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“Her Majesty’s government should do nothing to place in peril our opium revenues. As for preventing the manufacturing of opium, and the sale of it in China, that is far beyond your power.”*

The East India Company steamship Nemesis (right background) destroying war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpi, 7 January 1841

An excerpt from Linda Jaivin‘s The Shortest History of China

European traders had been trying to get a foothold in China for centuries. As eager as the Europeans were for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, the Chinese remained indifferent to European goods. The Qing restricted access to ports, confining foreign merchants to Guangzhou (Canton), from October to March. Foreign traders resented this, as well as having to work with licensed Chinese intermediaries and abide by local law. In 1793, the British sent an experienced diplomat, Lord George Macartney, to Qianlong’s court carrying a letter arguing for greater access to the empire’s markets, including a reduction in tariffs, the ability of merchants to live in China year-round, and the stationing of an ambassador in Beijing.

The eighty-year-old Qianlong agreed to receive the English­man at his imperial hunting lodge at Chéngdé, northeast of Bei­jing. The protocol of an imperial audience demanded a kowtow. Macartney refused, instead bowing on one knee before Qian­long, just as he did with his own sovereign, King George III. Qianlong received him courteously anyway, but once Macart­ney left and his letter was translated, Qianlong instructed his ministers to bolster the Qing’s coastal defenses, predicting that England, ‘fiercer and stronger than other countries in the Western Ocean,’ might ‘stir up trouble.’ To Macartney he pref­aced his reply by saying that the Qing had everything it needed in abundance: ‘I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’ 

The British East India Company, which enjoyed a British monopoly on East Asian trade, had something for which at least some Chinese had use: opium, grown in British-controlled India. Opium was already cultivated in China, but in small quantities — soldiers and manual laborers relied on it for pain relief, and some of the idle rich smoked it for pleasure. In 1729, the British sold two hundred chests of opium into China, each containing almost sixty kilograms of the drug. In 1790, three years before Macartney’s visit, they sold 4,054 chests. That number increased steadily.

Qianlong retired in 1796 in a gesture of filial piety, not wanting his reign to outlast that of his revered grandfather, Kangxi. This left the problem of opium to his successor, Jiāqìng (r. 1796-1820).

In 1815, the British sent another envoy, Lord Amherst, to Bei­jing. Jiāqìng expelled him after another tussle over the kowtow.

Opium addiction began to damage the fabric of Chinese society. The illegal trade fostered corruption, and silver drained from the imperial coffers. Debate raged in the court of Jiāqìng and his successor, Dàoguāng (r. 1821-1850), over whether to legalize opium — encouraging domestic production and lim­iting trade-related corruption — or ban it. In 1838, Daoguang decided on prohibition. In March 1839, the emperor sent the official Lín Zéxú (1785-1850) to Guangzhou, the hub of the opium trade, to implement the ban. By July, Lin had arrested thousands of addicts and confiscated almost twenty-three thousand kilos of opium, as well as seventy thousand pipes.

Lín Zéxú demanded that the 350 or so foreign traders in Guangzhou surrender their opium. As tensions rose, he locked them in their warehouses. Chinese soldiers blew horns and banged gongs to increase the pressure on them. It took six weeks, but the foreigners handed over twenty thousand chests. Now in possession of almost 1.4 million kilos of opium, Lín Zéxú had it mixed with water, salt, and lime and flushed out to sea.

In response, British warships blockaded the entrance to Guangzhou’s harbor, smashed through Chinese defenses, and captured ports including Shanghai and Ningbo, blocking mari­time traffic on the Grand Canal and lower Yangtze. This became known as the First Opium War.

Under duress, the Qing signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which granted the British access to Guangzhou, Shanghai, and three other ‘treaty ports.’ It also ceded the island of Hong Kong — ‘fragrant port,’ named for the spice trade — to the British in perpetuity. (The British foreign secretary at the time, Lord Palm­erston, questioned the wisdom of acquiring ‘a barren island with hardly a House upon it’ that would never become a great ‘Mart of Trade.’) It imposed indemnities on the Qing totaling twenty-one million silver dollars. The United States, France, and other nations piled on with their own demands, including ‘extraterritoriality’ exemption from local justice for foreigners who committed crimes in China. Chinese law would not apply within ‘concessions’ those parts of the treaty ports controlled by foreign powers. These agreements were the first of what are called the Unequal Treaties, beginning a century of China’s humiliation at the hands of various imperialist powers. They heralded the beginning of the end, not just of the Qing, but of the dynastic system by which China had been ruled for thousands of years…

Via the invaluable Delancyplace (@delanceyplace): “The Opium Wars.”

