Forgetting Why You Won

The New York Times tells us that “China has laid the groundwork to dominate the market for protective and medical supplies for years to come[]” because it has pursued a policy of subsidizing strategically important industries, like PPE, including by protecting them from foreign competition.

History tells us why China does that. It’s the reason for which the victim tends to remember how a fight was won better than the victor. For about a century ending in 1949, China came close to being wiped off the map repeatedly because it couldn’t control access to its own markets and didn’t have dominance in any strategically important industries to use as a bargaining chip. Foreign powers used their control over strategically important industries, not least those relating to defense, to prize open Chinese markets to foreign goods, wiping out local production. It’s not for nothing that one reads in an economic history that “British competition de-industrialized most of Asia . . . .”

That didn’t come about because a large gap in technology or industry existed between China and the rest of the world when China’s fall started in the early 19th century. On the eve of the industrial revolution, China was a wealthy country and could defend its borders. It was a difference of degree that mushroomed into near destruction. The Chinese never forgot their lesson in the foundations of modern power.

But we did. Did we really think that after more than a century of struggle to regain control over their own markets, at the cost of millions upon millions of lives, the Chinese were going to throw their markets back open to the rest of the world, laissez-faire-style, and run the risk that domestic industry would be out-competed once again? Did we think that the Chinese would not sit down and think carefully about how to take advantage of the rest of the world’s fleeting, pie-in-the-sky romance with free trade silently to achieve dominance in strategically important global industries? Did we think the Chinese didn’t learn their lesson?

Whatever you may think of the Chinese government, this is no kakistocracy happily selling its people out for a bit of short-term gain and a life of luxury in future exile, whatever the Times may once have wanted us to believe with its deep dive on Chinese princelings. Whatever it might have been for a spell decades ago now, today China is no North Korea, hobbled by corruption, operated as an extension of a few personalities. It is a government that knows and jealously guards the national interest.

It would be nice if ours did too.