China’s growing cultural muscle

I tend to discuss China’s growing assertiveness with reference its economy or foreign policy. It’s a pity, because China’s increasingly muscular cultural scene is illuminating. If you want to understand the trajectory of China over the next few decades, it’s vital to observe the stories China tells about itself.

Check out this trailer for the new film ‘The Eight Hundred.’ It is a dramatization of the Battle of Shanghai, a particularly bloody siege in the Second Sino-Japanese war – part of what we would call the Pacific Theatre of World War 2.

A few points to reflect on:

  • The Second World War may be the most dramatized war in modern cinematic history. Were these films your primary source about the war, you would presume its centre of gravity lay somewhere between Omaha Beach and a blitzed out London. The Eastern front, and to an even greater extent, the Chinese theater, are rarely mentioned; I suspect there are more blockbuster films about the American civil war than both combined. One benefit of a thriving film industry in China is that new historical stories will be told.
  • These stories will increasingly be filtered through a nationalistic lens. The FT reports that China’s media regulator required changes to the film, because the troops that fought in the battle were from the Nationalist Kuomintang army. The Nationalists would later fight (and lose) a civil war against the Communists, before retreating to Taiwan.

    Nationalistic depictions of war are not unheard of in Hollywood today (American Sniper was a particularly egregious example), but more often than not, contemporary war films emphasise moral ambiguity, despair, and the senselessness of violence. Based on the trailer, ‘The Eight Hundred’ is more Horace than Owen with regard to: dulce et deocrum est pro patria mori. The trailer ends with the following line:

    “To my dear wife YuZhi, when our kids grow up, they shall join the army to avenge their father. To devote themselves to their country. So that our descendants won’t suffer anymore humiliation.

Geopolitics and the energy transition

From today’s big read in the FT:

But is the geopolitics of energy really about energy?

To link geopolitics and conflict to a particular material thing is to miss the point a little. There is not a fixed set of objects we fight over, such that the sudden super-abundance of one reduces conflict as a whole. Humans have fought wars over salt and spices, cotton and coal. Better shipping routes to the spice islands, or alternatives to coal did not eliminate conflict so much as displace it elsewhere. Tensions arise over the valuable, the scarce, the unevenly distributed (and much else). A geopolitics of carrots is possible should they meet those conditions.

Instead we should be asking, what things and places meets those conditions in a world where energy is super-abundant. What do societies with an abundance of energy make, do, and look like? What will they care about, be willing to risk lives and treasure for? One thing missing from the article is services. Geopolitical thinking is still deeply attached to the material world, but we need to understand how increasingly digital (dematerialised?) and service driven societies change traditional geopolitics (if at all)?

The article outlines some of the new(ish) commodities that will power the renewable revolution, like cobalt and copper. This in turn will shift the geography of geopolitics, perhaps the corridors of electricity transmission will replace the sea-lanes transporting oil (and perhaps I was overhasty in criticizing those who think Eurasia is the future of geopolitics).

Well worth reading!

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China’s Youth

The Economist has a new special report out on China’s youth. It is fully of anecdotes and analysis on: “the jiulinghou, or “post-90s”, a shorthand term for those born between 1990 and 1999. They number 188m—more than the combined populations of Australia, Britain and Germany.

The question lurking beneath the special report is why the jiulinghou show little interest in the liberal ideas that boiled over into Tian’anmen Square only a generation ago. The answer is a combination of renewed national pride, economic growth, repression, and diversion into socially progressive (but politically inoffensive) causes like the environment or LGBTIQ rights.

Its a compelling explanation of the status quo, but one The Economist thinks is unlikely to persist:

The Communist Party has shown a remarkable ability to adapt. Yet its tacit deal appears to be morphing into one that leans more heavily on brute repression and nationalism. If that is the bargain, self-assured young Chinese will at some point balk. Participants in every pro-democracy outburst in China have raised high the banner of patriotism, from 1919 to 1989. This tendency is not lost on Mr Xi, as much a manipulator of nationalism as he is afraid of it. But the party sees a useful distraction in teeth-baring patriotism. One day this may come back to bite it

Two deep assumptions power this familiar call and response. First, that political liberalisation follows economic liberalisation – perhaps we possess an innate urge to freedom. Second, regimes which resist that dynamic are fundamentally unstable.

I’m not so sure. History is surprise, and the more time that passes, the less comfortable I feel with analogies from the past. What would even constitute a falsification of those hypotheses?

