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With all that is going on currently, from the pandemic, to civil unrest, to an incredibly contentious political climate, even those who were alive at the time find it hard to remember how much optimism there was at the end of the Cold War, particularly around the subject of China. It’s easy to grasp now why there was optimism about the Soviet Union and the accompanying collapse of communism, but people forget that there was almost as much optimism about the Chinese communists. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989, which actually happened before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union officially dissolved, seemed like the first shudder of the massive earthquake of democracy and liberalization that would eventually come for China in the same way that it came for all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.
It was this optimism that spawned things like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama a book which has occupied a prominent position in my last two posts. And even though, as I mentioned, it holds up better than I would have expected, it’s equally obvious that Fukuyama was very wrong on China, but it’s starting to look more and more like everyone was wrong.
The example of this “wrongness” that’s gotten the most attention recently is what happened between China and the NBA. It all started when Daryl Morey, the owner of the Houston Rockets tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The backlash from China and Chinese companies was swift, and presumably surprising. It’s not worth going into everything that happened but it was quickly apparent to the NBA that billions of dollars were on the line and everyone, including Morey backtracked, apologized, and, in keeping with the theme, basically kowtowed. From this example it might not immediately be clear what “everyone was wrong” about. But I think it can be best summed up by the idea that doing business in and with China was going to be the same as doing business in and with other countries. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties in doing business in Russia or Saudia Arabia, but not only does the Chinese reaction seem more extreme than what you might expect out of those other two countries, there’s also so much more at stake. Whatever broadcast deal the NBA has with Russia or Saudia Arabia, I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the $1.5 billion they’re getting out of China. In other words China is different, more different than I think the NBA expected.
This post is all about exploring how they’re different, because I don’t think that’s quite clear yet. Also, since a discussion of differences could fill several books, I’m going to restrict my discussion to examining very high level differences between nations and cultures. Even with this restriction there are still numerous competing explanations of how China is different, or what the “wrongness” might be, so we’ll spend a little bit of time with each of them.
To begin our examination I’d like to turn back to the book, What’s Wrong With China? by Paul Midler, which I reviewed here, since, based on the title, it should provide an almost direct answer to our question, and Midler doesn’t just provide one answer to this question he provides lots of them, but most of his explanations and the stories which illustrate them operate at a level lower than the one we’re interested in. That said he does have two very important insights. First, that in China the rules and expectations surrounding business and agreements in general are very different from Western rules and expectations, and second, and perhaps more importantly from our perspective, he has some very interesting things to say about the motivation of the Chinese leadership.
According to Midler, it’s very important to understand that the Chinese think dynastically. They don’t imagine a smooth upward curve where they’ll be in power forever, but rather they imagine that they have a limited window when times are good and that they need to take advantage of that window. (Sometimes this is referred to as the Mandate of Heaven.) Accordingly, Midler asserts that one of the keys to understanding their actions is to recognize that they’re in a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends. Some quotes from the book:
Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?
…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…
In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?
…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.
Of course, more than helping us understand China, what we really want out of an explanation is a guide for what to do about China, what actions we should take.
How does this explanation do on that front? Well it does supply the somewhat counterintuitive guidance that the more pressure we bring to bear upon China the more aggressive they’ll be. But more interestingly it seems to suggest that we can just wait China out. That just like we expected in the early 90s eventually the Communist Party will be removed from power or suffer some other calamity, and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, in the meantime, this does nothing for the Hong Kong Protestors, or the Tibetians or the Uighurs. Nor is it clear even if we can wait them out how long that might take. Certainly the Chinese Communists themselves are determined to hold on to the Mandate of Heaven for as long as possible.
The final question which we need to ask of this explanation and of all our explanations is how much weight we should give it, and here, I’m inclined to say quite a lot. Of all the people I mention Midler is the only one who has spent decades living in China, and so while it might be possible to argue that others understand the Chinese leadership better (possible to argue, not definitely true) I don’t think anyone I’ve come across has a better grasp of the people.
