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Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free here. Rating: 5/5.


In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

“Contrast the apparent growth of the Chinese at any point, with the condition of the population in France, where the rate of increase is the lowest in all Europe, and where the latest returns show an absolute decrease in the number of inhabitants. Such facts have excited the gravest fears as to the future of that great country. The Chinese, on the other hand, show no more signs of race decay than the Anglo-Saxons.”

Although there is a widespread “hatred of foreigners,” – but isn’t that quite understandable, given the circumstances of late Qing China? – it does not translate into a sense of national cohesion or patriotism. In practice, it is the family (jia) which come first, and then the clans around which Chinese villages are built. (This appears to be accurate). Concubinage and soft polygamy are rife. Honesty is absent in general, though not always at the individual level. The bureaucracy is stiff, rigid, and all too frequently, corrupt. In modern parlance, we would call this a lack of “social capital.” While Smith acknowledges that Confucianism is a praiseworthy ethical system, the problem is that it is an elite ideology and does not percolate down to the masses. What China desperately needs is “righteousness,” and this can be attained “permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.”

If there is one overriding problem with Smith’s perspective, it is HIS characteristic of consistently failing to distinguish between Chinese characteristics and undeveloped country characteristics. It was at the edge of subsistence, as repeatedly mentioned by Smith and confirmed by historical evidence; malnutrition was rife, and various infectious diseases were rife, both factors which have major depressive effects on IQ; and the typical absence of literacy can’t have helped either, as literacy is a necessary prerequisite to the development of logical and abstract reasoning. In this context, Smith’s observations that Chinese arguments “consist exclusively of predicates”, which are “attached to nothing whatever”, begin to seem eminently understandable – but on the caveat that what we are seeing is not a Chinese characteristic per se, but the perspective of a literate cosmopolitan on an illiterate peasant mentality (which he perceives as “intellectual turbidity”). Since China has now solved its malnutrition and illiteracy problems – the latest Census put the literacy rate at 97%, and its performance on international standardized tests is now very respectable – this cultural and cognitive chasm has now closed.

The influence of China’s historical backwardness is also clearly manifest as regards the lack of hygiene, the threadbare poverty, the “disregard of accuracy”, etc. Likewise, while he notes the province by province discrepancies in weights, distances, coinages, and dialects, he largely forgoes to mention that this is all in the context of a weak state that is slowly falling apart – in no small part thanks to Western intrusions. Considering the large stock of Chinese mechanical inventions during the European middle ages and China’s long pedigree as a centralized bureaucratic state, it is strange to consider that such differences could be a specifically “Chinese” characteristic. It is worth nothing that even France, despite the prior legacy of Colbert’s dirigisme, only unified its national market in the late 18th century, while linguistic unification would take an additional half a century.

Another point of criticism is that Smith conflates development with Christianity, which surely at least in part reflects his values as a missionary. Nonetheless, this criticism shouldn’t be overdone. The causes of long-term economic development were still largely unknown in the 19th century. Economics had yet to come into its own as a social science, and there was no agreement between the political economists. As such, the assumption that Christianity was a prerequisite of development was not, perhaps, an entirely unreasonable one, given that up to that point only Christian Powers had grown rich and come to rule over most of the world. And it should be stressed that Smith is no fanatic, and only forcefully makes this argument in the last chapter. He is also not averse to recognizing that in many respects, such as personal safety and filial piety, Confucian China is superior to the West.

In the end, it is up to the Chinese themselves to decide whether Smith was a laowai blowhard or someone worth listening to. For the most part they have come down on the latter assessment. The China discourse in the West a century ago was framed in the rather schizophrenic dichotomy between seeing it is a decayed civilization, about to get eaten up by its predatory neighbors, and the “yellow peril,” ready to disgorge its ravenous hordes upon the Christian world. Smith’s observations far surpassed those (admittedly very low) bars in nuance, detail, and understanding. He heavily influenced one of China’s most influential 20th century writers, Lu Xun. And it’s an undeniable fact that some of the negative characteristics he identified continue to plague China to this day, both in terms of “extraordinary incidents” – as in the recent story of a toddler who got ran over to mass indifference, as well as the more objective realm of hard cold statistics – such as the the soaring male to female ratio, which has arisen thanks to the marriage of sex-selective abortion technology with the traditional Chinese view that by “the accident of sex [the daughter] is a dreaded burden… certain to be despised.”

China during the 20th centuries saw many disappointments, traumatic convulsions, and finally, what appears to be a fairly sustainable takeoff into rising prosperity. The characteristics that Smith ascribed to China more than a century ago became redundant: The sense of nation and community was built up under the father-like gaze of Mao, while the transition to capitalism has imprinted upon the new Chinese man a lot of the basic characteristics of capitalism (e.g. “time is money”) that Smith leads us to believe are specifically Western but are not. And we must also bear in mind that America, too, is not the America of Smith’s time, e.g. public spirit and community life is held to have declined since the 1960′s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc.) and intangible. So in a sense China and the “West” are converging towards being richer, more atomized, and for lack of a better term, “post-Smithian” societies. I would therefore argue that while Chinese Characteristics is of great historical and anthropological interest, its direct relevance to China today is very much limited.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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In the discussion at the previous post, in which I took exception to Ron Unz’s theory of the East Asian Exception, he alerted me to so additional work on the matter he’d done as a Harvard freshman on Chinese IQ. You can read his summary of Social Darwinism and Rural China as well as Steve Sailer’s commentary on it.

Ron Unz’s Theory of Social Darwinism in Rural China

According to Ron Unz, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits for millennia on end. That is correct. Furthermore, Chinese rural life was “remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements”, far more so even than in England. I do not have the comparative knowledge to offer informed commentary on this, though I would stop to note that such a system may not have been so much a generator of “selective pressure for those able to prosper” under complexity as a reflection of already high IQ’s. After all on most social, economic, and technological metrics China was far ahead of Europe until the 18th century or so (though there were important exceptions). Furthermore, “virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing”, with far fewer of the feudalistic or caste distinctions that proliferate in India and pre-Enlightenment Europe. This is also correct.

This environment included a number of mechanisms that promoted a highly eugenic development path for the Chinese population. Ron Unz says that only the relative affluent could afford their wives for their children. This is not quite correct, or should I say permanently correct, as this issue only heavily manifested itself during times of Malthusian stress, when families opted to kill baby daughters resulting in skewed sex ratios. Otherwise, we should note that Europeans within the Hajnal Line married late and that the poor sometimes didn’t marry at all, so this particular eugenic effect was if anything stronger in Europe.

However the biggest, and most specific to China, eugenic mechanism is argued to be the Chinese custom of fenjia 分家, lit. “family division.” So if, say, a wealthy Chinese family produced four surviving sons, each of them would inherit only a fourth of the family land. The brothers would be back to square one and would have to hustle for money again. A couple of the brothers might be successful and build up wealth again; another would fall into poverty, and the last one would fail to even find a wife and have children. The effect was that every generation, “a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool.” As reproductive survivors would tend to be more intelligent and far-sighted, or so the argument goes, this selected for such traits within the Chinese population.

