Month: November 2018

Is the World Coming Together or Splitting Apart?

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I ended the last post promising to talk about a future dominated by the clash of civilizations. Some of you may have picked up that that was a reference to the book of the same name published in 1996 by Samuel Huntington. The books full title is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When I came up with the idea to write about Midler’s book on China, I realized that it would dovetail right into Huntington’s book, so immediately after finishing What’s Wrong with China I read (actually listened) to Clash of Civilizations. And while I don’t know that you need to read both books in exactly that fashion, the connection is very interesting.

My recollection is that when the book first came out Huntington got a lot of grief for his emphasis on the coming clash between Islam and the West. But he also predicted significant friction between the West and China, which wasn’t commented on as much but may have ended up being more important. And having read Midler’s book (and to reiterate I have no particular expertise on Islam or China) I think in the end China may end up posing the greater problem. The big difference being that the Chinese civilization has, what Huntington calls a “Core State”, while Islam does not. This makes China less inclined to random acts of terrorist violence, but far more unified in whatever actions they do take. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where I’d really like to begin is to look at Clash of Civilizations from something of a historical context. The book, as I mentioned, came out in 1996 but the article on which it was based was published in 1993. This was, as you’ll recall, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were trying to figure out what this meant for the future. Two broad theories were advanced. There was Huntington’s of course, and then there was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, published in 1992, which advanced a very different theory, and which I’ve mentioned several times in this space. To be clear, I suspect that I’m too hard on Fukuyama, and that there are nuances which I’m missing, and ways in which it was more accurate than I give it credit for. That said if you were going to declare a winner out of the two views I don’t see any way to not declare Huntington the victor.

As you might be able to tell from the title Fukuyama asserted that the future would be fundamentally different than the past. Conspiracy theorist caricaturize this as the New World Order. (Oftentimes referencing the speech by Bush Sr.) I don’t think it ended up being quite as menacing as they thought. In fact, I think it would have been nice if there had in fact been a new world order, and for a while in the 90s it appeared as if there might be, but I think it’s evident now that it was at best a temporary transition period between the ideological conflict which defined the Cold War back to the civilizational conflict which has dominated the rest of human history. A small breather between rounds in a boxing match rather than the start of something long-lasting or genuinely different. Though I think some people still hold out hope that it’s the reverse that what we’re looking at is the last gasp of pre-modern sectarian strife before we finally make the full transition to a true global, universal culture.

As I said, I think it’s clear that the evidence is heavily in favor of Huntington. But the idea that as our world becomes more interconnected we are gradually transitioning to a universal culture, has some evidence on it’s side as well. And it’s always been one of the principal objections to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Consequently he devotes a chapter of his book to answering it and identifies four ways in which the term is meant:

First it might be referring to the idea that humanity has a universal morality. It is true that nearly all cultures are opposed to murder and in favor of families, etc. But this has so far not prevented any wars between those cultures. If you’re looking for an argument against a clash of civilizations, then this is a fatal flaw.

Second there’s the advance of civilization, increasing literacy, urbanization, and other forms of progress. Once again this is true, but irrelevant to a discussion of civilizational conflict.

Third, and what most people, including Fukuyama, mean by the idea, is a civilization based on a recognizable set of western values like liberal democracy, market economies, individual rights, etc. Huntington actually prefers to call this the Davos Culture, after the annual gathering in Switzerland, which may be a more accurate description. The key problem Huntington points out with this idea, and one of the reasons why he prefers to call it the Davos Culture is that it’s largely only shared among the elites of a society:

Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the West, it is probably shared by less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population and perhaps by as few as one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies… its roots are shallow…

He specifically talks about how many people share the culture outside of the West, but when one considers the election of Trump and Brexit are we sure how many people share it even inside of the West?

The fourth thing people mean when they talk about universal culture is entertainment culture and in particular the dominance of Hollywood movies and Western music (not to be confused with country music). This may be the strongest claim for a universal culture. Because, while the Davos Culture may be limited to a small elite, Hollywood is making almost as much money in China as they make in the US, despite the fact, as I pointed out in my last post, that their culture is otherwise very different.