I am reminded of a line from Adam Tooze’s chartbook on Chinese state capitalism:

A few other snippets I enjoyed:

Close to one in two red-tourism trips [trips related to China’s communist past] are made by Chinese under 30, says Ctrip, China’s biggest travel firm.

Women in Shanghai marry on average at 29, later than Americans and a jump of six years in a decade. Even in rural areas the age is 25 and rising.

A survey in 2019 by China Youth Daily, a state organ, found that three in four of those born after 1995 think China is “not perfect, but always improving”

Finally there is a Chinese show which look like “who wants to be a millionaire,” where all the questions are about Xi Jinping.

Its well worth reading.

China stories part 2

(Part 1)

Today I want to discuss a podcast on the One Belt One Read initiative (1B1R).

1B1R is China’s signature international policy, made up of hundreds of billions in loans to mostly developing countries in Eurasia to build infrastructure and other projects (for a quick refresher, this piece in The Guardian).

The discussion made two really valuable points that I’ve not heard enough in the mainstream discussion on China:

Is 1B1R just cynical debt diplomacy?

There is a popular narrative in the West that 1B1R is just a vehicle for Chinese debt diplomacy. According to this script, China makes poor countries billions in unaffordable loans to build strategic infrastructure. When the country can’t repay, China uses the debt as leverage for political concessions or to seize control of vital infrastructure.

The prototypical example is the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Seven years after construction began, struggling to make repayments, Sri Lanka leased the port to China for 99 years. Hambantota features as a cautionary tale in every story on 1B1R, and has been referenced by Vice-President Mike Pence.

Instead of accepting this story at face value, the book’s author actually went to Sri Lanka and talked to politicians there. It turns out they like China. The Chinese are good to do business with, move quickly, and are willing to offer loans without the intrusive conditionality that comes with World Bank or IMF loans.

Claims of debt diplomacy have always had a tinge of hysteria. Research last year showed that China often has to accept painful debt write-downs and asset seizures are very rare.

Nor are all criticisms of Chinese investment particularly admirable. Take this piece in The Guardian on Hambantota, which printed the following without comment:

Does 1B1R have a geopolitical dimension? Of course. Is this unusual for a country of China’s size? No. Might developing countries benefit from having two superpowers to play off each other? You bet.

For context, US military bases worldwide:

What does Chinese empire actually mean?

The author also argued we should understand 1B1R as an “attempt to rebrand the Chinese empire so it can compete more effectively with the US.”

But what does Chinese empire mean? Should we just imagine European colonialism with a Chinese flag?

For the author the answer is a firm no. Instead, he argues contemporary Chinese international politics, like 1B1R, is an attempt to recreate itself in its own historical image. This means understanding the Tributary System, how Chinese foreign relations were organised for the two millennia prior to the 19th century.

Its an argument similar to the one made by David Kang in his landmark work:

Its an intriguing line of argument, one that privileges China’s historical experience and argues that international relations is not governed by the set of ‘universal’ laws scholars have derived from the experience of early-modern Europe and Ancient Greece.

Its difficult not to approach it with some sympathy given China’s track record for upsetting economic and political conventions.

Merry Christmas

China stories part 1

I’ve consumed a few thought provoking pieces on China in the last week I wanted to share.

Today, this piece in Noema on China’s dual circulation strategy.

Chinese policy is often expressed as idioms or special slogans.* “Dual circulation” is the latest phrase in use by China’s leadership to describe its developmental strategy:

The article is a thoughtful exploration of where the policy comes from and the implications it might have.

The most intriguing (and frustrating) part for me was the discussion about what “dual circulation” actually means. The closest definition offered was a nod to Import Substitution Industrialisation, a leftist development strategy popular in the 1970s but now in disrepute. The article suggests China’s size and technological sophistication might make it workable there.

If this were even partly true it would mark a serious shift in policy, with major implications for trade partners. More detail will have to wait until China announces its 2021-2026 five-year-plan early next year.

While the lack of detail is annoying, the underlying point is familiar: China continues to upset liberal economic and political assumptions about state building. As both Adam Tooze and The Economist have argued, China is building something new and we would be fools to underestimate it.

*Idioms have a long and formalised history in China, with over five thousand special four character phrases known as chengyu in use.

Charts on China

Adam Tooze is the latest addition to Substack. I highly recommend checking out numbers 8 and 9 of his newsletter. They discuss contemporary political and economic trends in China, and what they mean for the longevity of its new model of state capitalism. This passage in particular stood out for me:

Wash them down with a re-read of Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 article: “The End of History