In every era, there is a conflict between the new emerging forces and the old established forces. However, stagnant forces which are not emerging are often mistaken for new emerging forces. This was the case with South Africa and Brazil in their entry into the BRICS. Today, of the top 20 or so countries by GDP by Purchasing Power Parity, the only countries that could, between 2000 and 2020 (as every era’s new emerging forces are different) be described as new emerging forces are Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, China, India, Poland, and South Korea.
The list of languages by GDP by nominal exchange rates is roughly how I would rank the languages in terms of their importance. Mandarin might surpass English in the next thirty years, Russian might surpass Italian and Korean, Vietnamese might surpass Polish, and Spanish and Hindi-Urdu might surpass Japanese and German. Only the top 8 are major languages; those outside the top 13 are minor, and those outside the top 16 are generally not worth learning. Of the classical languages, Latin is probably the one most worth learning to English speakers because of the large shared vocabulary and it being widely used by Western European Medieval intellectuals. Attic Greek, classical Chinese, Sanskrit, and Middle Persian follow.
The chart says it all:
Needless to say, the title is completely misleading.
The poster and economist Noah Smith wrote a dumb post on why China is a twentieth century country. Needless to say, this is not the case. Though all countries today are 21st century countries, one can sometimes usefully think of countries as being more similar to other places’ past than their present. For instance, the seventeenth century Chinese Empire had some resemblances to the Roman Empire, more than contemporary Britain did, at least. However, Smith’s claim is still largely inapt even given this generous assumption.
The twentieth century was dominated by war and extraordinary levels of military mobilization. China is not warlike, having not invaded any country since the 1980s and having a very low military share of GDP. The twentieth century had fairly weak globalization. China is very globalized. The twentieth century had already built nations (Japan, France, Britain, etc.). China is still nation building; its promotion of 普通话 resembles that of the French government’s promotion of standard French during the nineteenth century. Likewise, the characters have conspired to keep China’s effective literacy at levels reached in Western Europe 100-150 years ago. Rising coal use was a nineteenth century phenomenon much more than a twentieth century one, and China’s automobile ownership lags well behind its GDP per capita. Of course, China is much more a twenty-first century nation than it is a nineteenth century nation. Its use of digital technology is unprecedented in any previous century. Its electric grid was already built up by the end of the twentieth century. Its assertiveness on the world stage is a product of a response to American imperialism more than of any other phenomenon, and its foreign relations are thoroughly shaped by post-1991 American dominance. Its infrastructure development is grander than anything that ever happened before in any other place on Earth, though obviously has both nineteenth and twentieth century precedents. Though its demographics are somewhat reminiscent of those of nineteenth century France, low fertility is a typical 21st century phenomenon across the majority of countries. China’s diplomacy is also characteristically twenty-first century, especially in its avoidance of military confrontation, though it has nineteenth century parallels (e.g., British investment in Latin America, the nineteenth century “long peace”).
The most twentieth century-like thing about China is its uncanny similarity of its patterns of economic, commercial, and infrastructure development to post-WWII Japan. The expansion of neither economy resulted in military aggression and both concentrated heavily on exports of electronics, boosting their own dollar price levels to unusual heights and greatly impacting American discussion in the process. Its use of re-education camps as a means of reforming the population is also a phenomenon most commonly found in the twentieth century, though has nineteenth century parallels (e.g., U.S. Indian reservations). Most importantly, however, China doesn’t look like any twentieth century country in particular. It’s not Nazi Germany. It’s neither prewar nor postwar Japan. It certainly doesn’t resemble Maoist China or the economically inflexible Soviet Union, and resembles Republican China only very weakly. It’s certainly not twentieth century America, France, or Britain, and China resembles today’s America a lot more than it did any previous manifestation of America. Its closest resemblance among relevant 20th century countries is to the 1870-1918 German Empire and to mid-20th century Portugal/Spain, but the former spent most of its time in the nineteenth century and the resemblance between China and the latter is still pretty weak. China remains fundamentally a 21st century country with some characteristics of previous centuries, especially the nineteenth.
