China is very 20th century

How I think about the world's biggest country

People have been asking me to do some more China-related posts. I had been trying to space them out, but China is incredibly important, so hey, why not. For a while I’ve been wanting to write a post explaining my general framework for thinking about that colossal country.

Lots of people remark on the parallels between China’s rise to wealth and power in the early 21st century and the rise of the United States a century ago. Reading those parallels got me thinking about more general ways that modern China’s economy and society echoes America’s past. Which in turn made me realize that China is going through a lot of the things that the great powers of last century — the U.S., Russia, Germany, Japan — went through. To flip around an old joke about string theory, China feels like a gigantic 20th century country that fell by chance into the 21st century.

I’m trying to read more books about China, and one I recently read was Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon. I didn’t find it to be a very interesting or useful book. The issues and frictions it warns about are (mostly) real enough, but by now those are universally known. Meanwhile, the book’s entire analysis of China is conducted in terms of exoticized cultural essentialism. Asymmetric warfare isn’t asymmetric warfare, it’s “Assassin’s Mace”. A hegemon isn’t a hegemon, it’s a “Ba”. China’s pretty standard, obvious strategy of building up economic power before it throws its geopolitical weight around is actually an ancient technique of deception handed down from the Warring States period thousands of years ago. And so on, and so on.

Maybe that kind of framing helps convince 60-year-old natsec guys, but to me it just sounds goofy. I can’t think in those terms. I guess one of my bedrock beliefs about human societies is that they’re mostly responses and adaptations to the pressures of the moment, rather than expressions of deep-rooted cultural traits.

And the most important pressure that China is undergoing right now is the pressure of rapid industrialization.

A 20th century economy

In terms of industrialization, China is basically speedrunning the 19th and 20th centuries. Looking at growth for various industrial great powers, you can see that Germany and Japan got a later start than the UK and U.S., but grew faster and caught up. China got an even later start, from an even lower base; it hasn’t caught up yet, but its growth has so far been even faster than Germany and Japan managed.

This miraculous industrialization, as usual, has happened via the growth of manufacturing. In 2004, China’s share of global manufacturing was slightly higher than Germany’s; by 2018, it was 28%, with the U.S. in second place at 16.6% and Japan third at 7.2%.

And as you might expect, manufacturing plays an outsized role in China’s economy; as of 2018, it was 27% of China’s GDP (down from where it was in 2000!), compared to 23% in Germany, 19% in Japan, and only 12% in the U.S. (In 1947, the U.S. was at 27%). A manufacturing-intensive economy is an intermediate stage in economic development — a feature of the rapid early period of industrialization.

That means that for most of the last 20 years, China’s industrial landscape looked like something out of a U.S. history book — massive humming factories where armies of laborers worked long mind-numbing hours at repetitive manual tasks. Thanks to massive investment both domestic and foreign, China became the world’s workshop in a way that Germany, Japan, and the U.S. were in the previous century. That involved a huge movement of people from the countryside to the cities — the largest urbanization in human history — which created many of the same social frictions that other countries experience during industrialization. And it led to all the same issues our American history books associate with the early 20th century — bad working conditions, labor disputes, and so on.

And much like the early industrialization of the U.S. and Europe, that terrific industrial expansion was largely powered by coal.

And, just like in Pennsylvania or England in the mid-20th century, all that coal created choking air pollution on a level unthinkable in a developed country today.

That air pollution was matched by water pollution, thanks to industrial runoff. That caused early deaths, birth defects, and plenty of other health problems. As the U.S., Europe, and Japan did a century ago, China deemed environmental problems to be acceptable losses until its living standards rose and its breakneck industrialization slowed down; now, just as we did in the 1960s, China is starting to value air quality and water quality more highly, launching massive cleanup efforts that are starting to make some headway. (In economics, this is known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve; sadly, it doesn’t apply to more global pollutants like carbon emissions or to environmental damage that doesn’t immediately impact human quality of life, such as biodiversity loss.)

