Feb 11, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Thanks for this meticulous takedown of one of the dumbest narratives out there about China. I think the assumption Kissinger and Allison etc. are making, or counting on their readers to make, is that people are forbidden from learning other countries' history besides their own and that of predecessor states. But people's frames of reference come from every historical example they've been taught, foreign as well as domestic. Chinese leaders presumably have been educated in Chinese history, but they also have access to all the examples of Western history, as I would assume is common among the educated elite in developing countries. Xi Jinping would have to have been taught a bunch of Marxist theory, most of which draws on Western history. Knowledge of the West is all over The Three-Body Problem, Hao Jingfang's novel Vagabonds, and Chen Qiufan's novel Waste Tide. The "long-term thinking" canard reflects Western parochialism – because most of us know so little Chinese history, some Westerners assume the reverse must be true, but a couple centuries of European colonialism have made it otherwise. Outside of China, Western history and culture are referenced everywhere in anime (salient examples: Rose of Versailles, Princess Tutu, Fullmetal Alchemist), and friends from India and Singapore have told me that elite secondary schools in those countries teach more Western literature than local literature. For that matter, why don't these critics ever say that Indian, or Iranian, leaders think in terms of thousands of years? Those civilizations are quite old too. By this metric, is the most farsighted leader in the world Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?

The most charitable explanation for some of this line of thinking is that invoking the clichéd wise foreigner is a way to critique our own society, in the grand tradition of Montesquieu's Persians or Tacitus's Picts. The most uncharitable explanation starts with R and ends with -acism.

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Feb 11, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Actually there is no conflict between these hypotheses, because thinking in the long term is almost always wrong. So the fact that the Chinese did lots of stuff that worked out poorly might be evidence that they were thinking for the long term, and having as much success at it as everyone else who has tried.

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Interesting and well constructed essay! I've been living in parts of Asia for over a decade now and follow China's politics quite extensively. You make some very valid points, thanks for sharing. I tend to look at the long-term vs short-term idea in terms of a much smaller timeline, as well as the different institutions longevity vs western ones. I often wonder what the difference would be if many of our democratic organizations had more permanence established, ie. like positions on the supreme court (bad example but I think it explains what I mean).

I can't help but feel most western countries now have far too much of their leadership nearly completely focused on getting re-elected every 2-4-6 years, rather than on improving the countries and lives of people they govern. I would never advocate for non-democratic governing at the top, but I do wonder if subsidiary organizations changed their system and how that could bring about positive (or negative) changes in the longer term.

Cheers Noah, always a fun read.


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Feb 11, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

Love your reference to the famous "underpants gnomes" episode of South Park.

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I think there actually is something behind the concept of a "chess mindset" v. "Go mindset" dichotomy.

Of course, as you point out, that's completely irrelevant to a discussion of Chinese politics.

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Feb 11, 2022·edited Feb 11, 2022

It is certainly a tired orientalist trope that draws on the image of the wise monk on the mountain and/or the meticulous mandarin in the halls of Beijing. And yes, like all bits of foreign-policy, it is also often reflective of what we would personally prescribe to our own societies.

The Chinese don't think any more or less long-term than others.

But this entire debate itself is so labored and just....boring. It rests on so many faulty assumptions/premises and doesn't take core considerations into account:

a) what we retrospectively describe as evidence of 'long-term thinking' could have had very immediate goals/objectives; b) we deem someone to be thinking 'long-term' when they are relying simply on the perceived wisdom of the day; c) every single action has consequences, leaders have their own 'pros-and-cons' sheet and just because their prioritization might look different from your's/mine, doesn't mean it is evidence of not 'thinking things though'.

To expand on 'c)', too many arguments flow like this: "uhh....they did 'A' to get 'B' but they didn't foresee that 'C' and 'D' would arise as a result of doing 'A' and therefore they royally f*cked it up. QED". Which is just stupid....maybe the person/company/country in question deems 'B' > 'C'+'D' to hold true?

We see it in the China debate all the time. Intelligent people, who naturally want to put to bed the ridiculous idea that the Chinese are this sage-like group of long-term thinking 'perfectocrats', instead go to huge lengths to try and disprove it. Take the 1-Child Policy (1CP) for example. Given that it was dreamt-up in the malthusian environment of the 1960s and 1970s, it could easily have been presented as evidence of long-term thinking back then. Only now, in a post-Japan, post-'oh-why-are-US-births-so-low' environment, do we think of it as a long-term 'mistake'. But even then, a clear-eyed appraisal quickly reveals that 1) Chinese fertility rates, following East-Asian trends, were due a precipitous decline anyway and the 1CP at most brought this forward by 5 years, 2) China isn't actually aging as rapidly as other societies that didn't have a 1CP, nor are the other negative effects (i.e gender imbalances) too different from other emerging/middle-income economies (India), thereby lending support to the previous point and 3) this is hardly a long-term calamity given that the relatively unproductive Chinese economy still has enormous scope for hoovering up low-hanging fruit.