The system of meritocratic imperial exams, which enhanced the reproductive prospects of the very brightest who could pass them, was a further eugenic mechanism but one whose overall impact was “pretty small” compared with “the push from the bottom.”

Finally, Ron Unz compares his theory to Gregory Clark’s book Farewell to Alms, which argues for a eugenic mechanism in England in which the wealthy enjoyed greater reproductive success and, over the centuries, “civilized” the proles via genetic drift through downwards social mobility. As such, the traits of the aristocracy became inculcated in the English masses with all its attendant benefits, e.g. plummeting homicide rates. (This civilization doesn’t seem to have lasted very long however if yob culture and football hooligans are anything to go by). :) He notes that these eugenic mechanisms operated in China for far longer than they did in England.

He also compares the selection pressures facing the Chinese with those that produced the famed intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jew. Unlike the latter, the Chinese didn’t only have to be bright and business-savvy; as a peasant, he also had to maximize “physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption.” As such, selection had a less one-sided skew in favor of intelligence.

My Critique

This is a nice and elegant theory. It has no obvious contradictions. He is planning to publish his analysis in a formal manner pretty soon. However, before he does so I hope that he will address some of the following counter-arguments and discrepancies.

Re-The (relatively) complex legal environment selected for intelligence. HOWEVER, the Chinese – as do East Asians in general – only perform significantly (hugely) better than whites on visuo-spatial intelligence. That is good for hunting mammoths in the prehistoric tundra and some aspects of mathematics, but not anywhere near as good for navigating complex legal codes in which verbal intelligence is key. However, Chinese verbal intelligence if anything lags the indigenous peoples of most developed European nations. According to 2009 PISA results, Chinese verbal (reading) IQ was 98, which was inferior to Germany’s 102, the US’ 101 (including Blacks and Hispanics), and Poland’s 100; and equal to that of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece.

Here, ironically, Unz faces an additional dilemma: Either he has to reject his theory of the East Asian Exception (i.e. that the Flynn Effect barely applies to them), or he has to rethink his theory of Social Darwinism in rural China.

Re-The eugenic influence of fenjia. The model he sketches out is plausible enough on the surface. That said he has to account for several possible discrepancies.

Korea appears to have a max. potential IQ of about 107, while Japan is slightly lower. Did they have systems of land inheritance that also favored the development of IQ? I do not know. I hope Unz will investigate this matter. A potential problem, however, is that IF they did NOT have their own equivalents of fenjia, then it would be invalidated as a feasible explanation of why East Asian (including Chinese) IQ’s are so high.

Re-Comparison with George Clark’s theory. I don’t think this is a useful crutch to Ron Unz’s China theory at all. So supposedly England had this intensive genetic drift from the top to the bottom. However, today, UK natives (on PISA) score 101; in other IQ tests, the UK’s average is typically set to 100. These numbers are typically lower than those of the Germanic countries like Germany, the Netherlands, etc. – and equal to the IQ’s of the Nordics, the Western Slavs like the Poles and Czechs, (Celtic) Ireland, and (Celtic-Germanic) France.

Really my critiques boil down to a few main issues.

(1) We need more comparative data on IQ, land inheritance systems in the past, etc. I strongly suspect that for all but a few exceptions (e.g. Ashkenazi Jews) the traits developed in prehistoric times still predominate above all others. After all, pre-agrarian prehistory accounts for 90%+ of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence; and selection pressures back then were FAR stronger because of small population sizes. Noncompetitive tribes got wiped out by hostile tribes or the vagaries of climate with chilling frequency. In medieval times, noncompetitive genes were far likelier to linger on to some degree, firstly because welfare systems – crude and rudimentary as they were back then (e.g. poorhouses; alms, zakat, etc; grain reserves; etc) – were still a league ahead of what can possible exist in a tribal hunter-gatherer society; secondly, because violent as the ancient and medieval periods were, they were vastly more peaceful (and populations were bigger) than was the case in the prehistoric era.

(2) To what extent was fenjia unique to China? Was is common to the East Asian region, or not? If not, why then doesn’t Chinese IQ greatly exceed Korea’s? Did it exist in Vietnam? If it did, why then is Vietnamese IQ substantially lower than China’s? Etc. Also, explain why these mechanisms didn’t result in a particularly high verbal IQ; after all, to understand legal matters, that is really what we need, no?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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This is one of those stereotypes that is totally correct. Take a casual stroll about any Russian town and the typical woman you see would be considered “very cute” or “pretty” in places like the Germany, the UK or the US. And one or two of them will have supermodel looks. That kind of talent you will only get in a few select places in the US like Santa Barbara, parts of LA, etc. You also see unremarkable lanky, unkempt dudes with solid 8′s whereas in the US they will either be with a fat white chick or a 5/6 Asian.

I recall some studies been done about this which basically came to the same conclusion. Women from Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Poles, etc) being rated as the most attractive among whites. In my experience I’d also add Norwegians (Swedes are too Germanic-plain) and Bulgarians to the list.

Why is this the case? The eXile theory of “dyevolution” posits that this stemmed from the USSR’s huge manpower losses in WW2. The theory goes that in the postwar period, with sex ratios absurdly skewed, only the hotter part of the beauty bell curve was able to find husbands. While under other circumstances we could have expected some degree of “soft polygamy” in which alpha males develop harems (or formal polygamy, as practiced by traditional Islamic societies with lots of inter-tribal warfare) this was not the case in the USSR what with strict Stalinist social mores and controls.

The theory is superficially attractive but false. This pussy paradise was only actual for a single generation i.e. 1945-65, i.e. not enough time to make any substantial genetic level impact given reversion to the mean. Besides it wouldn’t explain countries like Bulgaria or the Czech Republic, where demographic wartime losses were minimal, or even Poland, where half the 6mn deaths were of Jews and the other 3mn were of civilians (i.e., not as overwhelmingly skewed towards young males as military deaths). On the other hand, German military deaths relative to their male population were no lower than those of the Russians, and in addition many of their POW’s were in prison until the mid-1950′s. But German chicks haven’t become particularly beautiful. They remain much the same as they always have: Plain and stolid Gretchen. In addition, the high reputations of Slavic women precedes the 20th century anyway. Napoleon’s mistresses were Polish. The Ottoman Sultans filled their harems with East Slavic women. One of them, Roxelana, became very politically influential.

Of course there are plenty of other possible explanations. For a start Eastern Europe, and Ukraine in particular, was always pretty violent. Then again was it exceptionally so by medieval standards? After the Viking period, Scandinavia was very peaceful, and their women are considered very beautiful and desirable too (I for one fully agree with Norway’s inclusion in that group). I think Chinese and Korean women are prettier than average too and these have consistently been very peaceful and “beta” societies. Maybe Slavic EE women just dress better and take more effort to look more feminine? That is certainly part of the equation, but even if Anglo/Germanic women started (re)adopting these same habits, the difference would not be bridged. So this must remain an open question…

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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And no, I ain’t talking of that von Neumann crap. :)

Game theory as developed by Heartiste and Co (1, 2, 3, 4). Before we start, there are two concepts we must avail ourselves of:

Female hypergamy
: Woman’s tendency to mate up the social hierarchy.

