My son's friend has a college assignment to write about China's political economy. She asked him if I had written anything on this topic. Since I thought the answer was not really, I decided to take a stab in this week's Newsletter. The research results were not what I expected.
China’s Political Economy
What is China’s political economy? The International Monetary Fund defines “political economy” as the study of "how politics affects the economy and the economy affects politics.”
According to Britannica, "[t]he field of political economy today encompasses several areas of study, including the politics of economic relations, domestic political and economic issues, the comparative study of political and economic systems, and international political economy....[Political economy has returned] to its roots as a holistic study of individuals, states, markets, and society.”
Every country has a political economy. This is a broad topic looking at basically every facet of what makes a country tick. For this reason, I hope my son’s friend’s assignment is a bit more targeted. Otherwise, she will need to become, to paraphrase famed fictional physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “a political economist with a working knowledge of China’s entire (economic and political) universe and everything it contains.”1
Shenzhen, China (photo by Leon He on Unsplash)
I now realize that I have written about discrete topics that make up China’s political economy. These include, for example, the ongoing twists and turns of China’s expanded regional and global involvement through the Belt and Road Initiative and BRICS, U.S.-China dialogue (and not), rises and falls in China’s exports and imports, and recurring successes and headaches in China’s domestic economy, society, and demography. I just didn’t use (or consider) the term, political economy. I was looking at the trees, not the forest. It turns out that discussing current affairs is in effect delving into political economy.
So, where does one begin to tackle “the political economy universe and everything it contains”? Should we look at the topic from a Western Neo-Liberal perspective, an Eastern Neo-Confucianist perspective, a free market, communist or social democratic perspective? The right, the left, the center? The chosen analytical orientation will influence the answer. Yet, if every take is relative, can there be a cogent analysis that can achieve wide buy-in?
Shi Zhan of the Shanghai International Studies University and the Center for Global Civilizational History thinks so.
The Hub: 3000 Years of China
Professor Shi explores Chinese history, politics, and society and proposes a different take for China’s future based on the past in The Hub: 3000 Years of China (2018). The popular book has sold more than 400,000 copies and is now out in a 2023 expanded and revised second edition. David Ownby has translated the new preface and added his own introduction here. Nancy Yu has written a review of The Hub here.
In a nutshell (which is a hard thing to say about a 700-page tome), Professor Shi breaks down a) how the world finds itself smack in the middle of a period of multi-faceted, systemic imbalance and b) that this provides China with an opportunity, as well as the need, to adopt a new attitude and approach in order to come out on the other side in a strong, sustainable position as a global leader.
He asserts that “…liberalism is China’s historic destiny” (emphasis in original)2 and argues, as written by Nancy Yu, that China “…must become a ‘world-historical’ nation—a nation that seeks not its own glory and domination but that recognizes its critical role in advancing human freedom.”3
Nancy Yu further notes that “for centuries, the legitimacy of Chinese rulers has turned on their narrative of China’s past….History and politics have ever been intimately connected in the Chinese political tradition. From the emperor of the Great Qin to the communist apparatchiks of the present day, Chinese statesmen have justified their rule with an interpretation of a transcendent order drawn from historical facts. Whoever successfully connects their political agenda with this higher, historical order gains the mandate to rule."4
Professor Shi is attempting to lay a thesis to accomplish this, and a not-insignificant number of people in China are apparently listening.
Zhongnanhai Government Entrance (維基小霸王 , commons.wikimedia.org)
Professor Shi offers his new paradigm for how China can and should see and integrate into the world. He is interested in the reality and theory (often rather complex) of political, philosophical, and social history and what they say about the past and the present. He asks his readers to set aside value judgments and human nature but recognizes that this is easier said than done.
We see examples of the power of the human condition and value judgements in our reading of the daily news. Harsh (often unhinged) rhetoric spills out from many shores. China “berates” and “lashes out at” the EU for things it does not like. The US “freaks out” over a spy balloon and implements increasing economic sanctions to contain China. The Chinese government takes golden shares in leading corporations in order to exert influence and control, while the Italian government enforces golden power rules with much the same goal.
“If the narrative of [100 years of national] humiliation cannot be overcome, then China can only achieve its own greatness by confronting the world in an absolute sense, which will directly lead to a narrow nationalism that pits China against the world. However, it was precisely after joining the global order that China achieved rapid development, from which it continues to benefit today. Narrow nationalism is undoubtedly contrary to China’s interests. Using the framework of Hegelian dialectics, a narrative of Chinese history can directly confront the antagonistic relationship between China and the world, and discover more constructive meaning from it, which is of great significance at the present moment.” (Professor Shi)
US Capitol (photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash)
As our societies continue to decouple (see diversified exports, China’s growing reach across the Global South, and the lack of sustained or meaningful communication and access at many levels of governments and societies), we in the West, and particularly America, should also consider Professor Shi’s analysis. Not only for what it means about China, but also what it maybe could mean for us.
Because the West is also a player in the imbalanced system that has been brewing since the 19th century and therefore has agency and interplay within such system, maybe for America as for China, in Professor Shi’s words, “…it is precisely this period of history that provides the foundation for the continuous enrichment of China’s [America’s] self-awareness.” This being said, my fear is that neither side will be self-aware enough to realize that this is such an opportunity to be self-aware.
China’s political economy meets America’s political economy, and vice-versa.
For further discussion of Chinese history (and a shameless plug by yours truly), see my recently-published article in the Saber and Scroll Journal (Volume 11, No. 3) here.
1 The Big Bang Theory, Season 2, Episode 18
2 Nancy Yu, “A Different Read on China,” March 31, 2023, Pages 2-3, https://www.americanpurpose.com/articles/a-different-read-on-china/
3 Yu, Page 4
4 Yu, Page 1