It also ignores the fact that the CCP likely weren't blind to the fertility-related issues, but maybe saw the rapid improvement in the economy and dependency-ratio as being worth the costs, especially given that a lot of these debates that took place in the 1980s and 1990s were in far more open environments where leaders didn't reflexively shut-out academia.

Again, we can make this same point Re Chinese environmental issues. It seems foolish to compare the timelines of American and Chinese 'Eureka' moments Re climate-change and environmental degradation...Evidence shows that middle-income, post-industrial, societies are the ones where people start to take environmental sustainability much more seriously. At some point, people want to stop dying of smog-induced lung cancer!

Who's to say the Chinese government didn't look at their country in 1980 (post-Nixon) and think "hey, we have 500 million peasants living below/at subsistence level and our first priority ought to be building this lot back up. Let the Americans, with their full-bellies, worry about smog/pollution/desertification. We can tackle those concerns when the country is at a point where half the women aren't dying from child-birth and the life-expectancy isn't 40".

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I agree that the ‘China thinks long-term’ narrative is oversimplified and overplayed, but I don’t think this piece would change my mind if I didn’t. You rightly point out that Allison’s ‘China is old’ argument makes no sense, because ‘China’ today has very little connection to ‘China’ two-thousand years ago. But then you use as evidence some short-sighted/incompetent things that previously happened in China which are also mostly unconnected today’s regime. The thinking of the contemporary Chinese leadership cannot be assessed by the length of past dynasties, how well the Qing modernised, how big a mistake the Great Leap Forward was, or even the one-child policy. Nor, I would argue, should the state of current US thinking be assessed on the foresight of the framers, or research focusses in the 1970s. When people say that China thinks long-term and America short-term, I assume they mean the current regimes in each place. Of the examples that fall under that measure, I agree that the real estate situation is a mess and constitutes a mark against China, and that the opposite is true for America and innovations like MRNA (how much credit the government deserves is another question). But I don’t think those are enough to make any kind of definitive claim either way. I also think it should be acknowledged that there are prima facie good reasons to believe that China makes more long-term strategic considerations than the US (Made in China 2025, 2049 ‘Great Rejuvenation’ plan, etc.), and that when people make this argument, that is what they are usually basing it on. I don’t think that debunking Allison’s much weaker case settles the broader question at hand.

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I think there are two conclusions to draw from this. The first is that we shouldn't fear China; the Chinese aren't 10 feet tall and they're not an existential threat. The second is that we should plan long term about our relationship with China (and everyone else, for that matter). Right now, we seem to think about China in terms of an imminent threat to Tawain and to our hegemony. Why don't we think about our relationship in terms of decades, acknowledging that China will be hugely rich and a world power with whom we need to live with successfully, just as Britain learned to live with our becoming hugely rich and a world power?

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Nice Article.

I think the possibilities of foresight are pretty overrated everywhere and in every era.

I guess the idea of China as long-term thinkers stems from outsiders reading people like Sun Tzu and Mencius and the Tao Te Ching where there's so much more emphasis on long-term thinking, holism, and synthesis than there is in the West.

But it's a false dichotomy: in every society, there are people who try to consider the consequences of their actions and there are people who don't. Human character traits are not the special reserve of individual nations.

It may also seem that way because America has a far more transparent decision making process: if a decision making process is more transparent, you are able to see who is smart and who isn't, who is greedy and who isn't, etc. But this is actually a feature, not a bug.

With China, people should remember that absence of evidence of mistakes in politics is usually evidence of presence of a staggering number.

Just because evidence is invisible doesn't mean it's non-existent.

Moving forward, the same randomness goes for everything: America's founding fathers were not being prophetic or farsighted either.

They were just really smart people who had firm ideas about how a nation was supposed to look like and had the benefits of isolation plus extermination of the natives to try their political and economic experiments.

And so, history is more chance than we care to admit.

The American innovations that powered the world in the twentieth century did not come from foresight either.

Who knew how gps would link with satellite technology or how transistors would intersect with iPhones or the countless other accidents as such.

The problem now is America isn't having that close public-private relationship it used to have in the past: you need government for public research and private companies for turning that research into usable products.

Research is a public good: private companies are unlikely to take experimental risks like that and are more likely when they succeed, to lock them behind a wall of patents and lawsuits.

