Saturday, June 04, 2011

Why China is not going to be a Superpower

A great deal has been said and written about China in recent years -- about its "miracle economy", its financing of US debt, its impending "superpower status", and so on. Almost all of this discussion ignores the context in which all this activity is happening and thus ignores the realities of China with the result that such discussions are typically useless for understanding the current situation if not outright misleading.

Any understanding of China today has to be firmly based in a thorough understanding of Chinese history and culture. To present the basis for such an understanding in a single article is impossible. However, it may be just barely possible to roughly sketch the key concepts that need to be comprehended to begin to gain some understanding of what China is, how it got where it is, and where it is likely to be going, especially with respect to the US.

In the interest of brevity, I am electing not to discuss the specifics of China's on-going military build-up. That is a large topic that deserves more serious consideration in its own right; it can't be done justice here. But when the Chinese military build-up is viewed in the context of the rest of this article I hope it will be clear that is it not all that it has been cracked up to be.

I do however want to make two points regarding the Chinese military, and specifically the Chinese navy (the PLAN) because I think they tend to be overlooked and lead to serious misunderstanding. (For one thing, I see pundits taking official USG statements about China's regional power and leaping to conclusions about China's global power, apparently not realizing that China is not the top regional power in east Asia; it probably is not even Number 2.)

First, I believe it is hard to for American observers to appreciate the huge gap that exists between our understanding and experience of naval power and that of the Chinese. Naval power is so much a part of our heritage that we take it for granted; it is, as it were, in our blood. The Scandinavians had blue-water navies in the 9th and 10th centuries that were able to project power over a wider area than the PLAN can do today. European navies have been engaging in global operations for 500 years; the PLAN could not sail a ship to Hawaii on the 1990s without USN assistance.

These deficiencies are not due to lack of maritime technology, then or now. Sinophiles like to note the seaworthiness of Chinese junks and point out the apparent adoption of the stern-post rudder in China centuries before it was used in Europe. While this argument has problems on purely technical grounds, the larger point is that while the Chinese did have, and continues to have, the requisite technical means, the Chinese state deliberately turned its back on maritime expansion.

It did this for cultural reasons: the social characteristics needed to be a successful maritime power -- independence, innovation, personal initiative, individualism, risk taking, entrepreneurship -- are deeply antithetical to Chinese social philosophy and world view. It is not that these traits do not exist among the Chinese, but that they are seen as destabilizing and have been suppressed, driving their expression underground and into marginalized sectors of Chinese society.

Second, China has historically been inward looking and strongly focused on self-sufficiency; external trade was seen as something distasteful that was nevertheless nice to profit from when convenient, but not as a fundamental basis of prosperity. The Chinese would like to believe they could do without it and since trading with "barbarians" was demeaning to the state, they maintained official fictions about external trade, calling it "tribute", right up until the early 1800s.

These two factors -- disesteem of foreign trade and distrust of nautical culture -- turned the Chinese away from maritime development, preventing the creation of an effective navy and limiting severely limiting China's ability to project power. Related issues have similarly affected the Chinese military as a whole and account for much of China's historical military weakness.

These issues result from deeply ingrained ideals that have not gone away and they influence the way the Chinese government does business with foreign interests even today. The mask is very different than it was 200 years ago, but it is still a mask.

It is these deep divides in basic ideals and worldviews that make China so opaque to us. Chinese society embraces ideas that appear to us to be nonsensical, counter-productive, or contradictory. In many cases, they are any or all of these, but that does not matter to the Chinese because their ideas of how things work and how they should work, of what is desirable and what is intolerable, are quite different from ours.

The first thing to know about China is that it has the world's longest history of unbroken cultural continuity: the China of 4000 BC has substantial similarities to the China of today. As a conservative system for maintaining social order within a consistent cultural context, Chinese culture is unmatched; a fact to be either envied or deplored, depending on your point of view.

Chinese society has been based on a system of hierarchical relationships within the family unit since the time of our earliest evidence regarding their culture. Age was superior to youth, men to women, and rulers to subjects. Thus within the family, children are always inferior to parents, wives to husbands, sisters to brothers, younger brothers to elder brothers, and so on. The father figure controlled all family assets and held ultimate authority over his offspring; he could sell them into slavery if he desired or kill them for improper conduct. Moreover, these relationships were essentially fixed in perpetuity; that is, one was (in theory) always inferior to one's ancestors and superior to one's descendants.

It is the family, not the individual, that forms the most basic element in Chinese society and is the responsible unit in political life. Personal status was defined by one's position in the family, so each person had a role to play: a fixed set of social expectations established by convention and enforced by the authority of the father. If everyone properly performed their appointed role, order would be maintained. Failure in one's role would lead to being disesteemed by the group and meant catastrophic loss of face, which could be remedied by suicide.

Social relationships mimicked familial ones, so early China has been described as a familial state and similar rules applied. The filial piety and habits of obedience instilled by family life formed the basis for loyalty to the ruler and obedience to state authority. By extension of the father's authority over his family, Chinese governance has been, again since these very early times, authoritarian and autocratic. The ancient rulers legitimized and maintained their rule in large part by practicing ancestor worship; another echo of the basic family life.

Who that ruler was and how he was chosen has, in China, been historically based on the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate was bestowed on that man who was best suited to rule by virtue of his evident moral superiority. What made this man's moral superiority evident was primarily his success in warfare. Thus, in the Chinese view, being able to effectively slaughter one's rivals was taken as proof of Heaven's Mandate and since Heaven would never bestow its Mandate on the someone morally unfit, such prowess was de facto proof of moral superiority.

The holder of the Mandate became the Son of Heaven and was recognized an sort of "God on Earth", although the Chinese concept of god is not markedly similar to the Judeo-Christian concept. As such, disputing the will of the Son of Heaven was not only immoral it had a quasi-religious aspect also. (Originally, this was probably not quasi either, since the most ancient Chinese kings we know of appeared to be religious functionaries.)

Just as Heaven could bestow its Mandate, so Heaven could show that it's mandate had been revoked. Natural calamities such as floods, earthquakes, droughts, and plagues were common signs that the mandate had been lost, but so were losing face before barbarians or losing control of the common people. Thus, if a rebel could wrest control from the ruler, he could lay a plausible claim to the Mandate.

