“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” – Confucius
It may have been first said by Confucius, uttered by the great Spanish philosopher George Santayana, and written about by the likes of Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If you do not know history, you are doomed to repeat it.
In the context of our discussion concerning U.S. and China trade relations, one must look at the history and doctrine of the Far East and attempt to conceptualize it in today’s world. The history of modern China in one thousand words or less. In getting to today, we will link to the “Big Picture” events of the ancients. Let’s begin at the beginning. China regards itself as the oldest and longest civilization on earth dating back some 5,000 years. This is not the case. The birthplace of civilization as it’s known to the vast majority of academicians is ancient Mesopotamia. The ancient history is quite dry, so we will fast forward to a few key events that hold special to the China of today.
The moderns would begin the focus in the 18th and 19th centuries, where confrontation from the West began. England, as was true with the other imperial powers, was intent on opening up trade with China. China’s denials to Western terms initiated several wars between itself and England. Malthusian population hit China during this same period, with population under the Qing dynasty growing from 150 million to 450 million by the 19th century.
A third major area of interest is that of the dialogue within China about how best to respond to these combined challenges and the extent and nature of the changes that were required. Discussion within China at the time was multi-faceted and pertains to our modern day trade discussions. Capitulating to ideas of the West and the relevance of Marxism for China were all on the table. Ultimately, the Chinese communist revolution unfolded in China in the 1930s and 1940s and the particular role played by Mao Tse-tung in adapting Marxism to the Chinese situation.
To the point. China chose to adopt Western technology in order to preserve the essence of Chinese civilization. This has much to say about why the Chinese are not inventors, but innovators of technology. One has little incentive in the planned economy of today’s China to do research and development, since it is solely subsidized by the state. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in 1921 to promote revolution based on Marxist principles. Under Mao’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party established rural (as opposed to urban) control and began mobilizing farmers. Again, the peasant population must be top priority in the new agrarian society.
China was at a crossroad at a certain point in history, as to which way to best care for its masses. It ultimately chose communism, and that is what the West is dealing with today. It seems unlikely that China will fall back to a position of weakness to the West, especially now with current trade talks. Xi Jinping, President of China, knows this history well. Wearing Western suits, and boasting a population of young smartphone users, does not set the tone for what is to come. China will protect its nation-state at all costs, as it has done throughout its 5,000 year history in the past. Now the West must remember, if you do not know history, you are doomed to repeat it.