China: Holding a Wolf by the Ears
History - World Released - Jun 21, 2015
Ancient. Mysterious. Isolated. Untapped potential. China is all of these things, and more. Mao Zedong tried to instill his will over the Chinese people and create the communist utopia he had worked out in his head as a young man. In a moment of clarity, he admitted to Richard Nixon during Nixon’s 1972 China visit that he had failed to effect significant change, even in Beijing. In his old age, Mao knew he was holding a wolf by the ears. If he let go, the wolf would devour him. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping faces the same danger. To grow economically, China needs a free-market economy, but a free market economy leads to democracy—and an end to one-party rule. This Xi and the Communists cannot allow, because it very likely means their imprisonment. China’s people, so full of potential, so ready to step forward and join the world community, are stifled by myopic leadership consumed with looking ever inward, thinking they alone possess all the answers.
China’s ancient achievements startle the mind. The Great Wall dates from the 5th century B.C. The portion that was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty (1400-1600 A.D.) is 4000 miles long, or the distance from Miami Beach to the North Pole. This is the Wall as we know it know today. The portion that was not rebuilt stretches for another 9000 miles (according to a recent survey). Altogether, the Great Wall meanders over mountains and desert for a distance of 13,000 miles. If pulled into a straight line, the Great Wall would connect the North and South Poles.
Then there’s the Grand Canal, with its series of ingenious locks developed long before the West developed canals. When I was growing up in Southern California, the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco seemed a forever distance. It is, in fact, a distance of 400 miles, or an eight-hour drive by car. The distance from Los Angeles to Seattle is 1100 miles, almost three-times as long. Yet, that is the length of China’s Grand Canal, completed in the 14th century, that connects Beijing with Hangzhou. It’s still the longest canal in the world. Think of the many inventions that lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages, and China invented them centuries before: printing, moveable type, books, paper money, banking, ceramics, the blast furnace, gunpowder and fireworks, the compass, the iron plow, the paddle wheel. Add poets, philosophers, and artists of considerable sophistication. China was a highly advanced civilization BEFORE the Golden Age of Greece.
By the 15th century A.D., Western Europe had caught up with China. Europe, a mere backwater that couldn’t feed its people in the 10th century, was by the 15th century crossing oceans to explore new continents. Europe continued advancing at an accelerated rate while progress in China came to a standstill. Why? What happened? China had everything Europe had and more—abundant natural resources, a motivated workforce, engineers, inventors, and scientists. Historians have debated the question for the past hundred years, and a number of contributing factors have emerged. Two factors stand out: geography, and the rule of law.
Geography—In the beginning, geography worked in China’s favor. China was isolated, hemmed in by the largest ocean, the highest mountains, and one of the most extensive deserts in the world. The only practical way to get there was from the North, and it was there that China built the Great Wall. Being isolated meant China was free of conquering invaders, free to develop sooner and faster than the rest of the world. There was political infighting among warring provinces but in time the vast China plain came under the rule of a single, centralized power. Ruling dynasties came and went while Chinese culture flourished. The China that Marco Polo visited in the 13th century was at a peak. The ruling elite were Mongolians—outsiders—which after the death of Kublai Kahn ebbed back into insignificance. China’s final full flowering came during the Ming Dynasty. By the 15th-century, the rest of the Asian continent had broken up into warring states while China, ever secluded, looked increasingly inward. It closed up the Great Wall against the Silk Road and—in a grand act of self-occlusion—burned its heavy merchant fleet of ships. Outsiders were no longer welcome. Gone were not just the exchange of goods, but of ideas. Stagnation set in.
In contrast, Western Europe was made up of mountains and river valleys. Which meant small regions could subsist, indeed thrive, on their own. Hence, Europe’s long history of many independent countries. They are hard to conquer, easy to cultivate, and their rivers and seas provide easy trade routes. In 1500, Europe had within it more than 500 states, many no larger than a city. The variety had wondrous effects. First, it allowed for diversity. People, art, and even technologies that were unwelcome or unnoticed in one area would often thrive in another. Second, diversity fueled constant competition among states, producing innovation and efficiency in political organization, military technology, and economic policy. Successful practices were copied; losing ones were dispensed with. “The European miracle,” as it has been called by economic historian Eric Jones, was partly the result of geography.
The connectedness of the Chinese mainland, on the other hand, allowed one ruler to dominate and make irreversible errors, like destroying the Chinese fleet. In Europe, with balkanization and competing statelets, diversity thrived and the best idea had a better chance of succeeding.