If this all seems slightly odd and circular to our way of things, that's because it is. But it has served the Chinese well, at least from their official point of view.

The reasons for China evolving both this type of society and this style of governance are complex and need not concern us here. The things to keep in mind is that they evolved in China's prehistory and have largely persisted to this day.

The first known Chinese rulers are the semi-legendary shaman-kings of Xia, Shang, and Zhou. Xia dates from about 2200 BC and was succeeded by Shang, which lasted from about 1750 BC to 1040 BC. Zhou, the first Chinese kingdom from which we have written records, dates from about 1100 BC to 256 BC, overlapping the Warring States period and ending within living memory of the establishment of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.

The economy of all three ancient kingdoms was based on settled agriculture, not trade, which was minimal. The shaman-kings maintained power through their vital role in communicating with the ancestors and the interpretation of oracles. Animal sacrifice was common and human sacrifice was sometimes practiced. Xia, Shang, and Zhou show a great deal of cultural homogeneity and continuity and the essential characteristics of Chinese society appear to be already well established.

During the so-called "Axial Age" around the middle of the 1st Millennium BC the power of the shaman-kings diminished and China evolved new social philosophies. These new philosophies sought to provide a sounder intellectual basis for a ruler's authority than the shamanistic practices of the earlier kings and they have provided the foundation for the organization and operation of Chinese society ever since.

These foundational social philosophies are Legalism and Confucianism. Legalism might be briefly described as a harsh realpolitik theory that made rigorous use of carrots and sticks -- mostly sticks -- to main social order. Legalism is not overly concerned with morality. Legalist thinkers considered good-hearted people to be ineffective and easy to manipulate. As prominent Legalist philosopher said: "If you glorify the good, errors will be hidden; if you put scoundrels are in charge, crime will be punished."

Confucianism, in contrast, stresses correct moral behavior and loyalty, especially loyalty to family -- filial piety -- and most especially loyalty to one's father, which was held to be absolute. By extension, loyalty to the ruler, as head of the greater family that was society as a whole, was held to similarly important, absent evidence that the ruler was losing or had lost the Mandate. (It should be noted that Confucius recognized that filial piety and one's duty to the ruler could conflict.)

A central tenant of Confucianism was the perfectibility of man. This was to be attained mainly by following the moral example of the ruler and initially applied only the elites; the common herd was assumed to controllable only by Legalism's sticks and (meager) carrots. Therefore, Confucian scholars bent their efforts to elevate and enlarge the moral conduct of the ruler. In the view of Confucian scholars, moral rectitude gave one power; people were naturally inspired by right conduct to emulate it.

The contradiction between Confucians educating the ruler on morality and guiding him in the paths of right conduct when that ruler was already seen to be supremely moral by the fact of having been granted Heaven's Mandate did not bother Chinese thinkers. Such contradictions are not uncommon within Chinese thought, which is a point it is well to keep a firm grasp on.

In keeping with farming being China's inherent economic basis, Confucianism valued the peasant farmer and looked down on the profit motive, so Confucians were against trade and heaped scorn on merchants. In the Confucian world-view, the economy should be based on agrarian self-sufficiency. In China, trade was mainly an internal matter, to be conducted under the strict supervision of the right-minded Confucian bureaucracy.

When China had the opportunity to open up maritime trade, it chose not to do so, literally "missing the boat" in the words of one prominent historian. In China, foreign trade was characterized as "tribute" to which the emperor, in his supreme goodness, responded with "gifts." This was the official attitude right up into the 19th Century and it continues to influence Chinese trade relations today.

Confucianism also deplored violence and while it is not strictly a pacifist philosophy -- Confucian officials could and did command troops and fight wars -- it did strongly discourage the idea of a professional military. Warriors were not included with the four professions (or social groups) that Confucianism recognized.

In this context, it is important to understand the role of the best known ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War. Sun Tzu, who said things like: "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill" and "All war is deception", is generally held up by Westerners as expressing the quintessential Chinese view of warfare. This is misleading because Sun Tzu was, in fact, expressing the Confucian view of warfare, or perhaps more accurately a view of warfare that was acceptable to official Confucianism. (Some scholars identify Sun Tzu's thought as being Daoist, but as has been said, a Chinese official was a Confucian on the job and a Daoist off it. Daoism can be seen a complementary opposite to Confucianism.)

But Sun Tzu was only one of the ancient Chinese military theorists, and not necessarily the most important one to the Chinese. Other revered Chinese military theorists expressed markedly different theories, in which the word "annihilate" is quite common. No subduing the enemy without fighting here.

These military theorists were writing directly to the Emperor who, while revered under Confucianism and expected to publicly conduct himself by Confucian norms, was not bound by them. Martial violence was seen as the exclusive province of the Emperor, who had a monopoly on its use. Confucians accepted this because the Emperor's capacity for violence, unpredictability, and disorderliness was the necessary complement to Confucianism's emphasis on order, prescribed ritual, and non-violence. Such dualities are fundamental to Chinese thought. (This specific dual is known in China as wen wu; think yin yang, only different.)

Nonetheless, they were still inclined to speak out against such behavior, a practice that sometimes lead to their being publicly beaten by the harassed Emperor or even executed. Despite this treatment, Confucian scholars and officials never attempted to set up a separate power base from which to try to exert political power. Confucians were bound the Emperor as members of his court and faced him as individuals, not as a group.

The Confucian focus on harmony, cultivated moral living, and dislike of violence did result in -- or more likely just supported and excused -- another signal characteristic of Chinese politics: the bifurcation of the Imperial court into an Outer Court staffed and run by Confucian officials and responsible for most aspects of civil administration, and an Inner Court run by the emperor himself and staffed by his closest relatives and associates, and his personal servants (often eunuchs). The Inner Court was concerned mainly with diplomatic affairs, direct communication with regional governors, and of course warfare -- all executive activities with the potential for violence that were maintained under the Emperor's direct control. Especially in later dynasties, the Emperor had his own communications networks and dedicated organs run from the Inner Court, which the officials of the Outer Court had no direct access to.

