The Specter of Lysenko

What struck me about Sebastian Mallaby’s latest Washington Post column was the gap between its caption, “These signs show that China is starting to crack”, and the actual material of the column. That suggests to me that the editors have an axe to grind which the column doesn’t actually grind enough for them.

Here’s the meat of the column:

In the first decade of this century, China manipulated its exchange rate. This boosted exports, but it also led to an unsustainable trade surplus, the recycling of the receipts into vast piles of U.S. financial instruments and, ultimately, to a queasy feeling of dependence when Wall Street blew up in 2008.

The Communist Party’s next trick was to order banks and local governments to fuel a construction boom. Again, this boosted growth, but it replaced unsustainable foreign-bond buying with unsustainable domestic debt. Sure enough, the country’s largest property developer has defaulted. Buyers of unbuilt apartments are furious. A mortgage boycott has spread to more than 100 cities. Home prices have fallen for 12 straight months. Since real estate drives more than a quarter of the economy, the collapse of the sector threatens a wider slump.

The third snag casts a cloud over China’s strength in tech. For political reasons, again, China cannot tolerate tech titans who aspire to become Elon Musk-style influencers, who list their companies on foreign stock exchanges, or who found companies that help Chinese students apply for colleges abroad. So it has cracked down on the lot of them. This won’t encourage the next generation of technologists to start companies in China.

And then there is demography. In 1979, in yet another fit of statist hubris, China’s leaders imposed a harsh one-child policy, resulting in sex-selective abortions, a gender imbalance, and a fertility rate that cratered even faster than it would have if China had followed the standard pattern of a developing country. Far too late, the government recognized the fuse it had lit, eventually moving to a two-child policy in 2016. Last year, in a panic, the government announced a three-child policy along with programs to encourage childbearing. Fertility shows no sign of picking up.

I would say that China started manipulating its current in the last decade of the last century but that doesn’t affect his point.

There’s very little with which to disagree in those points. You might object to his diction (his choice of words), e.g. “manipulate”, “trick”, “cloud”, “hubris”, but the list are simply facts. Their significance remains to be seen. I think the problems to which he’s calling attention are all failings of the Chinese Communist Party.

I have a somewhat unorthodox view of the CCP. I don’t think that they have masterfully navigated China’s path to prosperity, an overly simplistic statement of what I think is the prevailing orthodoxy. I think they’ve impeded China’s rise in the interest of their retaining the reins of power. Whether China can overcome the roadblocks Mr. Mallaby calls out while the CCP retains power remains to be seen. I don’t think it can for reasons I’d like to explain.

You might find the title of this post mystifying. Do you know who killed more people than anyone else in the 20th century? You might say Hitler, Stalin, or Mao but at best Stalin and Mao only tell half the story.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a Russian agronomist whose divergent theory of genetics and inheritance led directly to the deaths of tens of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, and Chinese by famine. His theory was called “Lysenkoism”. The danger of Lysenkoism was not merely that it was wrong but that, since it was politically attractive to Stalin, it became the established orthodoxy first in the Soviet Union and then in China. The episode is a cautionary tale of the dangers of politicized science.

That’s what I think the risk in China is. It is quite true that China is devoting an enormous amount of time, money, and energy into research and scientific education. That time, money, and energy is bearing some fruit, e.g. hypersonic weaponry, 5G.

The risk is that the investments that China is making are only means to an end and the end is not prosperity, economic growth, technological development, or the furthering of science. It is the continuance in power of the Chinese Communist Party. Only science and technology that further that goal will be acceptable. Anything else will be stamped out. That’s the lesson of politicized science, supported by the treatment of China’s tech entrepreneurs.

The case in point from China’s recent history is its infrastructure development. The reason that China builds buildings, bridges, and railways that collapse just a few years after construction is that they were politicized infrastructure investments. They were supposed to look good rather than be good.

6 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    Whether or not the current leadership is impeding Chinese growth can be debated, although I suspect Xi’s Maoism is doing some harm. However, the last 40 years since Deng’s reforms and later China’s accession to the WTO have produced one of the greatest runs of rapid economic growth in history. China is now the dominant economic power on the plant, and it is increasing its lead over the US and EU, which are in obvious and absolute decline.

    China has also caught up with and even surpassed the US in science and engineering. They have 10 times the number of engineers and scientists we do. Ten. Times. That gives them an insurmountable and unmatchable capacity for innovation and development.

    Aside from air craft carriers, China’s military is on a par with ours, and it has local military superiority.

    Whether or not China has a real estate bubble is also debatable. But 800 million Chinese have been elevated to European levels of living standards, and maybe even higher. Most of those people now own their own homes. Certainly, Shanghai and other cities are among the wealthiest in the world, and they do not suffer from all the malignancies that plague American and European cities, with their large, hostile, unassimilable populations of people of color.

    All-in-all, China is one of the great success stories in history, in if Xi and the other communist who rule China are slowing it down, they are not stopping it.

    Next, the Post will be telling us Russia is just a gas station with a tiny economy, on the level of Spain’s.

    The greatest threat to the US is not China or Russia, or climate change, or woke fanatics, or our black and white underclasses, it is our utterly delusional Ruling Caste.

  • I don’t think it was Deng so much as Zhao Ziyang who was more or less purged.

    IMO you’re overestimating Chinese military power. I may touch on that in a later post.

  • TastyBits Link

    @bob sykes

    Aside from air craft carriers, China’s military is on a par with ours, and it has local military superiority.

    China’s military is as worthless as Russia’s. Fancy military hardware is useless without the knowledge of how to employ it. Then, there is logistics.

    (I do think the Kalashnikov rifles are outstanding weapons, and I like the 7.62 round.)

  • steve Link

    Highly recommend The Gun by C J Chivers. A former ranger turned journalist. Goes over the history of the AK and its variants with a lot of comparisons to the M-16 and its family. I gave the book out as a Christmas present to all of the men in our group. Women got scarves. Next year women got more scarves and men all got a 6 pack.


  • I basically agree with Tasty’s take. The critical question is what does China’s leadership believe?

  • TastyBits Link

    There will be no conventional war between China, Russia, and the US, in any combination.

    China’s nuclear arsenal cannot cause as much destruction as the US or Russian arsenals, but they can still cause a lot.

    There is no deep-water surface fleet that can contest the US Navy. Period. Littoral waters are another matter. China’s navy would have the home field advantage. Their surface fleet is mostly littoral ships, and their sub fleet is mostly diesel.

    Taiwan is close enough that an invasion and occupation is possible. I have no idea of the quality of the Taiwanese military, but it would not be easy for the US to retake. Furthermore, the US is not going into a conventional war over Taiwan.

    An economic is always possible.

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