China is not a twentieth century country; it is a 21st century country with 19th century characteristics

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.

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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