Soft polygamy: See picture right, as helpfully illustrated by yours truly.

Back in the “good old days”, i.e. say the 1950′s, life was much simpler. Female labor participation was low, their salaries were low, the Pill had yet to be invented, marriage was a respected institution, divorce and single motherhood were very much frowned upon, and female obesity was very low. There was one guy for every eligible girl and dating was a a sweet and simple affair.

Fast forward to today. Female salaries and labor participation have practically equalized with those of men, thus diluting men’s relative economic power. The Pill and the end of belief in the sanctity of marriage (divorce and single motherhood have soared since the 1960′s) have unleashed the floodgates of female hypergamy; across femdom, chicks are looking to mate up, leaving their now powerless beta providers by the wayside. On the other end of the scale, female obesity – fueled by aesthetic WMD’s in the form of McDonald’s, KFC, and corn subsidies – has ballooned, to the extent that it now afflicts almost half the female population. Nothing destroys a woman’s looks and attractiveness to men quite like obesity. This alone halves the eligible pool of fuckable women.

But then on the other end of the scale (no pun intended) you have the appearance of soft polygamy. This is a natural consequence of the disappearance of those social mores and taboos that in prior decades held female hypergamy in check. With that loosened, alpha males – both natural alphas (e.g. Tom Cruise, Silvio Berlusconi), and betas who learn game (e.g. Neil Strauss, Roosh) – develop harems, ushering in soft polygamy. Women are biologically wired such that they would rather share an alpha with many other women and compete for his attentions rather than tolerate monogamy with a beta. Case in point.

Alphas now have it better than they ever; the world is their oyster as never before with the sole exceptions, perhaps, in the twilight periods of decadent civilizations, or the aftermaths of great wars that rewarded men’s spilled blood with beautiful postwar ratios. Pinned down between the Scylla of female obesity and the Charybdis of soft polygamy, betas face a hellscape of shuffling shoggoths, indentured orbitude to the few remaining classy women, and nightly love-making to the lonely hand.

This no doubt goes someway to explaining the increasing physical manifestations of involuntary male celibacy: Aggressive, in-your-face homosexuality; asexuality; men marrying their cats; men marrying their sex dolls; genital cutting all the way down to penile bisection (if you Google this, I’m not liable for your psychotherapy costs); men cutting off and cooking their own penises; etc. The latter phenomena are indeed the most potent (inverse pun) symbols of male emasculation at the dawn of the new millennium.

Unlike many in the “manosphere”, I don’t bother attaching moral labels to these developments. It’s a waste of time. Besides morality is beta anyway. There are two immediately relevant things to take away from this “game” interpretation of recent American social history:

(1) The importance of learning game for any aspiring lifestyle artist if he is not already a natural; or at the very least, migrating someplace where feminism and female obesity has yet to make major inroads, like Russia, Poland, or Argentina.

(2) For all the possible holes in “game theory” (and I think I can identify a few), it’s still far superior an explanation of the trajectory of American society than anything, absolutely ANYTHING, you will find in your sociology textbooks. The only contender, and it’s more complement than competition, is Murray’s and Herrnstein’s work on cognitive stratification and the IQ bell curve – for which they’ve been made academic pariahs. That is because modern academe embraces cultural Marxism and loathes reality.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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After two hundred years of global ascendancy, the West is in rapid relative decline to (re)emerging Asia, which is mounting a steady “Great Reconvergence”. Likewise, the legitimacy of today’s “neoliberal internationalist” order promoted by the West is being questioned by the more statist, neo-Westphalian visions of the leaders of the Rest, the so-called BRIC’s. This has already led to the emergence of a “world without the West” – a parallel international system based on the principles of state sovereignty, hard power, and bilateral trade relations.

The most powerful and influential member of this new world is China, which has become the “workshop of the world” since its graduated opening up from the late 1970′s. Accounting for half of global steel and cement production, China has built up an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, and ports to support its mercantile expansion. In 2009 it became the world’s largest automobile market. Furthermore, China is now advancing higher up the ladder of added-value industries by expanding into hi-tech areas such as commercial aircraft, renewable energy, and supercomputers.

One of the most important factor making China’s rise all the more significant is that it is concurrent with the accelerating decline of Pax Americana that is spurred on by the end of cheap oil, US economic weakness, and regional threats to American hegemony from the “challenger Powers” (e.g. Russia, Iran, and China itself). Should the current international order suffer a “cascading collapse” – which is not unlikely, given the brittleness of the world financial and energy system – then it is possible that China will emerge as an equal, or even superior, pole to the US superpower as soon as 2020.

The Inevitability of China’s Return to Hegemony

Critics aver that ordinary Chinese remain much poorer than Americans, but they miss the obvious fact that with its 1.3bn+ population, China needs only a Romanian level of per capita economic output to equal the US; should they reach Portugal’s level, China’s economy would be double America’s size. (Economic power underpins military power). Nor is there any reason for supposing that China’s growth will soon falter due to social and regional inequality, environmental degradation, bad loans, population aging, or social unrest (though it may well experience a Malthusian collapse along with the rest of the world by 2050). For a refutation of the major concerns, see my old post A Long Wait at the Gate of Delusions, or in summary:

