Gotta go through some backstory first. Bear with me and have faith that there’s a point.

IMHO, the most influential man in all of history has got to be Confucious. He was a Chinese civil servant who came up with a system of how society should be arranged.

Okay, boring stuff, right? But it was terribly influential, not least because it stated in very strong terms that the State was more important than the individual, and the people who ran the State were more important than anyone under them.

No surprise that temples were built to honor this Confucious guy a few years after his death (Even though the idea of building a temple for a primitive sociologist seems bizarre in the extreme to us today.) Most Asian societies quickly absorbed Confucianism and made it an integral part of everything they did. For 2,000 years the most advanced and populous societies on Earth ran themselves along strictly Confucian lines.

But Confucious had some serious holes in his thinking. For one thing, he thought that merchants were leeches on society since they didn’t actually produce anything. Moving goods and resources from the place where it’s common to places where it’s scarce has an obvious and immediate benefit, but he seems to have missed this. So, since most Asian cultures were built using the Confucian model, merchants were viewed with hatred and envy.

This attitude was to be found in Western society but, considering the smaller size of European nations when compared to the huge Asian empires, it’s not surprising that they soon picked up the clue phone. The one major economic theory prevalent during the West’s major period of development was Mercantilism. Moving stuff around was considered to be vital to any progress, and a great deal of attention and effort was lavished on increasing trade.

One could say that these differing philosophies clashed during the Opium Wars. Token Western military units invaded China itself in order to secure markets for their drug trade and managed to defeat anything that the more ancient and populous Asian culture could throw at them. This was possible because China had remained essentially unchanged for centuries, while technology had advanced by leaps and bounds in European countries. And one of the main reasons that technology advanced so far and so fast was through the free exchange of ideas.

The Chinese had their butts handed to them by ridiculously tiny military units, a huge blow to their pride. They were forced to give the island of Hong Kong to the drug merchants, an act that humiliates any Chinese who thinks of it even today. So they want to reform and get with the program, right? They have direct and dramatic proof that they need to become more Western if they don’t want to be left in the dust. And they’ve known this for 175 years.

Apparently the lesson hasn’t sunk in yet.

During the Cold War many US intelligence and military agencies talked up the Russians as being a huge threat. Black programs to develop new technology and an almost unstoppable military meant that the free world was on the knife edge, running as fast as it could just to keep the Russians convinced that the costs of invasion and the inevitable victory of Communism would be too high.

Well, I don’t need to point out that the fall of Communism kinda consigned that particular analysis to the dustbin of history.

There’s been a fair amount of speculation that China will be a credible threat. Not now, of course, but maybe someday any second now. Better watch out!

Yeah, they can cause some problems. And they’ve made a fair amount of progress, particularly since they’ve absorbed the vibrant culture found in Hong Kong. But their system is pretty much an anchor on their advancement, and I just don’t see them as being able to catch up.

10 thoughts on “KEEP ON TRUCKIN’”

  1. Mohammed beats Confucious. Major religion and conqueror. Much more impact on today’s world.

  2. I knew that someone would drag Mohammad into the mix.

    It’s a good point, Richard, but I think you’ll notice that I said “the most influential man in all of history”. Mohammad showed up around, what, 750 CE or so? A mere upstart! Confucious has more than a thousand years on him.

    Even though Islam expanded at a dizzying pace at first, it never managed to reach the same number of people who were alive at any one time. Confucious influenced more people, and a greater percentage of the Earth’s population, at any one moment.

    The Chinese have this idea that all of this Western technical advancement and Islamic fervor is just a flash in the pan. They’ve had this societal structure in place for so long that they figure, if they wait long enough, everyone else will fade away and they’ll still be standing.

    This is one of the major reasons why progress is so slow in China. They’re just biding their time.


  3. I’ve been skeptical of the “China is the future” idea for a while now and I’d like your thoughts on this.

    The problem as I see it is three-fold.
    1. China doesn’t have enough women.
    2. The Chinese public health infrastructure is too weak.
    3. The quality of life divide between the rural Chinese and the urban Chinese is big and will only get bigger, faster.

