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.

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 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

Is Eurasia overblown?

I recently finished The Silk Roads (which I’ve discussed before here, here, and here) and I have some doubts about the book’s claim that the Eurasian landmass, especially central Asia, is crucial to future geopolitics.

One of the book’s main theses is that the region is about to regain its lost physical and geopolitical importance. Originally, the region’s position, linking China and the Mediterranean, allowed it to flourish. The discovery of America, new sea routes, and European military aggression led to decline. Fast forward to today, and the re-emergence of China, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and the discovery of rich natural resource deposits in Central Asia supposedly mean regional renewal.

I’m skeptical for a few reasons. First, freight. The book acknowledges that the rise of safer, more efficient maritime routes undermined the region’s economic importance (and tax revenue), but then fails to acknowledge the fact that this has not materially changed: maritime freight still dwarfs rail and road freight.

The following chart OECD data on rail and sea freight for twenty-foot equivalent units (basically a container).


Unsurprisingly, countries with sea access rely on maritime freight, but this is also true for Silk-Road esque countries like Turkey, or Germany, which hosts the terminus of the new rail freight line from China. The countries where both types are comparable are usually European, and even there the graph does not do it justice – Estonia’s sea freight volume is three times larger than rail, Latvia’s eight, Bulgaria’s ten.

The same data, but showing growth in rail over time. Nowhere except Germany has seen much growth.

Sea over time. Take note of the Y axis. Remember this only captures container transport, so doesn’t include the enormous volumes of raw materials.

Second, the geography of supply and demand. Central Asia’s importance makes sense in a world where the Mediterranean and China are the two poles between which most trade flows. Europe today is a stable source of consumption and production, but is unlikely to be a dynamic source of future growth. Fast growing East-Asian economies, India, and Indonesia all circumvent the region. As does the global superpower. Africa is unlikely to feature in this transcontinental network given its narrow land connection to Eurasia and under developed rail network.

One area where the book’s prediction might prove true is energy. A third of cargo miles hauled by shippers comes from moving fossil fuels. A transition to green energy might reduce the importance of maritime trade. To this we could add the growing forces of nationalism weighing on global trade more generally.

The issue is that these forces also undermine any new Silk Road. One area where the region is increasingly important is in the transport of oil and gas through pipelines. These would be comparatively less important in the event of a green transition.

I’d love to hear from those who disagree.

*This is not a new view by any means, Mackinder called the region “the heartland” in 1904.