  1. Regional disparities. The sharp divide between the affluent coastal and poorer internal regions is not new in Chinese history. In the absence of firm central control, this has in the past led to fragmentation – coastal administrations orientating themselves to foreign commercial interests, the interior sinking beneath a morass of poverty and corruption. However, modern China is not the ailing China of the 19th century in the throes of Malthusian stagnation. It is now a proud and rising Great Power, its regional separatist movements are quelled, and it is under the firm control of the CCP. As such, the chances of a jaded Japan or declining USA successfully exploiting this divide are very slim.
  2. Income inequality. There is also a great deal of inequality between China’s urban and rural, between its new oligarchs and itinerant indigents, and between the privileged and non-privileged. However, this is entirely typical of capitalist societies at the height of the industrialization drive, and levels of inequality tend to fall once a more affluent state decides on expanding social welfare schemes to contain labor unrest. As will be covered in a later, related post on China’s internal debates, the ideological underpinnings for such a shift are already coming into place with the concept of the “Harmonious Society“.
  3. Environmental degradation. A major problem. An innovative attempt to start measuring economic performance with “Green GDP” (accounting for pollution costs) was quietly squashed when it indicated that China had almost no real growth. That said, localized pollution per se, like city smog or collapsed ecosystems, won’t bring about China’s fall just as they haven’t led to the fall of any other post-agrarian society. The same certainly cannot be said for anthropogenic climate change, whose effects will become devastating to China by the 2030′s (floods, droughts, desertification, dust storms, etc). The most ominous prospect is the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, though some point out that this may be a centuries-long process. Nonetheless, these potential disasters won’t come in time to prevent China’s assumption of its superpower mantle, which I predict for 2020.
  4. Bad loans. A valid point, but they only tend to result in – or more accurately, contribute to – long-term stagnation by the time high growth rates falters, such as when a developing society nears convergency with the rich world (e.g. Japan in the early 1990′s). South Korea got a severe economic shock in 1997 stemming from its structural weaknesses, but respectable rates of growth continued up until the 2008 economic crisis. Speaking of which, Western critics should be doubly cautious now when criticizing China for its bad loans. As recent history might have proven, investing in industrial overcapacity may be rather less useless than building suburbs with no future, printing money under euphemisms like quantitative easing, or whatever the latest bondoogles are.
  5. Will China get old before it gets rich? The concerns over aging are ridiculous because 1) China’s TFR is at a respectable 1.8 (OK, more like 1.6-1.7 if one accounts for their skewed sex ratios, but still…), 2) its labor force will continue growing until 2030, and 3) it still has massive labor armies locked up in the countryside which can be drawn into higher-added value economic sectors. The real problem cases in the aging department are Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and Japan. See Will China Grow Old Before Getting Rich? (Goldman Sachs) for a more comprehensive analysis which reaches the same basic conclusion.
  6. Excessive export dependency. Frankly, I’ve always thought the image of the heroic American consumer saving the world by kindly consuming much of what the the world produces to be somewhat ridiculous – and this image is already being revealed for the hallucination it really is, thanks largely to US fiscal profligacy, imperial overstretch and peak oil. But I digress. First, China’s export dependency is nowhere near as high as suggested by the official figures because much of its exports are merely assembled in China from parts made in and imported from Korea, Japan, etc. Whereas gross exports are near 40% of GDP, net exports are at just 7% of GDP. In 2008, China clocked up a respectable 8% GDP growth rate (albeit, one only enabled by prodigious credit infusions), even though its exports fell by 20%. Second, the main reason for Chimerica – Chinese saving / production – American dissaving / consumption – in the first place was it allowed China to acquire the foreign currency to pay for resource imports, build up its industrial base, and acquire advanced technologies, while the US got back cheaper goods to cushion its rising inequality and industrial stagnation. But China interest in this deal is flagging. It already has by far the world’s largest industrial base by volume and it has bought up, or stolen, most of the key technologies needed for advanced industrialism. From now on, growth will be slower as it is curbed by stagnant world demand, accumulating bad loans, diminishing returns, etc, – it will likely be around 5-7% a year in the 2010′s, rather than the 10% typical of the 1980′s to 2000′s. Nonetheless, growth should continue at a fast enough rate to soak up the new landless labor, ease social tensions and enable China to launch a geopolitical breakout. The inevitable transition from a centrally-weak, disbalanced and commercialized nation-state, to a more centralized, balanced, hegemonic empire will not be smooth, but China’s forward momentum is simply too large to derail its rise to superpower status.
  7. Social unrest. Unlikely to happen in a big way as long as fast economic growth continues, which it likely will for the next decade. China still has plenty of room for economic convergence, and its investments in human capital are going to be paying off handsomely in this period – “during the past decade, China has produced college and university graduates at a significantly faster pace than Korea and Japan did during their fastest-growing periods” (Goldman Sachs). Nor are resource or ecological limits to growth likely to intrude in the next ten years. Of course, this situation won’t last forever and by 2030 at the latest, China will be forced to radically reform its model to hold together, e.g. to nationalist expansionism or ecotechnic dictatorship.
  8. China’s monolithic and non-democratic nature. Though the CCP projects an image of internal unity on the world, under its placid exterior there is a flux of dynamic debates about how China should reconcile growth with environmentalism, capitalism with socialism, democracy with stability, and cultural influence with military strength. The necessity of liberal democracy for success is a figment of the Western end-of-history mentality, and will be recognized as such by the time the West realizes history doesn’t end.

In conclusion, China has the tools at its disposal to become the world’s last industrial superpower (the US and Japan are in relative decline, Russia has too few people, India is coming to the party too late). The creeping dissipation of the global financial system will remove the US from its position as the system’s intermediator, and with it will go a key pillar of neoliberal internationalism. This will clear the foundations for the emergence of a new symbiosis between the oil-exporting nations of the Middle East and a China which can provide them with cheap consumer goods and security guarantees in place of a deindustrialized, unpopular, and increasingly insular America. These trends will become the conventional wisdom by 2020.

China and the World: Coal, CO2, and Geopolitics

By that date, the age of scarcity industrialism will be in full bloom. Three issues will come to the forefront of all discussions about China’s global significance.

First, the impact of 1.3bn people enjoying rising levels of personal affluence on the global environment. Its electricity generation fueled almost entirely by coal, China has recently overtaken the US to become the world’s biggest CO2 emitter. Today, given the absence of any egalitarian, spiritual, or ultra-nationalist ideology keeping the country together, China requires rapid growth to prevent spiraling unemployment and social unrest. The CCP wants to remain in power, and for that it needs stability, and that needs growth, and that needs more and more coal plants every year. Hence the reason for China’s unwillingness to agree to any but the weakest CO2 emissions targets – i.e., a non-binding resolution to a 45% reduction in Co2 intensity per unit of GDP by 2020 from the levels of 2005. However, since China’s GDP is expected to treble or even quadruple from 2005 to 2020, its emissions will grow by 50-100% even if it achieves this non-binding target. Needless to say, this will be catastrophic for our efforts to contain climate change to a global temperature rise of below 2C, at which point runaway dynamics are expected to become predominant. As the last superpower, I expect China to take the lead in any global or national “final gambit” at geoengineering our way out of runaway climate change.

Second, China’s ability to generate industrial growth from its own resources is shrinking. It is already a major oil importer and its grain production is on a slowly dipping plateau, thanks to increasing urbanization and environmental damage (desertification, salination, depletion of fossil aquifers, etc). It is already restricting exports of the strategic Rare Earth Metals that constitute key components of hi-tech devices such as hard drives, wind turbines, and electric cars. This is a major problem for the world outside China, since China accounts for a stunning 95% of global REM production. It will take a decade to reopen the old mines, and in the interval the West could experience a severe “tech crunch”.

Since the bulk of Chinese electricity consumption comes from coal and its geo-economy is not structurally dependent on cheap oil on the same massive scale as the US, China will not be as hard hit by peak oil as the Anglo-Saxon world; besides, its manufacturing prowess and foreign currency reserves will allow it to outbid most competitors for the black gold. However, the downside to using coal is that it too will peak – in China’s case, perhaps within 10 to 15 years, after which it will go into a rapid decline. As such, China can be expected to “lock in” foreign energy supplies with long-term contracts, increase exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel sources such as coal seam gas, and accelerate its current attempts to force through a renewable transition. In 2009, China became the world’s largest producer of both wind turbines and PV panels; however, they have made nary a dent in its CO2 emissions, and are unlikely to do so any time soon. Coal is much cheaper and more importantly, provides the vital base load power that intermittent wind and solar flows cannot.

Third, China’s military power and neo-colonial influence is set to increase in the coming decades. After suppressing military spending from the late 1970′s to the early 2000′s in order to free up its energies for rapid economic growth, the People’s Liberation Army is now being paid back handsomely for its patience. A prescient quotation from the Economist in 1986, from the days when the magazine was still worth reading:

For China’s military men with the patience to see the economic reforms through, there is a payoff. If Mr. Deng’s plans for the economy as a whole are allowed to run their course, and the value of China’s output quadruples, as planned, between 1980 and 2000 (admittedly big ifs), then 10 to 15 years down the line the civilian economy should have picked up enough steam to haul the military sector along more rapidly. That is when China’s army, its neighbors and the big powers will really have something to think about.

