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Can China Turn the Middle of Nowhere into the Center of the World Economy? (nytimes.com)
94 points by mooreds 48 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

This reminds me of Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grant Chessboard. It describes how the US secured its empire. China is not only building for economic growth but also building up valuable relationships and influence. Also keep in mind that one of Rome's greatest military innovations might have been its roads.

Meanwhile the US is seems to be played by everyone from the outside and tearing itself apart from the inside. It seems like we aren't only losing the fight for global hegemony but barely actively taking part.

The global hegemony is still being maintained, there still is 800 US military bases around the world despite those in Afghanistan and several in the Middle East being shut down.




Could've said the same thing about the British Empire in 1946.

Not really, no. There is a difference between conquering a country and forging an agreement to build a base. The U.S. form of influence, while still questionable in its morality, is a lot less intrusive. For all that America gets a bad rap for subverting world culture, it’s largly the case that it’s the result of selling people things they want, including movies, music, food, etc. for all that the French rant about American Imperialism, they still like McDonald’s fries.

The Brits tried to crush the cultures of their conquered nations through violence and forced indoctrination. If you want to compare that to something in American history, see the treatment of natives. Today there is no real comparison. That’s not to excuse the many downsides of the current U.S. system, but comparing it to the British empire is facetious.

This thread isn't about morality, it's about decline. I was comparing the state of American hegemony to that of Britain in 1946.

Morality is orthogonal to their main point, which is that American influence in the world isn't built on military strength but by forging (usually) mutually beneficial military and trade relationships. It is through those relationships that the US is able to project force and maintain hundreds of forward operating bases, not by invading the countries and putting down fortresses that then have to be constantly defended against the local populace (for the most part).

This thread isn't about morality, it's about decline. I was comparing the state of American hegemony to that of Britain in 1946.

Right, and I ignored the morality of both and focused on the massive practical differences. So what’s the problem? They are manifestly different in almost every way, except possibly for aspects of the moral dimension which were both agreeing to ignore.

The original comment about 800 military bases has a pretty strong parallel to an overseas colonial empire in 1946.

Expensive, prestigious, and dubiously 'worth it' in terms of profitability.

That wasn’t my comment, it was from another person entirely.

>Meanwhile the US is seems to be played by everyone from the outside and tearing itself apart from the inside. It seems like we aren't only losing the fight for global hegemony but barely actively taking part.

The entire point of this story and many like it is to make people ignore anything concrete and think US dominance is in question. They don't accurately report the worldwide situation, and they wouldn't even begin to question whether continuing the US form of neocolonialism is a good idea. They just create small pockets of fear that someday some other country may treat the US like the US has treated them.

>It seems like we aren't only losing the fight for global hegemony but barely actively taking part.

We've actually shot ourselves in the foot with a shotgun in the last few years. We're doing everything we can to cripple ourselves and let other powers take over.

The U.S. lost claim to leadership with Vietnam, and then doubled down with Iraq. It is common in history for the most powerful leaders to mess things up. It is the cycle of life.

I agree with Iraq, but Vietnam, as messy as it was, I think, was necessary. Even Vietnamese I’ve spoken to believe it was the right thing. Sometimes things are clear cut and easy, other times they are messy and problematic.

Yep, every powerful nation or empire in the past has collapsed or faded in significance after some time. The question is, in our case, will it be a rapid collapse or a slow fade (like the British empire), and when?

British empire was a rapid collapse. From really starting in the 16th century it reached a peak in 1945 -- nearly 400 years. It collapsed within 20

Rome by comparison took 700 years to grow, and 200-plus to collapse

> British empire was a rapid collapse [...] It collapsed within 20

It would be better to treat the British Empire and the United States as two forms of the same empire, as they both speak the same language The capital of the empire simply moved from London to Washington via an internal revolution, a process that's happened many times in the past, e.g. Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, St Petersburg to Moscow, Xian to Hangzhou, Kyoto to Tokyo. So the British Empire/United States reached a peak after 400 years, and is now declining for perhaps a few hundred.

With that reasoning, you could argue we are still an extension of Rome.