The reality of China is considerably different from the conventional wisdom. There are many reasons to doubt the strength of the Chinese system, but let’s focus on those relevant to things geographic and demographic. Individually, any of the raft of concerns I’m about to detail would be enough to derail the Chinese rise. Collectively they are more than enough to return China to the fractured, self-containing mess that it has been for most of its history.
I don’t intend to spend much time on Zeihan’s concerns, but it’s worth being aware of what they are:
First, Zeihan’s primary focus is geography and this might be the area he feels the strongest about. Specifically he thinks China is actually three nations (or perhaps four). This may be the least obvious of his concerns, so I’ll include his explanation:
This tripartite system—northern China as the stable-as-glass political core, central China as the nationally disinterested economic core, and southern China as the potentially secessionist territory (and the interior being largely ignored)—holds to the present day. Even contemporary China’s political system reflects it: All of the critical military branches of the government are headquartered in the north, the north and central regions trade of the premiership every decade in order to balance security and trade interests, while the south is not even represented on the Politburo.
Such a geographic look at the country lays bare the greatest myth about China: that it is united. I’m not talking here about the concept of the mainland versus Taiwan, but rather the idea that the mainland itself can ever truly be a unified entity. Taking a closer look at history indicates that China’s past periods of “unity” are anything but.
Second, that as deep as their rivalry/conflict runs with the US that their rivalry/conflict with Japan is a hundred times deeper.
Third, that the only reason they’re unified right now is because of the US. We neutralized the rivalry with Japan, we cleared the oceans of predatory navies (Ziehan also makes the point that China is not a natural naval power), enforced freedom of navigation, and created and invited them to participate in a global market.
Fourth, their financial system is a mess, and is more a system of subsidization, than a system of credit. Leading to lots of projects that are technically possible but economically ridiculous. (This is something Midler touches on as well).
Fifth, demography, China is getting old faster than it’s getting rich, which is bad for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because their economy is entirely driven by exports, which requires new cheap workers. And even if they wanted to switch to internal consumption, demography makes that hard as well.
Finally, and I had to include this because it seems to be the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Zeihan claims that Taiwan, in concert with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, “Form a line of islands off the Chinese coast that block any possible Chinese access to the ocean blue.”
If anything this assessment of what’s wrong with China (everything) and what we should do about China (wait and/or exclude them from the international system) is even more optimistic than Midler’s. Though I should also point out the book was published in 2014, so it’s possible that the last few years have made a huge difference, though you wouldn’t think so. As far as how much weight we should assign to Zeihan, I would say over the long run, particularly when it comes to geography, quite a bit, but in the short run I think he misses a lot of subtleties. Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is the part about the rivalry between China and Japan. A subject I’ll be returning to.
One more “we don’t need to worry about China” position came to light while I was composing this post, it’s a set of remarks delivered a couple of weeks ago by Chas Freeman, a noted American Diplomat, and Nixon’s chief translator during his 1972 visit to China. The article is titled The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War. Some key quotes:
- To analogize [the conflict between China and the US] to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy… China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.
- China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.
- China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
- American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950. Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
- During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.
- If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. (emphasis mine)
- Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power.
- For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so.
This seems to answer the question of what’s wrong with China with “nothing”. The question you should be asking is what’s wrong with the US, and I guess the answer there is that we’re attempting to replay the Cold War with China, and that’s not going to work. Which is also a prescription for the actions we need to be taking. As for my opinion on this advice, certainly I think he’s correct about China being a more “robust rival” than Russia. But I have reason to suspect that our military advantage is not insuperable. Certainly not in the area where hostilities are most likely to break out. Which brings us to the next view of China.
Thus far the people we’ve discussed have either had no opinion on China’s military (Midler) or have asserted that it’s far inferior to the military of the United States. In The Kill Chain by Christian Brose which I reviewed in my last post, and to a lesser extent in Trump vs. China by Newt Gingrich, the exact opposite position is put forth, both authors are convinced that we would probably lose a war against China, particularly one that was fought over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and didn’t involve nuclear weapons.
