditor could add to the price of progress the price of the fruits of progress.  China had 5.5 million privately-owned automobiles in 1995; now it has 194.5 million.  Mountains—literally–of garbage pile up in unofficial garbage dumps around cities. 

For a long time, the Chinese government shrugged it off as the price of progress.  Then the public health effects aroused protest and criticism.  Myriad statistics suggest that the Chinese are being poisoned by their own success.  The infertility rate for couples has risen from 3 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2018.  Lung cancer deaths rose by 465 percent from 1973 to 2013.  Life expectancy in the more industrialized areas is 3.1 years less than in less industrialized areas. 

Eventually, the Chinese Communist Party and the government that fronts for it began to take the problem seriously.  By this point, however, immense damage had been done and much of China’s economic success was founded on polluting activities.  Both changing course for the future and cleaning up the legacy of the past will load heavy burdens on China. 

For one thing, there are the economic costs.  Shifting from burning coal and oil will require developing “fracking” for natural gas as a reasonable alternative until renewable energy becomes a reality.  Shifting from heavy industry to technological and service industries will require development of an appropriate labor force, while leaving large numbers of discontented coal miners and steel workers in its wake. 

For another, there are the political problems.  Local governments are going to have to manage the reality of angry workers and angry industrialists.  But local governments seek to evade the dictates of the central government.  Officials in one province responded to an order from Beijing to limit their steel production by continuing to produce at a high level, then trying to hide the extra 50 million tons of steel.[4] 

Then there is the possibility that China will seek internal unity through a nationalist foreign policy.[5]  With any luck, the latter is alarmism and pessimism.  With any luck. 

[1] Yanzhong Huang, Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State (2020), reviewed by Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 11 November 2020.. 

[2] For example, half of China’s blast furnaces produce one-fourth of the world’s steel. 

[3] These include lead, cadmium, mercury.

[4] That’s more steel than all of Germany—a one-time world leader—makes in a year. 

[5] Volker R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (1973). 

The Asian Century 10.

            “China is the most significant international threat that America—and the global West generally—now faces.  And that will be true for the rest of the Century.”[1]  Certainly that seems to be the intention of Xi Jinping.  He has been deploying China’s enormous economic power to claim the leading role in Asia for China.  First in his sights is Hong Kong, regardless of the terms of the “hand-over agreement” with “Little England.”  Next is Taiwan, itself an economic powerhouse.  Xi’s Belt and Road initiative is also shouldering China into a role in many other corners of the globe. 

            For its part, what John Bolton calls “the global West” seems to be knocked back on its heels.  The phrase “crisis of democracy” is frequently used.[2]  The financial crisis and the drawn-out “Great Recession,” “globalization,” and mass immigration (much of it unregulated and unwelcome) all cast into doubt the effectiveness of the democratic state as a model for progress.   The same forces intensified nationalist forces, which sometimes take an authoritarian form.  Both Brexit and Donald Trump’s version of “America First” show how far beyond the fringe this mood has spread.  All these developments may have sharpened China’s appetite. 

            Much remains unknown.  Is the “global West” really suffering a crisis of democracy?  Or is it just having a fit of the sulks after victory in the long struggle with aggressive tyrannies? 

            How strong is China really?  Deng Xiaoping had set the country on the capitalist road with sweeping political and economic reforms intended to create a market economy.  Chinese industriousness and thrift would do the rest.  By and large, this vision has come true.  Undoubtedly, Japan and the United States provided a lot of help through investments and voluntary transfer of intellectual property, but China’s own efforts explain the lion’s share of its success.  Now China has the second largest economy in the world. 

Now some observers see strains on the foundations of China’s power.  Xi Jinping has reversed course on many reforms.  He is moving the Party and the State more and more tightly under his control.  He is moving China’s economy back toward Party and State control.  If a market economy and global integration raised China up, then the new course might lay it low. 

