Does China think long-term while America thinks short-term?
As part of my China reading series, I’m now reading Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, which is about the possibility of the U.S. and China stumbling into war. Though the warning is timely and useful, Destined for War has a section about cultural differences that’s both atrocious and entirely out of place in the rest of the book. It relies on many of the same tics and stereotypes as Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon — for example, alleging that Chinese people still think in terms of metaphors from the Warring States period 2300 years ago.
One particularly silly example Allison repeats is the idea that Chinese people think about strategy in terms of the game Go (weiqi in Chinese), while Americans think in terms of chess. The metaphor, apparently, is that China thinks in terms of strategic encirclement while Americans try to checkmate the opponent. This analogy actually comes from Henry Kissinger, who helped establish a de facto alliance between the two countries during the Cold War, and wrote a whole book about China that people still quote lovingly to this day. Kissinger reiterated the metaphor in a 2011 interview on CNN, which featured the following image:
But as some of you may have noticed, the game pictured is not Go. It’s xiangqi, also known as “Chinese chess”. Xiangqi is similar to chess (the goal is to checkmate your opponent), but it’s faster-paced and more tactical, with more open space on the board. Games tend to be faster than chess games. And in China, xiangqi is much more popular than Go. So even if the idea of analyzing country’s strategic cultures based on popular board games made any sense whatsoever (which it does not), if we looked at xiangqi we might conclude that Chinese strategic culture is like America’s, but faster-paced and more aggressive.
In other words, assuming Kissinger was not just a complete doofus, he chose this metaphor based not on how accurately it describes Chinese thinking, but on how he wanted Americans to think about responding to China. And in fact, U.S. policy to balance China has been based on encirclement, much to Chinese leaders’ annoyance. Kissinger successfully got the U.S. to “play Go”.
Anyway, of all of these cliches that books like Allison’s Destined for War rely on, the one that people seem to come back to the most — and the one that most annoys me — is the idea that Chinese leaders are more careful planners and long-term thinkers than American leaders.
Part of this stereotype is just the perennial rosy view of autocracies — the idea that because they don’t have to worry about the next election, autocrats are free to craft longer-term policies. In fact this is probably wrong and may even be the reverse, since as the great political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita would tell you, autocratic leaders also have to think about the folks who have the ability to give them the boot (and, often, the bullet).
But part of the idea that “China thinks long-term” probably just comes from the fact that it’s so old. Allison argues this explicitly, contrasting America’s two and a half centuries with China’s millennia of existence. Maybe only if you can think of history on that time-scale can you think of the future on a similar time-scale.
Maybe? But isn’t it a little weird for an American author to make this argument in a book that’s explicitly based on the 2400-year-old history of ancient Greece? Americans don’t think the world was created by George Washington — like Graham Allison himself, they think quite often about stuff that happened in ancient times. In Americans’ minds, the U.S. is more analogous to a single Chinese dynasty, most of which lasted for a much shorter time than the U.S., and none of which has hit the 3-century mark for 1800 years.
In any case, though, it’s far from clear that Chinese leaders engage in more long-term thinking than American leaders do. There are plenty of examples to show this.
In the late 1700s, America’s founders were creating a constitutional system that endures to this day, and is broadly considered the longest-lived constitution in the world. Many of the legal and political concepts the framers pioneered are now the basis of almost all rich modern nation-states. Shortly after that, Alexander Hamilton was creating a long-term economic plan that involved big infrastructure projects, infant-industry policies, and a central bank, with an eye to dominating manufacturing industries. It’s important to realize how revolutionary this was, as this was the very early days of the industrial revolution and no one even know how important manufacturing would eventually be! Hamilton saw it before almost anyone else did, and the policies he pioneered are in some ways the basis of China’s current industrial policy.
