Newsletter #22: Capitalist China, with Ho-fung Hung

By Mack Penner

What an episode: in a little over an hour, Ho-fung Hung, author of The China Boom, covers more than two centuries of political-economic development in China, all the while weaving in and out of Marxist accumulation theory, Immanuel Wallersteinian world-systems theory, and Annales historiography. What more could we ask for?

There are, importantly, two time-scales at work in the interview: a period of centuries over which China occupied a subordinate position in the workings of global capitalism; and a more recent period, only a couple of decades in existence, during which China has become a superpower. The forthcoming second episode with Hung, on the financial crisis of 2008 and more, delves further into the latter period. 

China’s rise over recent decades has been dramatic, so it can seem novel. As former guest Isabella Weber points out in her book, How China Escaped Shock Therapy, from 1990 to 2017, the Chinese share of global GDP went from hardly more than 2 percent to nearly 13 percent. Today, according to the World Bank, the Chinese share is well above 15 percent. If the Chinese Communist Party can meet its goals for economic growth, modest only by recent Chinese standards, China could represent fully one-fifth of world GDP. 

These figures are stunning. But as we learn in the episode, China’s subordinate geoeconomic status in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the real historical anomaly. In the early modern period, and for centuries on-and-off beforehand, Chinese society was characterized by high living standards and flourishing commerce. As Hung notes in The China Boom, citing political scientist Joseph Nye, recent Chinese history is actually better understood as a “renaissance” than a “rise.” 

The China Boom argues that despite growing Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical power, China is unlikely to fundamentally upend the global capitalist system in the long term — in part because it has benefitted from that system. This point rhymes with the analysis of some other observers: Branko Milanovic, for example, suggests that competition between China and the United States is a contest between versions of capitalism rather than a clash of fundamentally different systems. A China-dominated world system would still be a capitalist world system. 

So what should we make of the China boom? We might get our bearings by keeping one eye on each of the time scales that feature in the episode. In the short term, we should remember that inter-imperial rivalry between large capitalist states doesn’t have a great track record, to say the least. Panning out, we might want to consider the final passages in The China Boom, where Hung calls it “unthinkable that the upcoming crises might be more daunting than the ones China has weathered over the centuries” and predicts that “its robust capitalist development will continue for a long time.” 

But as we consider the possibility, in China and elsewhere, of further capitalist development over the long-term, the obvious question is: how long do we have? As Kate Aronoff has argued on The Dig, even if the end of capitalism is not likely to come for a long time, managing the climate crisis still urgently requires a “radical shift in our current economic order.” In the long run, however long it turns out to be, the battle over what that radical shift will look like is of the utmost importance.

Speaking of Isabella Weber, her interview with The Dig is a clear archival complement to Hung’s two-part interview. Hung’s new book, Clash of Empires, will be out shortly. 

It’s springtime in the northern hemisphere, meaning that summer reading plans are being made. Hung’s references to debates in the theory and history of capitalism could make for inspiration. You might dabble in the capitalist transition debates via the “Brenner Debate.” Or you might read Immanuel Wallerstein’s introduction to world-systems analysis. The really good stuff, however, is Annales history and historiography. Summer 2022 as the summer of Fernand Braudel, anyone?