This distinction between an Inner Court and an Outer Court has been maintained in China to the present day, where the leadership has two central committees -- one for civil affairs to which the various Ministries respond and a Central Military Committee with a more exclusive membership that is the seat of real executive power. As in Imperial days, these two bodies have their own organs under them and are served by separate communications networks which do not interconnect.

Confucianism, removed from its Chinese context, has been admired by people in the West but the fact remains that both it and Legalism are theories of social control used to legitimize authoritarian rule by an autocrat. Confucianism and Legalism seek to achieve this control by different methods but their over-riding concern is to keep the individual wholly subservient to the power of the state.

When Confucianism arose during the Warring States period it was not fully embraced by the ruling class. Indeed, the first Emperor -- the unifier of China, founder of the Qin Dynasty, and a strong Legalist -- was violently opposed to Confucianism and tried to suppress it. He ordered the episode known as the "Burning of the Books" and had 460 Confucian scholars murdered. (Supposedly he objected to their moralistic hectoring.)

It was the Han Emperors, who came to power after the short-lived Qin dynasty collapsed, that adopted Confucianism as the official state philosophy. They did not however, disavow Legalism. As incongruous as it might seem to us, the Han forged a Confucianist-Legalist hybrid known as Imperial Confucianism.

The Han ushered in period of stability in China that last for about 400 years. Thereafter followed a period of disunity that ended with the Sui-Tang reunification in the 6th Century AD. During the later Han and the centuries of disunion, Buddhism rose to prominence in China, challenging and sometimes almost supplanting Confucianism as the state belief system. Buddhist monasteries acquired considerable land and wealth, creating a potential base from which to oppose the Imperial order.

As a result, the Tang Dynasty engaged in a severe suppression of Buddhism, even though Buddhism in China never did aspire to a political role. Nevertheless, the Chinese rulers could not tolerate any sort of concentration of potential power outside their purview, no matter how benign or disinterested the parties seemed to be.

This is another key aspect of Chinese politics that has never changed, and why the Chinese leadership feels compelled to violently suppress groups that can claim the attention a large number of people, even if it just to get together to exercise in a park. In China, there is simply no such thing as a benign organized activity that takes place outside the official domain. All opposition to the state therefore must take place in secret societies including such disreputable groups as the Triads, which have a long and unpleasant pedigree in China..

Buddhism, though largely destroyed as an organized community, did not go away in China. After the Tang collapse and a period of anarchy lasting about 60 years, the Song dynasty came to power. (The Song dynasty was split in the Northern Song and Southern Song, a detail we can gloss over here.) Under the Song, a new flavor of Confucianism emerged, known as Neo-Confucianism with incorporated important Buddhist elements. Neo-Confucianism was the guiding force of Chinese governance until the late 19th Century and remains a powerful, if unremarked, influence in Chinese thinking today.

The Song era also saw the first dominance of China by "barbarian" outsiders. Three successive foreign dynasties controlled much of -- and in the final case, all of -- China during this period: the Liao dynasty established by the Qidan, the Jin dynasty of the Ruzhen, and finally the Mongol Yuan dynasty, created by Genghis Khan but with its final conquests completed under his grandson Kublai.

The Song period marks the acme of Chinese cultural achievement, but was coincident with ineptitude in foreign policy and almost complete military impotence. Again, these are points to keep in mind.

The Mongols were ejected from China by the founder of the Ming dynasty, a "strange and terrible" man of peasant birth who rose to power as a rebel warlord and seized the Mandate. Reigning as the Hongwu emperor, he was "overall a disaster for China... Personally, he was vastly energetic, paranoidally suspicious -- suspecting his prime minister of treason, he had him and 40,000 other people executed (later purges may have increased this total to over 100,000) -- and subject to violent fits of temper." (Characterization by John King Fairbank; "China - A New History".)

As a ruler, he believed in extreme frugality and so decapitated the state's administration and starved his government of funds. In the name of "reform" he undid three century's worth of Song administrative improvements and made China both poorer and harder to govern. The distorting effects of Hongwu's rule have been with China ever since.

One such distortion deserves special mention because it persists and underlies a great deal of misunderstanding about the state of the Chinese economy; a misunderstanding that the Chinese leadership exploits to gull Western government and business leaders. It mainly concerns the way government revenues were historically collected and spent, but it affects almost everything else.

China was too vast to set up a centralized government collection system such as evolved (more or less) in many Western states. Instead, China adopted a system in which a specific tax was instituted to fund a specific government expenditure. Thus, dyke repair in a given province might be funded by a specific toll on canal transport, or bandit suppression in one region might be funded by a tax on a particular commodity there or elsewhere. The funds raised were sent directly from the officials tasked with collecting the funds to the officials in charge of the authorized expense; the central government was not in the loop.

Of course, this system invited massive corruption. Official A who collected the funds had no way of knowing how much Official B, who spent them, actually needed to meet the expense they were intended for, just as Official B had no way of knowing how much Official A had actually collected. The situation could well be more complex than this because in practice, such a transaction might involve multiple provinces which could have different units of measure and different currency standards. So there may have been other Officials C, D, and F involved in processing the transaction between A and B, each with an opportunity to manipulate these dealings outside the view of both the central government and the officials on either end.

Thus every official in the chain had ample opportunity to indulge in a little graft along the way. To make matters worse, most officials were seriously underpaid in the name of Ming frugality and needed to engage in such corrupt practices to support themselves.

Finally, in consequence of the Hongwu Emperor setting the taxes that supported imperial administration at a unrealistically low level, the Ming central government did not have the resources to control this process, even if it had felt the need to. And, given that same Emperor's decapitation of the imperial administration, it probably did not.

The overall result was an incredibly complex web of fiscal dealings that was nowhere under the control of, or even visible to, any one person or organization. Officials at every level could cook their books to reflect whatever fiscal picture they wanted to present to their superiors, and these carefully massaged fictions made their way up the line to the Imperial government, which therefore had no real idea of the state of its finances.

Of course, officials at every level also had their back-channel networks that could be used to attempt to divine something of the truth, but this just added a further layer of confusion and manipulation, resulting in a situation where most everyone tried to deceive most everyone else while probably thinking that he and he alone had a good bead on things.