The British Empire and the United States spoke the same language. Their homelands, i.e the places where they make up the majority of residents, are the same: the British Empire with its American colonies then, and the United States and its "special relationship" with the U.K. and other Five Eyes nowadays. The leaders of the American Revolution were leading British Imperialists immediately before, e.g. George Washington led the 1760's campaign against the French in the Mississippi valley.

For the British, I don't think you can say it "collapsed". The empire fell apart, sure, but it's not like life for the British people turned into living hell; they still enjoy a very high standard of living, among the best in the world, surely better than the Americans.

By comparison, when Rome fell apart (which admittedly took some time), the standard of living was objectively much worse for average Romans. They went from a civilization with plumbing, toilets, cities, aqueducts, a Coliseum with water shows, and probably the highest standard of living in the world, and a society with specialization of labor, education, rule of law and a well-developed legal system, to feudalism, where they lived under feudal lords as uneducated serfs living in huts and working in fields. It took over 1000 years for western society to get back to the level of technology and development they had under the Romans.

Partly it was a change in politics that it was no longer the done thing to take up the white man's burden and order Johnny Foreigner around.

The U.S. lost Vietnam because rural farmers thought U.S. troops were working for land lords. Land lords would take control of rural areas and start charging farmers rent after it was cleared of Viet Cong. There is a similar problem in Afghanistan: the Afghan government raises most of its revenues from sales and excise taxes, and doesn't tax land owners on property privately seized from rural residents. Since it doesn't tax land and has not centrally issued titles to rural residents, it doesn't have good records on land ownership and can't prevent private land seizures effectively.

These are not inevitable problems. Our politicians just don't understand the difference between land and capital and have undermined U.S. efforts to promote land reform in Asia after it worked so well in Japan.

Interestingly, before it went downhill, US advisors told the S. Viet gov that the one thing they had to do to stave off revolution was land redistribution, in the least in the Mekong Delta, (I believe land redistribution was done to some extent in SK), but the S Vietnamese refused, and so the NVA had an “in”.

Sounds like one of those scenarios where the side we picked to support was itself corrupt, so the general population saw no good reason to support our side over the opposing side.

Yes, but it’s not so much the side we “picked” but the team that was given to us. Just as the Soviets often times had no choice but to work with truly bad people.

It seems like, in that case, you should just opt out. We didn't have to get involved in that war.

Hard to say, but given the realpolitik of the time, there doesn’t seem to have been much choice. The world was hostage to an indeological foe which took no prisoners and was looking to aggressively take over control of the world. That was their stated objective.

That’s mostly surface talk. They invaded fewer countries than the US has, sticking mostly to supporting rebellion.

The US and Europe squashed home grown communism mostly through things like social security, unemployment insurance, and a helping of good old propaganda. Yet, we where suckered into fighting ideology on foreign soil with military force.

I don’t think it was obvious at the time, but going forward we need to learn from these mistakes.

I think you’re missing some history there.

Such as?

Korean War can be viewed North Korea as a separate country attacking South Korea, or a civil war. But, Vietnam war (including invasion of Cambodia) and a host of South American wars where much more clearly started as civil wars with Forein support not really invasions.

PS: Afghanistan is something of a wash with the US also invading the country.

This scenario seems distressingly common in post-WW2 U.S. foreign policy.

Cant be the leader of the world with a trillion dollar deficit... in a supposedly economic boom.

Rome doesn't exist anymore. They got attacked on all fronts.

What China is doing is modern colonization through loans and I can only see it backfire.

It's a great scheme though, but at least Rome owned the places where it builded roads.

Edit: downvotes, please comment why. I'll rather discuss :)

They built roads to invade those places in the first place, long before they "owned" them, dug out the gold and sent it to Rome.

I'm not sure the Chinese strategy will work or if they'll see enough growth to support it. It's quite scary. I think I'd much rather prefer US bases to Chinese loans.

I don't think it's about ROI for railways. Economic logic doesn't make sense versus container ships.

It's more likely an excuse for investments along the road. Bait and switch

US economic hegemony will last as long as they retain the strongest Navy, by a huge margin, and world commerce veins remain to be the oceans and seas.

Which, unless blimps take over soon, will be until the advent of the space elevator.