* Lord Ellenborough, 1843


As we contemplate colonialism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain that formally launched the War of 1812.

Three U.S. incursions into Canada launched in 1812 and 1813 had been handily turned back by the British despite the fact that the bulk of British force was tied up in an unpleasantness with the Emperor of France and his troops.  But the decline of Napoleon’s strength freed the English to devote more resources to the West… leading to the 1814 burning of the White House, the Capital, and much of the rest of official Washington by British soldiers (retaliating for the U.S. burning of some official buildings in Canada).  Still, by the end of 1814 a combination of naval and ground victories by the Americans had driven the British back to Canada, and on December 14, 1814 the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed…  sadly for the British, word of the accord did not reach troops on the Gulf Coast in time to head off an attack (on January 8, 1815) on New Orleans– which was turned back by American forces led by Andrew Jackson.  Jackson became a national hero, who rode his fame to the (rebuilt) White House; Johnny Horton got a Number One record out of it (Billboard Hot 100, 1959)…  and the English had to console themselves with their victory at Waterloo later that year– on this date in 1815…

James Madison (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 18, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

From ancient empires to the industrialized nation-states of our globally-interconnected world, complexity theory offers a fresh perspective on the past and possible futures of human societies. Dries Daems explains…

… Civilizations rise and fall, sometimes at the stroke of a sword. Myriad explanations have been posited as to why this happens. Often, hypotheses of collapse say more about the preoccupations of contemporary society than they do about the past. It is no coincidence that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (01776), written during the anticlerical Age of Reason, blamed Christianity for Rome’s downfall, just as it is no coincidence that recent popular accounts of civilizational collapse such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (02005) point toward environmental damage and climate change as the main culprits.

I’ve been fascinated by the oscillations of human societies ever since the early days of my research for my Ph.D. in archaeology. Over the last 12,000 years, we’ve gone from small hunter-gatherer groups to highly urbanized communities and industrialized nation-states in a globally interconnected world. As societies grow, they expand in territory, produce economic growth, technological innovation, and social stratification. How does this happen, and why? And is collapse inevitable? The answers provided by archeology were unsatisfying. So I looked elsewhere.

Ultimately, I settled on a radically different framework to explore these questions: the field of complexity theory. Emerging from profound cross-disciplinary frustrations with reductionism, complexity theory aims to understand the properties and behavior of complex systems (including the human brain, ecosystems, cities and societies) through the exploration of their generative patterns, dynamics, and interactions.

In what follows, I’ll share some thoughts about what social complexity is, how it develops, and why it provides a more comprehensive account of societal change than the traditional evolutionary approaches that permeate archeology. By recasting the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of social complexity, we can better understand not only the past of human societies, but their possible futures as well…

Fascinating– and arresting: “Reimagining the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,” from @DriesDaems at @longnow.

See also Nick Brysiewicz‘s “Creative Technology at the Timescale of Civilization@nicholaspaul26 for @_baukunst.

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1644 that the Qing dynasty‘s Manchu forces, led by the Shunzhi Emperor, took Beijing– sealing the collapse of the Ming dynasty, which had ruled since 1368.

Aisin-Gioro Fulin, the Shunzhi Emperor– the first Qing Emperor to rule over China proper (source)

“Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography”*…

There are lessons to be learned from history. Noah Smith cautions us to be sure that we’re learning the right ones…

… 2022 saw authoritarian powers suddenly on the back foot. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a military and geopolitical disaster, and Xi’s economic mismanagement brought China’s growth to a momentary halt. Meanwhile, the U.S. started looking a bit more politically stable and started to take action to preserve its remaining industrial advantages, Asian democracies like Japan and the fast-growing India continued to flex their muscle, and Europe seemed more united than it had in…well, ever. All of this naturally had some people in the West optimistic that Cold War 2 would ultimately end much like World War 2 and the first Cold War.

Unfortunately, early optimism can easily give way to complacency and cockiness. We’re still in the opening moves of Cold War 2, and the minor victories of 2022 are likely to revert to the mean. 2023 is already shaping up to be a year in which the authoritarian powers recalibrate their strategy and find their footing.