            In times of crisis, China does things that reveal the true nature of its government: brutal and secretive.  The suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, the repression of what Americans call “diversity” (Tibet, Uighurs), and its hiding of the truth about Covid-19 in 2019-2020 provide examples of a robust dictatorship responding to its own fears.  Is China’s foreign policy another example of a state acting from fear, rather than from strength?  Taiwan’s rival model of economic organization effects can’t be ignored by people on the mainland.  One might see the fixation on Taiwan as driven by concern for present problems as much as by historical memory of the Qing dynasty. 

            There are real dangers here.  Both Lenin and Hitler refused to wait on History.  They tried to hurry it forward to the destination they had appointed for it. 

[1] John Bolton (Yes, that John Bolton), “Beijing Never Got the Memo,” WSJ, 16 November 2020, review of Dan Blumenthal, The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State (2020). 

[2] Not without reason.  See:  

Crisis of Democracy.

One way of telling the history of the Twentieth Century is to describe the Triumph of Democracy.  In 1900, only11 countries that could be described as political democracies: they granted all adult male citizens the right to vote and they applied the same laws to all citizens.[1]  The “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy” only somewhat advanced their cause: by 1920, there were 20 democracies and many of them had granted women the vote.  The interwar crisis and the Second World War centered on the defeat of aggressive tyrannies.  Thereafter, however, democracy advanced by leaps and bounds.  Western colonial empires were dismantled.  Democracy expanded its meaning from the purely political to social democracy, and legal protections for civil rights were greatly extended.  The Cold War ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire.  By 2003, there were 86 democracies in a world of 190-odd countries.[2]   

            Rather than continuing its advance, however, democracy has been in retreat since the mid-2000s.[3]  Where democracy continues to exist, “democratic norms and institutions” are being hollowed-out.  What has caused democracy to fall into disrepute?  What has caused dictators and would-be dictators to gain a new credibility? 

            The crisis arises both from specific personalities and from larger and more long-term systemic changes.  On the level of personalities, one can point to the interaction of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.  Many of the successes for democratization owed at least something to American government backing for democratic movements and institutions from the of Jimmy Carter’s administration through the Reagan-Bush era.  Donald Trump’s administration has largely abandoned the “bully pulpit” on behalf of democracy in the shit-holes of the world.  A host of minor-league wannabe-tyrants draw inspiration from Chinese and Russian aggression. 

On the level of systems, two different sorts of problems exist.  On the one hand. regularly-held elections in which citizens choose their own leaders are not enough to make a country democratic.  Real, living democracy requires also a widely accepted “liberal” mindset.  It requires independent institutions like courts, business, media, and non-governmental associations.  Finally, it requires institutions of government (from the civil bureaucracy to the military to the intelligence services) that serve the nation, rather than any individual leader.  These are the “democratic norms and institutions” that are being hollowed around the world. 

On the other hand, all of these ills arise from the interaction of sclerotic political systems with increasingly indifferent citizens.  Here it becomes difficult to solve the chicken-or-the-egg problem.  Do frozen-up political systems foster citizen alienation?  Does they shift citizens into wavering between solving their own problems through ad hoc means or hoping for a strong-man who can burst the dam?  Does citizen alienation and indifference allow political systems to congeal around dead issues, rather the forcing them to address live issues? 

Neither answer holds much promise for revived democracy. 

[1] This bald definition invites enough qualifications to make your head spin.  For example, women didn’t have the vote; many representative governments hedged-in responsive government to serve an anti-democratic distrust of “the mob”; and democracies ruled over-seas empires in an undemocratic fashion. 

[2] Larry Diamond, “The Global Crisis of Democracy,” WSJ, 18-19 May 2019. 

[3] That is, it began during the years of the Obama-Biden administration. 

The Asian Century 9.

            Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, both China and Japan fended off Western imperialism in their different ways.  Then Japan abruptly shifted course to imitate some aspects of Western states in order to preserve both its political independence and cultural identity.  China lagged behind on making this necessary shift.  Ultimately, a modernizing political movement, the Kuomintang (KMT, called the Nationalists by Americans) gained a rough control over China. 