The military buys you political influence.

Economic power (and that also buys you political influence) comes from the size of the economy. The size of the economy enables military power.

China (and India) have 4x the US' population. China's land area is the same as the US'. It's simply a matter of time for them to be more powerful economically than the US, and then it's really up to them to also topple the US militarily.

And China's planning for this. See their DF-26 "carrier killer" missiles.

Woah "According to the United States State Department, between 800,000 and two million people, or up to 15 percent of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, have been incarcerated in a growing network of more than 1,000 concentration camps."

> that its promoters say is poised to become the next Dubai

I think its promoters have some funny ideas about what Dubai is and why people go there

Why _do_ people go there, and why don't you think Chinese developers can replicate that?

Dubai is fueled by oil money, something that China doesn't have a lot of (relative to their population size). You can explain a lot by looking at the oil money to population ratio of various polities. The ebb and flow of the balance sheets of Texas, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Venezuela and Norway all have a lot to do with the price of oil and their local production. In many places around the world, successful socialism means oil production, and failed socialism means failures in oil production. Government-owned oil reserves allow countries to "cheat" the taxes-versus-services dilemma, but that never lasts for long. Presently Saudi Arabia is feeling the pressure of decline and may not be able to pay their people to be happy for much longer. Venezuela is practically collapsing right now, and it all started when they had a series of oil production disasters that crippled their national reserves. Texas and Norway might be better prepared, because they have been investing the money, Texas in roads and education and Norway in their country in general.

The "middle of nowhere" location isn't just one city, but also a hub near the border of Kazakhstan which has been booming from abundant natural gas resources backed by a low population to land area density, and other useful exports such as a third of the world's uranium extraction.

But gas isn't as ubiquitous as oil and it's probably never going to be. Oil consumed everything in the last century and now even if it declines significantly chances are it will be replaced in certain markets by other energy sources. Gas doesn't have much opportunities for growth. And the same can be said about uranium and it's future. Sure it's not going to be completely phased away in the near future but even if the world is suddenly going to make a turn to nuclear it only makes sense that newer technologies will be used.

Since when was Texas socialist?

The Texas government uses their mineral rights to fund roads and schools that they otherwise wouldn't be able to pay for with their 0% state income tax. Although Texas is not very socialist, maybe 0.1%, it would have to be even less socialist if you took away the minerals without allowing the tax rate to go up.

Dubai has no banking treaties or extradition treaties with the US.

So combine that with it's oil wealth and a lot of dollars sloshing around to begin with - they have created a zone that attracts zillions of ill gotten dollars, a lot of it related to oil.

Since the mid 20th century there has been some transparency on resource extraction among nation states, like the US, UK tc. Then regional nationalist leaders have sought to take those over 'for the people'. But in reality those leaders are often more corrupt than their colonial overlords.

So they, shady bankers, and all sorts of actors need to do their banking somewhere.

When you hear about the Afghani Army General who is not paid very much is actually a millionaire, where do you think he keeps is money?

'Cleaned' dirty money makes it's way to London, Switzerland or Hong Kong, but while it's obviously attached to someone or there is no legal cover, it sits in places Dubai.

And FYI all of that money drives a lot of 'legit' expansion, particularly in real estate.

To add to your post, I highly recommend this Planet Money episode: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/10/05/654769859/epis...

"But Oliver Bullough says it doesn't make sense to look at the world that way. He's a British journalist and he has written a new book: Moneyland. That's what he calls a hidden economy where shell companies and offshore accounts shelter wealth from taxation and scrutiny."

China appears to be ensuring that their economy continues to grow rapidly with the Belt and Road initiative. By some measures they have already passed the United States.


At some point soon, shouldn't the ability to grow the economy 6-10% a year become impossible?

The real growth rate is never the same as the official published rate. It was said last year China only grew less than 2%.

Just curios, do you think the earth is flat?

I said China grew negatively for years and the people are still living in caves

I have a feeling if some production switches to India it might put a damper on Chinas plans. That would slow their growth a lot.

I am not going to argue if the Trump tariffs on China are good or bad. But they might force some companies to explore alternative manufactuing facilities with countries friendlier to the US. Apple looking at india as a possible move and some other large companies i have seen articles that are exploring the possibiliy.