I wrote a previous post on the historical reasons for Chinese using the characters, but criticism of it centered on the fact that it insufficiently explained the reasons for why Chinese still use the characters, rather concentrating on the “how”. I hope to rectify this mistake here:
1. An important reason for the idea of the use of only morphosyllabic characters to write Chinese not being either immediately or gradually discarded was the analytic form of the language. There are no verb tenses. There are no declensions. The same word is used in singular and plural forms. There is, in fact, very little inflection of any kind. For such a language, morphosyllabic characters might not necessarily be appropriate, but they are certainly more appropriate for it than for any Indo-European language.
2. In spoken Chinese and in modern written Chinese, the homophone problem is not a real one because nobody speaks in a terse literary Chinese style. For example, the syllables yuán and zhù, are combined to form the spoken and written word yuánzhù (援助), meaning “aid”, both characters of which redundantly mean “aid”. However, terse literary Chinese, often written with only parts of words spoken in the vernacular language, was actually used prominently in published works by Chinese intellectuals until the 1920s. This preference resulted in character knowledge being necessary to understand the work of Chinese intellectuals, as the meaning of works in literary Chinese could not necessarily be expected to survive transcription into an alphabet.
3. As for why the Communists did not encourage widespread use of the alphabet outside the elementary education system, Mao considered it essential that Mandarin be established as a dominant spoken language all over China before the country could transition away from morphosyllabic characters. The result, however, was that increasing schooling spread both character knowledge and Standard Mandarin knowledge, making the most powerful the argument in favor of moving away from the characters -that they hindered the spread of mass literacy- very weak.
While the 2010s did lead to a stunning collapse in classical liberal thinking (of the type exemplified most prominently by Glenn Greenwald), with the exceptions of the Arab world and North Korea (both far less classically liberal than most countries), it has led to no real threats to the economic doctrine of neoliberalism.
Consider patterns in economic growth across the world:
*Within the E.U.-15, the major country that experienced the fastest growth was Germany. Relatively neoliberal Denmark saw even faster productivity growth. The greatest economic disaster was in the very anti-neoliberal Greece. Relatively neoliberal Spain had the fastest growth of the PIGS.
*Within Eastern Europe, relatively neoliberal Baltics, Poland, and Romania had much faster growth than the relatively anti-neoliberal Russia and Belarus. Russians do not want to be like Poland or the Baltics; they want their country to be as rich as Germany. But they see very clearly the quickest way to get there is through Baltic and Polish means. And surely they are embarrassed that they have fallen behind Romania.
*Within China, the more marketized South has grown faster than the more industrial North, with the Northeast growing slowest of all. In Japan, Abenomics is widely seen as a success, though the country has fallen behind Korea in GDP by PPP per capita, though not per worker hour. In 2019, despite an age structure much more skewed to retirees, Japan ended up with the same employment-population ratio as the U.S. The Japanese productivity stagnation has been widely, and largely correctly been blamed on lack of structural reform.
*The neoliberal tendencies of the 1990s and 2000s in the third world have generally worked out well for these countries in the 2010s, so there is no reason for them to change course.
*The U.S. did not see slower per capita growth than the E.U.-15 (it had faster productivity growth, but fell behind several E.U.-15 countries in employment-population ratio -only this last is an anti-neoliberal blow, though not a major one).
This is a far cry from the 1930s, when the fastest-growing major economies in the world were the extremely state-led Japan and the Soviet Union, and the fastest recovery from the Great Depression within the E.U.-15 was in Nazi Germany. As a result, China and Russia both took pro-market steps during the 2010s. Boris Johnson is fairly neoliberal.
There is also no strong reason to expect skepticism of markets to rise among the highly intelligent. The most exciting developments in technology have all come from the market.
Similarly, there is no reason to expect central banks to significantly exceed their inflation targets, though there is some reason to expect them to better meet them.
There is reason to expect the fiscal indiscipline of the 2010s to continue, mostly due to the unpopularity of tax increases. But this will come to an end at some point.
As for the 2020s -expect 2010s trends to continue, though not as severely.
