The New Dragon!

The lion’s share of accounts of 1960s period include only the themes of Civil Rights, the Counterculture, feminism, and Vietnam as we’ve stated many times and, indeed, to correct this is the raison d’être for what we do. In the specific field of international relations, I dare say few could name anything beyond the usual 1960s fare of Cuba, Vietnam, and the occasional Cold War flare-up in Berlin and perhaps the Six Day War in the Middle East. Worthy topics, but not quite all.

This column of course is dedicated to correcting the record by doing everything except the usual themes.

But it is also dedicated to The1960sToday – connecting things happening in our world in 2022 with events in the 1960-75 period to sharpen our view of both times. Today’s topic touches a bit on China – one of those less-than-talked about HUGE topics of the 1960s that somehow is crowded out in the minds of academic writers on the period by such burning issues of the times as feminists burning their bras at Miss America pageants or cataloguing the barely coherent poetry of stoned artists in the streets of San Francisco. Call us crazy, but we prefer more mature material if you will, such as the behavior of Great Powers on the world stage, and their potentially detrimental impact on the United States.

In connecting something happening today in CHINA with something happening 1960-75 brings us to a contrast, a big big contrast – almost to the point of opposites.

In the years of this Project, China turned in on itself, convulsed and burned, shut out the world; was, at most, regional in its orientation, and expelled any one who could report on the domestic Chinese scene. China was a blind spot in world affairs whose events we found out about only after they were over in 1979. These past events make vivid the differences of China today – outward facing, assertive, unrestricted, no-longer only regional, but worldwide in its activity and reach.

Let’s look.

China of course went “red,” of course, in 1949 when the communists under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung defeated the Nationalists under Chiang and banished them to Taiwan (see “China Nightmare” on this site)

Japan and the four Asian “Tigers” of South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan emerged onto the world stage during the 1960s, and excelled magnificently. By contrast, Chinese leaders turned their backs both on the West and their apparent ideological ally, the Soviet Union. In contrast to the many countries that opened themselves and advanced amid the general prosperity of the postwar world, China closed in on itself – every bit as much as it did before the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century forced it open at the barrel of a gun.  In the period from 1958 to 1972, China closed down in order to search for its own path to modernity, to industrialization, and to socialism in the two wrenching reform movements now known as the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60) and the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). This is a period that exactly straddles the 1960s with profound negative consequences for China in lost productivity, lost world relations, and casualties on a scale the West has not known in modern times. A generation of Chinese killed. Indeed, the 1960s was China’s lost decade of the twentieth century, and only in the 1970s would the mainland again connect with such countries as the United States, Japan, West Germany and France. Even then, China’ s leaders were divided as to the wisdom of reemergence which began with reestablishment of relations with the United States in 1972, and continued in the subsequent market-oriented reforms of Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. 

The China we know today is not the overtly ideological power of the 1960s, vying with the Soviet Union for leadership of the communist world. Nor is it the closed, dogmatically draconian force towards its own population we saw in the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. It has adopted a certain mix of capitalism and state control it calls a “socialist market economy.” However softened from the destructive power of Mao, China remains as completely authoritarian in its political domestic aspect as in the earlier era; its population an extension of the state, and surveilled with new technology for control and in service to the state. 

What has changed profoundly since 1979 or so is that this Chinese authoritarianism has bolted onto itself an international assertiveness that has burst out of its traditional regionalism into a worldwide orientation. Its moves today throw into telling relief the behavior of its 1960-1975 past, and the world has noticed. Some high-profile examples of outside-focused initiatives today, not present 1960-1975.