It's additionally sort of disingenuous to compare China's worst period(18th century to late 20th century) to America's best period. Indeed, most of America's modern existence.

The Chinese were the most powerful, most innovative, most resourceful civilization for hundreds of years: fiat currency, astronomy, gunpowder, petroleum, advanced shipbuilding, metallurgy, the compass, etc.

And then for an intriguing number of reasons, the centre could no longer hold and mere anarchy was loosed upon the civilization-state.

As we all know, The West and particularly America, picked up the slack.

But we should not forget that modern history of western domination is basically an anomaly and not the trend.

Perhaps, we are simply reverting to the mean again.

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seems kinda disingenuous to say no recent Chinese dynasty has lasted 300 years, when the US has only had 246 years so far, and using that metric - the last 2 major dynasties have easily surpassed that...

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Feb 11, 2022·edited Feb 11, 2022

I'm really not sure I would go so far as to say that Americans put the length of their own country's history into any "reasonable" or "objective" context, or that they do think directly about ancient Western history as anything real and connected to them. Ancient Greece and Rome just seem like a bag of metaphors we sometimes pull from, as is the case here. But this isn't just vis a vis China -- other "Old World" people have said this about Americans for, well, centuries.

Take the British, who came up with the following saying that they are very fond of: "An American thinks 100 years is a long time; an Englishman thinks 100 miles is a long way." They will also say things like, "my house is older than your country". (Of course, this can depend on when we are dating the start of "the US" from. If you agree with Nikole Hannah-Jones, as I do, than the colonial period is part of American history.) The British comedian Jimmy Carr (the guy who is justifiably in trouble now in the UK for a horrible bit he did about the Roma) once mentioned on a panel show that Hollywood producers, when they made movies about ancient Rome, would have *ruins* recreated as the set. "They didn't live in ruins at the time, you bloody fool."

So, "Old World" people in general think that Americans lack a historical sense beyond thinking that the history of the US is long and is all that really matters. I definitely don't think Americans think that the history of the US is comparable to one Chinese dynasty, because I don't think we have that length of historical reference, nor would we -- sorry -- usually reach to non-Western history for comparisons.

We think the American Revolution was a major turning point in world history. The revolutionary generation, however, while it did include some who projected out things like demographics over centuries, mostly was constantly anxious the US government would fall apart within a few years. Not unlike the uncertainty between Chinese dynasties?

But thinking that the Chinese not only have a longer and truer historical sense than Americans is not the same thing as thinking that Emperor Taizu 1,000 years ago commissioned a plan that culminated in the establishment of the PRC, or that the PRC in 1949 planned out everything to 2950. It is ridiculous.

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If you have the time you should read “China: A History” by John Keay. I myself have not quite finished it and am still working through it (to be fair it is almost 400 pages), but one of the things that becomes evident is that although “China” today typically refers to the PRC, China would be better characterized as a civilization, more in the way we refer to Europe as a place which contains a subset of countries and languages rather than it being a single country. [As an aside the same could be said of India].

It is amazing how pockmarked Chinese history is with the meteoric rise and fall of kingdoms, micro-states and commanderies. “China” is a way to describe a continent within a continent.

I think you are on to something with your analysis here.

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Started out well but again, failed due to apparent unfamiliarity with what China actually is and does.

First - comparing Qing dynasty China as some sort of continuity with modern China vs. the single nation United States? Huh? And even then, it fails - slavery?

Second - the assignation of outside goals to China. That's stupid. China actually publishes both short, medium and long term plans - perhaps you might read them. China always has a rolling 5 year plan, for example, but will also roll specific items from any given plan into future ones.

Let's compare with American plans...what exactly is the American long term plan?

An American leader will campaign on some goal - it may or may not even get formed into a bill in Congress - and the likelihood of said goal actually being implemented is pretty damn low. See: Gavin Newsome and single payer health care.

China has all sorts of flaws, but attacking fake ones just doesn't work.

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From someone who has worked in and out of China since the 80s, this is a fairly good take on the question. I defer to Eli's comment below that express excellent insights. I used to rent a little apartment in a neoclassical house owned by the Chief Sensor of the Communist Party Shanghai and it contained a library of western everything. It was almost like home (San Francisco.) "Drink deep or taste not, the western spring." Deng or no Deng, we live in a profits-first world which hardly reeks of long-term planning. Extract Produce Consume—the heat engine's method of BTK. And today, don't you know, we are all still bound by the buck.

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your article comes across as very defensive.

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The other country I have heard this about is Iran of the Ayatollahs. In your opinion, is it correct there?

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