Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

In this essay, we weave together four apparently different ideas, showing how they are, in fact, closely linked. One: China is not now, nor has it ever been, “less developed” than the West. Two: China did not have a Western-style industrial revolution, but rather had sophisticated industrial/technical skills, albeit devoted to religious and political purposes, earlier than did the West.

Three: William Petty’s “law” for economic development was never universal, and may not even have applied to England. William Petty (1623-87) was an English economist, philosopher, scientist, and adviser to Oliver Cromwell, Charles ll and King James. Petty said economic development proceeded in three steps: primitive farming improves and evolves, eventually producing a surplus of labor. The labor spills over into manufacturing, which itself makes efficiency gains, yielding a surplus of labor. That labor spills over into service industries, allowing the creation of sophisticated government, finance, education and the arts, both practical and esthetic. The jump from manufacturing to service involves the industrial revolution.

Four: Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a mistake if he uses the expanded powers he has recently been granted in a way that “denies credit” to China’s innovators, inventors and enterprisers. Xi’s potential error is one that has been committed by the Middle Kingdom’s leaders (too) many times in China’s past, and has always been, in historical fact, contrary to the real interest of all China’s players, from top to bottom.

First, remind yourself of China’s technical history. Evidence in Yuchanyan Cave in Dao county, Hunan province, hints that rice was domesticated there 16,000 years ago. Clear evidence of cultivated rice has been found in the Yangtze River Valley and in Poyang Lake sediments in Jiangxi province from 12,600 years ago. For context, cereal farming had a tenuous beginning in Britain 6,000 years ago, but a hunter-gatherer lifestyle persisted there nearly up to Caesar’s landfall in 55 BC.

Xi’s potential error is one that has been committed by the Middle Kingdom’s leaders many times in China’s past, and has always been, in historical fact, contrary to the real interest of all China’s players, from top to bottom

Bronze (copper and tin) as well as brass (copper and zinc) objects (rings and tubes) have been unearthed in Jiangzhai, Shaanxi province, dating from 4700 BC.

China-made bloomery iron or sponge iron dates from the 14th century BC. It is a type of iron that results from an early form of smelting. It is distinguished from meteoric iron, which is more easily obtained and worked.

Some 2,200 years ago, China’s first emperor, Qin, armed the 6,000 terra-cotta warriors buried with him with bronze swords having edges still shiny sharp because they have a 15-micron coating of chromium oxide.

Some 3,500 years ago in the Yellow River basin, China’s elaborate bronze grave goods were produced by piece-mold casting, an elaborate method, unique to China at the time, that allowed intricate, sharp-edged relief images to be placed inside and outside of open-vessel type “vases” or cauldrons. One such object, cast as single item, held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, measures 23 centimeters high, 15cm wide, and 18cm deep. It stands on incorporated bronze legs. It is covered with cast-in elaborate surface “carvings,” some on the outer and others on the inner surface of the casting.

Other such objects appear covered with script, so it is clear that the makers or artisans were literate. The writings relate to a dedication, the maker, or a special event.

Castings so intricate (called “ding vessels”) are a significant technical achievement. Although Amesbury Man (2300 BC), dug up in 2003 in Wiltshire, England, died in possession of a copper knife, gold hair ornaments and flint arrowheads, he was a visitor from continental Europe, and nobody knows his name. In contrast, we know the name of the maker of the cauldron mentioned above, as well as the reason the vessel was created (to honor his ancestor).

In AD 142, Chinese gunpowder was mentioned in the First Book of The Kinship of the Three, composed by scribe Wei Boyang during the Han Dynasty. In 1267 Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus makes the first European mention of gunpowder.

In AD 1040, northern Song Dynasty writer Bi Sheng (990-1051) discusses movable type. In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg, surrounded by examples of books imported by missionaries and deposited in Oxford libraries in 1055, but produced in China via movable type, printed his 42-line Bible.

In 221 BC Chinese mariners were using magnetic compasses. Italian sailors from Amalfi were the first Europeans to use the item, having gone without compass guidance until the 14th century.