That time is now. Defense spending is now rising faster than GDP, as China intensifies military modernization and acquires new capabilities in electronic, information, and anti-satellite warfare. The overall strategic balance has also changed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that the old Chinese fear of a tank invasion from the north has dissipated; coupled with the growing importance of maritime trade and foreign energy supplies, this has produced a reorientation to coastal defense and broader power projection to the south and east. China’s most ambitious military project is its decision to embark on the construction of a real blue-water navy, a vital tool in the renewed “gunboat diplomacy” we are likely to see in the years ahead.

In the short term, this has extended to China acquiring Russian weapons such as four Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, twelve Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, and advanced anti-ship missiles and supercavitating torpedoes such as the Sunburn, Sizzler, and Shkval. Domestic production of naval vessels is expanding rapidly: whereas US shipbuilding is withering away, China now accounts for a third of global shipbuilding and “is in the midst of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the U.S. Navy sometime in the next decade”, including four aircraft carriers by 2020. China’s military modernization has already tipped the regional balance of power. A recent RAND study indicates that China is already be able to establish air superiority over Taiwan in the event of a hot war over the straits, and on current trends it will probably be able to conquer it outright within the decade.

In tandem with its military modernization, which is mostly geared to fighting and winning possible local wars in south-east Asia (Taiwan, Spratly Islands, Vietnam), China is pursuing a far-sighted “string of pearls” strategy of naval base construction on its outlying coastal islands and friendly nations such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. They will host radar stations and anti-ship batteries, and will form logistics hubs for naval operations. The underlying strategy is to reinforce China’s coast against foreign encroachment and to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC) – especially the vital energy routes supplying it with Middle East oil.

Finally, the broadest form of China’s projection of influence is its rush to buy out mines, arable land, oil field concessions, and foreign national elites, from Australia to Brazil to Ukraine to Angola; indeed, Africa is a focal point of interest, with up to half a million Chinese already working on building up the continent’s industrial infrastructure and tapping its energy and mineral wealth. Closer to home in South-East Asia, most nations are both appreciative and fearful of China’s rise, bandwagoning with the US on security while engaging with China economically. The fact of America’s accelerating decline means that this state of affairs is not permanent. Any future “downsized” US empire will have minimal interests in East Asia, and will concentrate its energies on the Americas, Africa, and perhaps the Middle East (though it will be largely displaced by Turkey and China there).

The second greatest East Asian Power, Japan, will have neither the will to mount a serious challenge to China’s emerging hegemony, nor the strategic foundations. Japan is almost entirely reliant on foreign supplies of energy, and as soon as the PLA Navy surpasses the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, it will be utterly eclipsed by China. Why struggle, when Japan can instead exist as in a comfortable symbiosis with a China whose post-1978 growth it actively nourished – spats over their wartime history to the contrary? Japan is capital-rich, China is labor-rich; both share Asian values based on paternalism, state capitalism, and national sovereignty… Japan has two choices. It can try to construct an encircling alliance encompassing Russia, Korea, India, and the US to contain China, but this is a truly ambitious undertaking because 1) Russia has – and by that point the US will have – no overriding reason to confront China, 2) the “pan-Asian” appeal of China, 3) Japan has territorial disputes with Russia, whereas Russia in turn has close if suspicious relations with China through the SCO, and 4) as argued by the late Samuel Huntington, Asian societies have a tendency to bandwagon with the leading regional power – now it’s the US, in the future it will be China. The other alternative, and I would argue the likelier and more natural one, is for Japan to acknowledge Chinese regional hegemony. Once Japan takes this plunge, every other nation in in the region will follow.


It is no exaggeration to say that whither goes China goes the world. It is already the world’s greatest industrial power, at least as measured by physical throughput, energy consumption, and pollution emissions. Though still technologically backward, it is much less so than 10 years ago. China’s purchases of foreign technology, copying, and industrial espionage are rapidly closing the gap, and China’s rapidly expanding R&D workforce will be able to successfully hit the ground running once there arises the need for indigenous innovation.

The extent to which China will be able to solve its energy, minerals, food, and water problems will have major impacts domestic and international, and its success or lack of at reducing – or mitigating – its greenhouse gas emissions, is probably going to determine whether the world as a whole will be able to wriggle out of its Limits to Growth predicament. Finally, China’s cultural, economic, and neo-colonial influence is going to metastasize – in the process transforming it into an East Asian regional hegemon and primary pole in world geopolitics.

China’s greatest challenges lie in geopolitics (how to manage its own rise?), coal (how to power growth?), and CO2 (how to grow, or just stay still, sustainably?). The answers to these questions will determine its future political, social, and economic trajectory. It is therefore vital to to find out how its elites are planning to stand up to this panoply of perils and opportunities, which will be the subject of my next post on China.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

Korotayev, Andrei & Artemy Malkov, Daria KhaltourinaIntroduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends (2006)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Andrei Korotayev (wiki); review @; a similar text на русском.

Introduction: Millennial Trends

Google Books has the first chapter Introduction: Millennial Trends.

In 1960, Heinz von Foerster showed that the world’s population at any given time between 1-1958 CE could be approximated by the simple equation below, where N is the population, t is time, C is a constant, and t(0) is a “doomsday” when the population becomes infinite (worked out to be 13 November, 2026).

(1) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

According to Korotayev et al, this simple formula of hyperbolic explains 99%+ of the micro-variation in world population from 1000 to 1970. Furthermore, a quadratic-hyperbolic equation of the same type accurately represents the increase in the GDP. Why?

He discusses the work of Michael Kremer, who attempted to build a model by making the Malthusian assumption that “population is limited by the available technology, so that the growth rate of population is proportional to the growth rate of technology”, and the “Kuznetsian” assumption that “high population spurs technological change because it increases the number of potential inventors”.

(2) G = r*T*N^a

(3) dT/dt = b*N*T

Above, G is gross output, T is technology, N is population, and a, b, and r are parameters. Note that dT, change in technology, is dependent on both N (indicates potential number of inventors) and T (a wider technological base enabled more inventions to be made on its basis). Solving this system of equations results in hyperbolic population growth, illustrated by the following loop: population growth → more potential inventors → faster tech growth → faster growth of Earth’s carrying capacity → faster population growth.

Korotayev then counters arguments dismissing such theories as “demographic adventures of physicists” that have no validity because the world system was not integrated until relatively recently. However, that is only if you use Wallerstein’s “bulk-good” criterion. If one instead uses the softer “information-network” criterion, noting that there is evidence for the “systematic spread of major innovations… throughout the North African – Eurasian Oikumene for a few millennia BCE” – and bearing in mind that this emerging belt of cultures of similar technological complexity contained the vast majority of the global human population since the Neolithic Revolution – then this can be interpreted as “a tangible result of the World System’s functioning”.