This is the problem with being dependant on other countries. China desperately needs exports to sustain their growth as a nation. U.S. needs China because we are use to overbuying cheap goods, however it goes back to supply and demand, if their are other suppliers it places the entity on the demand side in a much safer place. Just my opinion, i am not an economics guy so i am probably wrong.

I think if India actually made sense as a place for western companies to invest in and build factories, they would have done it long before now.

You could have said the same thing about China 50 years ago. Places aren’t appropriate for investment until they are, and then the change that can take place is staggering.

I agree, the disdain China has for the US and the Tiawan issues and other factors are causing this administration to do some crazy things (it will probably change in 2 years when elections are held again in the U.S.). I mean we (U.S. citizens) are being advised not to travel to China for risk of being detained and prevented from leaving the country (I mean they execute drug traffickers from Canada, pretty harsh).

I didnt think someone as big as apple would consider moving production (and they might not). But given the chilly relations of our two countries and the less chilly relations we have with India it is not to hard to imagine things changing.

I guess we will see in the coming months, i can't do anything, i am just along for the ride.

India has a lot of built-in hostility to overseas investment, especially in manufacturing. The reason software took off before anything else is largely because it avoided that hostility (and even then, challenges remain like income on patents).

Even saying our relations with India are better than China is a bit misleading. The USA always backed Pakistan in any of their wars, while India was always the canonical third-world country that prefers Migs to F16s.

We have pretty good relations with India, yes, but then why haven't western countries been building factories there for the last couple decades? I think it's because, despite the good relations and India's democratic government (as opposed to China's authoritarian one), India has severe internal problems that make it unattractive as a location for factories. India has long had an extremely bad problem with corruption, namely. You can't get anything done there without a bribe.

China did some crazy things during Xi. Like South China Sea military bases to bully other states, recent reactions against Taiwan etc. I would not fully blame your current administration since China probably had it coming.

And not Apple, but it's supplier Foxconn is shifting production to India.

That's why Made in China 2025 exists. China is trying to transition its manufacturing sector to focus on high tech, high valuef products. Shoddy growth strategies (e.g. IP theft and forced technology transfers) aside, it's a sound plan to avoid falling into the middle income trap.

Unlike so much of the ugly narrative, even the ugly bits and pieces of this project (i.e. buying up ports, putting countries into debt traps etc.) - this one is different because there's a real, underlying material reality here.

It's rational economic impetus, and probably a 'good idea' for the Chinese.

Frankly, it may be good for many more than the Chinese.

a) Other nations will be connected

b) It can be 'two way' as well.

Just like the UK, and later the US controls the high seas for the benefit of every merchant, and developed important projects like the Panama Canal and ensures everyone, even economic competitors have access (Russian, Iranian warships through the Suez during peacetime, even though the US has de-facto control), China is to some extent doing the same.

The Belt-and-Road is 'what China needs' but it will also be beneficial to others so long as it does not get politically messy.

Belt-and-Road itself is a reasonable plan, however the Chinese gov's political system determined that all of its projects are politically charged in one way or another. This is why many countries involved in the initiative are now trying to push back.

Yes. Whatever gets built is a good thing on the whole. But the politics will be a mess.

The Roman Senate once called my country the middle of nowhere and 2000 years later it all worked out nicely (meanwhile Rome's glory days are long gone).

Great photos, but why did they publish this w/o a map of any kind? Would be great to see this in geographic context

Hi All, I’m working on a submission envisioning the environment in 2030.

Looking at China’s stated “One Belt, One Road” initiative, is it feasible this could expand?

Soecifically, to include: “One Platform, One Network”

By that I mean the deep integration and alignment between the Chinese government and BAT(Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) enabling a shift from rising Superpower to Superplatform primacy.

Superplatform > Superpower

Geodigital > Geopolitical

Exorbitant Data(superplatform) > Exorbitant Privilege(currency)

Network Effects based thinking > Kinetic Effects based thinking

US/FAANG appear to be cannibalising each other and in constant conflict with the US government and potentially less competitive in a relative, clinical, and Machiavellian sense with China/BAT.

