May 5, 2012
Which nation will own the 21st century?
The leading candidates are the USA and China. Few people would admit any others into the competition, but I’d be a tad more careful. History takes some odd turns. Who in the year 612 AD would have prophesied that the 7th century would belong to the Arabs? To the Arabs?
We’re much better informed about each other nowadays, though. Let’s go with the USA and China. Which of us will own the 21st century?
Ron Unz votes for China. In a long and well-argued piece in the current issue of The American Conservative , Ron tackles the thesis offered in the new book Why Nations Fail by economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Those authors tell us a nation fails when corrupt elites loot its wealth unhindered by restraining institutions such as free media, electoral audit of government, and an independent judiciary. The USA has institutions like that; China does not. Acemoglu and Robinson therefore bet on the USA to come out ahead.
“China has one great thing going for her: ethnic homogeneity.”
Unz counters this by pointing to the many ways China has confounded its skeptics this past thirty-odd years, and at the ruling dictatorship’s surprising stability and effectiveness—what I have elsewhere referred to as the Chinese Communist Party’s Staatskunst Wunder , a miracle of statecraft. He then takes on our own elites: their violations of civil liberties, their corruption and greed, their stranglehold on the media, and their mastery of the bread-and-circuses aspect of mass psychology:
I waited through the 1980s and 1990s for the Chinese system to implode. Following my 2001 visit to China, I then spent the 2000s telling everyone the CCP will go on forever. Now I find myself wondering if the Staatskunst Wunder might have been something of a conjuring trick. These doubts are the cumulative result of years spent reading Bill Gertz’s columns on the rising bumptiousness of China’s military establishment, fortified by the revealing affair of Mr. Bo Xilai.
It is all very well to point up the ease with which the elites can corrupt our American political institutions, but in the complete absence of such institutions, government can be very bad. I don’t mean morally bad; I mean incompetent, clueless, shortsighted, and utterly absorbed in factional fights. Chinese government usually takes the better part of a dynastic cycle to get that bad, a few decades at least. But some of the dynasties were very short .
On the other side, China has one great thing going for her: ethnic homogeneity. The Chinese authorities underplay this, designating the Zhuang (16 million) and the Manchu (10 million) as separate minority groups to get the Han proportion of the population down to 92 percent—not much different from the 90-percent-European USA of 1960.
This is disingenuous. I have lived in Manchuria and traveled all around the region. Without a degree in physical anthropology and a good set of calipers, you cannot distinguish a Manchu from a Han Chinese. The Manchus collaborated with the Japanese in 1931-45. When China regained the region, wise Manchus melted into the wallpaper as best they could, thoroughly Sinifying themselves. Similarly, the Zhuang are distinctive only when dressed up in traditional costume for a “minority” show; they are otherwise indistinguishable from other highland south Chinese, and most speak Mandarin for preference. Carleton Coon’s classic text on physical anthropology doesn’t even have an index entry for the Zhuang (not even under the older spelling “Chuang”).
Metropolitan China is at least 99 percent Han Chinese. Only in the troublesome outer regions of Tibet and Turkestan are there any large numbers of non-Chinese. The leadership boasts of their 56 “national minorities” mainly for the purpose of pretending, to themselves and us, that the Uighurs and Tibetans are just as Chinese as the Manchus and the Zhuang. If the Chinese had the good sense to give these outer regions real autonomy as I have urged them to (why don’t people listen? ), China would be more ethnically homogeneous than Japan. Even as things are, non-Chinese persons are only three percent or so of China’s population.
China is thus spared a multiethnic society’s massive inefficiencies and vexations. Whatever may happen to their system of government, they will at least be dealing with each other without ethnic rancor.
The 21st century will not be like that for America. What will it be like? I think genetics blogger “TangoMan” gets it pretty much right in this very interesting comment thread on Chuck Rudd’s blog:
I agree with Ron Unz: “[W]ithin the foreseeable future the torch of human progress and world leadership will inevitably pass into Chinese hands.” It will not be our “extractive elites” that bring down the USA, but the remorseless tides of demographic change and the implacable facts of human biodiversity.