The Asian Century 18.

            How “hawkish” on China does President Biden want to be?  Between the election and inauguration, observers recognized that the Democratic foreign policy establishment is divided.  On the one hand, there is the global issues[1] faction that deprecates great power competition as a diversion from key future developments.  On the other hand, there are the traditionalists who see a strong United States as the leader in a movement to create a rules-based international order that can shackle “evil doers.”   China would provide a first test of which faction had the upper hand. 

            The Biden administration has moved quickly to confront the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).[2]  It invited Taiwan’s chief diplomatic representative to Biden’s inauguration; it announced that it would sell weapons to Taiwan; it fended off a Chinese suggestion of talks in the near future by pleading the need to consult allies; it endorsed the Trump administration’s position that China’s Uighur minority art the target of genocide[3]; and allowed the voyage of a naval force to the South China Sea to go forward. 

            On the surface, there is much to like about Biden’s assertion of traditional forms of American power.  At the same time, previous practitioners would warn that it is all too easy to get into an escalating cycle of actions.[4]    

            If Zi wants tough action and not just tough talk, he could order some kind of military demonstration.  Perhaps China could whack the Indians along their common border, as they did in late January, or fly war planes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, as they also did.  The trouble is that such action might bring forth some new action by the Americans.  This, in turn, would require some further response.

The alternative of doing nothing but talk tough in response would be tricky for Zi Jinping.  It could signal weakness or uncertainty to people inside and outside China.  Zi could easily survive foreign perceptions, because he could calmly wait on the growth of Chinese power while looking for safe opportunities to demonstrate it.  Could he survive domestic perceptions of weakness?  Is he sure enough of his position?  Are his rivals sufficiently contained, his enemies imprisoned?[5]  In this case, a renewed round of domestic repression would serve a dual purpose.  On the one hand, it would offer a chance to weed out suspected weak links and dissidents.  On the other hand, human rights is now an entrenched American foreign policy concern.  So, domestic brutality would be both a way of shoring up Zi’s own position while openly defying one of American foreign policy’s stated goals.  What are the Americans going to do about it?  Sovereign countries can pretty much get away with doing whatever they want inside their own borders.  It’s one of the privileges of sovereignty. 

One might expect that Zi will opt for a policy of domestic toughness, notably against any “nationalists” who questions his toughness abroad.  Meanwhile, the US and the PRC probably will continue strengthening their positions.  Perhaps they will find a way out. 


[1] Climate change first of all, but then human rights, migration, and—now—pandemic disease. 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “Can Biden Find Clarity on China and Russia?” WSJ, 14 December 2020; Mead, “Biden’s Opening Salvo on Beijing,” WSJ, date misplaced. 

[3] Biden had said the same thing on the campaign trail before his election. 

[4] For a scary, real-world example, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef7f9v2HEl0 

[5] In all fairness, it usually took a long series of reverses before a Chinese emperor was said to have lost the “Mandate of Heaven.” 

The Asian Century 17b.

Yet, for historians—if not for political scientists or economists—there is reason for cautious optimism.  On the one hand, the historical record suggests that democracies can be slow to mobilize their strength, but better able to mobilize that strength over the long haul.[1]  If one looks at (or, much worse, had to live through) the period from 1930 to 1942, one could easily believe that the liberal system had shot its bolt.  Economic depression, the collapse of new democracies, the appeasement of authoritarian nations, and military defeat slammed confidence in the Western system.  Three years later Berlin and Tokyo lay in smoking ruins. 