Then Korotayev et al present their own model that describes not only the hyperbolic world population growth, but also the macrodynamics of global GDP in the world system until 1973.

(4) G = k1*T*N^a

(5) dN/dt = k2*S*N

(6) dT/dt = k3*N*T

Above, T is technology, N is population, S is surplus per person (and S = g – m, where g is production per person and m is the subsistence level required for zero population growth), and k1, k2, k3, and a are parameters. This can be simplified to:

(7) dN/dt = a*S*N

(8) dS/dt = b*N*S

(9) G = m*N + S*N

As S should be proportional to N in the long run, S = k*N. Replace.

(10) dN/dt = k*a*N^2

Recall that solving this differential equation gives us hyperbolic growth (1).

(11) N(t) = C / ( t(0) – t )

Furthermore, replacing N(t) above with S = k*N gives (12), allowing us to work out the “surplus world product” S*N (13).

(12) S = k*C / ( t(0) – t )

(13) S*N = k*C^2 / ( t(0) – t )^2

Hence in the long-run, this suggests that global GDP growth can be approximated by a quadratic hyperbola. Other indices that can be described by these or similar models include literacy, urbanization, etc.

One finding is that after 1973, there world GDP growth rate itself falls (rather than just a slowing of the growth of the GDP growth rate, as predicted by the original model): the explanation is, “the literate population is more inclined to direct a larger share of its GDP to resource restoration and to prefer resource economizing strategies than is the illiterate one, which, on the one hand, paves the way towards a sustainable-development society, but, on the other hand, slows down the economic growth rate”. To take this into account, they build a modified model, according to which, “the World System’s divergence from the blow-up regime would stabilize the world population, the world GDP… technological growth, however, will continue, though in exponential rather than hyperbolic form”.*

The consequences for the future are that though GDP growth will reach an asymptote, technological improvements will continue raising the standard of living due to the “Nordhaus effect” (e.g. combine Moore’s Law – exponentially cheapening computing power, with the growing penetration of ever more physical goods by IT).

“It appears important to stress that the present-day decrease of the World System’s growth rates differs radically from the decreases that inhered in oscillations of the past… it is a phase transition to a new development regime that differs radically from the ones typical of all previous history”. As evidence, unlike in all past eras, the slowing of the world population growth rate after the 1960′s did not occur against a backdrop of catastrophically falling living standards (famine, plague, wars, etc); to the contrary, the causes are the fall in fertility due to social security, more literacy, family planning, etc. Similarly, the decrease in the urbanization and literacy growth rates is not associated this time by the onset of Malthusian problems, but is set against continuing high economic growth and the “closeness of the saturation level”.

(AK: This rosy-tinged analysis is persuasive and somewhat rigorous, but there is a gaping hole – they used only “technology” as a proxy for the carrying capacity. However, as Limits to Growth teaches us, part of what technology did is open up a windfall of energy resources – high-grade oil, coal, and natural gas – that have been used to fuel much of the post-1800 growth in carrying capacity (disguised as “technology” in this model), yet whose gains are not permanent because of their unsustainable exploitation. Furthermore, the modern technological base is underpinned by the material base, and cannot survive without it – you can’t have semiconductor factories without reliable electricity supplies – and generally speaking, the more complex the technology, the greater the material base that is needed to sustain it (this may constitute an ultimate limit on technological expansion). This major factor is also neglected in Korotayev’s millennial model. As such, the conclusion that the world has truly and permanently reached a sustainable-development regime does not follow. This is not to say that it is without merit, however – it’s just that it needs to be integrated with the work done by the Limits to Growth / peak oil / climate modelers.)

Chapter 1: Secular Cycles

Korotayev et al conclude that these millennial models are only useful on the millennial scale (duh!), and that typical agrarian political-demographic cycles follow Malthusian dynamics because in the shorter term, population tends to growth much more rapidly than technology / carrying capacity, which led to a plateauing of the population, growing stress due to repeated perturbations, and an eventual tipping point over into collapse / dieoff.

The basic logic of these models is as follows. After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values. The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions, etc. As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population. As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.

He notes that newer models are far more complex and predict the dynamics of variables such as elite overproduction, class struggle, urbanization, and wealth inequality with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy (e.g. see A Model of Demographic Cycles in a Traditional Society: The Case of Ancient China by Nefedov). Korotayev et al then list three major approaches to modeling agrarian political-demographic cycles: Turchin (2003), Chu & Lee (1994), and Nefedov (1999-2004).

1. Turchin has constructed an elegant “fiscal-demographic” model, in which the state plays a positive role by by a) maintaining armed order against banditry and lawlessness, and b) doing works such as roads, canals, irrigations systems, flood control, etc, – both of which increase the effective carrying capacity. However, as demographic growth brings the population to the carrying capacity of the land (in practice, the population plateaus somewhat below it due to elite predation), surpluses diminish. So do the state’s revenues, since the state taxes surpluses; meanwhile, expenditures keep on rising (because of the reasons identified by Tainter). Eventually, there sets in a fiscal crisis and the state must tax the future to pay for the present by drawing down the surpluses accumulated in better days; when those surpluses run out, the state can no longer function and collapses, which leads to a radical decline of the carrying capacity and population as the land falls into anarchy and irrigation and transport infrastructure decays.

2. The Chu and Lee model consists of rulers (including soldiers), peasants (grow food), and bandits (steal food). The peasants support the rulers to fight the bandits, while there is a constant flux between the peasants and bandits whose magnitude depends on the caloric & survivability payoffs to belonging in each respective class. However, it’s not a fully-formed model as its main function is to fill in the gaps in the historical record, by plugging in already-known historical data on warfare and climatic factors; they neglected to associate crop production with climatic variability (colder winters result in lesser crop yields) and the role of the state in food distribution (which staved off collapse for some time and was historically significant in China).

3. Nefedov has integrated stochasticity into his models, in which random climatic effects produce different year-to-year crop yields. One result is that as carrying capacity is reached, surpluses vanish and the effects of good and bad years play an increasingly important role – i.e. a closed system under stress suffers increasingly from perturbations. One bad year can lead to a critical number of people leaving the farms for the cities or banditry, initiating a cascading collapse. However, he neglects the “direct role of rebellion and internal warfare on cycle behavior”, so as the model is purely economic, each demographic collapse is, implausibly, immediately followed by a new rise.

The ultimate aim of Korotayev et al is to integrate the positive features of all three models (Chapter 3), but for now the take a closer look at the political-demographic history of China, the pre-industrial civilization that maintained the best records.

Chapter 2: Historical Population Dynamics in China – Some Observations

Below is a graph of China’s population on a millennial scale. Note the magnitude and cyclical nature of its demographic collapses. Note also that such cycles are far from unique to Chinese civilization (see collapse of the Roman Empire), and reflect for a minute, even, on the profound difference between the modern world of permanent growth, and the pre-industrial, “Malthusian” world.

Since it would be futile to repeat the fine details of every political-demographic cycle in China’s, I will instead just list the main points.

