All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 2002

What Happened to China?

A Nation Gets the Government It Deserves

Asked to pick from among the world’s nations the one with the best prospects for years ahead, an early fifteenth-century futurist would have bet on China. All the indicators pointed to it as destined to outpace every other civilization on the planet.

Among the things the futurist might have noted was Chinese technology. In 1400 the introduction of a printing press with movable type was half a century in the future for Europe; it was almost four centuries in the past for China. Between 1400 and 1500, gunpowder worked a revolution in European military tactics, but it was nothing new to the Chinese: they had been using it for fireworks since the third century, for explosives since the eleventh, and for cannon since late in the thirteenth. In 1400 European medical practices were not as good as those of ancient Greece, but the Chinese were already familiar with distillation, the use of mercury and iodine, and vaccination for smallpox.

At the dawn of the fifteenth century, when the work of Prince Henry the Navigator was still in the future and the voyages of Columbus were unimaginable, the Chinese were engaged in overseas commerce with the coastal states of Africa. They had large seaworthy ships with watertight compartments and knew how to use the compass. Looking at this, our fifteenth-century futurist might have said it was only a matter of time before some farsighted Chinese mariner turned toward the other horizon and found himself stumbling across the Americas. The futurist might have noted, too, that the Chinese would have had the political capacity to take advantage of his discovery. Early fifteenth-century Europe was a collection of warring monarchies in which leaders were chosen by a law of hereditary succession or victory in war, but China was a unified polity with a trained civil service.

If the trends apparent in 1400 had continued, history would tell of Chinese traders in Lisbon rather than Portuguese sailors in Canton, and the formative influences on the evolution of modern civilization would have been primarily Oriental. But those trends never materialized. First Western Europe and then the United States took a lead over China. Western technology grew by leaps and bounds, and Chinese technology stagnated. China somehow failed to capitalize on the advantages it enjoyed at the dawn of the fifteenth century. The dawn of the twenty-first century finds it struggling to catch up with the countries of the West.

So the question we want to ask our fifteenth-century futurist is, “What happened to China?” How did it happen that the Chinese were surpassed by civilizations less advanced and by nations poorer than their own? The question is important because the answer is a warning to modern Americans.

Blame Institutions?

In How the West Grew Rich, Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr., put the blame on Chinese political institutions. Progress, they argue, is the result of innovation, and Chinese officials had nothing to gain from innovation. The government of fifteenth-century China was like every other government in its concern for maintaining a balance among the various interests that kept it in place. Chinese officials resisted anything that threatened to upset this balance. In the West, on the other hand, the rulers’ struggles for power over a feudal nobility and later for the domination of Europe gave them good reason to favor any innovation that might lead to an advantage over their rivals. In nineteenth-century America, competition among state and local governments inhibited the tendency toward innovation-stifling regulations.

The fifteenth-century Chinese suffered from no inhibitions of this kind. China was a unified and centralized empire. It faced no serious threats from beyond its borders. Chinese officials had every reason for hostility toward anything that might upset the status quo from which they drew their power and security. Commercial, organizational, and technological innovations were nipped in the bud or left to wither on the vine. Like the air in a closed room, the Chinese economy and Chinese society became stale because Chinese leaders were unwilling to open any windows to the fresh air of change.

That is the thrust of the institutional argument, and there is much to be said for it. The dominant ambition of the Ming dynasty was the creation of a rational social and political order that subordinated every aspect of life to central control. When Yung-lo came to the throne in 1403, he had at his disposal a civil bureaucracy, a centralized military hierarchy, and a hierarchy of “censors” who toured China and reported back to the emperor on the state of affairs.

The legal codes of earlier dynasties were replaced by detailed regulations addressed specifically to the demands of the time. Local administrators were chosen on the basis of their performance in competitive examinations, ultimate control over which was exercised by the imperial court. Officials were prevented from entering into collusive arrangements with relatives and friends through a “law of avoidance,” which decreed that a man could not serve in his native province. This also hindered the development of regional power centers and the appearance of localized patriotism.

Political power gravitated toward the imperial palace. Resting theoretically in the hands of the emperor, it fell in practice to scholar-officials and the eunuchs of the Inner Court, who became a separate echelon of administration. The members of the various cliques hated their opponents, struggled to have persons from their own camp appointed to high positions, and brought accusations against office holders from the other factions. The only things about which they agreed were their hatred for each other and their opposition to anything new. Early in the Ming era it became illegal even to wear foreign styles of clothing. The mandarins wanted the world around them to remain as it was, so they could devote themselves to conquering their opponents within the administration.

Weaknesses in the Institutional Hypothesis

The institutional hypothesis seems therefore to rest on solid ground. China’s central government had both the motivation and the means for putting an early end to every experiment with anything new. On the other hand, as Edwin Reischauer and John Fairbank once observed, the imperial administration was thinly spread over a vast population.1 It could not have enforced policies that the mass of the Chinese seriously opposed. The mandarins could not have held their country back if the people they ruled did not sympathize with their hostility to the unfamiliar.