What was China doing at that time? The Qing Dynasty was at its height of wealth and power in the 1700s. But although it built plenty of palaces and stuff, it didn’t really modernize the canal system, whose decline ended up hurting the Chinese economy. Its failure to collect taxes effectively weakened the government considerably. The empire turned inward, ignoring most opportunities for international trade and commerce. And most damningly, the Qing failed to see the potential of industrialization and modern technology. In a fateful encounter with a British embassy in 1793, when presented with clocks, telescopes, modern weaponry, and a number of other pieces of proto-industrial Western technology, the Qianlong emperor sniffed that he had no need of Britain’s manufactures. From that time until the 21st century, China was playing technological catch-up.
Fast forward to the 20th century, when Mao reunited and stabilized China under Communist Party rule. In the 1950s and 60s, when the U.S. was building the interstate highway system and the modern university system, China was engaging in the Great Leap Forward, a bizarre experiment in hyper-distributed industrial production that failed so catastrophically that tens of millions of people ended up starving to death. Shortly afterward, China switched directions and decided to engage instead in the Cultural Revolution, whose strategy was apparently something along the lines of:
Get everyone in China to vilify and beat up on each other for a decade
If the Cultural Revolution contributed to Chinese national greatness in any way, it was only by traumatizing Chinese people so much that they sought out stability at any cost in the decades that followed.
OK, but perhaps China’s lurch from ill-conceived disaster to ill-conceived disaster during the Mao years was the function of rule by a single mentally unstable individual. Since then, China has had a lot more policy continuity, and a lot more success — a period of sustained rapid growth such as the world has never seen. Does this represent a shift toward (or back toward) long-term thinking?
Perhaps. The economic modernizations under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were truly some of the most impressive in the world, especially the well-handled privatization of state-owned enterprises, the quasi-privatization of land ownership, and the farming out of industrial policy to local and regional governments who were free to experiment and imitate each other’s successes. I’m not sure whether this policy package required long-term thinking, but it was certainly brilliantly executed and wildly successful. For three decades, China enjoyed the rapid growth that this policy package produced. Hu Jintao’s efforts to boost economic activity in rural areas were also well-executed and probably quieted persistent rural unrest.
But during China’s spectacular rise, there were many long-term issues that the leadership simply didn’t deal with, even though it surely saw them coming a mile away.
For example, the one-child policy — which was probably unnecessary to bring fertility rates down to replacement level in the first place — went overboard and was kept for far too long. Now China’s fertility is below 1.3, lower than Japan’s. Its workforce is shrinking by millions a year, and even bigger decreases are now fully baked into the demographic cake. Seeing the fruits of its short-sightedness, the Chinese government is frantically trying to reverse course, switching to a three-child policy and clumsily trying to crack down on vasectomies and abortions.
Meanwhile, when the United States faced falling fertility in the 70s and 80s, it simply let in more immigrants. This was a highly successful strategy. Ronald Reagan, the biggest booster of immigration, even foresaw that the mostly-Democratic-voting Latinos he encouraged to enter the country might one day vote Republican.
Another example is the environment. China’s breakneck growth paid little heed to air quality, water quality, or global warming. Air quality in the capital had to reach apocalyptic levels before the government took action. Now the country is facing water shortages, and its schemes to redistribute water availability are just exacerbating the problem. Desertification from decades of land mismanagement continues to be a major challenge. Meanwhile, the U.S. has steadily improved its air and water quality since the Nixon Administration. Both countries are way too reluctant to cut carbon emissions, but at least in the U.S. emissions have been generally headed in the right direction — unlike China.
Or take science and technology. The U.S. natural gas boom, which allowed it to unlock shale gas deposits and rapidly decrease reliance on coal, was enabled by government research into hydraulic fracturing technology in the 1970s. MRNA vaccines, which are now saving hundreds of thousands of American lives even as China races to reinvent the technology, were also based on decades of patient, forward-looking government science funding. The U.S. government didn’t know these technologies would be as impactful as they were — it simply recognized the distinct possibility, and invested accordingly. China, in contrast, has pioneered some new kinds of weaponry, but in general has focused on either appropriating foreign technology or playing aggressive catch-up in known areas like semiconductors.