Second, “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”[2]  The recent unpleasantness at the end of the Trump presidency led journalists and public intellectuals to invoke the example of the disputed presidential election of 1876.  Squalid as were those events, they also helped settle a period of deep division within the United States and helped bring on a long period of rising power and prosperity.[3] 

American business may be resistant to government guidance on China policy, but it is resistant to government policy on many things.  Usually, the outcome is satisfactory to most people.  American society is immensely creative and innovative.  The rapid development of two vaccines for Covid 19 demonstrate that old truth.  Conversely, the many problems with distributing the vaccine fall to the responsibility of the state and federal governments.  Hardly cause for business to defer to the state.  During the pandemic, American businesses have moved rapidly ahead with collaboration software (like Zoom), direct delivery bypassing stores, and cloud computing to manage all of it.  Compare this with the PRC’s treatment of Jack Ma, the entrepreneur who created Alibaba and Ant.  He got “disappeared” for a while after he suggested that entrepreneurial innovation outstrips old ideas.  About the subordination of business to the state for example. 

America remains remarkably open to immigration.[4]  Immigration helps off-set the aging of the native-born population, while admitting large numbers of people eager to work and to create their own futures.  In contrast, the PRC oppresses its own people and violates international agreements, like the Anglo-Chinese agreement on Hong Kong, in order to get more people to oppress.  China is not a country of voluntary immigration. 

By any standard, China’s economic progress since the death of Mao has been extraordinary in statistical terms.  However, much of that progress came from moving peasants out of low productivity rural farming and into higher productivity urban manufacturing.  The government has used subsidies, entry into the world market, and massive intellectual property theft to push China so far forward so fast.  There is good reason to wonder if the PRC has reached the limits of what can be obtained by such methods.  Just when they’ve alarmed the US. 


[1] This is a central theme of Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War, 1939-1945 (1968).  It remains the best single volume history of the Second World War. 

[2] Adam Smith.  I forget where I read it, but it stuck with me. 

[3] Richard White, the author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (2017), would wish to qualify this view if it ever came to his attention. 

[4] In 2017, 2018, and 2019, an average of 1,085,181 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, an average of 1,060,401 people obtained lawful permanent resident status each year.  See: https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/table1 

The Asian Century 17a.

            It is now commonly accepted that the United States (US) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are strategic competitors.[1]  All eyes regard this competition, for they represent two different approaches to government and economic management.[2]  China combines an effective authoritarian government with state-managed semi-capitalism.  The US combines democracy with a regulated free market.  For the duration of the “Fifty Years War”[3] the United States represented the preferred wave of the future for an ever-growing share of the world’s population.  Is the US able to win a new competition or have essential elements of its previous strength dissolved?  Is China better able than were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to win a competition with the US?  It depends where you look. 

Does the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020 offer any insight into the relative positions of the US and the PRC?  The answer must be NO if examined in international perspective.[4]  Democratic Taiwan did better than the PRC; the United Kingdom did even worse than did the US in spite of doing all the things that Democrats criticized the Trump administration for not doing.  The explanation for the diversity of results may have something to do with an Asian culture of compliance with the public interest in comparison with a Western culture of asserting individual rights at the expense of the community. 

It is sad, but true that the Covid pandemic is a transitory event.  It has been deadly and disruptive in its impact, but in a year it will be history.  More fundamental issues should be alarming.  So far, China has won the trade war launched by President Trump.  During 2020 its trade surplus increased, as did the trade deficit of the US.  The Trump administration’s attack on Huawei Technologies led the PRC to pour resources into its semi-conductor industry.  American efforts to get other countries to join in exerting pressure on China signally failed.  European, South American, and Asian countries are so entranced by the promise of the China market that they seek to fill the gaps when other countries try to pressure China.[5]  Nor is American politics oriented toward pursuing a coherent industrial policy during peacetime.  One of Trump’s last acts as President was to see his efforts to encourage an American rival to Huawei come to grief.  Intel announced plans to offshore some of its chip production; while Cisco rejected government entreaties to buy either Nokia or Ericsson.  Here they put the bottom line ahead of national strategy.  One of Biden’s first acts as President was to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Here he put the demands of environmentalists over the interests of America’s Canadian ally (and over those of the American construction workers who had been building the pipeline). 

Finally, Chinese news media are portraying the riot at the Capitol as proof that American democracy is crumbling.  Many, here and abroad, would agree with this grim judgement. 