It used to be said that two democracies have never gone to war. That’s not entirely true, but along those lines can we say that two countries who both enjoy the same movies have ever gone to war? My guess is that they probably do go to war (particularly if Inglorious Bastards is to be believed.) And as Huntington points out, it’s very easy to find young men, say in Iraq. Who wear jeans, drink coca-cola, enjoy Marvel movies, and are still plotting to kill Americans. Furthermore when you look at places like Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are they more or less western culturally than they were 30 years ago?

Speaking of Turkey, their example is an interesting one. I don’t have the time to go into any great depth on it, but basically, in the wake of World War I, Kemal Ataturk rebuilt Turkish society along a western, secular, democratic model. If there was a poster child for transitioning to a universal culture, Turkey was it, and yet if you look at Turkey today, you’ll see a society that’s becoming less democratic, less secular, and less western (particularly if you count freedom of press and speech as a core western value). This is despite it being more modern in most other respects. As Huntington points out:

Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions and practices. The latter, indeed, may be almost impossible: whatever obstacles non-western cultures pose to modernization pale before those they pose to Westernization. It would as Braudel observes, almost “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.

This last point is critical, and when you think about it, self-evident. If the West is completely dominant, then there’s a strong motivation to be more Western. And insofar as it’s probably unclear what part of Western practices and culture created their dominance you’re going to want to adopt them all. While this vastly simplifies things, I’m sure that it was something like this going through Ataturk’s mind as he worked to put things back together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But, once you begin to catch up with the West, the dominance gap lessens, and with it the motivation to adopt their culture, particularly those parts that seem to have nothing to do with modernization. This is the case with any country you choose to examine, not just Turkey. It was certainly the case in my last post, where we examined China. When they were struggling there were numerous reasons for change, now that they’re ascendent the impetus for any change, and particularly one which is strictly cultural, decreases more and more.

If you agree that this is a fatal blow to the idea of a universal or Davos Culture, then the next question must be, what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like? Actually, I guess we know the answer to that one, we just have to look back through history. The question is more properly what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like when you add modern technology? And more critically, does that modern technology make this competition better or worse?

At this point it’s useful to step back and define what we mean by both “clashing”, and “civilizations”. We’ll start with the second part. What is a civilization? Huntington goes all the way back to ancient Greeks to use the example of Athens and Sparta as different countries, but the same civilization, versus the Persians which was a different country and civilization

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent.

The emphasis on religion is interesting, both because it gives us a useful shorthand, but also because it immediately draws us back to the issue of a universal culture. Could a proponent of universal culture reopen the argument by claiming that it will come about through the natural progression of secularism? Perhaps claiming that while modernity doesn’t necessary lead to Western universalism, that it does lead to secular universalism and in the end that will be close enough? That we will lose the distinction between separate civilizations at the same time as we abandon religion? There’s always a chance that this is the way it will play out, but secularism also leads to a lower number of births meaning that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to go down in the coming decades not up. Which definitely makes it less promising as a path to a universal culture.

More speculatively if the most important element of a civilization is religion, could it be argued that people without religion are also without a civilization? Insofar as one of the key attributes of a civilization is the ability to propagate forward in time, the low secular birth-rates we already mentioned could be a fatal weakness. Might a lack of religion carry other weaknesses with it as well that make it impossible for the irreligious to ever coalesce into a full civilization?

We could get a lot deeper into the attributes of civilizations, including a discussion of the difference between being civilized in the sense of level of modernization (though I prefer to equate it to low time preference) and a Civilization. But I think everyone already has a pretty good idea of what a civilization is. It is, however, worth a brief aside to examine what Huntington (and the other scholars he draws on) count as a civilization:

Western: While Western Civilization definitely encompasses Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, the interesting question here is whether to include Latin America. There is an argument to be made for a separate Latin American civilization, and perhaps if they spoke Spanish in Brazil the answer would be obvious.

Sinic: China, along with much of Southeast Asia, the largest civilization. Definitely on the ascent, and helped out by the advantage of having a very clear core state. Being the largest and possibly the most unified as well is a big deal.

Islamic: The second largest civilization, but hampered by having no definite core state, and by the Sunni-Shia division. But also ascendent, or at least fired up.

