Newsletter #23: A New Age of Empire, with Ho-fung Hung

by William Harris

I lived in Shanghai for a few years during the decade following the 2008 financial crash. This was a time in which Western journalists approached China with their mouths open. They gawked over GDP rates, the rise of preposterously large cities, the statistical delirium of a rising economy of 1.5 billion people, and the gauche ways China’s nouveau riche brandished their wealth. They gawked over rumblings of protest, and they gawked over how precarious it all seemed — how the real estate market teetered on the brink, how likely it was that this fantastical economic engine would sputter into collapse. 

It was hard for me, too, not to sometimes see China with those eyes. Every time I would fly into Shanghai, the view on my cab ride home would change: new high rises, whole neighborhoods transformed in a matter of months, intensifying clouds of smog that the poor breathed in and the rich magicked away with air purifiers. Perhaps things were precarious, but they also seemed like emblems of a new capitalist horizon. There was a brilliant elegance to the late political economist Giovanni Arrighi’s story of succeeding world hegemons, in which a once-dominant power like Britain grew indebted to an upstart nation like the US and thus helped along the new superpower’s rise, just as centuries before, Genoese merchant capitalists had grown indebted to Holland and made possible the Dutch empire’s ascendance. Arrighi’s final book, Adam Smith in Beijing, hinted that the same process might be underway again: the US as declining debtor-superpower on the verge of being surpassed by creditor-power China.

Yet as sociologist Ho-fung Hung explains in part two of his interview with The Dig, this hasn’t happened. Instead, China’s growth rate has fallen to more modest levels, and our era has become less one of geopolitical succession than one of confrontational geopolitical stalemate. 

Listen to Ho-fung Hung’s interview with The Dig here.

So far, the effects of this new world have been bleak: ramped-up militarism, war. But might this geopolitical situation also provide openings? Hung suggests a Keynesian solution, where China and the US enact programs of domestic economic redistribution so growth can proceed internally, calming imperial battles over external markets. There are reasons to hope for this and reasons to remain skeptical: the imbalance of class forces, the environmental consequences of expanded consumption. 

But Hung also mentions a second opening to watch out for. “Our analysis focuses too much on big powers and big empires without paying enough attention to smaller states,” Hung says. From Tanzania to the Philippines, nationalism is on the rise across the world, and multi-polarity provides small states the chance to play big powers against each other. This could just lead to exacerbated tensions — but it could lead, too, to more room for small left-leaning regimes, like the ones once again on the rise in Latin America.

Further Reading

For related Dig listening, check out our interview with Tobita Chow and Jake Werner on the China-US relationship and how it fits into today’s landscape of global capital. And if you want to read more on dollar supremacy in light of the war in Ukraine, read Dominik A. Leusder’s recent n+1 essay “The Art of Monetary War.”