Industrial policy provides a fourth example. The U.S. was certainly short-sighted in allowing its industrial commons to be outsourced en masse to its main geopolitcal rival. But China allowed its economy to become dominated by real estate, reducing long-term productivity growth as it dealt with every economic shock by hurling more money at the property sector. Now Xi Jinping’s sudden course-reversal and attempts to deal with this problem by crushing real estate are causing chaos in the country’s economy. Local government finances are especially exposed; for many years China had talked about implementing a property tax to wean local governments off of land sales, but it somehow just never happened.
And though it’s hard to peer into China’s government’s opaque decision-making process (which probably helps to convince credulous Americans that wise long-term planning is going on behind the scenes), it sure looks like a place where the leadership doesn’t listen to people who don’t tell it what it wants to hear. Xi is rumored to be a micromanager who demands to be surrounded by fawning yes-men (some accounts are even more negative). And when academics or other independent voices warn about troubles brewing, the leadership seems to shut them down pretty quickly:
Thus perhaps it’s no surprise that quite often we see cases where China’s government takes aggressive, dramatic action, ignores the long-term consequences, and then rapidly reversing course once those consequences become clear. It looks less like 1000-year planning and more like 30-year oversteering. As for Xi, his industrial crackdowns and social crackdowns might ultimately come to be seen as far-sighted planning, but my guess is that instead they’ll be more of the same. Ultimately China may also come to regret the fruits of the Uyghur repression, the crushing of Hong Kong society and culture, and bellicose “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
All this doesn’t mean Chinese policymaking is bad; sometimes, as under Mao, it leads to catastrophe, and sometimes, as under Deng, Jiang, and Hu, it yields spectacular success. It simply means that this does not look like a country that is following a 1000-year plan, or even a hundred-year plan. It looks like a country that is lurching awkwardly into modernity, constrained by the political imperatives of an autocratic, unstable political system and by the haunting specters of past mistakes.
But maybe, when writers like Graham Allison and Michael Pillsbury tell us that China is this wise long-term planner, they’re not describing China so much as telling us what they want America to be more like. In recent years we’ve underinvested in infrastructure and housing and export industries, squandered much of our global leadership, prepared poorly for pandemics, stuck our heads in the sand on climate change, and in general have failed to act like the far-sighted country we were in the mid 20th century or the late 18th century. The stories we tell about other countries are often the stories we want to tell about ourselves. Just as Kissinger tricked us into playing Go, maybe Allison and Pillsbury can trick us into thinking a little more carefully about where we’d like to be in 100 years.
Thanks for this meticulous takedown of one of the dumbest narratives out there about China. I think the assumption Kissinger and Allison etc. are making, or counting on their readers to make, is that people are forbidden from learning other countries' history besides their own and that of predecessor states. But people's frames of reference come from every historical example they've been taught, foreign as well as domestic. Chinese leaders presumably have been educated in Chinese history, but they also have access to all the examples of Western history, as I would assume is common among the educated elite in developing countries. Xi Jinping would have to have been taught a bunch of Marxist theory, most of which draws on Western history. Knowledge of the West is all over The Three-Body Problem, Hao Jingfang's novel Vagabonds, and Chen Qiufan's novel Waste Tide. The "long-term thinking" canard reflects Western parochialism – because most of us know so little Chinese history, some Westerners assume the reverse must be true, but a couple centuries of European colonialism have made it otherwise. Outside of China, Western history and culture are referenced everywhere in anime (salient examples: Rose of Versailles, Princess Tutu, Fullmetal Alchemist), and friends from India and Singapore have told me that elite secondary schools in those countries teach more Western literature than local literature. For that matter, why don't these critics ever say that Indian, or Iranian, leaders think in terms of thousands of years? Those civilizations are quite old too. By this metric, is the most farsighted leader in the world Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?
The most charitable explanation for some of this line of thinking is that invoking the clichéd wise foreigner is a way to critique our own society, in the grand tradition of Montesquieu's Persians or Tacitus's Picts. The most uncharitable explanation starts with R and ends with -acism.
Actually there is no conflict between these hypotheses, because thinking in the long term is almost always wrong. So the fact that the Chinese did lots of stuff that worked out poorly might be evidence that they were thinking for the long term, and having as much success at it as everyone else who has tried.