[1] Greg Ip, “China Played Its Hand Well in 2020.  Will It Keep Winning?” WSJ, 23-24 January 2021. 

[2] I’m not sure how Francis Fukuyama makes sense of this development.  Apparently, Hegelianism only takes you so far.  See Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man Standing (1992).  Still, he’s teaching at Chicago and I’m working at an educational wide spot in the road.  So,…

[3] The struggle from 1940 to 1990 between capitalist liberal democracy and autarkic dictatorships. 

[4] See: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases 

[5] For example, the European Union recently concluded an agreement with China to increase investment.  In doing so, they ignored a suggestion from Jake Sullivan, then President Biden’s national security advisor-designate that they should wait. 

My Weekly Reader 16 January 2021.

            Between 1750 and 1914, what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “Dual Revolution”[1] gave the West a sudden and enormous advantage over the rest of the world.  Taking advantage of this shift in the balance of world power, Western countries returned with new energy to the policy of imperialism.  By 1914, the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia had been subdued and Africa partitioned, while the rotting Ottoman and Chinese empires were next on the list.  Political control went hand-in-hand with determined effort at economic and social Westernization.  Christian missions, banks, schools, railroads and steamship lines, army posts and naval bases, mines, tropical medicine institutes, plantations, newspapers, tax collectors, and courts sprang up everywhere.[2] 

            Half a century later, those empires were gone.  How did that happen?  Many factors played a role.  The Second World War left Europe in ruins, while elevating two anti-colonial “Superpowers.”  Relatively few Westerners had gone out to run the empires.  Their sway over non-Western subjects depended heavily upon prestige, the sense that Westerners really were superior.  The Japanese victories over Westerners in British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, and the American Philippines showed that non-Westerners could defeat Westerners.  After the war, European countries were preoccupied with using their limited resources for economic reconstruction and social reform.  Finally, the war had been fought by the Westerners for the cause of individual liberty, human rights, and democracy.  Faced with colonial independence movements after the war, they couldn’t say “For us, but not for you.”  

            Yet the Western collapse tells, at most, half the story.  More important is the rise of support for independence movements.  The colonial people had been no more happy to be subjugated to foreign rule than had African-Americans to be subjugated to slavery.  How to respond to the Western challenge had long divided non-Westerners—from the American Plains to Central Africa to the Ottoman Empire to East Asia.  One answer was to turn Western achievements against Western rule.  This ran from wholesale imitation of the sources of power (Japan) to the exploitation of Western political thought, like the idea of nationalism, against those who claimed to represent it (India).  Then the wars incidentally created a base of nationalists.  They did so by accelerating the creation of a middle class and a cadre of experienced military leaders.  Both groups were strongly nationalist and eager to rise. 

            Finally, there were the committed revolutionaries.[3]  Their numbers continually winnowed by the colonial police, they printed illegal newspapers and handbills, organized demonstrations and strikes, travelled within their homelands and between different empires using false documents, and sometimes led armed uprisings.  These were the men who often would take office at the hand-over of power.  They would try—with uneven success–to build new states. 


[1] In politics this meant the emergence of strong centralized nation-states ever-more based upon the support of the governed.  In economics this meant the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution, which generated immense wealth.  The political revolution began in France, the economic revolution began in England.  With the passage of time, both revolutions spread everywhere, simultaneously creating and destroying. 

[2] For a compelling view of the British Empire at its height, see James (Jan) Morris, Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire (1968). 

[3] Tim Harper, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire (2021).  See the perceptive review by Walter Russell Mead, WSJ, 13 January 2021. 

The Asian Century 16.