The Chinese population included large and powerful segments that would have had much to gain from innovation. Rosenberg and Birdzell point to merchants as the source of the commercial innovations that began to transform Europe at exactly the time China began to stagnate. China also had merchants, yet they did nothing to modernize her economy. If successful, a merchant expressed his submission to the ruling orthodoxy through the purchase of a college degree. He would then settle down to become a part of the local gentry. His son would attend one of the academies, do his best with a long series of examinations on the Chinese classics, and hope to rise to a position of prominence in the government. No one would have thought to suggest that the boy should follow in his father’s footsteps. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that although the merchant had much to gain from social and economic innovation, he endorsed it no more strongly than did the members of the imperial court.

Again, there were men like Cheng Ho, who in 1405-07 went out with a fleet of 62 ships and 28,000 men and traveled as far as India. The feat was repeated in 1407-09 and again in 1409-11. Other voyages made it as far as east Africa, Aden, and the Persian Gulf; in 1433 the Chinese reached Hormuz. The rulers of Palembang, Sumatra, and Ceylon were brought back to Nanking, and with them came ostriches, zebras, and giraffes. A few Chinese made it all the way to Mecca.

In 1433, the imperial government decreed an end to such explorations. It is probably correct to explain this decree as the result of the central authorities’ antipathy for the new and unfamiliar. Less easy to explain is the great explorers’ readiness to consent meekly and either return to or remain in China. Once again, those to whom a new approach might have promised a great deal seem not to have endorsed it any more strongly than those to whom it promised nothing.

The central authorities’ hostility toward new ideas is therefore less than a complete explanation for China’s failure to capitalize on the technological and commercial advantages it enjoyed at the dawn of the modern era. Even allowing for the strength of the institutional hypothesis, we have still to address the question of the value system that kept the institutions in place. It might be argued, in fact, that the question about values should come first. Institutional policies cannot rest on thin air. If they are successful, it is because they somehow appeal to the ideals of those who submit to them.

Values and Progress

Innovation is the work of individuals. When it occurs in large institutions, it is always because it has been championed by a person once described by James Brian Quinn as “obnoxious, impatient, egotistic, and perhaps a bit irrational in organizational terms.”2 Innovation, say Rosenberg and Birdzell, is “a revolt against convention”3: it is what happens when an individual comes up against an old familiar problem and refuses to deal with it in the old familiar way.

At the root of such a refusal is a confidence in oneself as the source of new solutions. As I have observed in another context, if necessity is the mother of invention, the other parent is an inner sense of one’s capacity for measuring up to necessity’s stern demands.4 A society that fails to inculcate widespread convictions with regard to the creative potential of individuals is a society on its way to stagnation. China failed to live up to the promise of the early fifteenth century because the Chinese lacked faith in themselves as individuals.

There had been a time in their history when that was not true. The period of the Eastern Chou (771 B.C. to 221 B.C.) seems to have been the great age of Chinese self-reliance. It was also, not surprisingly, the great age of Chinese growth and “The Golden Age of Chinese Thought.”5 It was during this period that Chinese technology and commercial arrangements surpassed those of the West. It was an age of memorable individuals: wise men, heroes, and scoundrels.

Early in this period there appeared a rising class of commercial traders, whose attempts to make a place for themselves disturbed the traditional aristocracy. Intellectuals whose names are now forgotten took the side of the aristocracy and set forth the theory that society consisted of four classes, which in descending order of importance were warrior-administrators, peasants, artisans, and merchants.6 K’ung-fu-tzu (551-479 B.C.), a scion of the lower nobility, was thinking of this doctrine when he taught that men must accept their place in a society of fixed authority: “Let the ruler be a ruler and the subject be a subject.”7

None of what the rising classes may have said in reply survived the “Burning of the Books” in 213 B.C. The Chinese learned to share Confucius’s reverence for the idealized past and to follow his advice for shaping the chaotic present in its likeness. They practiced cheng ming, “the rectification of names,” which means they tried to make reality fit the theories. By the beginning of the fifteenth century they had given up every thought of advancing by means of original ideas or personal creativity. The method was rather, as in the case of the merchant’s son, to pass a series of examinations in which one demonstrated his knowledge of the ancient teachings. There was no place for new contributions from creative individuals. Neither new contributions nor creative individualism had a place in the Chinese scheme of things.