The history of writing began in the late fourth millennium BC in Egypt and Iraq. In Egypt, the number of hieroglyphs was never never more than two thousand (1,071 hieroglyphs are in Unicode). In Iraq, the number of signs was on a similar order of magnitude; Unicode contains 922 cuneiform signs and that number fell over the course of the third millennium BC. Cuneiform was used as the primary international script of the Middle East during the mid-to-late second millennium BC, though this state disappeared by the early first millennium BC. The alphabet was invented in Egypt on the basis of Egyptian hieratic around one and a half millennia after the invention of writing, and, though not widely adopted in Egypt until the Persian conquest, spread to the Syro-Lebanese coast by the late second millennium BC and into South Arabia by the ninth century BC, and from there into Ethiopia. Due to the Syro-Lebanese coast’s strategic location, the Phoenician alphabet quickly spread across Syria and Palestine during the tenth century BC, and, by the eighth century BC, into Greece. The Latin script emerged from the Greek in the sixth century BC, and the runic script in northern Europe emerged from Latin around the time of Augustus. After the Persian conquest of Iraq, the migration of eastern Syrians into southern Iraq resulted in the disappearance of the Akkadian language and its replacement with Aramaic, written in a spinoff of the Phoenician alphabet. The Aramaic alphabet and language were adopted by the Achaemenids as the primary administrative language of their empire, resulting in the spread of the alphabet into India and Egypt. However, the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great resulted in a switch to the Greek language for administrative purposes, which became even more sustained with the Roman conquest. Experiments at writing Egyptian using the Greek alphabet began in the first century AD and Coptic proper, a language using large amounts of Greek vocabulary, became increasingly widely used in the third. Thus, by the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, hieroglyphic, hieratic, demotic, and cuneiform had all vanished from use, Egypt was under the rule of the Romans, and Iraq was under the rule of the Persians. The alphabet continued to spread Eastward into Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Tibet during the seventh century. By the ninth century, it had spread to the Philippines. The Arab conquest resulted in the Arabic script replicating much of the earlier movements of the alphabet across Eurasia.
The situation in East Asia was very different. The Chinese script started in the late second millennium BC already with more than 4000 characters, with each character standing for the meaning of one syllable (at this time, each Chinese word had only one syllable, polysyllabic words would be developed several hundred years later) and the number simply grew over time at a rate of about one character every two weeks (not a joke). Despite modern standard Mandarin containing less than 1200 syllables (far less than Middle Chinese), the government of China promulgates a list of 8105 “general standard” characters (and this was a substantial decline from the 80,000+ characters of the eighteenth century, 47035 in the 康熙字典) -some 6.8 characters per spoken syllable. Much like the Chinese spoken language contains many homonyms, so did China develop a writing system with numerous characters, many commonly used, that look almost identical.
Unlike the case with Iraq, the Chinese language was not replaced by that of any immigrant barbarians -rather, it expanded South into southern China and North into Manchuria. And unlike the case with Egypt, attempts at alphabetization by China’s barbarian conquerors were short-lived and half-hearted. The first attempt at a comprehensive alphabetization of Chinese (and all the other languages of the Empire) was under Kublai Khan, who promoted new 国字 in 1269 designed by the Tibetan monk Phagpa. The new script was used on currency and some monuments, but never percolated to any great degree to the general Chinese population, even though it was primarily used to write Chinese, rather than Mongolian. The attempt died with the fall of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. After the Manchu conquest of China, the Qing court sponsored transliterations from Chinese into Manchu, but never attempted to promote its script and language for the use of private Chinese individuals (with the exception of some usage on currency) or add knowledge of either to the standard imperial examinations and, by the end of the nineteenth century, had largely transitioned to speaking purely in Chinese. The Qing imperial examinations were on the classics of literary Chinese, a language as foreign to any Sinitic language existing today as classical Latin is to French, and which naturally could not be detached from characters due to the loss of ancient pronunciations. Since neither the Manchu script nor the Manchu language spread widely outside the imperial court, the constituency for changing the Chinese writing system never became large. A dramatically simplified Chinese script was used by an unknown number of women in Hunan Province, but it never spread far due to lack of state support.