            At the dawning of the Cold War in Asia, the United States limited its security commitments in the region.  Holding Japan headed the list of American concerns.  The Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) seemed close to defeat by the Communists.  American efforts to reform or reinforce the Kuomintang, or to mediate a peace had foundered.  Nothing more could be done.  Communist victory in 1949 did not trigger an American commitment to stop further dominoes from falling.  The remnants of the Kuomintang were left to fend for themselves; American troops began to withdraw from Korea; and the Americans made clear to the French that their war in Indochina was a lost cause.[1]  Then the Korean War began (1950); Communist China intervened against the Americans; the Americans committed themselves to South Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina; and the two countries were at daggers drawn for twenty years. 

            All this suddenly changed in the 1970s.  Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger began an “opening” to China, while post-Mao China launched a sweeping transformation of its economy and society.  That transformation accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The United States and China appeared to develop a community of interest that would shape the future world.[2]  One of the sticking-points that had to be finessed was the fate of Taiwan.[3]  China has held to a “one China” policy that amounts to a determination to regain all the parts of traditional China that have been lost.  Chiefly this has meant Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  The United States has accepted this policy as a long-term goal while insisting that it not take place by force.  Without adequate military force to face-down the United States, China had to play the long game.  Meanwhile, protected by the United States, South Korea and Taiwan flourished. 

            It seems to some observers that we are at the beginning of a new phase.  China’s rapid economic development has permitted the once-weak country to begin projecting its power and claims.  China has engaged in a massive military build-up, expressed in a sustained campaign to gain control of the South China Sea.  It has begun reeling-in lost territories.  Macao and Hong Kong have been the first to fall.  Now Taiwan has become the focus of attention.  The loss of Taiwan would harm American national interests.  Partly the reasons are economic; partly they are diplomatic and military; taken altogether they are strategic.  Which system will dominate Asia?  Will it be the American system of democratization and an open market economy?  Will it be the Chinese system of autocratic government and a state-controlled economy? 

            Grand gestures without solid backing likely will lead to humiliating climb-downs in Asia.  “Solid backing” means military spending and alliance-revival through sustained diplomacy.  It alos means looking to the economic and technological foundations of national strength.  This grave challenge comes at a difficult time for Americans.  Donald Trump’s “America First” policies expressed, rather than caused, a pre-occupation with domestic social and economic concerns.  Seeing beyond the here-and-now will take strong leadership.  


[1] Brian Crozier, The Man Who Lost China: The First Full Biography of Chiang Kai-shek (1976); Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Patterns in the Dust: Chinese-American Relations and the Recognition Controversy, 1949-1950 (1983); Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu (1989).

[2] The omnipresent British smarty-pants Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica.”  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimerica 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Beijing Won’t Bow to Bluster,” WSJ, 12 January 2021. 

China Data.

            During the late 1980s, Judy Shelton, a researcher at the Hoover Institution, began an examination of the public documents on the Soviet Union’s budget.[1]  Communism’s centrally-planned economy had spent decades setting unreachable production targets and then hiding the failure to achieve those targets.  The huge Soviet arms build-up after the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Americans in the Cuban Missile Crisis had long term effects.  The military (the “metal-eaters” as they were called) creamed off resources that could have been devoted to either civilian consumption or investment in production.  Economic stagnation went hand in hand with mounting popular discontent behind a veneer of great military power.  Shelton concluded that massive inflationary forces were being held back by controls, but eventually the dam would burst.  In the meantime, she argued, Mikhail Gorbachev sought to stave off the disaster by obtaining Western credits and technology.[2]  As Shelton predicted, collapse followed. 

            Twenty years on another financial crisis arose in Greece.[3]  Following a historical pattern, Greece had borrowed a lot of money from foreign lenders, spent the money on a higher standard of living in the short-term without investing in higher productivity in the long-term, cooked the books to cover what they were doing for as long as possible, and then loudly bemoaned their unjust fate when the sheriff finally showed up. 

            The common thread here is that reality and perception differed widely.  Both the Soviet Union and Greece worked hard to project an image that concealed grave problems.  Only a handful of budget experts could—with much labor—discern the truth.  The reason these historical cases matter is because not everyone today is happy with the state of data from China.   