In Europe, meanwhile, the great age of individualism was just beginning. The activities of explorers and merchants were mirrored in the artistic creations of the Italian Renaissance. Philosophers like Nicholas of Cues wrote the first lines of a declaration of independence from the Aristotelian doctrines of the High Middle Ages. More than a century before anyone had heard of Copernicus, Nichole Oresme said that the earth revolved around the sun. John Wycliffe in England and John Hus in Bohemia preached that the individual could come into direct contact with God without the mediation of the institutional Church. Hus was burned at the stake, but his death was not enough to imprison the new spirit that was loose in the world. Quite as much as the institutional arrangements discussed by Rosenberg and Birdzell, it was this spirit that enabled the West to surpass China within three centuries.

The Source of Institutional Paralysis

The United States is blessed with a government bureaucracy infinitely more complex and organized than anything imaginable in fifteenth-century China. Individual initiative is stifled with an elaborate web of finely detailed rules that spell out everything in advance. Every imaginable violation is specifically forbidden, and the person who knows the rules can find a prohibition against almost anything. One of my MBA students works at a military logistics center. “The only way to avoid being written up,” he says, “is to not do anything. No matter what you do, there will be some inspector who knows about a regulation you’ve violated. I have to cheat to do my job.”

The symptoms are evident also in the operations of large businesses, which are becoming increasingly centralized. Decisions are made at the upper levels, and people at lower places in the hierarchy are expected simply to carry them out. Another of my MBA students used to be the purchasing manager for the local outlet of a national retail chain. As part of a company-wide effort to “increase accountability,” responsibility for purchasing decisions was moved to company headquarters in Dallas. My student was left in charge of the local sales effort. She soon found herself with a collection of ladies’ clothes in styles and colors that, while undoubtedly popular in Dallas, attracted little interest in Macon, Georgia. And who was blamed? Suffice it to say that it was not the Dallas buyer who ordered the wrong things.

The underlying assumption, in the case of both the federal government and the centralized business, is that the person on the job cannot be trusted to do the right thing. In a press conference in May 1962, President John F. Kennedy made what was ostensibly an appeal for bipartisanship by arguing that modern problems are primarily technical rather than political and far “beyond the comprehension of most men.”8 But it was not really so much an appeal for bipartisanship as an appeal for rule by people with a narrowly limited expertise. It was an appeal for bureaucracy. Kennedy was saying that we dare not entrust the running of the world to the judgment of the man on the street. We need to have rules-made by the people at the top.

The modern insistence on rules is like the fifteenth-century Chinese emphasis on tradition in its disrespect for the individual. It asks not for creativity but compliance; not for originality but obedience. It does not want the man on the spot to think for himself and come up with a unique solution. It wants him to do things by the book.

The result is that little gets done. Philip Howard has observed that modern government accomplishes virtually none of what it sets out to do. Large commercial organizations that fail to capitalize on the intelligence of their employees, as Peters and Waterman demonstrated in In Search of Excellence, are almost equally ineffective. Institutions paralyze themselves by stifling the self-confident creativity of the individuals of whom they are composed.

The Decisive Importance of Values

F. A. Hayek once observed that detailed regulations are important primarily because they destroy the self-reliant attitudes of those whose lives they are intended to direct. But the converse argument is equally persuasive: detailed regulations are the result of a disappearing faith in the power and creative potential of the individual. JFK’s statement about modern problems being beyond the understanding of ordinary men drew protest from neither the press nor his opponents, which suggests he was giving voice to a sentiment that was already widely held. The 1960s’ expansion of federal programs, bureaucracies, and rules was a response to this sentiment, not the cause of it. Similarly, it was only after long instruction in the Confucian classics that the Chinese people finally gave up their right to think for themselves and surrendered to the complete bureaucratization of their society.

This suggests that talk about reforming the government, while undoubtedly well meant, is wide of the mark. A nation gets the government it deserves. Political institutions give expression to widely held convictions. The world that the Chinese created for themselves in the centuries after 1400 was primarily the result of their ideas. The world that Americans create for themselves in the future will be the result of their beliefs about the power, potential, and rights of the individual. If those are reaffirmed, creative persons will arrive at new solutions for the social, economic, and technological problems that confront us. If they are denied, America’s bright prospects at the dawn of the 21st century will be of as little avail as China’s bright prospects at the dawn of the fifteenth.

Harold Jones is a professor at Mercer University and the author of Personal Character and National Destiny (Paragon House, 2002).


  1. Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), pp. 316-17.
  2. Quoted in Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 206.
  3. Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich: The Industrial Transformation of the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 261.
  4. Harold B. Jones, Jr., Personal Character and National Destiny (St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 2002), p. 49.
  5. Reischauer and Fairbank, p. 53
  6. Ibid., p. 55.
  7. Ibid., p. 70.
  8. Quoted in Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990), p. 294.

  • Harold Jones did his Ph.D. for a mid-life crisis. He served before that as a chaplain on active duty with the United States Army, as a pastor, and as a branch office manager for Investment Management & Research, Inc. (now Raymond, James & Associates). More than a dozen of his articles were written for the Foundation for Economic Education, and he is the author of a book, Personal Character and National Destiny (Paragon House, 2002).