This morass affected not just government finances, but the China economy as a whole. Because Confucianism despised merchants, merchants could not readily do business without official backing. In such an environment, entrepreneurship could not flourish. As one scholar put it, the way to succeed in China was not to build a better mousetrap, but to bribe convince an official to grant you the official government mousetrap monopoly. The overt Chinese economy was thus effectively bureaucratized and "officialized", and therefore subject to all of the officials' dealings and double dealings, while a large black market took place hidden from government scrutiny.

This Byzantine fiscal structure is so deeply imprinted on China's economic and political landscape that it cannot be eradicated, even if there was motive to do so, which there really is not. Because just about every Chinese official can profit in some way from this opacity, and the business people still remain largely dependant on the officials, there is almost no one who sees their interest as being served by too much transparency in the system, including those who participate in the black market, as they too depend on government corruption and so would not welcome genuine fiscal reform.

The only people who perceive a benefit from transparency in Chinese fiscal matters are the foreigners, whom the Chinese would still like to do without as much as possible, aside from exporting vast quantities of goods to them. (This, of course, is another aspect of the Chinese economy that is not new: the emphasis on an export economy whether it be low-tech manufacturing now or tea and that dishware we call 'china' then.) So China has put in place an overlay of modern, Western-based financial structures to allow them to participate in global markets and in international finance, and they are held to have been quite successful in these endeavors. But this overlay is just that -- at best, a mechanism to allow the traditional Chinese fiscal system to interface with foreign banking and financial systems, and at worst (for us) a distorting gloss meant to deceive us into thinking the Chinese economy is something it is not.

In reality, it is both things at the same time.

The end result of all this is to make China's overall economy not merely opaque but like a hall of distorting mirrors, reflecting a superposition of interlocking falsehoods. The Chinese government's advertised fiscal policies are a kind of shadow play where the right figures are made to dance for the right people in the proper form to create the desired overall impression. This is how they have always operated and they will keep it up until things fall apart, which they inevitably do.

It is not surprising then that the Ming Dynasty, which lasted until 1644, did not improve China's lot. Imperial mismanagement and administrative ossification combined with Chinese agriculture approaching the point of diminishing returns to undermine the whole country. While Europe was embarking on its Age of Discovery and advancing rapidly in all aspects of life, China was undergoing a general contraction. Society deteriorated to the point where the Chinese populace under the late Ming were worse off than their ancestors were under the Mongols. Chinese historians have termed this: "The Paradox if Growth without Development".

But when we look at it, it does not look much like a paradox at all, but the natural result of a dysfunctional economic system acting in concert with firmly entrenched Chinese proclivities favoring the maintenance of social order and unworkable theories of "moral behavior" above all other considerations, regardless of the consequences.

As Ming rule began to collapse, China was once again conquered by "barbarians" -- this time the Manchus, who set up their Qing Dynasty in 1644. The first Manchu rulers were energetic, competent, and dedicated but they remained handicapped by the limitations of the Ming administration they inherited. To a certain extent the Manchu emperors were able to work around and make up for these limitations but they never solved them or succeeded in replacing the dysfunctional Ming administrative methods with new and truly effective structures and policies.

The Ming-Qing transition also saw the first arrival of Europeans in China in significant numbers, in the form of Jesuits and the Dutch and British East India Companies. These interactions were complex and cannot be dealt with here, but the main point is that for the first time China was confronted with a competing cultural worldview that was in most ways equal and in important ways superior to their own. European "barbarians" simply could not dealt with or dismissed in the way the central-Asian "barbarians" that the Chinese had dealt with for thousands of years could be.

Nonetheless, Western contact with China appeared to be manageable until the early 19th Century, when the Qing still seemed to be near the height of their power. But the West of 1820 was not much like the West of 1650, a fact the Chinese did not fully appreciate. As tensions rose between China and the British in the early 1800's, over such things as the opium trade and the Chinese treatment of British merchants, the Qing tried to control the British using the same techniques they used to control the inner-Asian tribes.

These tactics when applied to a modern Maritime power and used within China itself, as opposed out on the borders of the hinterlands, led to a serious loss of face by the Qing regime. They also antagonized the British, who responded by a launching a short, victorious, and for the Chinese, disastrous war. With a few gunboats, a few thousand troops, and general who walked into battle armed only with a cane, the British quickly brought China to it knees. (It is perhaps notable in considering China's military capabilities that Britain had more success in China during this period than it did in Afghanistan.)

Although this first victory cannot be said to be total -- the British, along with the French, the Russians, and the Americans, would fight and win two more petty wars before the Qing completely capitulated -- it dealt China a blow from which it has still not fully recovered.

The Western victories inaugurated what has been called the Unequal Treaty Century, which lasted from 1842 until 1940, and which the Chinese generally consider to be the signal humiliation in their history. China was forcibly opened to Western technology, Western values, and Western education through the imposition of Treaty Ports, where Western firms were allowed to trade, Chinese tariffs were managed by Western officials, and Western citizens enjoyed the benefits of extraterritoriality.

Britain got Hong Kong, which had significant effects the culture of neighboring Guangzhou, and the culture of Shanghai, one of the original five treaty ports, was forever changed by the strong British and later American presence. (For example, English is still the second language of Shanghai, spoken by most of the residents.)

In fairness, it must be noted that these conditions were not entirely new nor wholly of Western origin. The Chinese had a long tradition of extending extraterritoriality to foreigners, based on their distaste of mixing with "barbarian" legal customs and concerns. Nor were the trade and tariff arrangements entirely unprecedented. In fact, it was largely the actions of Chinese officials in revoking some of these long established customs that set the stage for hostilities in the first place. Even the opium trade, the nominal flashpoint, and for which the British are often demonized, was carried on the good deal of willing participation by the Qing government.

Also, and perhaps ironically, foreign administration in many ways proved a boon to the treaty port cities and to China. British administrators managed the tariff system better than the often ineffective and corrupt Chinese officials so that it actually increased revenues to Qing government coffers, supporting Qing central power. The British and later the American established enterprise zones in which Chinese business sprang up, the first popular Chinese newspapers were published and Chinese arts and letters began to find a voice outside the rigid control of Qing officialdom, all under the protection of foreign gunboats.