In other words, China’s economy is raising many of the same challenges that the U.S., Germany, Japan, etc. encountered during their own rapid manufacturing-driven pollution-intensive urbanization-heavy journeys from indigence to wealth. So perhaps it’s not surprising that China’s government under Xi Jinping is starting to look somewhat like the governments of the great powers of the early 20th century.

A 20th century government

China’s government is characterized as repressive and autocratic, and it is. But compare it to the governments of the early 20th century great powers. We had:

  • A racially segregated, institutionally racist America

  • An imperial Britain that starved millions of colonial subjects as part of its war effort

  • An imperial France that was like imperial Britain but nastier

  • Wilhelmine Germany, an autocratic militarist aristocracy that committed genocides in Africa

  • Imperial Japan, whose crimes in China, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere are well-known

  • The USSR, a nightmarish genocidal terror regime under Stalin and a nasty, autocratic, bureaucratic, repressive kludgeocracy under other leaders

  • Nazi Germany, a regime so uniquely horrible that it has become the yardstick by which all other horrible regimes are measured

(Of course, these were later joined by Mao’s China, which was not too dissimilar, though China was a great power only by dint of population and not industrialization at that point.)

Anyway, as you see, the average Great Power government in the early 20th century was extremely bad by modern standards.

There are a million little autocratic flourishes from this period that we tend to gloss over and forget. During World War 1, Woodrow Wilson’s government — a supposedly progressive regime that claimed it wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” — implemented a massive government propaganda machine that censored all private media, stifled all dissent in the press, and was ultimately ruled unconstitutional. Even the least repressive Great Power regimes of the early 20th century were wildly repressive compared to those countries today.

Compared to this roster of shame, Xi Jinping’s China falls somewhere in the middle. China’s approach to press freedom is quite similar to that of Woodrow Wilson, but longer-lasting and endowed with far more advanced technology. The Uyghur repression is somewhat similar to the USSR’s gulags, plus super-high-tech Jim Crow. Its forced assimilation of Tibet is perhaps not too different from how Japan treated Korea, and its repression of Hong Kong feels like a colonial administration.

The thing is, “somewhere in the middle of early 20th century Great Power regimes” is actually pretty terrifying. No, the CCP are not the Nazis, and they’re not Stalin. But that’s cold comfort. After all, if you had to sum up the 20th century in one graph, this would be a strong contender:

Now, it’s worth asking why Great Power regimes got so bad in the early 20th century. The most obvious, default explanation is that they were always very bad, and that new technology and higher state capacity simply allowed them to be more effective at badness. The World Wars were another clear factor. But the social pressures of industrialization might have had something to do with it too; the disruption of traditional society by urbanization, factory work, corporate hierarchies, modern communications technology, and so on might have prompted governments to clamp down in response. Historian Philipp Blom makes an argument along these lines in his books, and he’s far from the only one.

But it wasn’t just governments clamping down in the early 20th century — mass political movements demanded totalitarian government control. In the U.S., this took the form of various white supremacist movements and the “100 Percent Americanism” movement, but also some pieces of the Progressive movement. In other countries it was communists, Nazis, or imperialist militarists. These might have arisen precisely in response to the aforementioned social displacements and ructions.

In China, the age of totalitarian mass movements seems to have ended with the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. But China’s government might be being pushed toward nationalistic bellicosity by a rising tide of jingoism — one that the government has all too often encouraged or allowed to run rampant.

20th century nationalism

Angelica Oung has a very interesting post about the latest eruption of jingoistic sentiment in China. The most recent objects of popular anger are the Western companies H&M and Nike, who have declared that they won’t use cotton grown in Xinjiang (over concerns that the cotton might be grown with forced Uyghur labor). Oung’s post shows photos of burning Nike sneakers and H&M signs being removed from a Chinese mall.

