A recent article in Foreign Affairs was titled Xi Jinping Is Not Stalin: How a Lazy Historical Analogy Derailed Washington’s China Strategy discussed China in the context of recent history. As far as it goes, the article makes a strong argument supporting its title.
But what the article doesn't cover is how ignorant Americans and their officials are about the depth of Chinese history within China's culture as it is viewed by the Chinese people. And that is foolishly dangerous. American policy towards China flounders because of what amateurs running key Trump Administration foreign policy and economic positions don't understand.
That, of course, reflects what Trump voters won't accept - that a 17th Century immigrant European culture that began with enslaving Africans and killing indigenous peoples can somehow outperform a culture based on a continuous 20,000-year cultural evolution that in its most recent 2.250 years has clearly established a method of government that has effectively not changed except in appearance to outsiders.
It has become clear in the past few years that leadership in the U.S. government, including the military, has a twisted view of the Chinese brought about by an ideological adherence to the term "democracy" despite the fact that even Wikipedia acknowledges that "no consensus exists on how to define democracy." In a post here in August 2019 the following was explained:
If you didn't already know it, the Chinese think differently from us. And by that, I don't mean they have different opinions about the acting in "Spiderman: Far from Home", I mean the way their brains process interactions with the world around them and the people in their lives is different because of 20,000 years of continuous linguistic and cultural evolution..
That does contrast with the 400 years of American "melting pot" history. So in this post, we'll begin by offering a look at Chinese history.
A Brief Overview of Chinese History
About 20,000+ years ago in what we know today as China, people were cooking rice in pottery.
Located in Dayuan Township, Wannian County in the Jiangxi province, China, is the Xianren Cave. In 2012 Science published an article reporting that the earliest pottery yet known anywhere in the world was found at this site, pottery fragments with scorch marks, suggesting that the pottery was used for cooking. These early pottery containers were made well before the known invention of agriculture (dated to 10,000 to 8,000 BC), by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered their food during the Late Glacial Maximum. Except evidence of early rice cultivation was discovered there.
The point here isn't to pique your interest in Chinese archeology. The point here is that the Chinese see their history as a people on their land in the context of 20,000 years, a history that looks something like this:
Notice that near the bottom of the chart at the beginning of the last Imperial Dynasty - the Qing Empire which began in 1636 - we have noted that European migration to the Americas began. At that time China was a nation of about 123 million people. The Americas did have a large indigenous population, but we don't know for certain how large and they weren't European. China has been the world's most populous nation for many centuries with a current population of 1.4 billion.
The problems of governing 1.4 billion Chinese people who share thousands of years of Chinese history requires some serious consideration by Americans who have less than 300 years of self-government.
Imperial China was a 2,133-year period that began with the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C and ended with the Qing dynasty in 1912 A.D. We need to understand some basics that set that long course.
The First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, may have lasted only 12 years, but he managed to subdue the core of the Han Chinese homeland, uniting them under a centralized legalist government which emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the centralized empire. The unification and development of the legal code allowed the development of the written language, measurement, and currency of China. The economy was stimulated by establishing such things a uniform length of axles for carts to match ruts in the roads ensuring an empire-wide viable trading system.
The next 400 years of the Han dynasty evolved into a golden age in Chinese history. A long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state under a central imperial bureaucracy. During the Han dynasty, governed territory was extended to most of China proper and to areas far west. Art, culture and science all advanced to unprecedented heights.
After the initial laissez-faire policies of Emperors, Emperor Wu endorsed Confucianism emphasizing stability and order in a well-structured society became the guiding philosophical thoughts and moral principles of the empire. Imperial Universities were established to support its study.
In 1912 at the end of the decline of the Qing Dynasty some "modern" Chinese thinkers attempted to create a democratic republic in China which at that time had a population somewhat larger than today's United States and had been governed 2,133 years as an empire with reasonable success. (Keep in mind that in 1912 it had been only 47 years since the end of the U.S. Civil War, a period of time which doesn't really offer a recommendation for stability.)
The new Republic of China struggled for 15 years, entered a civil war period for 10 years, fought a Japanese invasion for 7 years, the returned to the civil war for 4 years. At the end of that period "a centralized legalist government which emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the centralized" rule was restored, not as an empire but as The People's Republic of China.