Hindu: Narrowly the third largest civilization, at least at the time of the book, though I’m guessing if anything the gap would have widened. Since Islamic birth rates have probably exceeded Indian birth rates. Mostly restricted to a single country, and also on something of a rise.

In terms of population, those four are the big ones, and I should mention that if you include Latin America, Western Civilization would probably jump ahead of Islamic and Hindu. (Though I haven’t bothered to compile recent figures).

After that you get two small (but feisty!) civilizations:

Orthodox: This is basically Russia, with parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and perhaps Greece. As I said feisty, but unclear whether it’s about to slowly be gobbled up by Western, Sinic or perhaps even Islamic civilizations, or whether it’s ready for a re-emergence.

Japanese: This is definitely a single country civilization. And I’m not sure what the future holds here.

You’ll notice that no civilization includes Sub-saharan Africa (North Africa is Islamic). I can only imagine that some people will find that to be inaccurate, or offensive or both, but it would appear to nevertheless be true. This is not to say that one won’t develop, but without a common religion or even a common language, there’s nothing that currently fits the bill.

Once you’ve established that there is no Universal Culture, at least not one with any power. And then gone on to identify the distinct cultures that do still exist. Moving from that to a future where these civilizations clash is an obvious next step. And if, by this point, it doesn’t seem obvious to you there’s a 368 page book on the subject I’d be happy to recommend to you. As I said in the beginning what I’m most interested in is how technology changes these clashes.

First on the list, has to be nuclear weapons. I’ve talked about these a lot in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but it boils down to an argument, on one side, for them drastically elevating the violence and destruction of civilizational clashes, and on the other side an argument that their use is so terrible as to make civilizational conflicts almost exclusively non-violent, or at the very least something which generally happens through proxies.

Next on the list, is an item we’ve already covered, does technology lead to some sort of Universal Civilization? The answer we arrived at appears to be no, it does not, despite the ease of communication, and travel and the like. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it might do the exact opposite, which takes us to our third potential difference.

Rather than bringing us together, technology seems to be fracturing people into mini-civilizations. The internet has allowed geographically scattered people to gather into very tightly defined communities, something that previously wouldn’t have been possible. These ideological echo chambers are definitely not a “Civilization” but it’s unclear how they’ll interact with traditional civilization, particularly as there is some evidence that they can cut across civilizational lines. (Another thing that used to be very difficult.) I can think of several possibilities:

1- Somehow the fracturing, paradoxically, is what actually leads to a universal civilization, perhaps by creating a set of high level rules allowing the various factions to interact which goes on to achieve universal adoption.

I haven’t seen much evidence for this. If it were going to happen you would expect something like the First Amendment to be a very important initial foundation, and instead it appears to be increasingly controversial.

2- These factions will seem like a big deal until something catastrophic happens, like 9/11. At which point all the differences will be put aside and one civilization will rise up in anger against another civilization, and the civilizational clash will happen more or less as it always has.

Of course the post 9/11 civilizational clash we did get was pretty mild as clashes go. But it’s hard to see where it had anything to do with an incipient universal culture. It seems more related to peculiarities of Western Civilization and the fractured nature of the Islamic Civilization.

3- These factions gradually hollow out the larger civilization, sapping civilizational unity and causing most energy to be directed inward in a low intensity civil war, rather than outward at other civilizations.

Based on past experience, I would lean towards number two, but it also seems like two only operates in the presence of some strong external unifying factor. (It has often been said that the Cold War would have ended instantly if the Earth had been attacked by aliens.) And as much as we would prefer that Pinker and the rest are correct and large external catastrophes such as the great wars of the 20th century are largely a thing of the past. I have also pointed out that war might have played an important role. Leaving us in a situation where a given civilization would pull together in a heartbeat if there were another 9/11 (as Western Civilization did after the first one.) But that such catastrophes won’t happen (or won’t happen often enough.) Leaving us with possibility 3, gradually being ripped apart from within.

If civilizational clashes still end up occurring, then those who can generate strong external threats, while minimizing factionalization are going to triumph in these clashes over the long run. That may be so obvious as to go without saying. But this takes us back to the question of how technology will change these clashes, and the answer is, social media has made factionalization considerably easier, while modernity has made external threats far more rare. So yes it’s obvious that external threats bind civilizations together while factionalism tears them apart, but never before has the first been so rare while the second has been so easy.