This is not even close to the first such outpouring; indeed, they appear to be a frequent event. Chinese nationalists were enraged at the NBA in 2019 over a general manager’s comments in support of the Hong Kong protests. They were angry at Coach and Givenchy that same year for making shirts that seemed to list Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries separate from China. They fumed at the Korean band BTS in 2020 for praising Korean War veterans. They targeted American brands in 2016 over a Hague ruling on the South China Sea. Etc. Etc. These folks are always mad.

Now, as an outsider it’s hard to tell how pervasive this flavor of nationalism runs, and how much of this anger is organic vs. whipped up by the government. But in terms of the contrast with America and other developed nations, I’m not sure it matters; the key fact here is that this kind of nationalist eruption doesn’t really happen much in rich countries these days. Which is not to say Americans don’t burn Nikes — but when we do, it’s typically out of anger at other Americans, not about perceived slights from overseas. American society, for better or for worse, is divided up along lines of ideology and identity, and this probably goes for other rich countries too.

China’s jingoism, in contrast, seems like something out of another time — specifically, Europe before World War 1 and Japan before World War 2. The obsession with historical humiliations does seem unusual, but the overall contours are similar — the determination not to suffer foreign slights or be pushed around, the feeling of manifest destiny generated by rapid growth in wealth and power, the embrace of ethnonationalism, and so forth all look quite familiar.

And these attitudes, along with the architecture of repressive government, are the things that people in Europe, America, and Japan spent the latter part of the 20th century throwing off.

Entering the 21st century

I am not a believer in the strong form of Modernization Theory, which says that countries naturally progress toward democracy and freedom etc. But I do think that as it happened, all of the 20th century’s Great Powers (yes, even Russia) turned away from the more-or-less totalitarian model that had prevailed in the early century.

In the U.S., this process of relaxation and liberalization started early — at the latest, with the FDR administration. Obviously it still had very far to go even at the end of that administration, but by the 1960s it was in full swing. It was in the postwar period that the U.S. did away with the Jim Crow system and many other forms of institutional repression and discrimination. By the 80s and 90s, it was paying reparations to victims of the Japanese internment. Press freedoms, restraints on police power, and various other protections of individual rights strengthened during this period as well. U.S. culture changed too, from a militantly homogenizing force to one that increasingly embraced kaleidoscopic diversity. And with that came a decline in outward-focused jingoism, and a greater focus on internal cultural disagreements.

All of those changes, to a greater or lesser degree, parallel shifts in Europe and Japan. Russia remained authoritarian except for a brief period of ineffectual flailing democracy in the 90s, but even it transitioned away from the rigid social control of the USSR.

China mostly hasn’t undergone this transition yet. There was some progress in the 1980s and 1990s, but now under Xi the country is becoming steadily more repressive. If we reject the teleologies of modernization theory, we have to admit that there’s a possibility China might never undergo the kind of political and social relaxation that the 20th century Great Powers underwent — or at least, not in our lifetimes. On the other hand, it’s possible that wealth and the shift to a consumption-and-services-based economy will bring some form of liberalization to China. We can hope, but we can’t bet on it.

In the meantime, I think we should think of China as being more or less the kind of place we used to be, but with better technology. That might seem arrogant, because it implies that we’ve come farther down the path of civilizational growth than China has. And OK, maybe it is arrogant — after all, for all our well-documented flaws, I do think that the governments of the developed countries are better in most ways than the Chinese government, and I do like the fact that our culture has embraced diversity to a much greater degree than a century ago.

But the idea that China is a country that’s in many ways still in the 20th century can also free us from essentializing or exoticizing narratives like the ones promulgated in books like The Hundred Year Marathon, and by some of the most ardent China hawks in the media and online. I look at the problems of modern China and say: Yes, we’ve sort of been here before. And there’s at least the possibility that it gets better.

Because despite the cruel government and the Nike-burning nationalists and the smokestacks still belching foulness across the land, China is a vast place filled with untold amounts of good people, smart ideas, and interesting stuff. The real lesson of the 20th century is that all countries are like that; they just need the chance to chill out and be friends.