  • The cycles tend to be ones of a fast rise in population, when surpluses are high and people are prosperous. It plateaus and stagnates when the population reaches the carrying capacity, when there is overpopulation, much lowered consumption, increasing debilitation of state power, and rising social inequality and urbanization.
  • Sometimes, such as in the middle Sung period, population stress did not lead to a collapse, but instead to a “radical rise of the carrying capacity of the land” through administrative and technological innovations. This increased the permanent ceiling of Chinese carrying capacity from 60mn to around 120mn souls, and in doing so alleviated the population stress until the early 12th century (AK: e.g. in Early Modern Britain, the problem of deforestation was solved by coal). At that point, China may have once again solved its problems, even escaping from its Malthusian trap (AK: some historians have noted that it had many of the prerequisites for an industrial revolution). That was not to be, as “the Sung cycle was interrupted quite artificially by exogenous forces, namely, by the Jurchen and finally Mongol conquests”.
  • The Yuan dynasty would not reach the highs of the Sung because of the general bleakness of the 14th century – the end of the Medieval Warm Period, unprecedented floods and droughts in China, etc, which lowered the carrying capacity to a critical level. The resulting famines and rebellions led to the demographic collapse of the 1350′s, as well as the de facto collapse of the state, as China transitioned to warlordism.
  • Carrying-capacity innovations under the Ming did not, eventually, outrun population growth, and it collapsed during the turmoil of the transition to the Qing dynasty. The innovations accelerated throughout the 18th century (e.g. New World crops, land reclamation, intensification of farming). Indications of subsistence stress as China entered the 19th century were a) declining life expectancies, b) rising staple prices, and c) a huge increase in female infanticide rates in the first half of the 18th century. By 1850, China was again under very severe subsistence stress and the state grew impotent just as Europeans began to encroach on the Celestial Empire.
  • Huang 2002: 528-9, worthy of quotation in extenso. “Recent research in Chinese legal history suggests that the same subsistence pressures behind female infanticide led to widespread selling of women and girls… Another related social phenomenon was the rise of an unmarried “rogue male” population, a result of both poverty (because the men could not afford to get married) and of the imbalance in sex ratios that followed from female infanticide. Recent research shows that this symptom of the mounting social crisis led, among other things, to large changes in Qing legislation vis-à-vis illicit sex… Even more telling, perhaps, is the host of new legislation targeting specifically the ‘baresticks’ single males (guanggun) and related ‘criminal sticks’ of bandits (guntu, feitu), clearly a major social problem in the eyes of the authorities of the time”. See Diagram V.13. (AK: Interestingly, China’s one-child policy, by artificially restricting fertility in order to ward off a “Maoist dynasty” Malthusian crisis, has led to many of the same problems in the past two decades).
  • Speaking of which… China had further dips in its population after during perturbations in the 1850′s (the millenarian Taiping Rebellion), the 1930′s (Japanese occupation), and 1959-62 (the Great Leap Forward), each progressively smaller than the last in its relative magnitude. For instance, the latter just formed a short plateau.

Korotayev et al conclude the chapter by running statistical tests on China’s historical population figures from 57-2003. In contrast to linear regression (R^2 = 0.398) and exponential regression (R^2 = 0.685), the simple hyperbolic growth model described in “Introduction: Millennial Trends” produces an almost perfect fit with the observed data (R^2 = 0.968). So in the very, very long-term, the effects of China’s secular cycles are swamped by the millennial trend of hyperbolic growth.

Finally, the authors describe in-depth the general pre-industrial Chinese demographic cycle. Below is a functional scheme I’ve reproduced from the book (click to enlarge).

The main points are:

  • Fast population growth until it nears the carrying capacity, then a long period (100 years+) of a very slow and unsteady growth rate, accompanied by increasingly significant, but non-critical fluctuations in annual population growth due to climatic stochasticity (positive growth in good years, negative growth – along with dearth, minor epidemics, uprisings, etc – in bad years). These fluctuations get worse with time as the state’s counter-crisis potential degrades due to the drawdown of previously accumulated surpluses.
  • According to Nefedov’s model and historical evidence, the fastest growth of cities occurred during the last phases of demographic cycles, as peasants were driven off the land and there appeared greater demand for city-made goods from the increasingly affluent landowners (who could charge exorbitant rates on their tenants). Furthermore, some peasants are drawn into debt bondage because the landowner had previously given them food at a time of dearth. Other peasants turn to banditry.
  • Re-”elite overproduction → over-staffing of the state apparatus → decreasing ability of the state to provide relief during famines”. The system of state relief had been very effective earlier, e.g. in 1743-44 a state effort to prevent starvation in the drought-stricken North China core was successful. However: “By Chia-ch’ing times (1796-1820) this vast grain administration had been corrupted by the accumulation of superfluous personnel at all levels, and by the customary fees payable every time grain changed hands or passed an inspection point… The grain transport stations served as one of the focal points for patronage in official circles. Hundreds of expectant officials clustered at these points, salaried as deputies (ch’ai-wei or ts’ao-wei) of the central government. As the numbers of personnel in the grain tribute administration grew and as costs rose through the 18th century, the fees payable for each grain junk increased [from 130-200 taels per boat in 1732, to 300 taels in 1800, and to 700-800 taels by 1821]“. Similarly, the Yellow River Conservancy, whose task it was to prevent floods, degenerated into hedonistic corruption in the early 19th century; only 10% of its earmarked funds being spent legitimately.
  • So what you have is an increasingly exploited peasantry, a growing (and volatile) urban artisan class – e.g., the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, and more banditry. The bandits create a climate of fear in the countryside and force more outmigration into the cities, and the abandonment of some lands. At the same time, state power – military and administrative – is on the wane, displaced by corruption. The effects of perturbations are magnified due to the system’s loss of resiliency. There eventually comes a critical tipping point after which there is a cascading collapse that involves a population dieoff, the fall of centralized power, and a prolonged period of internal warfare.
  • Fast population growth does not resume immediately after collapse because things first need to settle down.

In my Facebook Note, Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations, I draw a link between the fast population increase / abundance of the “rise” period, and the concept of the “Golden Age” common to all civilizations. Also ventures a theory as to why cities (hedonism, conspicuous consumption, etc) have such a poor reputation as a harbinger of collapse… because they are, it’s just that the anti-poshlost preachers haven’t identified the right cause (i.e. overpopulation, not “moral decadence” per se).

Furthermore, a tentative explanation of the reason for differential Chinese – European technological growth rates (compare and contrast with Jared Diamond’s explanation):

Incidentally, a possible reason why Western Europe emerged as the world’s economic hegemon by the 19th century, instead of China, a civilization that at prior times had been significantly more advanced. But in China, the depth of the Malthusian collapses was deeper and more regular (once every 300 years, typically) than in W. Europe… Once the Yangtze / Yellow River irrigation systems failed, tens of millions of peasants were doomed; nothing on an equivalent scale in Europe, which is geographically and politically fragmented into many chunks and nowhere has anywhere near the same reliance on vulnerable hydraulic works for the maintenance of complex civilization (control over water was at the heart of “Oriental despotism” (Wittfogel); the Chinese word “zhi” means both “to regulate water” and “to rule”).

This theory that the reason China began to lag behind Western Europe technologically was because of its more frequent collapses / destructions of knowledge should be explored further.

