Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Okay - back at work and everything has fallen apart while I was gone. What else is new. At least I was able to get here, a transit strike having been averted at the last minute.
So: lots to catch up on. For now, let me point to two recent pieces by John Derbyshire.
The first: about China, something John knows a great deal about and I know almost nothing about. He notes that one thing the China-boosters and China-Cassandras agree upon is the central importance of China to the future of the world and to America. He politely disputes this assessment of China's centrality, and compares the country to Mexico, predicting a slow, fitful advance towards modernity, with periodic bouts of madness and endemic corruption, but no massive threat to anyone.
I think he has a great point. But I think he's got the wrong analogy, because Mexico has never been a significant military power, which China looks likely to be. If Mexico had 5 million men under arms and nuclear weapons, I rather think we would have been more concerned about their revolution than we were.
The standard line on China is that it is like pre-WWI Germany: the rising power out to knock the dominant power (Britain vs. Germany, America vs. China) out of the rising power's self-defined sphere of influence. They share other similarities: extreme nationalism, rapid modernization, an emphasis on technical expertise, etc. I've often thought that another reasonable analogy was pre-WWII Japan: a society that had also undergone rapid industrialization and modernization and reacted with extreme nationalism and military adventurism. Japan, moreover, was still a very poor and in many ways primitive country on the eve of WWII, as is China today, and neither had a very sophisticated cultural understanding of the adversary they intended to displace.
But perhaps a better analogy yet is to pre-WWI Russia. Russia had undergone rapid modernization and industrialization, but was still a largely rural and backward country on the even of WWI. Its population had grown immensely in the previous century, and many Europeans feared that if Russia succeeded in becoming a modern power it would overwhelm all other European states by virtue of its sheer bulk. Russia then, like China now, was ruled by an absolutist authoritarian ideology and was fitfully trying to modernize its political institutions while retaining heavy censorship and a massive secret police. Russia in the years before WWI was wracked by labor unrest, peasant uprisings, revolutionary movements, and so forth. China looks rather different on the last score, but not so different on the first two. On this analogy, Tiananmen was roughly equivalent to the 1905 revolution.
Does this mean China is headed for revolution? No. The October Revolution in Russia was highly contingent, and would never have happened were it not for World War I. There is no equivalent to the Bolsheviks waiting to seize power in China. Nor does it mean that China is about to emerge as a volatile and dangerous superpower analogous to the Soviet Union. The Soviets themselves would never have achieved anything like their degree of power and success were it not for World War II, which eliminated their major enemies and gave them enormous new territories and resources. But I do think that the immediate future of China is volatile, and that this poses serious challenges to America's interests far in excess of those posed by the Mexican Revolution.