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:  

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.