China expert Francesca Bray says tame oxen and buffalo were pulling plows in aid of Chinese cereal cultivation around 3000 BC: That is just about the time Stonehenge was set up in Britain.

Chinese woven paper-making was well established under Emperor Ho-di (AD 105) but more simple paper likely dates back, in the form of pulped and dried mulberry bark, to 100 BC. European-made paper of woven type “originated” in northern Spain in the 12th century.

In AD 100, Chinese sailing ships were steered by stern-mounted rudders of a type not seen in Europe until 1180. The nuance of a “balanced rudder” (part of the rudder blade is placed ahead of the steering post) appeared in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). This ship-steering refinement did not appear in Britain until 1843.

Need we further debate which is the less developed society in ancient times?

Complex bronze objects were used along the Yellow River in political and reverential ceremonies, conducted among the elites. The practice arguably helped bring about social cohesion, tribal identity, memorials to leaders and events, all these being a sort of William Petty-type “service” in support of political, social and economic unity, connecting the top and bottom, or at least the top and middle, of the then-current but still nascent Chinese civilization.

The point of the story is that Chinese technical expertise existed at an early time in human history, and this social asset of “manufacturing” served a social, rather than a strictly individual, purpose. Moreover, the identity of the “manufacturer”, while known in the specific case discussed above, was not a significant element in the use or the (ancient) “reputational” payoff to the “entrepreneur” who was responsible for the technical achievement.

In addition, these technical breakthroughs did not culminate or group themselves into an “industrial revolution.” Our argument is that such a dramatic, catalyzing process or initializing event requires a special kind of social environment: that environment is not necessarily “capitalistic” but is an individualistic and “class mobile” or at least “class flexible” social community.

There must be reputational independence for the innovators, who must have some kind of personal, reputational, status-awarding payoff from their iconoclastic contributions. The “shock and awe” that come from their inventions cannot be “absorbed” by the emperor, the priestly caste, the dead or the gods.

Chinese manufacturing, or at least technical sophistication, did advance Petty’s “service” sector, in that it made possible, and indeed significantly advanced, social cohesion and national unity. The “problem” was, the manufactured products were so deeply absorbed into the holistic interconnectedness of “One China” that the dividends, rewards and consequences that, in enlightenment Europe, were at least partially “privatized” caused China’s competitive status uncharacteristically to “fall behind” the West at just the wrong moment: the time of the Industrial Revolution.

The new ideas of the Scottish enlightenment that filled the minds of the Britons of the 18th century allowed them, at least for a while, and perhaps only for superficial appearances, to seem to be, as a civilization, well in advance of the rest of the world, and especially, in their eyes, to be well ahead of Asia.

And now we come to President Xi and the degree to which he seems to be ever more in command of his rapidly evolving, increasingly technical, buoyantly expanding, youthfully exuberant Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo). What should he do to regain for China the status of leader of the human adventure?

As a minimum, Xi could recognize that his society, from the dawn of civilization, could always be trusted to lead the world in terms of technical achievement and intellectual evolution

Ideally, he might abandon the rigid, bureaucratic, inefficient (oddly enough) 19th-century-Western ideology of communism, and allow capitalistic market processes of profit, reward, dividend and self-interest to raise up a new class of Chinese leaders, spokesmen, model citizens and icon-busters to create in China an even more dynamic (and unpredictable) leading-edge society, fit to become this century’s economic and social engine for change. But that won’t happen, even though it could be done without Xi losing his own status: Indeed, if he carried out that reform wisely, he would go down in history as the “father” of a new world order.

But as a minimum, he could recognize that his society, from the dawn of civilization, could always be trusted to lead the world in terms of technical achievement and intellectual evolution. William Petty’s third stage of economic development – the stage where learning, governance, economic progress, elegance and refinement in the arts evolve to the point where high civilization becomes firmly established – was achieved in Asia without need of a break-out revolution.

Yes, there was an eventual shortcoming. In the 18th century, China’s shortfall accidentally coincided with the West’s Industrial Revolution and gave misleading credence to the idea that Petty’s story was a good one. Nonetheless, we say Petty was wrong, and a wider view of mankind’s social history shows he was generally wrong.