Once we consider these factors it would appear that other civilizations may have the West beat. Islamic civilization comes with factionalism built in, in the form of the Sunni-Shia split, but we helpfully lob cruise missiles at them every so often, meaning external threats are never very far from their thoughts. And if any civilization was going to be good at reducing factionalism it would be the Sinic/Chinese.

I’m sure there are other ways in which technology changes civilizational conflict, but I think the items I just covered are the big ones. To close out I’d going to toss out a few miscellaneous questions and speculations on the topic that linger after reading the book.

What’s going to happen with Sub-Saharan Africa? If they haven’t already got a civilization are they going to develop one? How does that happen? I get the feeling that it probably helps if you have an empire combined with a religion, and I don’t see any budding African empires, and while Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Christian, that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) seem to provide much unity to the region. When you combine that with the expected population growth you have a lot of people without a civilization, how would that fit into Huntington’s Model?

Huntington appears to be of the opinion that ideological conflicts were an historical anomaly, a brief detour before returning back to the more typical civilizational conflict. While I agree that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for a universal civilization as the next step, I’m not convinced that the next step couldn’t be multipolar ideological conflict. As I said social media is making it easier to organize around ideologies even across civilizational boundaries. So far the Davos Culture seems to be doing this most effectively, but rather than being the harbinger of a universal culture could it instead be just the first of many trans-civilizational cultures?

FInally, while I’ve covered some of the possible effects technology might have on civilization there are probably many others. Most of the data we have on how civilizations behave and how the interact with other civilizations comes from a time before industrialization. It could be argued we have some data on post industrial civilizations, but we have essentially zero data on post internet civilizations.

Huntington identified religion as the most important element of Civilization cohesiveness, and so far changes in technology, whether from industrialization or the internet, all seem to have weakened the power of religion. I know I said earlier that the future will have less unbelievers than the present because of birth rate differentials, but that doesn’t mean that those who do believe won’t practice their belief in very different ways. What does that mean for the larger civilization if it’s religious core is constantly being altered?

We’re left in a situation where, even if we accept Huntington’s thesis, there’s still a lot of questions. Enough that we can imagine many possible futures, unfortunately out of all those futures, I think the least likely is one where everyone comes together in a universal culture where all ideological and civilizational conflicts cease. Which is to say, I’m not sure Huntington is correct in every particular, but I am sure that Fukuyama is wrong.


Have you heard that joke about two civilizations waking into a bar? No? Neither have I, but if thinking about that sort of thing is something you want to support consider donating.


China and the Strangeness of Civilizations

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I recently finished listening to the book What’s Wrong with China by Paul Midler. Previous to reading this book I knew that the Chinese viewed the world differently than Americans or Europeans, but I was under the impression that these were differences of degree, not of kind. To put it another way, I thought we were all on the same graph, the average Chinese person was just in a different place on the graph, though as they became more globalized and affluent they would gradually move closer to the western norm. (While at the same time we would probably move closer to them.) I imagine this impression is pretty widespread, but after reading the book I’ve realized it was hopelessly naive. China is not merely a foreign country, it is an ancient and entirely different civilization with an almost alien way of thinking. They’re not on the same graph with the western democracies (hereafter just the “West”). They may be on some graph, somewhere, but if they are they probably don’t even use the same coordinate system (probably polar, I always hated polar.)

You may be inclined to argue that even if I’m correct about this, all that it means is that we just need to work harder at understanding them. Maybe, but if Midler is to believed things are actually moving in the opposite direction, and our understanding of Chinese culture is actually getting worse as time goes on.