            In the eyes of one analyst,[4] it is necessary to do a lot of digging to figure out what is going on.  On the one hand, Chinese government officials and managers are under continual pressure to meet certain quantitative standards.  In this situation, “real” growth (adjusted for inflation) is more important to managers than is actual new output.  So they may tend to overstate “real” growth.  Calculating inflation is a coarse art in China when compared to Western industrial countries.  This facilitates overstating “real” growth.  In addition, the government suppresses existing, reliable data reports when they diverge too much from the government’s line.  In 2016, the government halted publication of lending to public versus private borrowers; in 2018, it halted publication of purchasing managers indexes in Guangdong province. 

            On the other hand, this manipulation of data can makes things really difficult for people who are just trying to do productive things.  Obviously, it hinders the work of foreign observers who are trying to understand and anticipate the performance of the world’s second largest economy.  However, it can have the same effect on Chinese managers struggling to run their firms.  If uncertainty about economic performance piles up year after year, there’s going to be a reckoning.  Also, this isn’t public finance, but it may be true there as well. 


[1] On Shelton, now a controversial figure and notable spoil-sport, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Shelton   

[2] Judy Shelton, The Coming Soviet Crash: Gorbachev’s Desperate Pursuit of Credit in Western Financial Markets (1989). 

[3] Carmen M. Reinhart and Christoph Trebesch, The Pitfalls of External Dependence: Greece, 1829-2015 (2015), Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ReinhartTextFall15BPEA.pdf 

[4] Nathaniel Taplin, “China’s Growth Data Dazes and Confuses,” WSJ, 5 January 2021. 

Looking Forward in December 2020 2.

            President Joe Biden will face three chief problem areas in foreign policy.[1]    

            First and foremost, there is the problem of Asia.  “China is sort of the radioactive core of America’s foreign policy issues.”[2]  The phrase “U.S.-Chinese relations” offers an umbrella for two main issues.  The first is economic, covering trade and technology.  The second is China’s current and projected outward reach, meaning—for the moment– Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.  Donald Trump replaced the long-term American policy of co-operation with one of confrontation.  The central pillars of this approach have been tariffs, harassing the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and talking about building up the over-stretched U.S. Navy.  The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uighurs, Hong Kong, and internal critics of its response to the Corona virus show the direction Zi Jinping intends to take on internal affairs.  Will the same be true in foreign policy?  To what extent will President Joe Biden change course from the Trump administration?

            There is no good solution in sight to the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea.  Plastering the little country with economic sanctions didn’t work.  Trump’s initiative to open direct contact with North Korea didn’t work.  Somehow (or from someone) North Korea acquired ICBM rocket engines and the ability to stop the US from messing up its missile test launches.  Biden has roundly denounced Trump’s appeasement of North Korea, but hasn’t suggested any alternative beyond rhetorical initiatives.  If the Obama administration wouldn’t bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program, would a Biden administration bomb North Korea? 

The second is the Middle East.  For a long time, America’s Middle East policy sought to limit Soviet influence in the area and to gain security for Israel through a resolution of the Palestinian problem.  Events have by-passed by far this policy.  The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the scale of that danger.  However, the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war[3] took its place. 

The Obama administration negotiated an agreement to limit Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for a time, but left other aspects of Iran’s assertive behavior for some future day.  President Trump abandoned that agreement and restored unilateral, but painful for Iran, sanctions.  President-elect Biden has said that he will reverse course by rejoining the agreement, but he also has said that Iran must commit to additional negotiations.  “Iran is desperate for a deal.”[4]  How desperate? 

Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran strengthened both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by the more accommodationist policy of the Obama administration.  An Israel-Sunni Arab coalition is well under construction, with knock-on damage to the long-term Two States solution to the Palestinian problem.  Will the Biden administration reverse course on the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam?  Will it restore support for a Two State solution?  How will it deal with the Crown Prince (and likely future king) of Saudi Arabia?[5] 

            The third is relations with America’s European allies.  In 1949, the United States created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deter the existential threat from a Soviet attack on Western Europe.  Forty years later the Soviet Union disintegrated.  NATO faced a new existential threat: what was its purpose?  No one has come up with a good answer. 