Americans need to realize that Cold War 2 is fundamentally unlike Cold War 1 or World War 2. Those 20th century contests were ideological battles, where people fought and died for communism, fascism, and liberal democracy. But China is not an ideological, proselytizing power; its ideology, basically, is just “China.” Xi Jinping doesn’t care whether you have elections and protect civil rights or send minorities to the death camps, as long as you support Chinese hegemony abroad.

Cold War 2 is therefore a bit more like World War 1 — a naked contest of national power and interests. And if the U.S. tries to turn it into an ideological battle, it could backfire…

A provocative argument that we shouldn’t make too much of what are only the opening moves in “Cold War 2”: “2023 is when the empires strike back,” from @Noahpinion.

* Edward Said


As we grapple with geopolitics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that South Vietnamese forces withdrew from the town of Xuan Loc in the last major battle of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese victory there occasioned the resignation of South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who was replaced by  Trần Văn Hương, who was ordered by the National Assembly to seek a negotiated peace with North Vietnam at any cost.

ARVN 18th Division soldiers at Xuân Lộc (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 19, 2023 at 1:00 am

“In order for the United States to do the right things for the long term, it appears to be helpful for us to have the prospect of humiliation. Sputnik helped us fund good science – really good science: the semiconductor came out of it.”*…

Now the question is the semiconductor itself… and as Arthur Goldhammer explains in his review of Chris Miller‘s important new book Chip War, the answer may not be as clear as many suggest…

In left-liberal circles there is a rough consensus about what has gone wrong with our politics over the past 40 years. The critique can be summed up in two words: neoliberalism and globalization. Although these capacious ideological generalizations cover a multitude of sins, the gravamen of the charge against both is that, in the name of economic efficiency and growth, globalizing neoliberals of both the right and the left justified depriving national governments of the power to reduce inequalities of wealth and income, promote equal opportunity, and protect the health and welfare of the citizenry. Neoliberals prioritized property rights over social and political rights and protected markets from political meddling. They removed regulatory fetters on the movement of capital and sought the cheapest labor they could find to put their money to work. As a result, from the late 1970s on, governments across the developed world retreated from the social democratic reforms credited with fostering the harmonious prosperity of the three decades following World War II—the period the French have dubbed les Trente Glorieuses—thereby triggering a populist and xenophobic backlash while polarizing previously consensual political systems and weakening resistance to authoritarian demagogues.

This account of political change across the Western world since the 1980s has much to recommend it, not least the implication that the globalized neoliberal regime has sown the seeds of its own impending demise. This is the view espoused in one form or another by a number of excellent recent books, among them Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Michael Tomasky’s The Middle Out, and Bradford DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia. Yet each of these estimable authors embraces the notion that the novel feature of the period was superstructural, to borrow a term of art from the Marxist lexicon: All believe that ideology was in the driver’s seat and that it was the readiness of left-liberals to accede to the tenets of market-first ideology that established neoliberalism as the unsurpassable political horizon of the age (to borrow a phrase from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre).

But what if this superstructural interpretation is incomplete? What if it blinds us to a deeper transformation of the means of production themselves? What if the key innovation of the 1970s and ’80s was the advent not of neoliberal ideology but of the microprocessor, which simultaneously created new markets, dramatically altered trade flows, and shifted both the economic and military balance of power among nations? And what if this crucial technological innovation can trace its roots all the way back to the aforementioned Trente Glorieuses? What if the glory years of social democracy saw the benefits of higher education spread much more widely than ever before, disseminating technological skills throughout the world and making it possible to tap far more of humanity’s collective brainpower, while creating a web of interdependent corporations spanning both the developed and less developed worlds? The microprocessor not only became the flagship product of the neoliberal era’s dominant industry but also served as its indispensable instrument, without which it would have been impossible to tame the torrents of information necessary to manage far-flung supply chains and global capital flows.

Chris Miller’s Chip War deserves credit precisely for redirecting our attention from superstructure to base, from the high political drama of the past four decades to the more prosaic business of manufacturing microchips. At its most basic level, the book offers a masterful history of the semiconductor industry, from the invention of the first transistor in 1947 to the incredibly complex machinery required to deposit tens of billions of nearly atom-sized switches on a silicon chip no larger than a fingernail. Miller, who teaches international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, emphasizes the national security implications of a global supply chain in which components crucial to U.S. defense must pass through choke points such as Taiwan subject to intervention by commercial and strategic rivals. But the history he recounts in vivid detail also tells a more hopeful story, illustrating the way in which globalization has made it possible to mobilize humanity’s collective brainpower to achieve progress that no single country could have achieved on its own.