Given the colossal amount of money the US spends on its military, an amount which is still significantly more than that spent by China, this may seem hard to believe. And a full explanation would involve describing a host of new weapons systems, hypersonic and anti-carrier missiles, autonomous drones, cyber warfare and misinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. And if you really want to get into that I would highly suggest reading Brose’s book. But I have several reasons for finding his description of things more credible than Freeman’s or Zeihan’s (though to be fair Zeihan’s argument isn’t quite as strong as Freeman’s).
To begin with I think it’s clear Brose, and obviously Gingrich to a certain extent have a far more insight into the condition of our military, and how well it’s likely to perform in any potential conflict. The perfect string of war game losses mentioned by Brose seems particularly applicable here. Also I don’t get the sense that Freeman or Zeihan are as familiar as they should be with some of the weapons systems China has or is developing, and that’s really what the outcome of any future conflict will hinge upon. What sort of impact will newer weapon’s systems have, and who will best take advantage of them? When considering this question the last few major conflicts are very instructive. In every single one, the dominant weapon of the previous war was rendered obsolete by new weapons. In World War I it was the cavalry being rendered obsolete by the machine gun. In World War II it was the battleship being rendered obsolete by the aircraft carrier and the defensive line being rendered obsolete by the tank. (And I realize that the true picture is somewhat more complicated than this.)
In any potential war against China there’s numerous candidates for game-changing weapons, and China is ahead of us on basically all of them. We’re focused on things that make big juicy targets, like aircraft carriers and bases on Guam and Okinawa, they’re focused on what they call the “assassin’s mace”, cheap, numerous, and, frankly, sneaky weapons that are designed precisely to take out those big targets. Additionally all of our recent military experience has come against opponents where we’re overwhelmingly more powerful. Where we can count on our satellites and our communication and having an AWACS hanging around. And yes, the Taliban can’t do anything about those systems, but China can.
The foregoing discussion of a potential military conflict is pretty meaningless if a war never happens. Though the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that China will not rest until it has reabsorbed Taiwan, and if America remains committed to preventing that, then war would appear to be inevitable. And this is another area where many people like to flip things, and rather than asking what’s wrong with China that they would want to do that, they ask what’s wrong with us that we think it’s our job to stop that?
Probably you’re not merely worried about the liberty and continued independence of Taiwan, you’re also worried about freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong, or perhaps you feel that the US has some moral responsibility to stop the ongoing abuse of the Uighars and Tibetans. And there’s no denying that great harms are being committed, and perhaps it is the role of the US and the other free countries of the world to stop such harms wherever they might be happening. Certainly it would be nice if we could, but if there is such a path it almost certainly doesn’t involve war with China, which would very likely cause more harm than it prevented. (For a taste of what I mean consider Iraq and Afghanistan, and then factor in China’s vastly greater capacity to fight back.)
Beyond outright war, which we didn’t resort to even with the Soviet Union, there is the option of a very aggressive and confrontational stance that stops short of outright war. But there are arguments to be made that even this might be a mistake. A few examples:
First there’s the position of Freeman which appeared earlier in the post. He doesn’t mention the Uyghurs at all, and he doesn’t offer much of an opinion on Taiwan either. But his position that the US needs to avoid another cold war with China has a certain logic to it, if for no other reason than that China has an economic strength the Soviet Union never possessed.
Next there’s the position of Samuel Huntington and his book Clash of Civilizations, which I talked about here. Huntington contends that Southeast Asia has and always will be part of the Chinese sphere of control and that in the long run there’s not much we can do about it. Interestingly Fukuyama was a student of Huntington but in this area he disagrees with his former professor, not in claiming that they aren’t civilizations, or that they’re not important, but rather in putting forth the idea that progress has spawned a universal civilization. As such, rather than abandoning most of Asia to the dominion of China we should instead be encouraging China to join the universal civilization.