The Communist conquest of China did not result in any great reforms such as greatly reducing the number of Chinese characters to more closely match the number of Chinese syllables or promoting the widespread use of romanization in addition to or as a replacement for characters to domestic audiences. Rather, the government merely simplified 6247 characters into 6235 simplified characters in order to make them easier to write. This was surely an idea that would have never been thought of in the computer age; had the Cangjie keyboard been invented just thirty years earlier, it is very unlikely we would have seen mainland character simplification. The invention of the computer led to near-universal use of the alphabet to type Chinese characters, with shape-based methods such as Wubi (a keyboard with 298 components, 23 of them exclusively traditional) and Cangjie (a keyboard with 121 components) generally declining over time due to their insufficiently straightforward rules. Likewise, the invention of the computer has led to an increasing decline in Chinese people’s ability to write the characters, with Chinese ability to write the characters peaking sometime in the late 1990s. Today, though Chinese ability to recognize the characters has never been higher, so has use of the alphabet never been more prevalent. Undoubtedly the trends of the past two decades will continue into the next few.
In 2017 (i.e, pre-pandemic), China’s GDP per capita was 88% of Brazil by exchange rates 97% of Brazil by PPP. Given this, it was attractive to view China as just seven Brazils.
However, this would be a mistake. Hong Kong on its own contains a larger population of individuals of >125 IQ than all Brazil. Just seven Hong Kongs would have a population of individuals >125 IQ equivalent to Germany. And China obviously has a lot more than just seven Hong Kongs’ (52 million people!) worth of talent. Shanghai alone, with a population of 24 million, possibly contains more individuals of >125 IQ than Germany. By my estimate, China contains 64 times as many individuals of >125 IQ as does Hong Kong, or twice as many as does the U.S. thus making China possess the largest pool of high-tier talent on Earth:
The various lists of Chinese IQ by province out there tend to be unreliable. The average IQ of Taiwan, as calculated from the PISA data, is a mere 102.5 or slightly higher; it is silly to expect that of Fujian Province to be any higher than that (the 2018 PISA results for Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang, higher than Singapore, were obviously gamed, though the 2015 ones don’t seem to have been):
Fujian is widely recognized as one of China’s three highest IQ provinces, having been severely overrepresented among imperial examination degree recipients as early as the Song Dynasty, and China is a fairly large and diverse country, so there is no chance at all China’s average IQ is above 100. Since it is best to place one’s estimates on the firmest of grounds, rather than potentially unrepresentative surveys, I have estimated the average IQ of the Chinese provinces by simply assuming a 1-to-1 relationship with provincial GDP per capita, setting the average IQ of Fujian province at 102.5 (the PISA-estimated average IQ of Taiwan), and setting the average IQ of southerly Guangxi province at 82.3 (the PISA-estimated average IQ of Indonesia). This is the most controversial assumption of my model, but there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s wrong. Recall that Guangxi province is, despite excellent infrastructure, actually poorer than Indonesia by PPP, and that the majority of Indonesian ancestry comes from Neolithic China by way of Malaysia (which has a PISA-estimated average IQ of 89.65). The Filipinos also originated from southern China at around the same time, but Guangxi has surely experienced admixture from Hunan and Guangdong since then, which is why I mark Guangxi’s average IQ as the same as that of Indonesia, rather than that of the Philippines.
The model and its results are posted here: https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/402265308770992130/817810732573786122/chinaiq.xlsx
So far as I can see, the results check out. Hong Kong’s PISA-estimated average IQ is five points higher than the modeled average for Guangdong province, hardly a severe urban-rural divide. Gansu, the lowest recorded province, has a modeled average IQ of 77.8, almost as low as the Philippines (PISA-estimated average IQ of 77.5) -but, then again, the province is almost as poor as the Philippines by PPP. Shanghai is at 111, slightly higher than Singapore (PISA-estimated average IQ 108.45). The most questionable results are those for the northern provinces, where incomes have obviously been lowered by an overly inefficient state-led economic model -but it is likely using the 2010 GDP per capita data would have placed the average IQ of the northern provinces too high. I doubt Hebei really is as low as 84 or Heilongjiang as low as 78.5.
