What Continues to Hold China Back?

A Tendency to Default Backward

Historically, China was first with many technological breakthroughs, but was unable to improve upon them — or even to hold onto them as they were. China did not develop a system of independent science strong enough to challenge the cultural dogma that controlled government bureaucracies. Why not?

China was the source of many marvelous inventions, including:

  • the wheelbarrow
  • the stir­rup
  • the rigid horse collar (to prevent choking)
  • the compass
  • paper
  • printing
  • gunpowder
  • porcelain
  • coke blast furnaces for smelting iron
  • the crossbow

But with every change of dynasty, China had to start over in many areas as if from scratch. What was the “default state” to which China reverted with each transition of government?

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” (1) This quotation, taken from the classic literary work by Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, best summarizes the cycle of dynastical rise and fall in China. __ Jiang Zhi

Historian David Landes offers a few suggestions from Chinese history:

  1. The absence of a free market and institutionalized property rights.
  2. Totalitarian state control

    … if one understands by totalitarianism the complete hold of the State and its executive organs and functionaries over all the activities of social life, without exception, Chinese society was highly totalitarian. . . . No private initiative, no expression of public life that can escape official control. There is to begin with a whole array of state monopolies, which comprise the great consumption staples: salt, iron, tea, alcohol, foreign trade. There is a mo­nopoly of education, jealously guarded. There is practically a monopoly of letters (I was about to say, of the press): anything written unofficially, that escapes the censorship, has little hope of reaching the public. But the reach of the Moloch-State, the omnipotence of the bureaucracy, goes much far­ther. There are clothing regulations, a regulation of public and private con­struction (dimensions of houses); the colors one wears, the music one hears, the festivals—all are regulated. There are rules for birth and rules for death; the providential State watches minutely over every step of its sub­jects, from cradle to grave. It is a regime of paper work and harassment [pa­perasseries et tracasseries], endless paper work and endless harassment. The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Chinese, which have given so much to mankind—silk, tea, porcelain, paper, printing, and more—would no doubt have enriched China further and probably brought it to the threshold of modern industry, had it not been for this stifling state control. It is the State that kills technological progress in China. Not only in the sense that it nips in the bud anything that goes against or seems to go against its interests, but also by the customs implanted inexorably by the raison d’Etat. The atmosphere of routine, of traditionalism, and of immo­bility, which makes any innovation suspect, any initiative that is not com­manded and sanctioned in advance, is unfavorable to the spirit of free inquiry. (Etienne Balazs quoted by Landes)

  3. No respect for manual labor
  4. Women were confined to the home
  5. Strict limits on overseas trade

When Mao brought totalitarianism to China, he was bringing it back again! It was what the Chinese had been accustomed to for thousands of years. The more free-wheeling style of the Europeans in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, etc. gave the ordinary Chinese in those places a temporary freedom to live and display their inventiveness and industriousness, which the emperors and their Confucian bureaucrats had not allowed.

Under today’s communist party rule, the Chinese are merely experiencing a variation on the totalitarianism which had always bound their ancestors. When the CCP seizes the properties of its billionaire entrepreneurs, it is only reverting to the ancient imperial custom. When journalists and publishers are “disappeared” and never seen again, it can only be because they have spoken against the mandate of heaven.

Chinese Science & Math Was Without Solid Theoretical Foundation

As Toby E. Huff notes, pre-modern Chinese science developed precariously without solid scientific theory, while there was a lacking of consistent systemic treatment in comparison to contemporaneous European works such as the Concordance and Discordant Canons by Gratian of Bologna (fl. 12th century).[38] This drawback to Chinese science was lamented even by the mathematician Yang Hui (1238–1298), who criticized earlier mathematicians such as Li Chunfeng (602–670) who were content with using methods without working out their theoretical origins or principle, stating:

The men of old changed the name of their methods from problem to problem, so that as no specific explanation was given, there is no way of telling their theoretical origin or basis.
— [39]

Although the Chinese accepted the idea of spherical-shaped heavenly bodies, the concept of a spherical earth (as opposed to a flat earth) was not accepted in Chinese thought until the works of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and Chinese astronomer Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) in the early 17th century.[47] __ History of Science and Technology in China

Chinese Habit of Secrecy

Chinese habits of secrecy are pervasive from the highest levels downward. The early Chinese Communist Party response to the novel coronavirus illustrates how destructive such habits of secrecy can be.

In ancient times inventors and scientists kept their methods and their underlying thought processes secret, protecting them from possible persecution from above. But the same secretive habits made it almost impossible for later thinkers to build upon their work.

It seems clear that a great confrontation between China’s independent thinkers and tinkers, and China’s Confucian bureaucracies, was long overdue. For some reason, the Chinese were not capable of pulling off such a confrontation on their own. It required an intervention by foreigners — now perceived as a “great humiliation” by the current holders of the heavenly mandate. In hindsight it was closer to a “great liberation,” in that the systematic scientific and philosophical thinking of the 19th and early 20th century western world was put at the service of Chinese ingenuity and industriousness.

Unless the old Chinese habits of totalitarianism succeed in rubbing out all traces of free thought. The CCP is certainly trying.