Beyond these two America has always had a streak of isolationism, perhaps best represented currently by Pat Buchanan. Who recently pointed out in reference to the rising tensions between China and India that:
Exactly what kind of “ally and partner” the U.S. is to be “in the fight” between India and China over disputed terrain in the Himalayan Mountains was left unexplained. We have no vital interest in where the Line of Control between the most populous nations on earth should lie that would justify U.S. military involvement with a world power like China.
I understand that Buchanen is something of a pariah among some, but it’s hard to find fault with this statement.
Underlying all of these arguments is the question of US hegemony, and what the ongoing value of that is. From where I sit, it would appear that the biggest value is slowing down nuclear proliferation. To speak more directly to the subject at hand, Japan has the technology for nuclear weapons, they don’t possess them (that we know) because the US is shielding them with its nuclear umbrella. Should the US make a significant withdrawal from Asia, effectively ceding it to China, there’s good reason to suspect that Japan would decide that “now” would be an excellent time to start possessing such weapons.
The foregoing would appear to leave us with three choices:
- Accept that our power and influence is or will be declining and attempt to create a new hegemony, perhaps something involving the creation of a significant international coalition, or perhaps just an international order that focuses on nonproliferation, but doesn’t try and solve all of the worlds problems (i.e. something that keeps Japan from feeling the need for nukes, but does nothing to prevent China from annexing Taiwan.)
- Accept that our power and influence are declining and decide that any attempt to replace the US hegemony with something else is destined to fail, so why bother making the attempt. Perhaps this comes about from deciding that any effort spear-headed by the US is bound to have too much baggage, and hope someone else will step up.
- Hang on to our current role for as long as we can, and do everything possible to extend this period. In the meantime, hope that something changes, perhaps China will embrace liberal democracy, or China and Russia will go to war or some weird technological singularity will come along (this is exactly the plan laid out by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I reviewed here.)
Finally we arrive at what is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frightening possibility of all. I’ve frequently mentioned Fukuyama and his book End of History and the Last Man in the course of this discussion, and I think it’s fair to say that the book is very Hegelian. Of course as Fukuyama also points out, Marx essentially ruined Hegel, but if you can strip that away and look at what Hegel was actually saying, it’s all pretty interesting. When talking about Hegel everyone mentions the “dialectic”, but essentially, as Hegel saw it that mostly amounted to a conversation between civilizations, a conversation that generally starts with two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis), but eventually through dialogue, ideas, experimentation, and yes, even war, the two ideas eventually combine into one better idea (synthesis).
As an example you might start out with security on one side and freedom on the other, eventually synthesizing the two into a system with both significant policing, but also significant protection for individual rights. As that example makes clear, it’s not always as clean and straightforward as Hegel would lead you to believe, but he nevertheless claimed that this process also operated at the level of nations and brought us liberal democracy. Whether this was in fact “the process”, and whether it was not only “the process”, but the end point of “that process” are separate issues. I think there’s a good case to be made that the process was something like that, but the idea that we’ve reached the end is less certain, despite Hegel’s and later Fukuyama’s claims to the contrary.
With an understanding of that framework, we’re now in a position to discuss the interesting/frightening possibility I alluded to at the beginning of the section. What if the Chinese government is the next level of Hegelian synthesis? What if they have synthesized market capitalism, with communism (or if you prefer just straight authoritarianism)? As you may recall from some of my previous posts on the book, Fukuyama isn’t making the claim that liberal democracy is some sort of obvious utopia, and he mostly tries to minimize claims of whig history, rather what he’s saying is that only liberal democracy has both the legitimacy necessary for internal health and the access to science and industry necessary to win a modern war, that is external threats to a nation’s health. But so far threats to the legitimacy of the Chinese government have been pretty anemic, and, if Brose is correct, their war making capability is at least sufficient and it may be superior.