This makes a certain amount of sense. There was a time when travel to China was a lot more difficult. When someone could write a book called Fifty Years in China (actually three people wrote books with exactly that title) and you knew that those were fifty long years of actually being immersed in China. With the telephone, and air travel, and especially the internet, these days, a year spent in China is very different than a year spent back then, to say nothing of spending 50 years there. Also, these days, we are more likely to minimize differences, not only because people interested in China are predisposed to be favorable to it in the first place. But also because it’s considered borderline racist to say anything negative about another culture.  Midler asserts that the combination of all these things is leading to a decline in our actual understanding:

It is curious that books written on China in the 1960s–Dennis Bloodworth’s The Chinese Looking Glass is an example–should read finer than most of what is produced these days, and that even these books pale in comparison to the works of the previous generation. The trend appears to go back quite some time. In the 1930s, Ralph Townsend was convinced that his contemporaries wrote nothing as accurate as that which was produced by Arthur Smith and Abbé Huc. The writer G. F. Hudson, a contemporary of Townsend’s, went further by claiming that “China was better known to Europeans in the eighteenth century than in the nineteenth, despite extensions of scholarly inquiry, simply because earlier reports had less cause to misrepresent what they found.”

At this point it’s only natural to ask for examples of the alienness I’m claiming the Chinese possess. Well as someone who’s never been to China, and has only the book to go by, I hardly think I’m qualified to do it justice, but if I don’t provide any examples, it would also severely weaken the point I’m trying to make. So I’ll do what I can.

In America we can imagine buying counterfeit merchandise (say a Prada handbag). And when we imagine it happening we probably picture a slightly shady street vendor, perhaps in New York. But of course you don’t imagine it happening if you walk into the official Prada store on fifth avenue, and yet in China it does. Not because the official store doesn’t sell the genuine article, but because they sell both. The merchant in question has to sell some real merchandise to keep their license, but if they think they can get away with it they’ll sell you the counterfeit version instead, even though they have the real stuff. Midler describes it this way (emphasis original):

This made no sense to me, at least not at the time. How could I be treated fairly while another customer was being taken advantage of in the very same shop? Many of us have a preconceived notion that there are only two kinds of service providers: the good and the bad. You have the reputable mechanic and the dishonest one, the fair attorney and the predatory one.

Chinese business operators instinctively understand how a hybrid model achieves the highest level of economic returns. Businesses that offer a fair deal to everyone leave too much money on the table, but those that cheat indiscriminately risk entirely losing their reputation.

Based on this and other examples I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese don’t really use honesty as a framework for their behavior in anything remotely resembling the way it’s used in the West.

As my second example of the alienness of The Chinese culture, the Chinese are not troubled by mechanical or technological failures, they are troubled by social failures. A couple of quick examples of this:

When a plane or a train crashes in the West (see my last post) there is an enormous inquiry, we want to know what happened and how to keep it from happening again. In China, when one high speed train ran into another which had stopped. The Chinese put very little effort into understanding what had happened. Instead, they immediately moved backhoes in and buried the trains. Under pressure, they eventually did conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear how in-depth it really was. The chief result seemed to be a lot of people getting fired for “official corruption”. According to Midler, the Chinese people were horrified by the accident, but not, perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Their horror came not because of the systemic failures which allowed it to happen, and not because of the governmental cover-up, and not because of the corruption. They were horrified because the driver of the train that was stopped should have texted the other drivers to let them know. It was the social failure not the mechanical failure which alarmed them.

For the other example, I’ll just quote from the book:

[I was reminded of a story] told to me by an importer from Canada. While he was visiting a supplier, a shop floor worker had lost a finger in a piece of machinery. Holding his injured hand, which was wrapped in a towel and bleeding profusely, the laborer sat on the floor while colleagues went to find the missing digit. The factory boss then rushed over and, after pausing to assess the situation, began hitting the injured employee over the head. “How many times,” he said, while beating the poor worker, “have I told you to keep your damned fingers out of that machine!”

Most western companies would have been worried about putting a system in place to make the machine safer. On the other hand, in sweatshop style conditions, with no regard for worker safety you can imagine the person being callously fired. But this in between business of yelling and hitting is either extraordinarily cruel, or, and this is my opinion, it’s prioritizing the social over the technological and mechanical. Either way it’s very different from what you might expect.