Millions of Chinese were first exposed to notions of private enterprise, rule of law, and representative government in the treaty ports and many responded enthusiastically. Overall, this period was both the beginning and the end of important phases of Chinese history, having repercussions that are only now beginning to be fully felt.

Of course, in the 1840 none of this was evident and it would not have really mattered anyway (as it still does not in the eyes of many Chinese). The Qing regime had suffered tremendous loss of face, and as a result, China was wracked in the middle of the century by a number of rebellions, the largest of which was the Great Taiping Rebellion that lasted 13 years. The aggregate effect of these rebellions was to reduce China's population by about 15% -- from about 410 million in 1850 to about 350 million in 1873. This was a catastrophe on the order of the Black Death in Europe, especially considering how much China would have been expected to grow during this period, had the rebellions not happened.

The rebellions were defeated by a new generation of Chinese and Manchu officials who looked to new ways and in some cases, new paradigms, for answers. Overall, the years from 1860 to 1900 was a period on much intellectual ferment in China, when the old Confucian ways of doing things were seriously questioned and new ways of thinking, largely based on Western empiricism, were tried. This was officially known as the "Self-strengthening Movement" and received guarded Imperial support. They succeeded in giving the faltering Qing Dynasty a new lease on life for the rest of the century, but ultimately they were not successful.

China was not alone in dealing with the problems of reform and Western contact at this time. Across the narrows waters of the Yellow Sea, much the same thing was happening in Japan, under the Meiji Restoration. Thus, Chinese officials and scholars looked to Japan and well as the USA and Europe for guidance and inspiration in dealing with their challenges. Many Chinese traveled abroad to get direct exposure to Western learning and education. Japan was a favored destination, given it's proximity and cultural affinity, but many also went the US. But in the end, things turned out very different in Japan than in China.

The problem in China, as compared to Japan, was twofold. First, the Chinese could not wholly free themselves from their Confucian straight jacket. Under "Self-Strengthening" they adopted a compromise -- perhaps more aptly a bastardization -- of "Chinese learning for the fundamental structure, Western learning for practical use." The Chinese officials and scholars behind "Self-Strengthening" did not realize or attempted to deny that technological innovation, which was what they were after, imposes a philosophy of its own and that philosophy is distinctly non-Confucian. Preeminent Chinese historian John King Fairbank called this attempt to have it both ways, "Jumping halfway across a river in flood."

The second problem was that while Japan was ruled by the reformist Meiji Emperor, China was effectively ruled by the "ignorant and obscurantist" Empress Dowager Cixi. So while reform and Westernization in Japan was actively supported and sanctioned by the nation's God-Emperor, the Empress Dowager in China gave only cosmetic sanction while working to undermine the reformers and sabotage their efforts. (Again, the characterization is by Fairbank.)

At the time, many conservative Chinese scholars and officials recognized the problem of modernization in tools but not in thinking -- jumping halfway across a river in flood -- but their response was to strongly oppose all Western influences. This set up a serious tension within the Imperial bureaucracy, which the Empress Dowager exploited to play the reformers off against the conservatives (something the Chinese leadership still does). No real progress could happen in such a situation, but in the short term it did help support central Imperial power.

Thus a slow painful drama was played out in which the effete Qing administration slowly lost its grip on society over the rest of the century. Finally, in 1900 things began to irrevocably fall apart.

The beginning of the 20th Century in China is a very complex and multi-layered period that cannot be simply described, nor will I try to do so. What is important for my purposes here is what it ultimately led to. The century started with the Boxer Rebellion, a fairly minor uprising, but one that put the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Manchu dynasty in high relief.

Afterwards, there occurred a lot of posturing about representative government: reformist officials had for some years been arguing that some form of representative government should be implemented and debating about the details, and a few experiments with along these lines were actually tried. In 1906, a promise of a national assembly was finally made.

But in 1908, the aging Empress Dowager died, first having arranged what may have been her last semi-official act: to have the Emperor to pre-decease her, which he did by one day. (No one seriously thinks this was a coincidence; a conclusion supported by modern forensics.) Apparently she preferred to see the dynasty pass into the hands of her 3-year-old grandson instead of her reform-minded son.

Chaos ensued as the narrow-minded Manchu princes tried to maintain power. Their bungling culminated in a revolt in the Wuhan territories in October 1911, which sparked most of the rest of China to declare independence from the Qing Dynasty. From here, things moved fast.

In January 1912, the Chinese people declared a republic and installed Dr. Sun Yat Sen as provisional president. By March, with the situation continuing to deteriorate, an agreement was reached whereby Dr. Sun resigned, the last Qing emperor abdicated, and a former Qing official and military man, Yuan Shikai, was installed in power.

China's first flirtation with representative government had lasted barely three months -- half the time that Russia's first elected government under Anatoly Kerensky, formed almost exactly 5 years later, would survive between the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917.

Once installed, Yuan did what every Chinese leader, before or since, has done -- consolidated his hold on power. In Yuan's case, this meant disbanding the new national assembly and assassinating his main rival. He set up a new administration on the bones of the old and appeared to flirting with the idea of assuming the title of emperor and establishing a new dynasty when he died in 1916.

Yuan Shikai is often called the "Father of Warlords" and the moniker is apt. The last military architect of the Qing Dynasty, he was a ruthless, able schemer but an ineffective ruler and his death plunged China in chaos. The Warlord Era, similar in some ways to the Warring States period (but much shorter), would end not through the triumph of a Chinese faction but by foreign invasion, this time by Japan.

In the meantime, it provided the opportunity for the new and expansively minded Soviet Union to start the Chinese Communist Party. One of the first members of the CCP was a disaffected young student named Mao Zedong.

The CCP, as it was initially constituted under the guidance of COMINTERN (the Soviet agency tasking with spreading communism across the globe) was a dismal failure. It failed to raise the country in rebellion, engaged in a few inept plots, and was decimated by the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek in 1928.

But it was not wholly destroyed and when the Japanese invaded in 1932 (again demonstrating China's historic military impotence) the CCP and the Nationalists made common cause. The CCP had since booted out the Soviet advisors and during the lull Mao had discovered a solution to the problem of trying impose communism on Chinese society.