A 21st Century Centralized Self-Government
After 37 years of turmoil - 1912 to 1949 - China returned to a centralized government exercising the same level of power that permitted China to grow and prosper over 2,000+ years.
Don't be confused. China is self-governed. In any nation the means of self-governance usually comprises some or all of the following:
- A code of conduct that outlines acceptable behavior within the nation.
- A means of ensuring external authority does not become involved.
- A means of facilitating the intended functions of the nation.
- A means of registering and resolving grievances with the nation.
- A means of disciplinary procedure within the nation ranging from censure up to and including penalty of death.
- A means of suppressing parties, factions, tendencies or other sub-groups that outside the code of conduct seek to secede or disrupt the national order.
Every one of those applies to the United States and to China.
Yes, many Chinese grumble about their government. So do many (most?) Americans.
Yes, the People's Republic of China generally bans the practice of religion. And they are systematically attempting to eliminate Islam among 25± million Muslims in China. Americans are prone to attack this without giving much thought about it. The Muslim population in China is about the same as the total population in the 17 least populous U.S. states which make up 41% of the U.S. land area. If we relocated the 25± million Chinese Muslims to the United States, what policies would we put in place to deal with the 3%± - 750,000± - militant believer terrorists? Would they really be any less distasteful, less oppressive than China's.
And let's not pretend that the United States has always had, and continues to have, an undercurrent that would impose Christianity on its people.
Included in these posts is an extensive review of China and its government. The contents is the rock bottom minimum every U.S. official involved with China relations should understand:
The most important facts for Americans to know have to do with Chinese government goals as enunciated by its current leader, Xi Jinping.
On February 11, 2009, while visiting Mexico, then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping spoke in front of a group of overseas Chinese noting that "it was the greatest contribution towards the whole of the human race made by China to prevent its 1.3 billion people from hunger."
Regarding the 2008 financial crisis affecting the Atlantic oriented world filled with complaints about Chinese foreign trade Xi bluntly stated: "There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us. First, China doesn't export revolution; second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches. What more is there to be said?"
In a marked departure from the common practice of Chinese leaders, Xi's first speech as General Secretary was plainly worded and did not include any political slogans or mention of his predecessors. Xi instead offered the aspirations of the average person, remarking, "Our people ... expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living conditions, and a more beautiful environment."
Americans don't understand what that means to the Chinese. Over the past decade we have been immersed in reports telling us that the Chinese economy is becoming as large as that of the U.S. Some 1.4 billion Chinese people whose 2020 average per capita income is $10,839 (based on nominal GDP) wish that were true. The U.S average per capita income in $63,051, which is 5.8 times China's.
Looking at a total GDP is irrelevant to the average Chinese citizen. That number is virtually no threat to the world because there are 58 countries in which the average per capita income is higher. Even with income distribution issues the average American earnings are relatively high. That is why Xi's focus on income related issues is meaningful to the average Chinese citizen.
In the last week of October, President Xi delivered a work report, a draft 14th five-year plan and a document outlining China’s long-term objectives up to the year 2035 to the 200 members of the Communist Party Central Committee, the top decision-making body of the ruling party. A final draft setting out key five-year economic and political goals and the long-term objectives will be submitted to the National People’s Congress – China’s top lawmaking body – in March next year.
Xi has stressed that China must become more self-reliant, invest more in domestic technological innovation, improve the environment and focus on what he calls a “dual circulation” strategy – a concept that aims to
increase the focus on domestic consumption to boost the economy while balancing it with foreign trade and investment. It is expected that the adopted plan’s targets would include the quality of economic growth, technology and innovation, institutional reforms, the building of high-end industrial supply chains, measures to develop a low carbon economy and goals for the reduction of energy consumption.
Xi intends to shield China from swings in the world economy which, in terms of governments, is perceived to be out of control. This is uncomfortable when viewed from a 2,250 year tradition of "a centralized legalist government which emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the centralized" rule.