The results of historical events so briefly described proved harrowing for many millions of people.  A semi-Westernized Japan pursued empire in China and Southeast Asia, then was smashed to bits in the Second World War.  The Chinese Communists triumphed in the civil war with the Nationalists that followed the Second World War in Asia. 

Communism’s victory in China wrong-footed wartime American plans for the postwar order in East Asia.  Americans leaders (or at least Franklin D. Roosevelt) had envisioned Nationalist China as a new great power that would co-operate with Americans efforts to build a peaceful and prosperous Asia.  Instead, the Peoples’ Republic of China aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  The Korea War and the wars in Indochina followed.  Only in the 1970s did the hostility begin to decline.  Since the late 1970s, China has vigorously remodeled its economy into the second largest in the world and, more recently, sought a leading role in international affairs. 

In these efforts, many things have been bent to serve the nation’s interests.  One of those things has been History.  One aspect of China’s historical revisionism has been China’s role in the struggle against Japan.  Once upon a time, if they knew what was good for them, Chinese historians played down the role of the corrupt and incompetent Nationalist government while playing up the role of the Communists.  Now, if they know what is good for them, Chinese historians have begun to argue for the importance of China’s resistance to Japan not only for China, but for the whole world.  By resisting Japanese aggression from 1931’s Manchurian Incident to full-scale war from 1937 onward, China bought time for the Western countries to gather their wits and then their military resources.  From 1941 onward, China figured as the chief battlefield and military opponent of Japan.[1]  From this point of view, the American combined arms offensive across the Pacific and the British counter-attack in Burma were side-shows. 

In its struggle against Japan, China received little help from Western countries.  After the war, China received little for the eventual victory over Japan.  Now, suggest the Chinese historians, it is time for that bill to be paid by according China the leading role in Asia.[2] 

Probably they are taking their cue from Western historians who examined the roots of European appeasement policies in the 1930s.  Those historians have argued that not moral rot, but strategic and economic realities hampered Britain and France from making an early stand against Hitler.  They needed time to rearm or they would be defeated.  Germany’s re-militarization of the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland were all necessary sacrifices in this delaying action.[3]  The difference is that Western historians have no policy agenda. 

[1] For background, see: 

[2] Rana Mitter, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020), reviewed by Howard French, WSJ, 14 October 2020. 

[3] For a counter-attack on this view, see Tim Bouverie, Appeasement (2019). 

ChiMerica 4 18 May 2020.

For decades, both foreign policy experts and business leaders saw China in a favorable light.  They expounded their views to American voters.  Opening China to capitalism and world markets would integrate the Asian giant into the global economy to the benefit of all.  At the same time, capitalism would raise billions out of poverty while spawning a middle-class, the historical driver of democratization.

“Outsiders” long dissented from this “elite” view of China.  They claimed that China rigged its domestic market to exclude foreign products, subsidized Chinese companies competing on international markets, and ruthlessly stole intellectual property.  One effect came in the massive out-sourcing of American industrial jobs and manufacturing in the wake of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).  They claimed that China remained a one-party state governed by and for the benefit of the Communist Party.  They pointed out that economic power converts readily to military power, while China advanced supposed “historical” claims to territory beyond its current borders.

Now the “elite” view has lost traction.  American public opinion has taken an increasingly critical view of the Peoples’ Republic of China.[1]  Already in 2019, under the shadow of the tariff war with the United States, the brutal repression of the Uighur minority, and the crack-down on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, 57 percent of Americans took an unfavorable view of China.  In February 2020, the unfavorable view had risen to 67 percent.  There is little difference between the political parties in their perception of China as a threat to American interests: 62 percent of Democrats see it that way, leaving little daylight between them and the 68 percent of Republicans who feel the same way.