Could we see a war for superplatform primacy?


Only if dictatorship ( of countries) are ruling the world.

Currently, I don't see it happening. The greatest interest is in duplicating the great firewall.

Then some competition for payment systems exists, but it's currently based on giving Chinese expats an alternative payment method.

A.I. will have an advantage in China because of the extreme adoption. But I don't see worldwide adoption because of the language barrier. The world speaks English currently, which is a huge influencer/barrier.

They are trying to change things with Chinese universities.

Not sure where it will end.

Agreed that dictatorships/authoritarianism is not preferred option.

But does the integration of China/BAT offer an opportunity for China to inject it’s near 100% ubiquity of its domestic platforms onto its trading partners via debt trap diplomacy?

Does the incredibly high level of Chinese government/commercial platform integration and ubiquity provide a competitive advantage with the bottom half of the planet over the US/FAANG?

Would the extension of China/BAT to developing world countries with less than stellar records of freedom and Nd human rights provide a platform for both growth and sustainment of power?

debt trap diplomacy vs democracy is my guess why they will fail.

Racism in China is extreme and as soon as the outsiders leave China for that reason, the cookie will crumble. Chinese only look out for themselves

Hypothetical scenario.

Rather than China seizing infrastructure collateral for debt trap loans instead China compels governments to push for ubiquity of a China/BAT superplatform, say "WeChat+" thru which all local government services and commerce will be conducted.

Also concurrently providing outsourced support for local regime continuity due to persistent surveillance provide by a "WeChat+" platform integrated with local and Chinese government.

Only China / Russia / Korea can currently push platforms because of dictatorship and censorship.

You are forgetting that the WTO was already asked by multiple countries for help. There are other options than China ;)

The source of the money is partially already from Europe and America. China borrows a lot of money too.


To me the interesting question is, can land transportation ever compete with water transportation for moving goods.

Edit: updated wayer -> water

The combination of free movement of goods and extremely restricted rights and movement of people is going to put a lot of tension on that project, I'm sure. Or maybe not; after all, it works for Dubai.

Then there's the technical problem of rail trans-shipment across different gauges. I wonder at what point it makes economic sense to rebuild several thousand miles of trans-Siberian railway.

I believe that Russia/Soviet Union considered that a feature, not a bug. I wonder if they would consider making it faster for TVs to get to Amsterdam at the cost of making it easier for tanks to get to Moscow.


> extremely restricted rights and movement of people [in] Dubai

While that's true of South and South-East Asian low-paid workers, I'm under the impression that neither of those is particularly true of Dubai in a more general case?

> neither of those is particularly true of Dubai in a more general case?

Correct. For investors and businesspeople, getting in and out of as well as around the Emirates is intentionally easy.

This became [Flagged][Dead] pretty quickly, although vouching for it seems to have fixed it again. How does that happen?

I imagine some people are getting a bit tired of this topic, or at least the rate at which stories are making it on to the front page, and honestly, the HN community doesn't have all that much to add to this discussion. Heck, it's not particularly clear the NY Times does either. It's a huge topic that probably nobody really knows in the end.

It happens like any other flagged submission: members flag it. And as you note, vouching restores it. 'minimaxir's put together a lengthier explanation here:


This article exemplifies everything wrong with the nytimes and journalism today.

1. It's asking me a question. Don't ask me a question.

2. It doesn't add anything new or informative. Pretty much a rehash of everything that's been stated repeatedly for the past 8 years.

3. Boring standard propaganda. It's interesting how the BRI is covered by pro-china, anti-china and "neutral" ( if possible ) propaganda organizations.

4. Written like an annoying travel diary than an article.

5. Article by Ben Mauk who obviously has insights to khazakstan or china right? In a world that "is more connected than ever before", the nytimes couldn't find anyone other than some guy from europe to report on this? Does the nytimes hire an indonesian journalist to cover brexit?

6. Nothing gained from reading the article. Are we any closer to answering the question? Did we learn anything new? Other than Abaiuly is a handsome liaison to opinion makers and potential investors?