After the long record of leadership, what was missing from China’s de facto “plan” of development? What was missing, in order for Asia’s model to be fully competitive with that of the West, for ages past, was an ideological revolution wherein Asian leaders were willing to share with the active, local “makers” (whose inventions, discoveries and ideas combined to make the Middle Kingdom, at least some time in the past, the center of the technical world) the stage of action and control.

To paraphrase the late US president Ronald Reagan, whose good advice allowed the Russian people a chance to evolve (and might help them again if only President Vladimir Putin will listen) – President Xi, knock down the metaphorical wall of privilege and status that has, from China’s beginnings, separated men like you from the dynamic, creative spirit of your countrymen (and women).

There is at least one example in China’s past where a leader understood our argument, and acted accordingly. The semi-mythical Chinese Emperor Yu (The Great, 2200-2101 BC) is said to have slept together as an equal with common workmen as they together struggled to construct the massive collection of earthworks needed to control flooding and to move water to where it best served the agricultural needs of the people who lived along the Yellow River, the Wei River and other waterways in central China. There were dredging operations, irrigation canals and flood-control systems installed, with Yu openly accepting guidance from a “citizen engineer” named Houji, whose technical genius allowed these “infrastructure innovations” to work and to work well.

It is highly significant that we know the name of this “water master.”  Emperor Yu was wise enough to allow us to know the name. Emperor Yu did not claim all the credit for himself, for the state or for the gods.  He was no Scotsman, but he understood the key idea of the enlightenment (thousands of years before “we” expressed it). Individual genius must not be hidden or submerged in order to glorify kings, priests, gods or ideology. Individual accomplishment need not be paid for with money, but it must receive respect and dignity.

President Xi, you are a big man who should not fear the competition of other big thinkers and doers. Some progress is being made. One current effort (the State Science and Technology Prize) is undertaken by the State Council: National recognition is given in five different categories of technical achievement.

In a speech about East-West links, and the “Belt and Road” project, in which you gave general support to the need for market-oriented, foreign-funded Chinese development projects, you said your country will “not be closed … but rather create an open pattern” benefiting both East and West. It is already true that successful Chinese citizens, operating in the wider world of international academia, finance and entrepreneurship earn well-deserved awards and rewards independently, without need of support or subsidy from China’s government.

One reason China’s president has overshadowed, minimized and removed persons who have improper influence is that corrupt players do not deserve to have a high place in New China. A recent report listed the current prices charged by corrupt officials, when they sell political offices to newly inducted, next-generation corrupt state officers. A survey conducted in Hunan province by reform-minded writer Sha Yexin provides a sample of the price list (the unit is 10,000 yuan): County Party Secretary 200; County Committee 60; Mayor of North Lake District (Suxian district) 100; Deputy Mayor, Beihu District 40.

As in the case of Russia, aging communist systems fail because of cynical loss of ideological faith, combined with endemic inefficiency and decay. Corruption, bribery and vice expand to fill the power vacuum left behind. But a return to singular, arbitrary governance is not the only alternative.

Mr President, perhaps it is out of an excess of zeal (for the diminishment of corrupt practice) that you take on added authority.  But your reach may exceed your grasp. Today’s China has evolved beyond any one man’s capacity to manage it or any one ideology’s rigid institutions to comprehend it.

Be mindful of our paraphrase of Alexis de Tocqueville’s language: A good parent’s obligation is to prepare his children for manhood. It is tragic if instead, he keeps them in perpetual childhood. A people will then be smothered, stupefied and even extinguished, becoming no better than a flock of timid and industrious sheep, of which the state is shepherd. A people tempted into social somnolence will eventually regret their loss of independence, and become dangerously resentful of their leaders. On the other hand, a wise leader who knows when to let his people find their own path, and realize their unknowable destiny, will be remembered as Great.

The Great Emperor Yu’s legacy, achieved in adult partnership with his people and his engineers, was to redirect the rivers and metaphorically control the floodwaters of China’s destiny. President Xi, set China’s other leaders free to stand alongside you as equals, and join them as you, together, sail into the new century.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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