Finally, about the nature of perturbations in a closed system under increasing stress… That is our world in the coming decades: even as Limits to Growth manifest themselves, there will be more (and greater) shocks of a climatic, terrorist, and military nature. The stochasticity will increase in amplitude even as the System becomes more fragile. As a result, polities will increase the level of legitimization and coercion, i.e. they will become more authoritarian.)

Chapter 3: A New Model of Pre-Industrial Political-Demographic Cycles

To address the shortcomings of other models and taking into account what happens in typical pre-industrial demographic cycles, Korotayev with Natalia Komarova construct their own model that includes the following three main elements:

(1) The Malthusian-type economic model, with elements of the state as tax collector (and counter-famine reservoir sponsor), and fluctuating annual harvest yields; this describes the logistic shape of population growth. It explains well the upward curve in the demographic cycle and saturation when the carrying capacity of land is reached. (2) Banditry and the rise of internal warfare in time of need are the main mechanism of demographic collapse. Personal decisions of peasants to leave their land and become warriors / bandits / rebels are influenced by economic factors. (3) The inertia of warfare (which manifests itself in the fear factor and the destruction of infrastructure) is responsible for a slow initial growth and the phenomenon of the “intercycle”.

Reproducing the model in detail will take up too much space, so just the main conclusions: “the main parameters affecting the period of the cycle are a) the annual proportions of resources accumulated for counter-famine reserves, b) the peasant-bandit transformation rate, and c) the magnitude of the climatic fluctuations. Hence, the lengths of cycles – and this is historically corroborated – is increased along with the growth of the counter-famine (more reserves) and law-enforcement (repress banditry) subsystems.

Chapter 4: Secular Cycles & Millennial Trends

Full version of Chapter 4: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends.

The chapter begins by modeling the role of warfare, and challenges recent anthropological findings that denser populations do not necessarily lead to more warfare.

  • First, this is explained by the fact that it’s not a simple relation, but more of a predator-prey cycle described by a Lotka–Volterra equation. When warfare breaks out in a time of stress it leads to the immediate reduction of the carrying capacity and demographic collapse; however, warfare simmers on well into the post-collapse phase because groups continue to retaliate against each other.
  • Second, the methodology is flawed because it treats all wars the same, whereas in fact they tend to be far less devastating for bigger polities than for small ones. This is because bigger polities have armies that are more professional, and the length of their “bleeding borders” relative to total territory, is much smaller than for territorially small chiefdoms, for whom even low-intensity wars are demographically devastating. As such, more politically complex polities fight wars more frequently more frequently than smaller ones, but tend to be far less damaged by them.
  • Imperial expansions in territory coincide with periods of fast population growth and high per capita surpluses; later on, shrinking surpluses decimate the tax base and even defense proves increasingly hard (“imperial overstretch”). This correlation is very strong.

Now Korotayev et al combine their model from the last chapter with Kremer’s equation for technological growth (see the Introduction):

dT/dt = a*N*T

They also model a “Boserupian” effect, in which “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”.

Indeed, if land shortage is absent, such stimuli are relatively weak, whereas in conditions of relative overpopulation the introduction of such innovations becomes literally a “question of life and death” for a major part of the population, and the intensity of the generation and diffusion of the carrying capacity enhancing innovations significantly increases.

Finally, they make the size of the harvest dependent not only on climatic fluctuations, but also on the level of technology.

Harvest i = H 0*random number i*T i.

Running this model with some reasonable parameters produces the following diagram, which reproduces not only the cyclical, but also the hyperbolic macrodynamics.


Note that it also describes the lengthening of growth phases detected in Chapter 2 for historical population dynamics in China, which was not described by our simple cyclical model. The mechanism that produces this lengthening in the model (and apparently in reality) is as follows: the later cycles are characterized by a higher technology, and, thus, higher carrying capacity and population, which, according to Kremer’s technological development equation embedded into our model, produces higher rates of technological (and, thus, carrying capacity) growth. Thus, with every new cycle it takes the population more and more time to approach the carrying capacity ceiling to a critical extent; finally it “fails” to do so, the technological growth rates begin to exceed systematically the population growth rates, and population escapes from the “Malthusian trap” (see Diagram 4.26):

The cycles lengthen, and then cease:

AK: some confirmation for my rough explanation of why Chinese technological growth rate fell below Europe’s prior to the Industrial Revolution (see end of Chapter 2 in this post).

Of special importance is that our numerical investigation indicates that with shorter average period of cycles a system experiences a slower technological growth, and it takes a system longer to escape from the “Malthusian trap” than with a longer average cycle period.

Finally, they also add in an equation for literacy:

l i+1 = l i*b*dF i*l i*(1 – l i)

Which has the following effect on population growth:

N i+1 = N i*(1 + α × dF’)*(1 – l) – dR i – rob*N i*R i

And all added together, it produces the following stunning reproduction of China’s population dynamics from ancient past to today.

And concludes:

Of course, these models can be only regarded as first steps towards the development of effective models describing both secular cycles and millennial upward trend dynamics.

The Meaning of Cliodynamics

Turchin, Peter & Sergey NefedovSecular Cycles (2008)
Category: cliodynamics, world systems; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Read the whole book (PDF) or in chapters

This is a free online, quasi-popular book about eight different pre-industrial secular cycles (including Tudor England, the Roman Empire, Muscovy, and the Romanov Empire). Knowing the facts of history and the proximate causes of Revolutions – Lenin’s charisma, Tsarist incompetence, the collapse of morale and of the railway system, etc – is all well and good, but an entirely different perspective is opened up when looking at late Tsarist Russia through a social macrodynamic prism. The interpretation shifts to one of how late imperial Russia was under a panoply of Malthusian pressure, and of how the additional stresses and perturbations of WW1 “tipped” the system over into a state of collapse.

Finally, my reply to someone who sent me a message suggesting that cliodynamics may “make old school idiographic history redundant”.

I don’t think these trends will make idiographic history redundant, because there are many elements that are irreducible to mathematical analysis; furthermore, a major and inevitable weakness of cliodynamics is our lack of numbers for much of pre-mass literacy history. To the contrary, I think cliodynamics will end up complementing the “old school” rather than displacing it.


* Ray Kurzweil, one of the high priest of the singularitarian movement, extends Moore’s observations to also model technological growth (computing power, to be precise) as doubly exponential, or even hyperbolic. See Appendix: The Law of Accelerating Returns Revisited,

On the other hand, Joseph Tainter noted that in many areas the rate of technological innovation is actually slowing down. This is an argument that Kremer’s assumption that the rate of technological growth is linearly dependent on the product of the population and the size of the already-existing technological base is too simplistic.

These observations are supported by Planck’s Principle of Increasing Effort – “with every advance [in science] the difficulty of the task is increased” (i.e. you’re now unlikely to make new discoveries by flying a kite in a thunderstorm). Furthermore, “Exponential growth in size and costliness of science, in fact, is necessary simply to maintain a constant rate of progress”, and according to Rescher, “In natural science we are involved in a technological arms race: with every ‘victory over nature’ the difficulty of achieving the breakthroughs which lie ahead is increased”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.