The problem was that the Soviet advisors, with mindless adherence of doctrine, had tried raise revolt among a Chinese urban proletariat that did not in fact exist. They looked down on the Chinese peasantry much as they looked down on their own Russian peasants only more so, given the intensely bigoted attitudes Russians had towards Asians. In their view, agrarian peasants were clearly not appropriate revolutionary material. (Recall that many of the original Bolsheviks were college students. See the history of Russian activities in Central Asia and China during the Great Game Era regarding Russian attitudes toward Asians.)

Mao's insight was that Marxist-Leninist doctrine could be successfully applied in China if it could be modified to put the Chinese peasantry back in their exalted place in Confucian doctrine. By smuggling these elements of Confucianism into communist thought, Mao was able to transform the CCP into a vital and growing organization.

Some historians have argued that Mao broke with Confucianism and that Confucianism ceased to be an important ideology in Chinese culture and government after about 1900. This is true only if one takes an overly narrow and pedantic view of what Confucianism is. What Mao did was change the names and tweak the terms to make them comfortably conform to the precepts that had been used to govern China for thousands of years. In this, he was little different from the Neo-Confucians of the Song Era or the Ming and Qing scholars who put together various Confucian adaptations to incorporate necessary new ideas into an acceptable Confucian framework.

Mao's Confucian shenanigans are perhaps somewhat obscured by his having to work with the Nationalists during the Japanese invasion and WWII. The partnership was not ineffective: the Chinese ability to resist Japanese incursions increased and by the of the war, they were even able to score some victories over the weakened Japanese forces (who committed some serious blunders of their own).

Once the Japanese were defeated, China of course fell headlong into civil war. The Nationalists appeared to hold all the good cards and had American backing to boot. But Chiang Kai-shek and his generals ignored their American advisors, squandered their resources, and generally behaved with a destructive foolishness that is remarkable even by Chinese standards.

In the end, Chiang Kai-shek was forced to retreat to the island of Formosa, now Taiwan, where after a rocky and bloody beginning, he actually managed to settle down and lay the foundations for a successful state before he died.

China was not so lucky. Having endured in the last 50 years the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Warlord era, the Japanese Invasion, WWII, stupendous economic mismanagement that led to hyperinflation so bad it makes the Weimar Rebuild look like model of financial rectitude, and a nasty civil war, Mao was now firmly in power and was about to unleash his greatest idea of all: The Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward has been called the worst man-made catastrophe of all time, and rightly so. Many Western academics seem inclined to give it a pass compared to Stalin's extermination of the Kulaks or Hitler's persecution of the Jews, which are both viewed (again rightly) as the purest expression of evil. They do this because, they suppose, the Great Leap Forward was launched with what they consider to be "good intensions."

Personally I think this probably makes the Great Leap Forward actually worse: evil such as that done by Hitler and Stalin is obvious and can be easily recognized and resisted. Evil that is cloaked by "good intensions" can be harder to unmask and to rouse people against.

But my opinions aside, the idea that the Great Leap Forward was so motivated suffers under scrutiny. Millions were executed outright: shot, tortured to death, and simply locked up and starved. Whatever the advertised purpose, it seems clear that Mao used the Great Leap Forward to remove "undesirables" from the Chinese population.

The Great Leap Forward killed about 45 million people, by current estimates. This is about one third less than those who died as a result of the Taiping and associated rebellions of the mid-19th Century. But what those disasters did in two decades, the Great Leap Forward accomplished in just two years.

The damage was so great that even the CCP leadership had to acknowledge the Great Leap Forward was a failure. Mao had lost face and the leadership was split. In consequence, Mao launched his next great idea: the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution was a more complex phenomena that the Great Leap Forward, and while it did not kill nearly as many people -- estimates run at a few million at most -- it lasted much longer and arguably did even more damage.

It would be going too far to say that the Cultural Revolution transformed Chinese society; it did not. What it did was distill the very worst aspects of traditional Chinese society into a toxic mess while targeting those members of society who were most productive and creative and exalting those who were most parasitic and destructive.

In essence, one might say (oversimplifying) that the Cultural Revolution consisted of forming idle disaffected youths in brigades, the Red Guards, and turning them loose on their social betters in a pathological inversion of Confucian order. Teachers, artists, scientists and other "intellectuals", along with some Party leaders, were murdered, tortured, "sent down" and "reeducated."

Of course, there was much more to it than this: families were categorized, labeled, and stigmatized; communities were formed in "work units" that gave party bosses control of every aspect of the worker's lives and destroyed any community cohesion, making everyone utterly dependant on the state; and campaigns targeting this group or that one were launched or at least threatened, so eventually everyone was a potential victim and disaster could strike anywhere, no matter how well thought of or exalted a family may have been in the recent past.

Inevitably, these nasty expedients, however effective they were at controlling people in the short term, led to a massive escalation in violence. Various leaders formed their own Red Guards and sent them after their rival's Red Guards until the whole thing that degenerated into a factional blood bath.

By the early 1970s, the whole disgusting mess was dying down from sheer exhaustion. The infamous Gang of Four, backed by Mao, was trying to exert its control but other elements in the administration were gathering under the new No. 2 man in the CCP, the widely respected premier Zhou Enlai and were working towards restoring something like a proper order.

Mao's prestige had been fatally damaged by the factionalism created by the Cultural Revolution, symbolized by the supposed treachery and mysterious death of General Lin Biao, the previous No. 2 Party man whom Mao had gone to great lengths to build up as the leader he was closest to and his likely successor. Although the news about Lin was suppressed for more than a year, that did not help Mao's position.

Mao had in fact decided Lin was no longer useful and, wanting to reduce the role of the military in the party, had maneuvered him into an untenable position using the time-tested methods of Chinese politics. Lin then became involved in a conspiracy launched by his son, which had no realistic chance of success as informers kept Mao apprised of it progress. Lin and his wife died while trying to escape to Russia.

However proud Mao may have been of maneuvering Lin into treason, he had in fact placed himself in a no-win situation as the word leaked out. Lin was not the first "most trusted advisor" Mao had discarded, and in the view of the populace, Lin's sudden treachery was evidence that either Mao was a fool to elevate him or had unjustly murdered him and was now lying about him. Either way, Mao, who had been living in imperial style, was beginning to lose the Mandate.