Trump openly and repeatedly disparaged our Continental European allies, while hoping for better relations with post-Soviet Russia.  Will the Biden administration find common interests with Russia in areas like arms control, even if it means throwing overboard the kleptocracy in Ukraine?  Will the Biden administration bear with the continual post-Trump whining from E.U. leaders to “prove you love me”? 

Seeing Britain’s departure from the European Union (E.U.) through the same optic of “tribalism” and “nationalism” as they saw Donald Trump, both former President Obama and presidential candidate Biden opposed “Brexit.”[6]  Trump thought that he saw a kindred spirit in British prime minister Boris Johnson.  Now Trump will be replaced by Biden, but both Johnson and “Brexit” are still there.  Will the Biden administration really want to make things difficult for America’s most reliable ally now that “Brexit” is a done deal?    

Joe Biden seems adept at dealing with realities as they exist.  It is at least possible that there will be an uncomfortable degree of continuity between the foreign policies of the Trump and Biden administrations. 


[1] Rick Gladstone, “Biden to face a Long List of Foreign Challenges, With the Chinese at the Top,” NYT, 9 November 2020. 

[2] Orville Schell.  On Schell, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orville_Schell 

[3] Essentially this pitted Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon against Sunnis everywhere else, with Saudi Arabia taking a leading role. 

[4] Cliff Kupchan.  On Kupchan, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Kupchan    

[5] The man appears to be a very able psychopath. 

[6] “Brexit” seems to me to be an understandable bad idea with much deeper historical roots than is often recognized. 

The Asian Century 15.

            Analogies hand us a useful device for understanding the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.[1]  The key thing is to pick the right analogy.[2]  In Summer 2019, Walter Russell Mead offered the early Soviet-American Cold War as a useful analogy for understanding the contemporary relationship between the United States and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).[3]  He emphasizes that the Soviet-American relationship plunged down-hill so fast that it caught the American public flat-footed.  Mead suggests that today China and the United States stand on the edge of a similar precipice.  If we go over the edge, no one can predict the duration or nature or outcome of the struggle. 

            Looking back at the Soviet-American rivalry for lessons, Mead asks about the impact of ideologies, the future “hot spots” of the competition, the impact on American society, the role of and impact on the high cultures (meaning higher education and technology) of the rivals, and how the densely woven relationship between China and America will affect and be affected by such a competition.[4] 

            Just as “the emperor counsels simplicity,” Mead counsels Americans to give much thought to understanding both themselves and China.  First, how do Chinese leaders see China and its place in the world?  Since the death of Mao, China has experienced tremendous economic growth under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.  That economic growth created a large and self-confident middle class.  Some observers, applying the analogy of the European bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th Centuries, believe that this middle class is showing the first signs of restlessness with the Party’s leading strings.[5]  Will Beijing pursue an assertively nationalist foreign policy to squelch dissent?  What might be the outcomes of such a policy?[6]    

            Second, how can Americans forge a consistent and effective China policy when the country is so deeply divided?  Here Mead penetrates much less deeply.  On the one hand, the origin of our discontents has not yet found any satisfying explanation.[7]  On the other hand, he doesn’t broach the subject of whether America even has the resources to rise to the challenge.  So, coming to know ourselves may be a lengthy undertaking.      


[1] See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasoning-analogy/ 

[2] Ernest R. May, “Lessons of the Past”: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (1975). 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Americans Aren’t Ready for Cold War II,” WSJ, 11 June 2019.  It’s an encouraging choice of analogy in the sense that the Cold War never turned into a full-scale direct military conflict. 