The Population Calculation

One cannot understand the thinking of Chinese rulers without having a sense of the sheer mass of Chinese populations. Here is how it came about:

Some two thousand years ago, perhaps 60 million people crowded what was to become the northern edge of China—a huge number for a small territory. This number more or less held over the next millen­nium, but then, from about the tenth to the beginning of the thir­teenth century, almost doubled, to around 120 million. At that point came a setback, due largely to the pandemics also scourging Europe and the Middle East; and then, from a trough of 65-80 million around 1400, the number of Chinese rose to 100-150 million in 1650, 200-250 million in 1750, over 300 million by the end of the eigh­teenth century, around 400 million in 1850, 650 million in 1950, and today 1.2 billion, or more than one fifth of the world total. This ex­traordinary increase is the result of a long-standing (up to now) re­productive strategy: early, universal marriage and lots of children. That takes food, and the food in turn takes people. Treadmill.

… Chinese agriculture could not run fast enough. State and the society were always striving for new land and higher yields, making and using people in order to feed people. Under the emperor T’ai-wu (reigned 424-52, so, over a century later), the government was not going to leave anything to chance. Peasants without oxen were forced to sell their labor for the loan of oxen. Families were listed, numbers were counted, labor duties and performance clearly recorded. “Their names were written up at the place where they worked, so that it was possible to distinguish between their varying degrees of success. They were also forbidden to drink wine, to attend theatrical entertainments, or to abandon agriculture for wine-making or trade.”10 No time, then, for fun or money. Only for growing food and mak­ing children.

… The stakes were huge. For one thing, the more daring the alteration of nature, the greater the scope and cost of failure or catastrophe.16 For another, it was food sur­pluses that sustained the machinery of government. __ David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations

Under Mao’s form of totalitarianism, China attempted a primitive return to the land, away from western modes of thought and development. But Mao’s policy was not well considered, and as a result 60 million Chinese died of starvation. The Great Leap Forward became a Great Embarrassment to the communists — and a far greater humiliation than Europeans ever administered to the Chinese.

It was only after mainland China accepted the western tools of technology, capitalism, and a number of other superior systems of thought — including the scientific method — that China became fit to profit from massive foreign direct investment and technology transfer. Economic growth was impressive for a number of decades after the turnaround in policy.

The communist party government in China is now reverting more deeply into old-style totalitarianism, but it must battle a large number of forces that are converging to complicate its simultaneous quest for global hegemony by way of military might, economic leverage, and every dirty trick in the book.

The reversion to traditional totalitarianism can be seen as a compulsion, beyond resisting. The desire for global superiority in every way, is simply an expression of the age-old, deeply felt, heavenly mandate. A number of other unfortunate effects emerge directly from those two forces, which are likely to lead to the deaths of many millions of people inside China.

Cheating, Stealing, Lying

Cheating is not considered wrong in Chinese culture. Example More

It is simply a matter of logistics, with no element of morality involved. Since cheating is a cultural trait, it is not likely to change. But it is crucial that anyone who deals with Chinese institutions or individuals should understand the rules of engagement which everyone involved in the transaction is likely to abide by.

Ubiquitous China cheating, lying, stealing, counterfeiting, etc. makes it important to identify “agents of influence” who are acting in China’s interest, rather than in the interest of their own country. A good example is Michael Bloomberg, the latest rising star of the Democratic Party in the US. Of course, from the viewpoint of Beijing, any US president with a “D” after his name would be preferable to the current incumbent — who has been a thorn in their side.

Everything Old is New Again

And so the kingdom long divided must unite; Long united must divide. It is the celestial cycle played out in thousands of years of history. The momentum is written in the human genes and in the abiding culture.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. It is never too late to have a Dangerous Childhood © .

More on why China could not industrialize:

The Chinese revered the classics, and never learned to challenge received wisdom. The Europeans on the other hand came to revel in challenging ancient thought, using their new inventions. In China, anything used to challenge convention would have been destroyed, as was the treasure fleet.

China was extremely innovative in its heyday, which is basically under the Song dynasty, which ended in 1279. At that time, European and Islamic travelers realized that China was leading the world in technology. And China does have kind of an Enlightenment. And yet, in the end, they did not turn that innovation into sustained economic growth.

I believe the fundamental reason is China’s position as a single empire, and also its bureaucracy, which is a unique and peculiar animal… In the 17th century, Europeans build microscopes, telescopes and barometers that allow them to study nature in a way the classics never could. And they become rather cocky. There’s a French philosopher in the late 16th century, Pierre de La Ramée, who writes a book with the title “Everything Aristotle Has Said Is Wrong.” That’s chutzpah. A century earlier, he would have been strung up.

For example, Aristotle famously thought that a vacuum was impossible. Then one day, Europeans build a vacuum pump. The only conclusion they could reach is Aristotle is wrong. If he was wrong about that, could he be wrong about other things? You bet. Aristotle thought all the stars in the heavens were completely fixed; nothing is added and nothing is subtracted. In 1573, a Danish astronomer called Tycho Brahe observes a supernova. There was a star there before, and now it’s not. So people start being skeptical, and skepticism leads to what I call contestability. Arguments are decided not on authority, but on evidence, logic and mathematical proof. __ https://u.osu.edu/mclc/2016/10/31/why-the-industrial-revolution-didnt-happen-in-china/

Europeans rejected authority, and based their revolutions on evidence, logic, and mathematical proof. Theories were devised and careful experiments were performed to test them — using more and more sophisticated tools. If the western world turns its back on the skeptical mindset and returns to a reverence for authority (political, religious, fixed scientific etc.), it will create a new era of self-impoverishment.

The “argument from authority” which is used so much in the climate apocalypse political movement, is exactly what Europeans worked so hard to escape. The climate doom religion is a certain sign of decay in the contemporary west, which contributes to another sign of decay — the baby bust.

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