Overall, the model estimates Chinese average IQ at 91.67, just above that of Serbia (PISA-estimated average IQ 91.35) and higher than those of Chile, Romania, and Malaysia. This estimate is hardly ridiculous – China today is still poorer by PPP than Thailand (PISA-estimated average IQ 86.92), and while there surely is a gap in efficiency between Chinese and Thai capitalism, I doubt it is severe enough to result in China’s average IQ level being similar to that of Western Europe.
China began 2020 being widely blamed for being the origin of the novel coronavirus that proceeded to infect more than a tenth of the whole globe. Though it successfully managed to navigate around that criticism through its wildly successful response to coronavirus, this success didn’t win it too many plaudits with the world due to its failure to export that response, or even care much about taking a leading role in fighting coronavirus around the world prior to the development of its vaccines. What will ultimately decide world opinion on China’s relationship to the greatest world crisis of our time will not, however, be the origin of the virus or its successful domestic response, but its vaccine diplomacy around the world.
China has three vaccines it plans to widely export: BBIBP-CorV, made by Sinopharm, CoronaVac, made by Sinovac, and Convidicea, made by CanSino Biologics. The first two rely on the killed virus method of vaccine design, and have similar efficacy (~78%), lower than Germany’s and America’s mRNA vaccines (~90-95%), while the last relies on an adenovirus vector similar to the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, but, unlike these latter two, is injected in only one dose. China has some of the largest vaccine production facilities anywhere in the world. Due to its containment of the coronavirus crisis at home, it can, unlike Russia, safely afford to export vaccines without worrying about this affecting its local death toll. China’s great production capacity may well be able to help its neighbor Russia satisfy its own dire vaccine needs, as well as help China’s ability to export its own domestically designed vaccines by supplying it with the German-designed Pfizer vaccine.
The Sinopharm vaccine has already been approved in China and in several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan -hardly a core partner of China. The UAE, the second most vaccinated country on Earth, as well as Bahrain, the third, rely primarily on the Sinopharm vaccine (though the Pfizer vaccine is also used in both). Chinese vaccines will be a vital part of the coronavirus response in hard-hit Indonesia -again, hardly a core partner of China. 125.5 million doses of Sinovac have been ordered, as well as 60 million Sinopharm, 50 million AstraZeneca, 50 million Pfizer, and 20 million from CanSino Biologics, but only 3 million doses of any vaccine have arrived so far in Indonesia, and only of CoronaVac. Due to its isolation from both the West and Russia, Ukraine, too, will have to rely on Chinese vaccines for 2021, having already ordered 1.9 million doses of CoronaVac. The same goes for much of Africa, with the President of the Seychelles receiving his first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine just today, and Morocco’s coronavirus response relying primarily on 40 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. Even Brazil, with a relatively Sinophobic leadership, has ordered 46 million doses of locally produced CoronaVac.
A country cannot oppose a country from which it buys its core response to the largest crisis facing humanity in the present time. China’s ability to export its vaccines show substantial Chinese soft power even outside the countries that have signed support for its Xinjiang policies. As is the case for the response to China’s Xinjiang policies, the results of vaccine diplomacy have created a glaring divide on the basis of national income -not a single rich democracy has currently approved or has a contract for a Chinese vaccine, while a whole host of rich autocracies and low and middle income countries have eagerly accepted them. The difference is partly due to the mechanics of storage, with the mRNA vaccines requiring more money to ship than any of the Chinese vaccines. But India, whose leadership is unusually anti-Chinese by third world standards due to border disputes, is relying on a combination of AstraZeneca and Novavax, as well as a bit of Sputnik V. If Sinophobia were a real concern to the third world, we’d be seeing a lot more demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine and a lot less demand for the Chinese vaccines.
All in all, it appears China’s aim to come out from the coronavirus pandemic with its international reputation strong is in good shape.
UPDATE: Once very mild symptomatic cases were included, the clinical efficacy of Coronavac in Brazil was found to be 50.38%. However, too much has been made of this finding by the Western press; this tweet summarizes the actual meaning of vaccines’ clinical efficacy well. So far as we know, all currently used COVID vaccines are safe and effective.