As a candidate, Donald Trump loudly expounded the anti-China “outsider” view.  As President, he followed his campaign words with presidential action by slamming severe tariffs on China and harshly criticizing it behavior.  Now the United States is in the midst of a coronavirus-induced economic collapse that has undone all the progress that took place during the first Trump administration.  Now the country is desperately short of the personal protective equipment that American companies produced at home in days of yore.  Now many countries, and not merely the United States, are criticizing China for a lack of transparency in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.


How vulnerable is China to external pressure?  China faces grave economic problems.   Its drive for industrialization overshot even the huge demands of domestic and export markets, leaving it saddled with excess productive capacity.  Its long construction boom has achieved the same thing in terms of office space and housing, leaving a property bubble.  Both were financed by excessive government credit channeled through banks that are now on the verge of insolvency.

As the early response to the coronavirus in Wuhan showed, the Chinese central government is hard-put to respond to a crisis because of the autonomy actually exercised by—often corrupt–local authorities.  Moreover, the claim of the Communist Party to sole authority requires that its failures be covered up.  Finally, China’s flawed economic progress has enriched the Party elite and their cronies.  Fixing problems would require painful sacrifice.[2]  For all these reasons, China is vulnerable to external pressure.


How wise or idiotic would it be to exert such pressure?  Anything that triggered a severe economic crisis in China would send shock waves around the globe.  Slumping Chinese production would lead to falling demand for raw materials from many countries.  For example, in 2018, China imported more than $60 billion worth of iron ore, gas, coal, agricultural, forestry and fisheries products.[3]  China is deeply entangled in global supply chains for many goods, so the markets for many Chinese products would also start to strangle.  Finally, the global financial system would suffer from the resulting global slowdown.  Thus, in the interlocked global economy, trouble in China will mean trouble everywhere else.  Furthermore, as history has shown time and again, severe economic problems have comparable political effects.  Sometimes the effects create important reforms.  Sometimes they create turmoil and crisis.  All in all, it seems better to seek a co-operative solution that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying problems.  That might appeal to the risk-averse, but they aren’t the only ones making decisions.

[1] Walter Russell Mead, “Trump’s Best Re-election Bet: Run Against Beijing,” WSJ, 23 April 2020.

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “China Is the Sick Man of Asia,” WSJ, 4 February 2020.

[3] See:

Red Hot China 20 July 2019.

Something I wrote in early 2011, but never posted.

The good news.  China has made extraordinary progress.  Between 1980 and 2010 the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of ten percent per year.  The massive expansion of wealth and comparatively well-paid employment has lifted half a billion people out of poverty in a nation of 1.3 billion people.  China has conquered world markets in all sorts of things.  To take an extreme example, sixty percent of the clothes manufactured in the world are manufactured in China.  Ten years ago a million people graduated from university.  This year six million people graduated.

The bad news.  Progress has come at a cost.  First, China’s economic growth has been driven by exports rather than by an expansion of domestic demand.  On the one hand, this makes China’s economy highly sensitive to down-turns in the world market.  The 2008-2011 recession pushed down Chinese exports by ten percent and forced the closing of 100,000 factories (which involved laying off 30 million people).  Sustained economic growth will depend on a global economic revival.  On the other hand, wages and living standards for most Chinese remain extremely low.

Second, China’s environment has been devastated by rapid industrialization.  China has lots of coal, so it burns it for energy.  Half the rivers are severely polluted.  Drinkable water is running short.  China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air quality.

Third, contemporary China resembles to 19th Century Europe: there are great and obvious disparities of wealth; poverty-stricken peasants flood into raw new cities which are unready to receive them; and an educated class is being created faster than are jobs for them to fill.