    Now I may be way off here. I mean, I don’t know much about China except what I hear on the BBC so if I am way off please educate me, but this is the way I see things unfolding.

    1. The man-woman problem will lead to higher than average instances of homosexuality and bi-sexuality, widespread prostitution, and a brutally competitive market and culture as capitalism spreads (not enough women to “civilize” the men). And when I say brutal I’m thinking late 19th, early 20th century brutal. Wild West brutal.

    2. The prostitution will bring disease. Alternative sexual lifestyles (male) come with higher infection rates everywhere else in the world and I imagine it will be the same in China. There are no major religious structures to emphasize and enforce (through guilt or social pressure) monogamy. The already weak public health infrastructure (See: SARS, HIV/AIDS) will not be able to keep up.

    3. As urban Chinese get wealthier and as greater freedom of action comes with that wealth the rural Chinese will get very jealous. Plus all their kids will be running off to the big city to make their fortune. Hello more rural resentment and hello unsanitary living conditions in Chinese slums. Again, the public health infrastructure strains to keep up with the demands of the public ill health.

    Now add to this the fact that the Communist Party does NOT want to give up any power, and chinese culture (as it HAS stood) will dictate that if power must be given up, it will be given up slowly and in a controlled way. Remember the impulse of every good communist is to control the hell out of everything “for the public good”. But as Western culture seeps in, the young chinese will want more, faster. Cause it’s gooood.

    So what am I saying? I’m saying I predict widespread disease, of the nastiest sort, widespread “social unrest” and a power struggle within the Party and from without the Party. I further predict widespread drug abuse (in the cities) because it’s gonna be a miserable place to live and famine too, cause all the kids left for the city and there’s nobody left to run the collective farm. This place isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s gonna be one of the worst humanitarian disasters we have ever seen and it’s gonna happen sooner than anyone realizes because China is not telling us everything.

    But like I said, I may be waaay off here and if I am I’d appreciate someone telling me why.

  4. One thing should be borne in mind: Taiwan.

    The Chinese leadership is well aware of these problems and has so far been good at keeping themselves in power.

    What they hope for is a sort of Bismarckian nationalism combined with industrial success.

    They know that there are huge economic and demographic imbalances within the nation with a thin wedge of about 100 million fairly prosperous people in the coastal areas and the big cities, while the remaining 1+ billions are poor as the poorest of third worlders. This could easily lead to revolution if things turned bad.

    Nightmare scenario: In order to avoid civil unrest, the Chinese invade Taiwan just to distract the people from the problems and unify the nation. That’s why the US must stand firm in promising to defend the Taiwanese.

    Believe me, the world will suffer if the Reds get the idea that they could invade without repercussions.

    Plus: Imagine what Japan would do if the Chinese successfully invaded Taiwan. Can you say, More Nukes Now?

  5. China is unlikely to face famine from purely technical reasons such as the youth running off to the city. Ag in China is still mainly ultra low tech. Simply by parasitising western ag methods, even without developing anything new they will be able to feed the population. If the society doesn’t blow up for other reasons!

  6. First let me address the comment made by China Skeptic.

    “The problem as I see it is three-fold.
    1. China doesn’t have enough women.
    2. The Chinese public health infrastructure is too weak.
    3. The quality of life divide between the rural Chinese and the urban Chinese is big and will only get bigger, faster.”

    The One Child Policy that China recently rescinded resulted in about 40 million more males than females. This has, as you predicted, led to a huge increase in societal stress, crime and STD’s. In fact, there’s been so many new AIDS cases that many health professionals claim that it’s a crises. It’s obvious that you’re right about the reaction when one considers that it took the Communist government long enough to admit it.

    You’re also right about the primitive health system in China. They allow people to go to “traditional Chinese doctors”, which means acupuncture and strange folk remedies that kill their patients off all the quicker. Much like our own “alternative medicine” movement.

    But I think you’re assuming that this will erode their society much more than it actually will. Don’t forget that they’ve been teaching their people to go with the flow for thousands of years. And 40 million extra males is only 4% of their population. A source of potential trouble, yes, but hardly something that will tear their society down around their ears.