For the next few years, Mao remained the nominal supreme leader but his real power ebbed. When Zhou Enlai became ill with cancer in 1973, Deng Xiaoping, who had been "sent down" during the Cultural Revolution, was named his successor as Premier. Later Deng was made party Vice-Chairman and head of the Army.

When Zhou Enlai died in 1976, the Gang of Four, still supposedly acting for Mao, once again removed Deng from power. But then a massive earthquake east of Beijing killed 500 thousand people. This portent represented to the Chinese of 1976, just as it had for their ancestors for the past few thousand years, the fact that Mao had irrevocably lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Mao died shortly after, in September 1976, fulfilling his culturally sanctioned role of a failed dynastic ruler. In the equally traditional maneuvering for power that followed, the Gang of Four were arrested and tried, and Deng Xiaoping finally came out on top in 1978. Deng eventually became Supreme Leader, a singular position above government (in which Deng had no official place), and he remained in this quasi-imperial role until to his death. (It is worth noting that Deng took steps before he died to see that no Supreme Leader would succeed him and possibly challenge his legacy. If Mao played the role of the Last Bad Ruler of a dynasty, it is tempting to see Deng in the role of a vital, competent dynastic founder. Such an idea maybe overblown, but not by much.)

During his time in power, Deng repudiated many of Mao's policies, introduced many reforms and modernizations, reopened China to Western trade and set out to aggressively acquire Western technology. These actions set China on it's current path, laying the foundation for the "miracle economy" and supposedly setting the stage for China's emergence as a "superpower" or even (to some over-excited observers) a global hegemon.

But in point of fact, Deng's reforms were nothing very new. They only appeared new and revolutionary in light of China disastrous experience of the 20th Century when it blundered from one calamity to another. History shows us that Chinese history is a long and consistent pattern of behavior interrupted by periods of unspeakable carnage caused by the basic and unavoidable characteristics of Chinese society.

Chinese society has never yet had a real transformation. It's history is one of tweaks to address changing circumstances, but the tweaking has never made essential changes. When faced with the opportunity for real change, China has invariable chosen to suffer a period of calamity on the unspoken-- as there is no need to speak it, it being as ingrained as breathing -- belief that it can weather any calamity, no matter how horrific, and come out essentially the same as it went in. This is, to Chinese eyes, what success looks like.

Seen in proper context, all Deng really did was turn the clock back to about 1890 and try to address the same questions of reform and modernization that the late Qing scholar-officials struggled with. Absent power being held by an aging, ignorant and obscurantist ruler, Deng solutions -- which are not much different than those proposed a century ago -- are working much better (it would be very hard for them not to.)

But China is still trying to "leap halfway across a river in flood". The Chinese gloss of the 1990s was the same as that uttered in 1890 with just slight changes in translation to render the idea as: "fill-in-the-blank with Chinese characteristics".

China remains hampered by a fiscal system whose Ming-era dysfunctions still cause problems: as a result, no one in the Chinese government really knows how much money the government has or how big the economy really is or how fast it is growing. This remains the subject imperial-style court politics while the government puts on a show for the foreigners, appropriating the hallowed tenants of Sun Tzu to do it.

China still has not addressed in any serious way the cultural, economic, and social issues created by the influx of Western ideas into the original treaty-port cites which -- then as now -- contain the vast bulk of the Chinese economy. Mao had reversed this situation by decentralizing production and moving much of it into the interior to prevent it by easily overrun. This was, of course, quite inefficient and under Deng's reforms, the natural order reasserted itself. So ironically, China is now just as vulnerable to foreign domination as it was in 1842.

These coastal cities, having resumed the course they were set on in the mid-1800s, are again subject to forces that are badly straining their relationship with the more conservative interior, and especially the Leadership in Beijing, just as happened with the Qing court. Whether this bodes ill or good for China depends on whose side you are on.

Finally, China has done little -- despite the overheated warnings of ill-informed pundits (some of whose good faith is dubious) -- to address its historic military impotence. Its weapon systems are near-obsolete, its doctrines are antiquated, its logistics inadequate, its organization outmoded, and its military thinking backwards, hidebound, and muddled. Further, key elements are -- in a situation weirdly reminiscent of the inept Song diplomacy -- under the control of the very foreign interests that represent their most likely antagonists.

How well the current Chinese leadership can manage these issues remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: leaping half way across the river will not work any better now than it did 100 years ago. Either the leadership must address these issues creatively, and thereby effectively cease to exist as a recognizably Chinese government when the country is finally transformed, or it will elect to suppress them, or it will continue to fumble about with smoke and mirrors until the whole structure again collapses, possibly into a period of carnage and chaos.

Until China successfully addresses these issues -- which will first require the Chinese to actually see them as issues that must be addressed -- they will not be able to sustain the transformation that many Western observers think they are seeing.

But they can still put on a good show -- if they are not asked to keep it up for too long.

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Blogger Bill Whittle said...

This is just ASTONISHINGLY good!

Bill Whittle

11:28 PM  
Blogger luagha said...

Required reading. Wonderfully done.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Very nice essay.

Considering your view of the Chinese military, it would have been nice to include a brief summary of your perspective of Chinese military performance in Korea - where they managed to fight the U.S. & U.N. forces to a stalemate within a limited theater conflict by substituting manpower for arms. In a quirky, backwards way, it was effective against the technologically superior western forces, but only effective enough to gain a stalemate and even then at a human cost that no nation save China would have been able or willing to endure . . . .

3:48 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'd also be interested in the HOW and the TIMING of how you see the bust part of the Chinese boom playing out. In nearly every other boom-bust cycle I'm familiar with as a professional investor, the booms have been brought to an end by a collapse in the ability to finance the boom.

In China's current case, it's hard for me as an outsider to see how this will play out. For instance, with National Booms in the past, they've typically been driven by external financing flows funded with debt and when the external financing flows dry up and the debt starts to come due, you get a currency collapse and a bust. That's NOT how the Chinese collapse will happen, because they have a giant external trade surplus rather than deficit -- any ideas?

