CHINA – THEN AND NOW
- A Classic Review - China, with the largest consumer base on the planet, seems destined to become the de facto world’s economic leader. This will be China’s second coming, for it was at the forefront of innovation for 3000 years up through the early years of the Ming Dynasty. Because of its traditional family values, changing social structure and demographics it could rise once more to become the front runner in science and technology.
You may have forgotten but China’s previous firsts were: Silk, 3000 BC – Noodles, 2000 BC - Full script writing,1200 BC – Tea, 206 BC – Compass, 206 BC - Ice
cream, 200 BC – Crossbow, 05 BC - Toilet paper, 06 AD - Gunpowder , 09 AD - Paper, 105 AD - Eye glasses, 1000 AD - Movable type, 1040 AD.
But those eureka moments were never a slam dunk. For example, gun powder was stumbled upon around 09 AD, during the Han Dynasty, by a Taoist chemist who was looking for a youth potion. You would think that such a find would immediately result in military use as a cannon or gun, giving them an unstoppable weapon and
world domination. However, it was traditional for China’s military leaders at the time to not look to science as a means of developing better weapons. They were more concerned with logistics and transportation.
Science continued to be held to a back seat position by its conservative leaders and, consequently, the world’s scientific revolution didn’t begin in China 2000 years
ago, but instead it bypassed China and was launched 1500 years later in the backward colonies of western culture.
Occasionally, an attempt was made to break from the limiting rule of the religious elite. Early in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) The Hongwu Emperor was born a son, Zhu Di, by one of his Korean consorts. Zhu Di received the benefits of the best education and training and was given ever widening governmental responsibilities. At the age of 42 he defeated the Jianwen Emperor and assumed the title, Yongle (perpetual happiness). He soon developed his own plans for
China’s policy toward the outside world, up that point was to avoid it at all costs. The traditionalistic government at the time was convinced that China’s greatest strength was agriculture, and they were dedicated to keeping China’s interests focused inward. The Confucians thought merchants were parasites and wanted to curb increases in their power. They did not want anything to do with those barbarians from outside their borders.
In Zhu Di’s rise to power he systematically purged the upper echelons of those unadventurous, inward-looking religious scholars, whom he saw as potential threats to his ideas for Chinese expansion abroad.
His father, promoted the policy during his rule that it would be unwise to establish control over foreign countries and to form world-wide garrisons. (It has taken the west many centuries to come to the same conclusion.) Taking a page from his father's book, Zhu Di’s plan was not to form colonies but to bring countries they visited into the China sphere by offering them protection in exchange for yearly tribute and trade. By doing so he thought he could avoid taxing his subjects. Unknowingly, he
was implementing Cyrus The Great’s idea of the Benevolent Imperial Vision… “we are conquering you for your own benefit.”
Taking the first step to put his plan into action in 1403 Zhu Di commissioned a fleet of ships and put them under the charge of his most trusted eunuch, Zheng He.
Hundreds of ships were built, many up to 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, with 28,000 military and crew. It was the greatest fleet of ships in world history up until WWI. He completed seven voyages over 28 years, visiting some 30 countries, sailing over 300,000km and, according to DNA evidence, as far south as Zanzibar.
All these expansionist voyages weren’t without some negative consequences. At all these ports of call in Southeast Asia, in exchange for protection, it was required
that yearly tributes of exotic gifts be paid to the Emperor.
Zhu Di either conveniently forgot, or chose to ignore the avaricious
inclinations of his own bureaucrats, because these tributes often ended up lining their pockets. Unfortunately the combination of increased trade together with these tributes never fulfilled their intended purpose, which was to reduce the tax burden of China’s citizens.
In 1418 this early exercise in “soft power” backfired in Dei Viet (Viet Nam) where China suffered a huge military defeat. Although they did not actually set up colonies,
they discovered what many empires have since found, the cost of a domination can be exceeded by the expense.
In 1424 Zhu Di died, and the conservative Confucian scholars rose again and gained power over the eunuchs. In 1436 they banned ocean going ships, and building a ship with several masts was to be punished by death.
Under increasing dominance from orthodox leaders, and unlike the West, no scholarly groups were formed to criticize, or promote progressive research. Science and technology were considered to be trivial, with few practical applications. In addition their scholarly system did nothing to encourage mathematics or experimentation. However the religious rulers it seems were not all bad, they strongly encouraged study in public administration, literature and the arts.
oday, after two world wars, and the Cultural Revolution with its disastrous Great Leap Forward under Mao, China is on the cusp of becoming great again. Many didn’t notice, but In 2008 China announced this second coming when it hosted the Olympic Games.
In 1995 China decreed that there would be an acceleration of science and technology development. Putting this into perspective; China’s research and development
expenditures recently grew by 23% annually – 4.7% was for basic research, which is to be increased to 15% by 2020.
China is now ahead of Japan, which was formerly second to the US in government funding of research. The Battelle Institute in Columbus, Ohio estimates that in ten
years China will overtake the US in R&D spending if the US federal government's funding continues to fall or remain steady.
Federal outlays for fundamental research in the US have been generally flat since 2003. In 2015 it was 3.4% - please note the paragraph above. Basic, or blue-sky,research got a big boost after WWII because that type of investigation led directly to the atom bomb. But it has fallen out of favor with the anti-scientific community and is now in second place. "Applied" research, which leads to increased consumer demand and corporate profits, has moved to center stage.
If we continue on this path and do nothing to halt our slide to second place we will find ourselves in a non-negotiable position on such issues as Taiwan and military expansion on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Time is over due for a reassessment.