Americans don't really get a chance to evaluate the competitive benefits derived from that centralized rule. Consider the Covid-19 situation. Clear evidence exists that the Chinese government in fact either did not know or chose to not to share the actual impact of Covid-19 on its population. Using crematory data, it is clear deaths in February and March were as much as 10 times official reports.
The problem is we know that the weakness of a centralized government which depends of the equivalent of state and local governments would lead to deliberate underreporting. That's not to say that the U.S. did better in the early months in reporting accurate data, or even today.
But once the central government gave the pandemic full priority, these stories give a clear picture of what is and is not acceptable behavior - Kashgar set to complete tests on over 4 million residents as it battles to contain latest outbreak, Beijing municipal government orders partial lockdown for city and elevates emergency response amid latest outbreak, China Tests Millions in Xinjiang After Asymptomatic Cases Found.
If nothing else, what one learns from those stories is that Chinese residents don't get the option of not being tested even if as one official explained, "we don’t have a great deal of experience in prevention and control in rural areas so we should expect to face some challenges in curbing the spread in rural villages, especially in areas where the majority of the population is ethnic minority."
Two things appear to be true. First, the Chinese did not, and do not, focus on providing to the rest of the world information, though it was far more available through news media than the Trump Administration acknowledges. Second, the Chinese don't accept the idea that individual rights prevail over keeping the general population of 1.4 billion people safe and healthy including old people.
This latter fact in this writer's opinion is one of those competitive benefits derived from that centralized rule. China has about four times the population of the U.S. Yet the U.S. has the most cases and deaths from Covid-19 in the world simply because our population just can't let go of the Constitutional right to be stupid long enough to not kill grandma. Someday we need to look at that.
Competing with 21st Century China
As noted at the beginning of this post, in the United States officials, particularly those in the Trump Administration and many in deep state positions, are clearly paranoid about China. Why?
Let me again point out what Xi said over a decade ago: "There are some bored foreigners, with full stomachs, who have nothing better to do than point fingers at us. First, China doesn't export revolution; second, China doesn't export hunger and poverty; third, China doesn't come and cause you headaches. What more is there to be said?"
Surely those officials don't think China is going to invade the United States. They do not need the problems our culture would bring.
And it is simply true that the United States could never successfully launch an assault on and occupy China. Despite the wishes of some in the American news media, there is substantial support for the Chinese system of government within the 1.4 billion population. Remember, China is 90%+ Han Chinese. They are an East Asian ethnic group historically native to the Yellow River Basin, the world's largest ethnic group, making up about 18% of the global population.
Yes we can be staunch allies of those nations which are potential targets of Chinese aggressive behavior.
But our use of "trade war" policies simply doesn't work as noted by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times article Trump’s Tariffs? Coronavirus? China’s Exports Are Surging Anyway which explained:
This was supposed to be the year that China’s export machine began to stall. President Trump had imposed broad tariffs on Chinese goods. Countries like Japan and France pushed companies to shift production from China. The pandemic had crippled China’s factories by the end of January.
Instead, China Inc. has come roaring back.
After reopening in late February and early March, China’s factories began an export blitz that is still gaining steam. Exports soared in July to their second-highest level ever, nearly matching the record-setting Christmas rush last December. The country has grabbed a much larger share of global markets this summer from other manufacturing nations, entrenching a dominance in trade that could last long after the world begins to recover from the pandemic.
China is showing its export machine cannot be stopped — not by the coronavirus and not by the Trump administration. Its resilience lies not only in the country’s low-cost, skilled labor and efficient infrastructure but also in a state-controlled banking system that has been offering small and large businesses extra loans to cope with the pandemic.
The pandemic has also found China better placed than other exporting nations. It is making what the world’s hospitals and housebound families need right now: personal protection gear, home improvement products and lots of consumer electronics.
The United States needs to continue to lead in technology to succeed. It's that simple. And that hard. Interestingly, a number of our tech leaders have expanded into space programs at the very time entertainment media has offered numerous space exploration shows.
At the beginning of the 1960's the moon landing goal pushed the development of all kinds of technology. Then we used government money. Today perhaps the private sector will make it happen this time around. That and biotechnology gambles are how we seem to make our economy work today in our ancient 400-year-old culture.
But when we do it, let's not ignore the emotional depth of Chinese history and government.