  7. Now it’s time for me to address jn’s comment.

    “One thing should be borne in mind: Taiwan. The Chinese leadership is well aware of these problems and has so far been good at keeping themselves in power. What they hope for is a sort of Bismarckian nationalism combined with industrial success.”

    What I quoted above is a very cogent analysis, and one that I think sums up the situation and the intentions of the Communists.

    I also agree with the statement about the economic disparity in China, but I disagree with the prediction that it’s a credible source of revolution. Vast disparities in income and influence is nothing new in China, they’ve been there since China was formed. Things would have to get very bad indeed in order for there to be a general uprising.

    So far as Taiwan is concerned, for 50 years China’s been claiming that they’re just on the verge of going over there and taking them back into the Communist fold. What’s stopped them?

    One reason was, of course, the US Navy. But China just doesn’t have the military might to get the job done. They can’t invade, and even if the US was out of the picture, they can’t project enough force to have a credible chance against Taiwan’s seld defense forces.

    And China doesn’t have the money needed to buy the military necessary, either.

    The invasion of Iraq was watched with keen interest by Chinese military analysts. That’s mainly because they have similar gear and almost identical operational strategies as Saddam’s military had. The lightning defeat of Iraq has certainly depressed them.

    So they’ve jacked their defense budget up some and they’re trying to upgrade their equipment to, say, 1980 levels. Still not enough to get over to Taiwan, though.


  8. It’s interesting that you compare the Cold war predictions about the Soviet threat to today’s predictions about China. But it wasn’t just the military and intelligence agencies that over hyped the power of the Soviets. It was also the leftist Western intelectuals who defended them. And the right wing ones too. And the defecters. And everybody else it seems. Some had motives. Others were just loud mouths who wanted to sound smart.

    I am pretty sure the common wisdom will always be wrong. And that’s the best indicator that China isn’t a big deal.

    Since when were so many people ever right about anything?

  9. Thanks James, I didn’t realize the male/female ratio was as close as that. Could I ask for your source?

    Tom, if James is right about the chinese difficulties to make even modest strides militarly, where does the money come from to upgrade agriculturally (is that a word?). The other thing I’m skeptical about is the ability of a centrally controlled sector of the economy (agriculture) to be rapidly improved via government intervention/investment. I agree that upgrading farms from the fifteenth century to the twentieth century would markedly increase outputs but where do the people with the skill sets necessary to operate that technology efficiently come from? Where does the money come from? Who is going to oversee the widescale technological revolution that will have to take place with anything like the necessary efficiency that a free market would bring? And if the market is allowed free reign ( an idea that I can’t see the Party being wild about, especially concerning something so vital and so close to the Party’s hold over hearts and minds.) who has educated the populace in how free markets work? A really good example of this problem is in Iraq, where people who were involved in state industries are having an extremely difficult time understanding even the most basic ideas behind the market ( initiative, responsibilty, risk and risk management ).

    Sandy, that’s true and the rate of growth has been very good, but it’s still only 10% of the population. And religions spread far faster and far deeper under persecution. As the authorities lighten up the spread will slow considerably. I’m not convinced that it is going to be enough to have a serious impact on public or private sexual mores.

    It seems that many analysts have faith in the “force of history” as I would call it. This idea that China has been this way or that way for thousands of years so is unlikely to change. I don’t find history compelling in the face of individualism. I have heard many interviews with chinese that have embraced the Western ideas of the free market and are now working in Hong Kong or Quangdong province and they strike me as some of the most self-centered people I have ever heard speak. Shallow and materialist to a degree that I haven’t heard from anyone but the rich girls in high school. A generation of Paris Hiltons if you will. I don’t think that this extremely old Chinese culture has developed arguments agianst the baser sides of Western civilization that aren’t tied up in Communist dogma. There is no defense culturally against those elements of Western culture (specifically American pop-culture) which are fine in small doses but which cannot be taken as a philosophy of life. The bottom line is, this is not Japan or South Korea and they have not had decades to get comfortable with the very radical individualism (when compared to other cultures and even the American culture as recently as the 1950’s) that is going to rush in as they open up.

    Waddaya think?

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