What does the future hold?  That is hard to say.  The government responded to the global recession with a stimulus plan substantially larger than the one approved by the United States (“We are all Keynesians now,” as Richard Nixon said, but apparently some are more Keynesian than others).  The government is allowing wages to rise in order to create more domestic demand and to improve living standards.  The government has announced a commitment to spending over $400 billion to develop green technologies by 2020.  At the same time, there is much discontent.[1]

The average Chinese faces a lot of insecurity.  There’s virtually no old-age pensions; the one-child policy has ended up forcing one child to care for two parents and even for four grandparents, but the kids don’t have the means or the time; private schools are much better than the public schools; public health care is lousy; there’s no unemployment insurance; there is no system of farm price supports, so price or harvest fluctuations can devastate the income of peasants.  For all these reasons, the Chinese save—rather than consume–about a third of their after-tax income.  In most countries, about 70 percent of GDP goes to consumption; in China only 36 percent is consumed.

A further problem arises from the enormous profits of the State Owned Enterprises.  These are re-invested, rather than distributed as dividends, as would be the case in most places.  The result is the creation of excess productive capacity while consumer incomes are held down.  This is a prescription for disaster at some point.  One solution would be to either privatize the SOEs or to heavily tax their profits and shift them to consumers through payment or social security systems that reduced their own need to save.[2]

[1] “The cracks in China’s engine,” The Week, 8 October 2010, p. 15.

[2] Nouriel Roubini, “The Confucian Consumer,” Newsweek, 24 January 2011, p. 31.

The Asian Century 7 19 July 2019.

What are the ambitions of contemporary China?  To what extent does Xi Jinping speak for those ambitions?  How do actions reveal ambitions?  How likely is China to attain those ambitions?  That is, how great are Chinese resources and to what extent will China’s actions create counter-vailing pressure?   These are important questions with no crystal-clear answers.[1]  Still, take them in reverse order.

First, China’s tremendous economic transformation in the years since the death of Mao and his system have raised China up into the second largest economy in the world.   On the one hand,[2] this has given China abundant financial resources to deploy.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” is a gigantic infrastructure program.  It is building highways, railroads, pipelines, and ports in that link China with “the Stans,”[3] with South and Southeast Asia, and with the Indian Ocean.  It is building dams and roads in places like Cambodia.  On the other hand, it has given the Chinese an immense, justified pride in themselves and their country.  The 19th Century “of humiliation” is at an end, but the psychological legacy remains powerful.

Second, there are forces that may disrupt the assertion of Chinese power.  On the one hand, the very uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity, environmental degradation, and pervasive corruption have piled up fuel for a potential fire.  “Never throw a match when it’s dry, son.”[4]  Hoping to avert such a catastrophe, the Communist Party has engaged in “techno-authoritarianism” and old-fashioned prison camps.  Keeping a lid on a boiling pot isn’t the same thing as turning down the heat.  On the other hand, China’s growing presence in East Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia sets off many alarms.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” has expanded China’s influence in the “Stans.” If someone needs to be concerned about China’s expanding influence, it is Russia.  Around the South China Sea, China has aroused concern in other countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan.  Then, there is the Chinese impact on common people.  As one Burmese told a Western journalist: “[The Chinese] smile with their faces, but are crooked in their hearts.”

Third, under Zi Jinping, “China is determined to take its place as a modern world power.”  What does “world power” mean to the Chinese and their leaders?  It is useful to recall the work on American Cold War foreign policy by the historian John Lewis Gaddis.[5]  Gaddis traced the debates between a low-cost “point defense” of vital American interests and a “symmetrical” global opposition to Communism.  The Chinese appear to aim at dominating their peripheral areas, rather than at mounting a global challenge to America.  Can the United States untangle itself from its global commitments—some of them mere legacies of earlier times—in order to defend its economic and security interests in wat is shaping up to be the decisive arena of the new century?

[1] Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road (2017).

[2] President Truman once exclaimed that “What I want is a one-armed economist so that I don’t have to listen to some son-of-a-bitch go ‘on the one hand,…’.”   Unfortunately, reality has forced the habit upon me.

[3] “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “the land of.”  Commonly, “the Stans” refer to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  All used to be part of Tsarist Russia, and then of the Soviet Union.

[4] Corb Lund:

[5] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Strategy During the Cold War (rev. ed. 2005).

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: