06/01/2020 No. 156
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The Undeniable Trajectory: Deng Chose Wisely
By Thomas P. M. Barnett
February 1, 2009

An excerpt from Thomas P.M. Barnett's new book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush


When President Richard Nixon reopened diplomatic ties with Mao Zedong's Communist China in 1972, he enabled the most profound global economic dynamic of the last half-century: China's historic reemergence as a worldwide market force. After constituting roughly one-third of global GDP just as America was starting its climb in the early 1800s, China experienced its "century of humiliation" at the hands of foreign colonial powers that manhandled its economy without ever truly conquering it as a nation. Today's China ranks a G-8 slot (#4, actually) in GDP and trails only the United States when "parity purchasing power" is factored in. China won't overtake America in sheer economic weight anytime soon, but even having to discount that possibility tells you how rapid China's rise has been. Whether you realize it or not, nothing shapes your world today more than China's economic growth, and nothing will shape our planet's future more—for good or ill—than China's ongoing trajectory. China's decision to rejoin the world constituted globalization's tipping point, meaning—absent global war—there's no turning back now.

If Nixon opened the door, then Deng Xiaoping, Mao's ultimate successor, led one-fifth of humanity through it. Unlike the Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng chose wisely: By tackling economic freedom before political liberalization, Deng kept China stable during its tenuous first years of market reform. Deng's dream for China in 1979 would have struck Alexander Hamilton as a mirror image of his own for America in 1789: As historian Michael Marti puts it, "Deng's desire was to create an economic system that would allow China to become a rich and powerful nation by the middle of the twenty-first century." To do so, Deng would have to politically defeat another "immortal" of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Yun, who correctly feared that Deng's path would dramatically emphasize industry over rural development and lead to a huge rise in Western—and particularly American—cultural influences that would encourage factionalism within the party and among the people. In many ways, Chen's fears for a China that embraced Deng's ambitious agenda mirrored Thomas Jefferson's fears were America to follow the aggressive plan set out by Alexander Hamilton. Both Chen and Jefferson had great trepidation that their countries would abandon their agricultural center of gravity and quickly assume the have-versus-have-not, highly urbanized social structure of their economic model—Britain in the case of America, and the United States in the case of China. Whatever you can say about Mao's bizarre economic campaigns, he did create a society that was quite egalitarian in its lack of development and widespread poverty.

Although Deng is correctly labeled an autocrat, ordering—along with Chen—the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989, he's also correctly identified as a modernizer who unleashed a generation's immense creativity. Many from that ambitious generation will tell you that, before Tiananmen, they felt freedom was "90 percent political and 10 percent economic," but after Deng's crackdown, they concluded—somewhat harshly—that real freedom was "90 percent economic and 10 percent political." In other words, they decided that markets were the first, best instruments for generating positive change in China. Deng's objectives have roughly been met to date: to quadruple China's meager per capita income of roughly $250 in 1981 to approximately $1,000 by the century's end, and then quadruple it again by 2050, something China is well on its way to achieving, having already doubled to more than $2,000 per capita today. Deng's ultimate dream, as Marti notes, was that "China would become the center of an East Asian trading bloc similar to the European Community or the North American Free Trade Area," in effect echoing Henry Clay's lofty vision for America by placing China at the center of a continental system modeled on itself—a Chinese system for an Asian union.

Following the Tiananmen Massacre, Deng and his grand strategy came under attack by the conservative left wing of the party, but in turn that "Soviet faction" suffered its own loss of face when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself dissolved at the end of 1991. Embarking on his historic "southern tour" in 1992, Deng rallied his two great power bases: the People's Liberation Army and provincial officials. Striking back at his opponents, Deng commandeered the Fourteenth Party Congress to reshuffle the Politburo in his favor, installing his followers as the next generation to lead the nation. A "grand compromise" was struck inside the party: Deng won military support for further market reforms as long as a lid was kept on political change, and the army was afforded enough budget to modernize. The party would remain supreme, but state involvement in the economy would shrink, and private business would be encouraged along with investment from, and trade with, the outside world. By engineering the acceleration of market reforms, Deng sought to take advantage of the strategic pause generated by the Cold War's end. As Marti writes, "With a weak Russia to the north, an American withdrawal from the western Pacific, and the willingness and availability of foreign capital to invest in China, Deng argued that it was now or never. Reform and opening must be pushed to the limit."

Much as the U.S. military now plays bodyguard to globalization and once did the same for America's westward expansion across the nineteenth century, Deng enlisted the PLA to play "protector and escort" to China's economic modernization, the goal of which would become the party's basic line, replacing class conflict. Externally, China would adopt a foreign policy of avoiding dangerous entanglements, much as George Washington had advocated for a young America upon his retirement. No foreign crises or international issues would be allowed to interrupt China's focus on internal economic development, which would center on urbanization, industrialization, attracting foreign capital and maximizing export earnings, and significant trade protectionism to nurture the home market and home companies that would someday dominate global markets. Again, this is basically the American System of the early 1800s, right down to the dominance of a single-party elite and a strong aversion to political factionalism. Even China's infrastructural build-out mirrors our own: first make "external improvements" to link coastal regions to foreign markets, then tax the booming coastal regions to finance internal improvements that reach increasingly inward and westward.

China has experienced incredible economic growth ever since, increasing its GDP annually by almost 10 percent—as fast as you dare expand. But China is also nowhere near becoming a democracy, and that dubious achievement both scares and excites nations around the world, because it suggests that you can rapidly embrace globalization, achieve great income growth, and remain a single-party state. And that's the China model. But here's where the China System must likewise mirror the American System: The bulk of China's population, as well as most of its abject poverty, lies in its interior west. Those underdeveloped provinces represent the caboose on this train, and no matter how fast the train's engine may pull, the booming coastal provinces cannot embrace globalization without pulling the rural poor along for the ride; otherwise the train will break apart, just as China has many times in its history.

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Thomas P.M. Barnett is the author of Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, published by the New York G.P. Putnam’s Sons on February 5, 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-399-15537-6, Price: $29.95). He is a strategic planner who has worked in national security affairs since the end of the Cold War. A New York Times bestselling author and a nationally known public speaker who’s been profiled on the front-page of the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Barnett is in demand within government circles as a forecaster of global conflict and an expert on grand strategy, as well as within corporate circles as a management consultant and conference speaker on issues relating to international security and globalization.
A senior advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Central Command, Special Operations Command, the Joint Staff and the Joint Force Command Barnett formerly served as a senior strategic researcher and professor at the U.S. Naval War College. From November 2001 to June 2003, he served as Assistant for Strategic Futures, Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense. Prior to that, he directed the NewRulesSets Project, in partnership with Cantor Fitzgerald, to draw new “maps” of power and influence in the world economy; directed the Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project; and served as a project director for the Center for Naval Analyses and the Institute for Public Research.
In December 2002, Esquire named Barnett “The Strategist” for a special edition titled “The Best and the Brightest,” and followed that in March 2003 with his article, “The Pentagon’s New Map,” and he has since become a Contributing Editor, with a dozen articles to his credit. His pieces are regularly selected for the annual Best American Political Writing anthology. Barnett has also written for several additional publications, including U.S News & World Report, National Review, Baltimore Sun, The Guardian (UK), Wired, and others. He has a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service, and his blog on current global events on his website, www.thomaspmbarnett.com is read by major military and civilian leaders all over the world.
Barnett is a Visiting Strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies, a think-tank offshoot of the internationally famous Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and a Visiting Scholar at the Howard W. Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee.
A prominent international businessman, as Senior Managing Director of Enterra Solutions Barnett advises countries and governments on economic, political and infrastructure development, and is on the road roughly 200 nights a year addressing military, foreign policy, economic, corporate, and academic forums.
Dr. Barnett holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He and his wife Vonne Barnett live in Indiana with their four children.
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