In assessing the national security risks posed by China’s semiconductor ambitions, some analysts seem to have accepted Andy Grove’s adage that “only the paranoid survive” at face value. While one former UK intelligence official argued that “we should accept that China will be a global tech power in the future and start managing the risk,” the United States, taking a darker view of China’s aims, has set out to stop China in its tracks by pressuring allies to reject Huawei chips and by banning the export of certain U.S.-developed technologies to China, most notably with the CHIPS Act of 2022 and related legislation.

Such aggressive policies could backfire, however. Miller quotes China tech policy analyst Dan Wang, who argues that American restrictions have “boosted Beijing’s quest for tech dominance” by catalyzing new Chinese government policies that support their local chip industry, including the training of tens of thousands of electrical engineers and condensed matter physicists. There are good reasons to worry about China’s military ambitions, but it is probably futile to try to halt the spread of technology as though it were a bulk good susceptible to blockade. There are also less aggressive ways to alleviate Chinese threats to the global supply chain: For instance, U.S. incentives have encouraged TSMC to move some of its operations from Taiwan to Arizona.

Finally, history shows that trying to stymie competitors by impeding the flow of technical information is unlikely to work against an adversary like China, with a large pool of educated workers and substantial ability to invest in research and development. Remember that Britain tried to monopolize early nineteenth-century textile technology, but Samuel Slater, the “father of the American Industrial Revolution,” used his knowledge of British machine designs to develop better technology in his adopted country. The way to compete effectively with China is not to ratchet up bellicose rhetoric about defending Taiwan or attempt to halt the spread of technical know-how by drafting new CHIP Acts, but to educate American workers and foster closer cooperation with other countries that have taken the lead in developing key aspects of the semiconductor manufacturing process. The history that Miller recounts demonstrates that what matters most in achieving technological leadership is free movement of people and ideas, not tariffs, export controls, or paranoid levels of fear. The best counterweight to Chinese military and commercial ambitions is the collective brainpower of the democratic world, not chip embargoes and saber-rattling…

The United States wants to stop China’s semiconductor industry in its tracks. Here’s how that could backfire: “Chip Shots,” from @artgoldhammer in @DemJournal. Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “No, I Do Not Think the Microprocessor Doomed Social Democracy,” an elaboration on and response to Goldhammer from Brad DeLong (@delong).

* Bill Gates


As we ponder policy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that Microsoft launched its first hardware product, the Z-80 SoftCard.

The brainchild of Paul Allen, the SoftCard was a microprocessor that plugged into the Apple II personal computer, allowing it to run programs written for the CP/M operating system. CP/M was a very popular OS for early personal computers, one for which much software was written. Indeed, the word processor WordStar was so popular that users purchased the SoftCard and a companion “80-column card” just to run it on the Apple II. At one point, the SoftCard product brought in about half of Microsoft’s total revenue. It was discontinued in 1986 as CP/M’s popularity waned in the face of competition from Microsoft’s own MS-DOS (and the growing popularity of Microsoft’s Word and Excel applications).


“There’s nothing more political than food”*…

This aerial photo taken on September 26, 2022 shows an image welcoming the 20th Communist Party Congress, created by growing red sorghum, in a field in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province

Zongyuan Zoe Liu on the growing issue of food security in China, and on what it might mean for geopolitics and geoeconomics…

…every day, China’s 1.4 billion people consume a staggering 700,000 tons of grain, 98,000 tons of edible oil, 1.92 million tons of vegetables, and 230,000 tons of meat. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understand that “to the emperor, the people is heaven; to the people, food is heaven,” as the traditional saying goes, and they have prioritized food security as a prerequisite to maintaining power, especially after the calamitous famines of the Maoist era. For decades, coupons were necessary to buy any food—a system not fully ended until 1995, although largely dead in the cities by the mid-1980s. Despite China’s emergence as the world’s factory, the country’s No. 1 central document, the first policy statement issued by the top authorities each year, has centered on food security and the three issues of agriculture, the countryside, and farmers since 2004.