  • Confucius Institutes (CIs) at universities worldwide; part of Chinese gov’t “soft power” education efforts.
  • Founding of TikTok (Douyin in Chinese) by ByteDance in 2016, an immensely popular video hosting service in 40 languages.
  • Thousand Talents Program” – effort to woo western scientists, journalists, and students to study in China; penetration of academia (e.g., Harvard – Chemistry and Chemical biology researcher; University of Arkansas – NASA researcher; Cleveland Clinic – cardiovascular genetics researcher; Emory – researcher on Huntington’s Disease)
  • Hong Kong: blatant breech of Sino-British Treaty guaranteeing HK self-rule until 2047; curtails former colony’s autonomy.
  • Taiwan: rumblings of invasion after quiet period since the late 1950s; strategic position shifted with the . . .
  • Establishment of so-called Nine-dash Line demarcating extensive Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
  • Chinese seeking of energy assets in Canada, e.g., purchase of Nexen and Novus; expansion of activity in Alberta’s oil sands by China’s Big Three: Petrochina, SInopac, and CNOOC.
  • Significant increases of Chinese FDI across Africa, particularly in Nigeria; 242 joint ventures and contracted energy projects throughout Africa as of mid-2019 (Global Data Energy); and specifically oil resources around the world in Peru, Venezuela, Thailand, Kuwait, Central Asia, Russia, Sudan, Angola, Niger, Nigeria, SaoTome Principe and Equatorial Guinea (IDE-JETRO).
  • 2008 Olympics success.
  • Influence over members of Congress: Eric Swalwell (D-CA); CCP-sponsored trips for US lawmakers.
  • Cybercrime against Americans privacy (FBI, C. Wray, 2017).
  • Guangxi Province training facility for Southeast Asian leaders on guiding online public opinion and revolutionary traditions.
  • Member of the World Trade Organization (WTO)
  • Massive infrastructure “Belt and Road Initiative” across 70 countries begun in 2013; a central plank of Chinese foreign policy involving projects and financing.
  • The construction of a Blue Water navy capable of worldwide power projection, including four aircraft carriers, equaling Japan and France; and the most submarines of any major power, at 74.
  • China initiates development of a 13,000-satellite program.

As well-known and serious as these 15 items are, we could cite simply the economic growth rates since the death of Mao and the arrest of his wife, Madame Mao, in 1976. It is almost as if the economic miracle that Western Europe and much of Asia experienced after World War II was delayed by a generation in China. Indeed China stood alone, and stood against the trend of advancement against the world. Its recovery came not from the war but the stoppage of its own mismanagement and hideous megalomania of leadership. But it came. And for our purposes is noticeably different from our 1960-75 years, hence relevant.

GDP growth between 1960 to 2022 are available from many places. We choose to use Macrotrends. And they are very interesting.

The unspeakable horrors of the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960 included widespread famine whose effects even moved Mao to the kind of regret that caused him to delay starting his next reform drive, the Cultural Revolution until 1966. The population figures for 1961 indicate between 15 and 55 million dead, at least a 1% loss. The figures are rough because there were few people on the ground in China to report and tally developments. The loss of economic productivity followed population loss, dropping by a devastating 27% in 1961, 6% in 1962. Starting from the 1963 trough, though, going to 1976 when Mao died, Chinese growth is remarkably strong, averaging over 8% per year. This was cloudy at the time with China was completely closed to news and western observers.

Understandably, we think the China today, that has averaged an astounding 9% growth pace from 1979 to 2020, has mainly to do with economic performance, and we notice this because it is indeed truly stupendous (second in size only behind the United States and 10X the size of its former Cold War rival, Russia). We would be mistaken, however, to think that this period is so much different then the 1960s/1970s period which grew at a pace within a percentage of recent times; indeed grew by leaps and bounds despite the twin disasters. Granted, the recent expansion is perhaps more astounding than the 1960s since the latter was coming off a smaller base; since 1979, percentages of a larger economy became harder and yet continued!

But The1960sToday connection comes in realizing how differently China is behaving in the world today compared to the 1960-1975 era. This is worth noting, yet with International Affairs limited in accounts of the 1960s to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, China would given short-shrift. And one would have nothing to compare the massively assertive behavior we see today with anything else that is very likely to continue since Xi Jinping become more or less permanent as General Secretary in 2012, with power that China Watchers compare to Mao.

The 1960s continue to give resonance to contemporary issues.


Until next month when we talk about Vietnam and Ukraine,


April 25, 2022

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