In both cases there are other elements which have contributed to China’s success. Turning first to legitimacy, there was a time when it was expected that technology and particularly the internet would be a huge boon to political freedom, and the longer things go the more it looks like it might be just the opposite. China’s great firewall has proven to work a lot better than people expected when it was first mooted, things like China’s social credit system wouldn’t be possible without recent technology, and finally advances in machine learning/AI promise to make the tools available to the government more effective still. All of this works to shore up the authoritarian side of the synthesis. It also makes it easier to disentangle market capitalism from other elements of liberal democracy giving China an engine of economic growth the Soviet Union lacked.
On the war-fighting side of things, the Chinese seem to have managed to avoid the bureaucratic inertia that, according to Brose, currently plagues the US military. I assume that there are a lot of things which have contributed to this, but it’s easy to imagine that being authoritarian helps out quite a bit. Another simplifying factor is the fact that the Chinese have well-defined goals for their military, unlike the US which, in addition to trying to maintain its hegemonic position, also has a tendency to get into endless wars of occupation.
To be clear in putting this possibility out there I am not arguing that this is in fact what has happened. I’m not a Hegelian, I’m a Christian, but for those who do see history from a Hegelian viewpoint, like Fukuyama, or those who just have a general belief in progress, like Pinker, what’s the counter argument? And if there isn’t a definitive counter argument what does that mean for the history of humanity? Will all nations end up converging to this new endpoint? Or does it only work for China?
This post ended up being longer than I expected and rather than making it much longer, on the one hand, or on the other, cutting out anything genuinely interesting, I thought I would dump it all in the last section as a collection of miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts, so here goes:
I didn’t really touch much on trade, but obviously that’s been one of the biggest areas of contention between the US and China over the last several years. Despite this trade restrictions are still controversial and my sense is that they’re unlikely to continue under Biden, though honestly neither side is really spending much time talking about China at this point, so it’s difficult to tell. As far as whether they should continue, that’s always difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that the trade war was a bad idea, which hurt us more than it hurt them. However the one study I came across estimated that China lost $35.2 billion as a result of it while the US only lost $15.6 billion. Indicating that we have more bargaining power than we think, that if it is necessary to confront China this is a good place to do it, that Trump probably deserves at least some of the credit, and that Biden should continue the policy.
It’s really amazing all of the different venues where China is causing problems, or at the very least distorting the way things have traditionally been done. We’ve already talked about the NBA, but they also exercise a significant influence on how Hollywood makes movies. They’ve got significant influence in developed countries, and they’re influencing technology in major ways as well, particularly when it comes to 5G. And because of the way their influence works, these distortions don’t get reported on to nearly the extent you would expect, meaning that the news is yet another area of distortion.
Everything I read portrayed China as being almost entirely machiavellian, willing to ignore agreements, skirt treaties, conceal their intentions, and outright lie if it served their purpose. As examples they’re actively trying to subvert the UN, the agreements they have made on autonomous weapons are obviously designed with huge loopholes, and they’ve got a secondary naval militia disguised as a fishing fleet. And while I understand the caution that we shouldn’t enter into another cold war with China, they’ve deliberately closed off nearly all avenues short of force. This is part of why a trade war is appealing because as bad as it might be it’s still orders of magnitude better than outright war.
As China gets closer and closer to the point where they feel ready to annex Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger segment of the population are less and less likely to want to be reabsorbed. In particular the recent crack-down in Hong Kong has only increased their reluctance.
Finally, one of the books I already finished in October is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. I had intended to talk about it more in this post, but it’s one of the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else. In the book, the point Mishra emphasizes repeatedly is the level of humiliation felt by the Chinese as a consequence of colonialism. A humiliation they still feel. I’m not sure exactly how that translates into a policy prescription, or what we can really do about it at this point, but it does suggest that underlying everything I’ve talked about is less the normal desire for a people to improve their circumstances and more a straight up hunger for revenge.
As my posts gradually get longer they also get less frequent. I guess I could have split this in two, but I feel like it’s better to get it all out at once. If you have an opinion on that I’d love to hear it. You know what I also love? Donations. Mostly because of the warm fuzzy feeling they give me.