3:52 AM  
Blogger mdgiles said...

"Considering your view of the Chinese military, it would have been nice to include a brief summary of your perspective of Chinese military performance in Korea - where they managed to fight the U.S. & U.N. forces to a stalemate within a limited theater conflict by substituting manpower for arms".

I think Chinese success had more to do with incompetence on the part of Western generalship and political decision making, then any inherent Chinese ability. I mean who puts your main troops on two sides of a mountain range with your weakest and most incompetent troops holding the mountain range in between? Not to mention the political decision to focus on Europe and not spend resources in the Far East.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Phelps said...

I think I need one more piece of information to fully grok the situation:

Is the Chinese military funded in the Ming style the same way the rest of the government is?

1:58 PM  
Blogger C. Owen Johnson said...


In a sense. How the PLA is funded is (like everything) rather opaque. The PLA is funded through the CMC, and such funding (but not all of it) is a budgetary item. But the PLA also has a lot of its own funding, mostly through business interests. These interests exists at different levels within the PLA structure; some are owned by the PLA itself, but individual units also have their own that business interests they use to fund some of their expenses. (Historically, the army often grew – or was supposed to – its own food as a way to defray costs - this is a modern extension of that.) In the 90s, the PLA was especially active in high-tech manufacturing and telecoms ventures – this was an important avenue of technology transfer for them. As just one example, a major cell phone company in (I think) Fujian, was majority owned by the PLA, and established for just this reason.

In addition, high ranking officers also have their business interests, which they often support with their unit’s assets, selling their soldiers labors etc. Where all this money goes and how it is accounted for is generally unclear.

I think many US businesses who engage joint ventures in China would be surprised to learn that the PLA is a major partner in a lot of these enterprises.

12:13 AM  
Blogger C. Owen Johnson said...

Regarding my perspective of Chinese military performance in Korea, I don’t really have much of one; my detailed knowledge of that particular conflict being on the weak side. Generally speaking though, the Korean War is important to the Chinese and to the PLA, somewhat in the same way (though I don’t think to the same degree) as WWII (the Great Patriotic War) was to the Soviets. And of course, at the time, and until recently, the PLA believed that “quantity has a quality all its own” (to quote Stalin, I think it was). This was Mao’s strategic calculus, based on his war-time experience, but it started to fall apart decades ago – the first concrete sign was the PLA’s defeat by the Vietnamese army – and was made completely inoperative by what was often called the “Revolution in Military Affairs” back in the 80s, which had its first major operational test in the first Gulf war. The response of the PLA leadership to that war was not much short of panic, and through 2001 they had yet to recover or adjust to it. My suspicion is that they have made little progress since that time.

As an aside, some of the most hilarious and dumbfounding things I ever read in a professional capacity were written by PLA staff officers trying to make sense of the Gulf War and concepts behind the RMA. One of the best was by a colonel who actually confused PGMs with the concept of aimed fire.

12:37 AM  
Blogger C. Owen Johnson said...

You are right in that the Chinese is not caused by quite the same factors that cause bubbles here, though the principle remains pretty much the same, of course. The “bubble” I think may be most important is the “expectations bubble” which was unleashed by Deng’s reforms, under which material wealth was no longer demonized, and exacerbated by global media and the Internet. The “bubble” has been fueled mostly by the export economy but the results have been dramatically uneven and have created a build-up of unmet expectations that represents a sort of debt. In essence, the leadership has been trying to buy certain segments of the population with consumer goods, and I suspect that the need to try deal with the expectations this has created, together with a desire to cash out while you can, is behind many of the decisions that have created the real estate problems and other issues that we are now seeing. (This is another example of the Chinese leadership trying to have things both ways.)

I suspect that it will be a popping of some minor “bubble” or other event that will pop the expectations bubble and cause things to get really ugly. How ugly, I don’t know. But managing even a fairly minor collapse requires data that I don’t think anyone in China has, even if they had the will and the expertise (which they might), so whatever happens, I expect it to rapidly escalate. Throw in a major natural disaster, and it probably game over.

As for timing, in 2000, my “official” estimate was that China would suffer a major crisis before 2030, that would end the current “dynasty.” I still think that’s a good bet but I can’t say more than that.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Windy Wilson said...

If Bill Whittle said that about something I wrote, I could die a happy man!

"The social characteristics needed to be a successful maritime power -- independence, innovation, personal initiative, individualism, risk taking, entrepreneurship"-- sound very American, and I wonder how Leftist attempts to train them out of Americans will fare, and what will happen if they are successful.

1:40 PM  
Blogger ザイツェヴ said...

I don't know where Mr. Johnson got "PLA’s defeat by the Vietnamese army". It was no more defeat than one Finns dealt to Russians in 1940. Indeed perhaps man-to-man performance of PLA was below expectations, but at the end of conflict all set goals of the attacking side were accomplished. To talk about "PLA defeat" in that conflict is ludicrous.

In addition, I cannot help to observe that annihilation of Indian armies in Tibet in 1962 somehow came completely unnouticed by either Mr. Johnson or commenters.

11:53 AM  
Blogger C. Owen Johnson said...

In response to Commenter _____ regarding where I got the "PLA’s defeat by the Vietnamese army" the answer is from the PRC leadership’s own internal assessment of the conflict.

While one might quibble about the term "defeat", the fact of the matter is that when the PLA units substantially underperformed and were embarrassed by the effectiveness of Vietnamese resistance, China "declared victory" and went home.

The conflict demonstrated serious problems with PLA in pretty much all aspects of warfighting, and the inability to of China to effectively project power, even within its immediate sphere. Nor is it accurate to say that “all set goals of the attacking side were accomplished” except as those were stated after the fact, so the comparison to the Russo-Finnish conflict is, in that sense, completely backwards.

The relevance of the Sino-Vietnamese War is that it caused a reassessment of the PLA’s warfighting capabilities by the PRC leadership and was one of the factors spurring Deng’s reforms of the mid-1980s.

The reason I did not bring up the Sino-Indian War of 1962 is that it is simple not relevant to the current situation. However, if one did wish to consider the PLA’s performance in that conflict, out historical curiosity, the failure of India to adequately prepare for the conflict would loom rather large.

1:17 PM  

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