China’s huge population, and its powerful central government, both of which would seem to be advantages for industrialization, when combined, proved to be liabilities. If you weren’t government sponsored or employed, your invention had little chance of finding a patron. In Europe’s fragmented system of sovereign states, innovative minds such as Leibniz, Rousseau, and Voltaire could “shop” for more congenial places whenever they ran up against state or church resistance. In China, one had to travel a thousand miles to be in a place where the empire’s authority did not reach.
Rule of Law—In Western Europe, with so much diversity, the idea of common people having a say in the affairs of state gradually took root, and bloomed first in England, beginning with the signing of the Magna Carta. Put simply, Magna Carta became the supreme law of the land that even kings had to heed. This was a first, and in time became known as the Rule of Law. It led to the creation of Parliament which represented the interests of the nobility (the House of Lords), and gradually the interests of the middle class (the House of Commons)—merchants, shopkeepers, artisans and farmers. Then, in 18th-century England, something incredible happened. A generation of Inventors emerged who created the Industrial Revolution and the machine that drove it—the steam engine. Why England? Why not China? Indeed, why not France, or Germany, or Italy? Because a simple notion became enshrined in British law a century before: that people had the right to own and profit from their ideas. This was the patent law, which meant an inventor had the right to profit from his own invention. While this doesn’t sound particularly startling in our time, it was startling in their time. Outside of England, the only one to profit from a breakthrough invention was the king; in China it was the Emperor. In other words, if you invented something, it automatically became the property of the state, and you received nothing in return. Every tinker, tailor, soldier and sailer is a potential inventor, if there’s a buck to be made. Until passage of the patent law, invention was the pastime of the wealthy elite. Steam power was invented in first-century Alexandria, only no one knew how to harness it. Ultimately, the first steam-propelled object was viewed as little more than a curiosity, a plaything, rather than as something to improve the quality of life. The rich and powerful who sponsored such inventions had no use for them. Their life was already easy, thanks to a servant class to meet their every whim.
With the passage of the patent law, invention became a middle-class occupation in England, carried out with an eye for profit. Money-making has always been a middle-class obsession. Thanks to a generation of middle-class inventors, scores of small but necessary inventions led to one very big invention—the steam engine. James Watts gets much of the credit, but credit also belongs to the generation of inventors that preceded him, who came up with all the small, seemingly disparate but necessary inventions that went into one great invention. At first, steam engines were used to pump water from flooded coal mines, then to power textile mills, and finally resulted in steam-powered locomotives, used to transport coal to factories and to cities, and to deliver textiles to market. Who were the benefactors? The unwashed masses. Prior to steam power, the English lower and middle classes spun their own thread, wove their own fabric and made their own clothes. With the advent of steam power, and the Industrial Revolution it spawned, average people could purchase clothes off the rack that were better made, of higher quality, and relatively inexpensive. The list of manufactured goods grew exponentially. As important, the middle-class was earning enough to afford them. The result? England’s GDP doubled, tripled, quadrupled, went through the roof. Coupled with England’s financial revolution (paper money, banks, liquid capital), a small island off the coast of Northern Europe became the richest nation on earth.
The irony is that China had everything England had, and more. China had, and has, huge coal deposits, just as close to the surface, and China’s forges were using coal to produce as much iron in the year 1080 as all of Europe did seven centuries later. China had developed the rotary crank, the flywheel, and the piston as early as the first century. Indeed, it had everything but a few key inventions necessary to bring it all together into a working steam engine. Chinese inventors had even recognized the existence of atmospheric pressure, and had long since mastered a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like James Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the 20th century. All that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.
Yes, that was all that remained. And it still was all that remained when the first steam engines in China were being imported from England. China’s huge population, and its powerful central government, both of which seem to be advantages for industrialization, when combined were liabilities. It’s still that way today. In the West, contemporary scientists and inventors “follow the money” when writing proposals, able to select one from many patrons, while in China there is only one—the state. The West is governed by the Rule of Law, and by the profit-motive, while China is governed by inflexible political dogma that inhibits creativity and freedom of expression, with arbitrary laws that do not apply to the ruling elite. To a utopian, a free society is a messy and weak society, and needs to be disciplined and ordered by a single, powerful ruling authority. In a utopia, only the ruling elite possess the truth. Competing ideas are not encouraged. As a consequence something of great value is lost. Today, China must steal its technology; not because it cannot create new technology, but because it will not allow ideas to compete freely in an open market place, where the best ideas go to the highest bidder. That would reek too much of free enterprise, reveal the folly of Communist ideology, and make democracy not only possible but inevitable.
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