• Richard Murff

The Middle Kingdom's Middle Finger


Weeks before that Olympian bastion of international bon homme and fair play opened, our Chinese hosts went through the good time and trouble to swap out all the street signs. The signage, previously in Chinese with English subscript for international travelers, became Chinese only. With the understanding that the rest of the world could jolly well sit on it. More galling to the average American, however, is their poaching Eileen Gu for Team China. If that isn’t the Middle Kingdom giving the world the Middle Finger, I don’t know what is.


The passive-aggressive signage, wooing the other guys adorable girlfriend, and the rest of the douche-baggery is the sort of thing teenagers do when going to great lengths to show that they couldn’t care less. For her part, Gu has made millions in endorsement deals in China, but once she and the rest of the Stamford Tri-Delts start tearing up Tik Tok, the infatuation may well fade. Chinese President Xi Jinping runs a tight ship and to judge by the look on his face, he’ll have a hard time controlling a female American undergrad. Xi wants to build an economic system with its own internet, market and rules where China, and Xi, are at the top of the peaking order. To pull it off, he appears to be drawing the Bamboo Curtain that was opened, if tentatively, in 1978.


What’s the likely outcome? Well, it’s not like this hasn’t happened before.


China around 1,000 AD was really something to see. About the time when European were still confused by the fall of Rome, the Chinese were in technological boom and busy inventing just about everything that the white people hold dear – paper, printing, iron, gunpower, the compass and pasta. They were monkeying around with hydraulic power, keeping the sun and rain off with umbrellas, lighting things on fire with matches, playing cards like demons and staying kissable with that innovation, the toothbrush.


In the 1200’s China suffered some bad luck: Mongol hordes, plague, and a series of natural disasters. This was a period of dramatic global warming where weather gets slippery (apropos of nothing, of course, but I though you should know). Then in 1368 came the dumb luck in the form of the Ming Dynasty. The first Ming, the Hongwu emperor, forbade all trade and travel without government permission. Chairman Moa did this in 1943, to much the same effect. The third Ming, the Yongle Emperor, moved the capital and called it Beijing where he built a palace complex so impressive he forbade anyone from looking at it. The Forbidden City is still there. Like President Xi some 650 years later, the Yongle Emperor built an enormous naval fleet to commanded by his favorite eunuch, Zheng He. Also like Xi, the emperor didn’t quite know what to do with the fleet or it’s 27,800 men (and one giraffe) other that sail around the Indo-Pacific and pester the locals. You have to give it to admiral Zheng, though, when he set sail for India, he actually got there as opposed to hitting the Bahamas and calling it a day.


After a couple of succession flaps and some aggressive Mogul saber-rattling that ended with the capture of emperor in 1449 there was a shifting of priorities. The Chinese were in wall-building mode, and they did not call the job in. On the coast, “Japanese” or “dwarf” pirates were raiding the ports. Some of the pirates were Japanese, but not all. This was some xenophobic shorthand; like the way that some Americans think that everything south of the Rio Grande is Mexico. Surely, they weren’t really dwarfs, though. At any rate the government solution to the rampant piracy of maritime commerce was to outlaw maritime commerce. Fortunately, the Ming leaders had the good sense not to enforce their own edict.

The first Qing regent reinstated the ban in 1647, which was largely ignored until the Kangxi Emperor issued an, “I’m not kidding, folks!” edict in 1666. The government destroyed its own fleets and implemented a death penalty for violation of the ban. To make the point perfectly clear, the government went a step further and exiled both the offender’s family, and his neighbors. The immediate effect was to crater the economy, smother innovation, and turn the entirety of the now unemployable Chinese merchant marine into “Japanese” pirates. Despite being worse than useless, the rationale for the sea bans were always national security – it is again.


After 500 years of economic regression, Chairman Moa Zedong, chairman of the Chinese communist party and iconic menswear designer, sought to implement his vision of a socialist utopia by continuing the isolation. First from the West’s capitalist system after 1943, and then, in 1961, from the fellow travelers in Moscow on the grounds that they were sniffing about a peaceful coexistence with the West. Mao wanted a Cultural Revolution where all citizen were free to do exactly as they were told, and he didn’t need any outside ideas queering the campaign. The upshot is that China is the only country to have a lower GDP in 1950 that in 1,000. That’s not bad luck. Bad luck results in bad years, or even a decade. To get a bad millennium requires a strong central government.


After Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) realized that not only that the party was on the brink, so was the country. Under Deng Xiaping steps were taken to institutionalize power away from a single cult of personality and embrace “reform and opening.” The result can be seen in China’s rise over the last 40 years.


Xi, however, thinks China has gotten to a place where it doesn’t have to play nice with the rest of the world. He’s chasing Moa style self-reliance with his “Made in China 2025.” He has skillfully parlayed COVID lockdowns and easy surveillance technology to tighten his grip domestically. Internationally, he’s shifted from Deng’s friendly approach to the Chinese call “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Or more to the point, bullying: under heavy pressure from the government, Didi Chuxing – a ride hailing company – reneged on it’s NYSE listing for a China/Hong Kong.


The cost of all this is that international business ties are fraying – and China knows it. What it’s going to do about it is something else. The dangerous step the CCP is taking this summer is reversing that process. President Xi will almost certainly win a third term in power, something not done since Mao. It isn’t just the election, Xi has managed consolidate and hold onto power through a series of Mao like purges, repression, and if Xi is to be believed, his attempts to rewrite both history and Chinese society itself.


Will it work? In the short term, maybe. If history is any guide, less so. In the words of Rana Mitter, Professor of Chinese History at Oxford University, “Closed borders lead to closed minds.”