You'd find more insight and "truth" watching youtube vlogs/reports/etc from the locals/travels or even finding these people on gaming chats and talking to them directly.

It is correct that the silk road isn't an actual route but a bunch of routes that changed throughout history. Historically, it was more of an idea of a connection and trade between the civilizations of china, india and the middle east. But the idea that it wasn't controlled or administered by anyone is simply not true. Whatever empires that controlled the region ( most famously the mongol empire ) controlled and administered these routes.

We ( and the british before us ) have shown that naval power and naval trade routes define global economic and political strength. Rather than china's overland silk road ambitions, I'd be more focused on their naval trade route ambitions. Especially if global warming opens up the northwest passage or the arctic siberian passage.

You're criticizing this article as though it was intended to be groundbreaking and authoritative, and then expand your criticisms to the entire New York Times and an entire profession.

That may or may not be a fair assessment, but I'm not really convinced. This is a New York Times Magazine article with flashy pictures. It's entertainment for people who are interested in geopolitics. It's not Ben Mauk's fault that he's an American and his piece shot to the front page of Hacker News.

What I think you're looking for is a really good Wikipedia article or research study on BRI.

Unless you can expand on why this piece is "propaganda" or what exactly the article got wrong, why not enjoy the piece (or not) as a travel diary with the BRI as a broad geopolitical context?

>Unless you can expand on why this piece is "propaganda" or what exactly the article got wrong, why not enjoy the piece (or not) as a travel diary with the BRI as a broad geopolitical context?

Because it does not market itself as such. It makes some bold claim to answer a question that's probably interesting to a lot of people follwing BRI-developments. Instead it's 'I've visited the Kazakhstan-China border and talked to a few people', but I guess that headline doesn't attract as many clicks.

EDIT: Not the GP and I don't want to claim that this is propaganda.

I might agree that it isn't marketing itself as such if it wasn't written in the style of a first-person narrative, have "New York Times Magazine" banner across the top, and didn't have panoramic pictures every few paragraphs.

I don't know about you, but I react a lot differently to information presented in that format as opposed to something like this: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/business/china-foreign-po...

> It's entertainment for people who are interested in geopolitics.

And that's the crux of the problem. This entertainment geopolitics is no longer confined to just places like the NYTimes magazine. It has basically blended in with all "journalism" today because it's great for engagement. In the best case scenario, the hallmarks of good journalism like informing the reader with facts and being impartial are mere afterthoughts.

Is the issue the content itself, or an expectation that any given human writing any given article should be considered an absolute source of truth?

Again, I think it would be really valuable to point out the facts or "spin" that the author got wrong here. Please do this if you have an issue with the article not being impartial or getting facts wrong.

The NY Times Magazine does not publish news articles. It publishes long-form works that are intended to educate readers about a topic. These works are not intended to be exhaustive, or neutral. They are intended to be engaging.

As all of your critiques are premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the work at issue, I would respectfully suggest that you reassess your critique in light of this (new?) information.

This comment exemplifies everything wrong with Hacker News today.

1. It's smug and self-indulgent

2. It doesn't add anything new or informative

3. Boring standard whining

The author is on point though. NyTimes feels dated and confused in the way it is acquiring its news.

hmm there were some new pieces of information to me, I guess I'm not spending enough time in game chats talking with rural kazakhs.

Interesting theory that only people of a certain race should cover that race. I guess this has been wrong with journalism for many centuries. I wouldn't even have realized that an Indonesian covering Brexit would be wrong, I'd be more interested in their relevant experience, knowledge, and sources to be honest.

It's a good point that this material has been covered before. Shame to see more than one article ever on a topic.

Also a great point that China's naval ambitions are also a story worth covering. I agree that it is journalistical malpractice to cover the massive continent spanning belt and road initiative at all when naval power is more important according to your extensive analysis.

Rhetorical questions are definitely just always wrong, thanks for pointing that out and then using 5 of them yourself.

The South Indian kingdoms were naval powers before British and Portuguese. There was hardly any trade done from India via land. It was mostly via sea.

Also, where is the map showing the location of this "Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility"? I used to love the old nytimes that had a little map for almost every story. It really was useful for putting events into a world view for me.

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