[4] At this point, it might be useful to start building a library of Cold War history books.  Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (2000); John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the Cold War (1989); and Geir Lundstad, East, West, North, South: International Relations since 1945 (2017) can all be recommended.   

[5] On the European analogies, see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962); and William L. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969).  Sure they’re “old” books.  That’s because a couple of really smart guys got there first.  Everybody since has been nibbling around the edges. 

[6] For this analogy, see Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (1973). 

[7] Kevin M. Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 (2020) and Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (2012) fall into the Blame Republicans First camp.  Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2013); and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1999) are conservative interpretations of one theme in the conversation.  Reading the Conclusions and Recommendations of The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) would be a good way to begin. 

The White Russians in Shanghai 2.

The French Concession at Shanghai was very modern in terms of its appearances and services, but was home to comparatively few businesses.  Consequently, rents and property values were lower here than in the International Concessions.  Not a few rich Chinese merchants had built opulent homes in the French Concession because of the superior services and policing compared to the rest of Shanghai.[i]  The better-off among the Russians often settled along the plane tree-lined Avenue Joffre in the western part of the concession, which became known as the “Russian concession.”  Here there were many Russian restaurants, cabarets, bakeries, and shops, all with signs in Cyrillic over their doors.[ii] 

Few of the Russian refugees arrived with the resources to start a new life, but many of them managed to thrive over the years.[iii]  The prosperity of the European population, the vitality of commerce in the great trading port, and the absence of the sort of professional restrictions on the immigrants which prevailed in European countries allowed the refugees to make a better living than was commonly the case for the Russian refugees in Europe or America.[iv]  Valentin Fedoulenko, who ran a successful pharmacy in the French Concession, recalled the favorable business conditions that made prosperity possible.  “Credit there was rather easy to obtain from the Chinese firms.  But the condition was that everything must be paid [back] within one year; if you didn’t pay within one year then you never got any more credit.  If you did pay back within one year then you had complete respect and you had all the money you ever needed.”  In addition, “We had almost no taxes to pay and life was truly remarkable for a long time. We did not know such a thing as income tax up to the end, when the merchants had to pay a tiny percentage of their income.”  There was a sham quality to this glitter of success however.  “In Shanghai money was unstable and we were taught not to hoard it but rather to spend it.”  Inflationary conditions bred inflationary behavior.  “All of this trade was based on very easy credit.  As we used to call it in Shanghai, this was business sucked out of one’s own thumb. Many of our merchants who gave the appearance of being very wealthy were in fact quite poor but lived and operated on credit.”[v]  

According to a 1925 census of the foreign settlements in Shanghai, there were only about 4,000 White Russians living within the privileged areas.  From 6,000 to 10,000 more, the much less successful, lived in Chinese Shanghai.[vi]  The prosperity attained by some allowed them to escape the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summers by vacations at one of the northern Chinese ports.  These cities– Peitaiho, near the Gulf of Chili, and Tsingtao and Chefoo, on the Shantung peninsula–became popular summer vacation spots for White Russians in Shanghai with the means to afford it.  The upper crust brought their marriageable daughter there in hopes of finding a match with a British or American naval officer; the Shanghai prostitutes hoped to do a profitable trade with sailors on shore-leave.[vii]  Tsingtao became known as the “Brighton of the Far East” because of its cool climate, a beautiful beach on the Yellow Sea, and the large Strand Hotel.[viii] 

A favorite place for relaxation among Shanghai’s foreign population—including the White Russians–was the Cercle Sportif Français which admitted interesting Chinese and women.  It had a dance floor and an excellent restaurant, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and a roof garden in the form of a pagoda.[ix] 


[i] Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 241. 

[ii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64; Sergeant, Shanghai, p. 36. 

[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64.  

[iv] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 35. 

[v] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 53, 59, 84. 

[vi] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 41. 

[vii] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 36. 

[viii] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 18. 

[ix] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, pp. 72, 160. 



The White Russians in Shanghai.