For my final example of Chinese alienness, I’ll balance things out by choosing something which the Chinese probably does better than the West. As it turns out, the Chinese are somewhat baffled by what they see in Hollywood movies, particularly crime capers, where the full deal is worked out in advance. We’ve all seen a movie where everyone agrees to split things equally, and then of course, inevitably, the deal doesn’t go quite the way they expected and mayhem and violence ensue. The same could be said for business deals, where, in the West, contracts are rigorously hammered out in advance. The Chinese don’t do that, they understand that things look different at the end than they did at the beginning and they are very willing to change the deal as circumstances change:

Chinese partnerships appear to us to be far better coordinated because often they are. Chinese do not so easily constrain themselves to the initial terms of a deal, and they show a willingness to reevaluate at any point along the way. This is not to say that those who are in a position of power do not still take advantage of whatever leverage they hold. But, all else being equal, participants have a higher expectation that their contribution will be rewarded in a more or less accurate way on a flexible scale that is subject to adjustments.

This frequently takes the form of there being an understood percentage for performing certain tasks. If an agent brings a new client to a factory it’s understood he’ll get 3% of the deal. This is the case even if he’s never had any previous contact with the factory, and he definitely doesn’t need to have a contract. If the agent’s relationship with the new client is particularly good, he may be able to get 4%. If it turns out the client can barely stand the agent, and never wants to talk to him again, he’ll still walk away with 2%. So there is some wiggle room, but they’re unlikely to be cut out entirely, a situation I’ve seen all the time in the US.

Midler ascribes this to the Chinese having a finely honed sense of fairness and that therefore most entrepreneurial relationships work better.

The ability of the Chinese to accurately assess the value of a person’s contribution—combined with a confident faith that decision makers will act upon this information—opens up endless opportunities.

Those were just a few examples of large differences between Western culture and Chinese culture, and perhaps you remain unconvinced that the differences are all that profound, and you certainly don’t like using the word “alien” to describe those differences. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, but in reality I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are 31 chapters in the book, each detailing a significant difference between the two cultures. Perhaps they are not all equally consequential, but when you put them all together, the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, I would assume that you recognize the increasing importance China plays in the affairs of the world, and that you would, consequently desire a better understanding of them. If so I would definitely recommend Midler’s book, even if you aren’t inclined to agree with this central premise, that there’s something wrong with China.

The book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Midler’s many, many years in China as a western representative working with Chinese factories. And it would be surprising if any nation couldn’t be the basis of a whole book of stories, but that also wouldn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of global impact. Therefore, the question we really should be addressing is what do all of these behaviors mean for China’s larger role in the world and in particular what do they mean for the relationship between the US and China?

As I mentioned at the beginning, after reading the book, one of my biggest worries is that while Chinese culture is, and always has been very different from Western culture, our ability to notice those differences and make allowances for them is as bad as it’s ever been. Somehow greater globalism has decreased our actual knowledge about China. And insofar as they’re a big player on the world stage, and only getting bigger, that’s not an ideal position to be in. We should be striving to get deeper at the truth, even if it might reflect poorly on China and its people because this is one area where we can’t allow cultural sensitivity to blind us to reality, particularly since one of the things China has proved more than capable of doing is using our cultural sensitivity against us. And if anything in the post thus far has made you uncomfortable that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve arrived at a point where we all agree China is going to be a major player if not the major player going forward, but where we also strongly suspect that our knowledge of their culture and the actions flowing from that culture may be less than ideal. That’s not a good combination. I know a lot of people expect that the next few decades will be similar to the last few decades, particularly that peace and prosperity will continue. But if we fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of one the major players in that future, than there’s a good chance those expectations are going to be incorrect. So what do the behaviors described in the examples I just gave mean in terms of the future? How does all of this play out at a global scale going forward? Well, for each of the examples I gave above (except for the last) I’ll attempt to scale up the behavior and make some (necessarily) vague predictions about where it might lead.

In the first example I talked about the Chinese behavior of mixing dishonest and honest behavior in a constant search for maximum profit. At first glance this might appear to be greedy, but otherwise unremarkable. But I think if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that it’s an example of something far more important, the difference between culture and ideology. In the West we have a culture (though it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s been less influential) but for the last century, with Western Culture ascendent, and therefore largely taken for granted, our focus has moved onto ideology. This was most evident during the Cold War which was entirely a conflict of ideology. So then what’s the difference between culture and ideology? Ideology get’s exported and promoted, culture does not.