This year is no exception, as the Central Committee of the CCP and the State Council jointly released the highly anticipated No. 1 document for 2023 on Feb. 13. The document, which carries enormous weight, sets forth two critical priorities: safeguarding national food security and protecting farmland. While previous No.1 documents touched on these issues between 2004 and 2012, it was not until 2013, when Xi Jinping assumed leadership, that the annual No. 1 document established a consistent and resolute focus on food security and farmland preservation…

Xi is correct to recognize that preserving farmland is an indispensable factor in the quest to achieve food self-sufficiency. China has experienced alarming levels of farmland loss and deterioration in recent years. The most recent land use survey showed that China’s total arable land decreased from 334 million acres in 2013 to 316 million acres in 2019, a loss of more than 5 percent in just six years. Shockingly, more than one-third of China’s remaining arable land (660 million mu, a traditional unit of land measurement in China and equal to roughly 109 million acres, slightly larger than Montana) suffers from problems of degradation, acidification, and salinization.

The land has been eroding faster in recent years. The annual net decrease of arable land has risen from about 6 million mu (about 988,421 acres) from 1957 to 1996 to more than 11 million mu (about 1.8 million acres) from 2009 to 2019. This means that between 2009 and 2019, China lost farmland equal to about the size of South Carolina. China’s diminishing farmland is also losing productivity due to over-cultivation and excess use of fertilizers. China’s fertilizer usage in 2018 was 6.4 times that of 1978, but grain yield in 2018 was only 2.2 times that of 1978.

As in many other countries, such as the United States and India, a major cause for China’s farmland deterioration has been its land-intensive industrialization and urbanization over the past three decades. Farmland has been expropriated to meet the strong demand for land to support the expansion of manufacturing, infrastructure, and urban development. Competing interests for land use have resulted in arable land being expropriated for more lucrative development projects. In the contest for land use among food growers, cash-crop planters, and property developers, profit maximization often trumps the needs of food farmers, especially when imported foods are much cheaper than locally grown options.

Over the past two years, Chinese private property developers such as Evergrande and Vanke have pulled back from aggressive land purchasing due to stringent restrictions. [See here.] While this reduced demand from private property developers should have helped alleviate the temptation to appropriate farmland for property development, much of the demand void has been filled by state-owned enterprises and government-backed developers or companies, such as local government financing vehicles (LGFVs)… Boosting land sales through government-owned or government-controlled entities when demand from private developers is low provides a politically convenient channel for local governments to raise revenue at limited costs.

Investing limited fiscal resources in farmland protection, in contrast, does not generate immediate political and financial returns, making it a tough sell for local officials who are under pressure to deliver a rapid economic recovery. While safeguarding farmland is an important cause in the long term, and one backed from the top in Beijing in theory, it costs money from the pockets of local governments and subsidies from the central authorities. For local officials, the more pressing challenge consuming their attention and resources is to restore economic growth…

Limited domestic farmland availability combined with the pursuit of food security dictates that China would expand its overseas farmland investment and advance its strategy of farming out. The 2007 No. 1 document set farming and agriculture “going out” into the rest of the world as a national strategy for the first time, but the focus back then was exports. The 2016 No.1 document updated guidelines on international agriculture cooperation, focusing on agricultural investment and supporting Chinese companies’ overseas operations.

According to Land Matrix, a European land-monitoring organization, Chinese companies have gained control of 6.48 million hectares (16 million acres) in foreign territories, which is nearly the size of Ireland. This number dwarfs the combined 1.56 million hectares controlled by British companies, the 860,000 hectares held by U.S. companies, and the 420,000 hectares owned by Japanese companies. Chinese investment in U.S. farmland has already triggered concerns in Washington, even though China currently only holds less than 1 percent of foreign-owned U.S. farmland. Republican lawmakers have already drafted a bill to ban Chinese purchases of American farmland, while in states like Texas measures are even more advanced. China not only owns farmland in the United States but also in U.S. allies’ territory, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

If China’s economic recovery and its continued growth are fueled by land sales and its property market, Xi’s prioritization of food security means Chinese entities will have to embark on more aggressive overseas land purchases. While the current theater of U.S.-China competition has been centered on the chips and semiconductors industry, a new front may emerge in the form of competition over farmland and agriculture technology. The party can survive setbacks in the chip war, but the stakes are much higher in the fight for food security. Failure on the food security front will threaten the survival of the regime…

The need to feed: “China’s Farmland Is in Serious Trouble,” from @ZongyuanZoeLiu in @ForeignPolicy.

* Anthony Bourdain


As we contemplate comestibles, we might send tasty birthday greetings to Momofuku Ando; he was born on this date in 1910. A very successful businessman, he founded  Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd., for which he invented instant noodles (ramen noodles) and created the Top Ramen and Cup Noodles brands.

Visit the Cup Noodles Museum.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 5, 2023 at 1:00 am

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