            In this anomalous city, the White Russians occupied an anomalous position.  They were a vitalizing, but disruptive, element.  The First World War coincided with–if it did not create–a marked change in the social life of foreign residents in the Shanghai settlements.  Before the war the foreigners, the English especially, ordered their lives around afternoon carriage-rides on Bubbling Well Road, massive meals of over-cooked food, evenings of bridge, and social events at the various nationally-based clubs.  There was a golf course and stables and tennis courts for the week-ends.  After the war, movies, cabarets, and a much more frantic night-life seemed to take over.[i]  Many of the Russian émigrés bore with them into exile a very high level of culture and intellectual achievement.  Consequently, they greatly enlivened the colonial cultural backwater of “Western” Shanghai.  Music, theater, and dance all flourished with the coming of the Russians.[ii]  At the same time, White Russians ran many of the nightclubs, cabarets, and restaurants in foreign Shanghai.  As the nightlife grew more extravagant, more settled people tended to blame the White Russians for any trouble that arose.[iii]   

The White Russians were losers in a larger community of winners.  Unlike the other Westerners in Shanghai in the Twenties, the White Russians were not there by positive choice.  They were refugees, with the largest group arriving in 1923 after the evacuation of Vladivostok.  After 1921 they lacked the protection of extraterritoriality enjoyed by the British, French, and Americans, and were subject to the Mixed Court headed by a Chinese magistrate assisted by Western “assessors.[iv]  Some among them were not merely losers, but were also the fallen.  The prevalence of prostitution among White Russian women is probably much over-stated, but in the popular mind “’Russian girl’ came to mean ‘Caucasian harlot’ in the tenderloin lingo of Harbin, Shanghai, and Kobe.”[v]  In addition, there was the problem of alcoholism.  Valentin Fedoulenko recalled that “our one big sorrow was that there were many people who had been used to living in a certain rather prosperous way of life and who had found themselves suddenly in terrible conditions and had begun to drink very heavily.  During the first ten years we had a terrible problem of drunkenness among our Russian colony in Shanghai.  This was our great sorrow.  This period, until they all died of drunkenness, we had a horrible time with them….They would die very frequently right on the streets, dropping themselves completely to the level of the Chinese and worse…..”[vi]  Impoverished, stateless white people presented a problem for the British, French, and Americans who inhabited the “concessions.”  The Western domination of Asian peoples depended a good deal upon their prestige, the sense of superiority over the Chinese that they conveyed.  The other Westerners regarded the Russians as improvident and untrustworthy, fit only to be shunned, pitied, and despised.[vii] One White Russian refugee recalled the state of mind in October 1922, when the last White forces evacuated Vladivostok.  “The atmosphere was such that we were getting ourselves loaded on the ships and God knew where we would end up.  We had no plans, only that we could leave and go any place so as to escape the Bolsheviks.  Outside of that we had no plans.  Whatever would be in the future, anything would be better than to be caught by them.”[viii]


[i] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 6.  

[ii] Harriet Sergeant, Shanghai: Collision Point of Cultures, 1918-1939 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1990), p. 34.  

[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 73. 

[iv] Ibid, pp. 6, 41, 29-30.  The Mixed Court dealt with Chinese charged with crimes or engaged in civil suits, either among themselves or with foreigners, and with foreigners who did not enjoy extraterritorial protection, all within the settlements.  It was headed by a Chinese magistrate, but that magistrate was effectively under the supervision of the Shanghai Municipal Council (a western institution) and westerners sat as “assessors” on all cases. 

[v] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 8.  See Fedoulenko.  Michael Miller has observed of the mind of the French public that, thanks to popular literature during the inter-war period, “Around ‘les femmes russes de Shanghai’ grew up a certain literature–pornographic, cheaply sentimental, and laden with the specter of white decline in the Orient.”  Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 246. 

[vi] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 52-53. 

[vii] Sergeant, Shanghai, pp. 38, 39. 

[viii] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” p. 45.