As with most things there’s some ambiguity in the middle there, particularly in the West where culture and ideology have been cross-pollinating for quite awhile. But even so, it’s notable how reluctant we are to export or advocate for anything that’s explicitly cultural, while we go to great lengths to promote and export our ideology (think democratic elections, free trade, intellectual property protection, etc.) What are the Chinese ideological exports? I’m having a hard time thinking of any. Certainly, to return to the example, I see no evidence that they’re trying to export an ideology of maximizing profits through a balance of honest and dishonest behavior. We have an ideology of honesty and respect for the law. And we think it’s something everyone should be doing. They see their mixed behavior as a cultural advantage, an advantage they want to preserve as they clash with other cultures and civilizations. This is actually a large subject, which is why I’m going to leave off here, and return to it next week.

The second example was about a Chinese focus on social failures rather than mechanical failures. Once again this may not seem like that big of a deal, but I think it speaks to a cultural difference between the West and China which has existed for a very, very long time. It used to be said that China invented gunpowder, but Europeans invented the gun. That China invented paper, but Europe invented the printing press. I don’t think you’re supposed to point this out anymore. But that is more or less what happened, and while there are many reasons why, one of them is a Western focus on systems over people. Whereas China has had a focus on people over systems (as indicated in the example). Now there are probably some ways in which this focus is better, but when we examine the advance of science and technology, and why the world of 2018 looks different from the world of 1018, it’s in large part due to prioritizing systems over people.

Another example of this is the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Despite the fact that the plane was destined for China, and that 64% of the people on board were Chinese nationals, and that China has a GDP 39x that of Malaysia, the Chinese government only covered 10% of the search cost. Australia, which really had no stake in things except to be nearby, and has a GDP 1/9th that of China, covered 32% of the cost of the search and took charge of it as well. How much of that is due to Australia being culturally western?

My worry is basically this, and it’s entirely possible it’s overblown, but a focus on systems ends up being synonymous with a focus on science and engineering, and despite what you may think, science and invention and academic rigor do not come naturally to humans. It’s all more fragile than we think. If Midler is right (and the examples do seem to back him up) and Chinese culture is less focused on systems, then as they begin to take a larger role in the world there is a good chance that the world as a whole will be less focused on these things. You might offer, as a counterpoint the recent news that China has overtaken America as the largest producer of scientific articles, unfortunately this is less encouraging than you might think. First it’s easy to find plenty of other articles talking about the enormous level of scientific misconduct, fraud, and actual fake research in China. Second, China has a habit of artificially inflating statistics which they feel correspond to having a more developed country. For example Midler, claims (and other sources back him up) that:

Beijing central planners understand that an economy can be considered “advanced” once a certain percentage of its population resides in an urban environment, and so it has chosen to forcibly move people from the countryside into the cities.

Given all the problems with Chinese research I imagine something similar might be happening with scientific articles.

The final Chinese cultural difference I want to cover is their focus on dynastic thinking. In short, while we in the West expect that progress will march on more or less forever, in China their view of how the world works is far more cyclical. The West, particularly if you include America, has only been on top once, but they continue to be on top. China has been on top multiple times, and they’ve also bottomed out multiple times as well, and according to Midler there’s a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

I suspect they’re right that the window of opportunity will be closing soon, if for no other reason than that’s what they believe will happen. And it should go without saying that a future where China continues to progress at the same rate they have been is very different from a future where China has collapsed. And while the Chinese belief that it will happen makes it more likely, it’s possible that our ignorance of this belief isn’t helping anything either.

It’s possible Midler is wrong about the extent to which Chinese culture is different from Western culture. Obviously there have to be some differences, but I suppose someone might argue that the differences are small; or they’re large, but ultimately inconsequential; or that the Chinese culture is being replaced by a universal culture, and in a few years it won’t matter. As I said you could make these arguments, but I wouldn’t. In fact I’m going to spend the next post making that exact opposite argument. That while ideology has recently been more important than culture, this state of affairs is not going to continue. The world is made up of many different civilizations, each with its own distinct culture. They are not going away and the future is going to be dominated by the clash of civilizations.


Whatever the truth of Chinese profit maximization through a risk of behaviors, I obviously have none of that, and keep trying the same behavior over and over again, If my straightforwardness appeals to you at all, consider donating.