"China is not a counter-example to the case that progress depends on openness. When China was most open, it led the world in wealth, science, and technology, but by shutting its ports and minds to the world five hundred years ago, the planet’s richest country soon became one of its poorest." — Johan Norberg, Open: The Story of Human Progress
Travel back less than fifty years, to 1976 and the death of Mao Zedong, the President of the People's Republic of China, and the country was a very different place, both economically and socially. China had only just begun to recover from the devastating Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962, in which an ill-fated attempt at centralized industrialization would see 30 to 50 million Chinese die of starvation, sickness, and dearth, and tens of millions more pushed deeper into the worst poverty. At the height of the Great Leap Forward, child mortality had climbed to 30%; that is, three out of every ten children not living to see their fifth birthday, and average life expectancy had plummeted to 27.8 years.
Today just six countries, including Lesotho, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique, have an average life expectancy under 60 years. At the dawn of 2023, the world’s poorest, least developed, and greatest suffering people can expect a higher average life expectancy, lower child mortality, and higher living standards than the Chinese of 1960, a truly unfathomable historical fact to wrap one’s head around.
The Great Leap Forward and the brutality of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that followed from 1966 to 1976 was one of the darkest periods in Chinese history, a period where China turned its back on the world, choosing to go it alone with disastrous consequences. The end of Mao Zedong's rule and the commencement of Deng Xiaoping was the beginning of a series of policy shifts and a gradual opening of the country, both culturally and economically, that would fundamentally transform the lives and living standards of nearly a billion Chinese, and the rest of human civilization.
The result of this opening was the greatest improvement in living standards, health, wealth, and well-being in Chinese history. Between 1976 and 2022 — Chinese life expectancy increased by more than 15 years, GDP per capita increased by 1,420%, while over that same period, child mortality fell by 90%.
Mao’s demise also marked the beginning of a life of food security for the Chinese people, as calories per person, which had fallen as low as 1,415 kcal/day in 1961, began to climb year after year, such that a decade after Mao’s death, kcal per day for the Chinese had increased by 29%, and by 2018 it was 32% higher than 1976 levels. Opening markets and embracing trade put more food on the table for all Chinese and helped lift life expectancy, push down child mortality and increase productivity, particularly for the rural and poor.
It’s difficult to overstate just how transformative the shift in economic growth was for the Chinese people. In just 46 years, the country went from desperate economic poverty to glass skyscrapers, from chronic hunger and malnutrition to food abundance and a doubling of life expectancy in less than a single human lifetime.
The progress of the Chinese people has always been linked in lockstep with their openness to markets, trade, technology, innovation, culture, globalization, and peace. In times when these conditions were favorable, China flourished, and during times when China stepped away from the world, its people suffered as their prosperity and living standards declined. Or, put more succinctly by Johan Norberg in “Open, The Story of Human Progress’ — “China’s present comeback is the result of a new, partial opening since 1979, and it is doing spectacularly well in the areas that have been opened, and failing miserably in the ones that have not.”
China’s opening up to the world didn’t, however, improve the lives of the Chinese solely; it fundamentally transformed, for the better, the living standards of the globe. The rise of China as the world’s factory made it possible to turn civilizations' innovations from theory to product on an unprecedented scale and at an affordable cost that was previously impossible. China’s transformation from a largely domestic manufacturer to the world’s factory created skyrocketing domestic demand for raw materials to feed the unquenchable resource requirements of a new export-focused economy. Both the import of raw materials and the export of finished products, built and then cemented the largest, most complex, and technologically advanced global logistics system in human history.
The result was more steel, more plastic, more computers, phones, medical diagnostic equipment, and a million other things that improved the lives of billions of global citizens; it was a transformation that, in one way or another, touched and improved to some degree, the life of every living human on earth. In the span of just a few short decades, the Chinese people embraced partnering with the world and, in doing so, turned themselves into the metaphorical 3D printer of civilization, with the end result being, on average, higher global living standards.
The world is rich, or at least astonishingly richer than the world of fifty years ago, in no small part because of the scale of the global community’s successful partnership with the Chinese people. In one of the greatest stories of positive-sum economics, China’s growth helped fuel our collective global economic growth while cranking out the smartphones, laptops, and cargo containers that made global business possible.
The progress in living standards throughout China, however hard-won, are not a guarantee of further future progress to come. With the start of the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rabbit, China faces, once more, the choice to turn back inward, building the social and economic walls that had proven so catastrophically destructive, or to focus on restoring and investing further in the openness that has fostered such astonishing domestic and international progress.
The future of an open China, however, rests also in no small part with the global community and our willingness to abandon an increasingly zero-sum view of global relations and to embrace once more a positive-sum geopolitical strategy. That isn’t to say that Chinese transgressions should go unchecked, or that China’s aggressive posturing toward Taiwan should be ignored or tolerated.
The beginning of 2023 brings with it the ongoing SARS-COV-2 pandemic, Chinese military provocations in the South China Sea, tensions with Taiwan, and relations with Russia, all straining global relations with China; the West is slowly adopting a dangerous, cold war era style narrative, one where China is the enemy, always has been, always will be.
Political leaders on both sides, do little to build a better future for humanity when they stoke the fires of national tribalism and war, erect barriers to trade, foster divides in culture, and spin stories and political positions that paint the other team with the all too broad brush of, “us and “them,” West versus East, or East versus West narrative.
While the West claims war and economic barriers to progress are counterproductive modes of statecraft that must be avoided, they posture as though the road to further global peace and prosperity lay through the economic, cultural, and power demise of the other traditional global superpowers.
It’s as though we’ve become quietly but unconvincingly disappointed by the long global peace of the last 77 years, or at the very least forgotten, or become disconnected from an appreciation of what value it has provided. Rather than propounding a narrative of China and Russia as permanent adversarial pariahs, we should encourage them to rejoin the global community — for their prosperity, as well as ours. The “us and “them” narrative being pushed by the media and by China, Russia, and the West, drives a wedge between people, erodes common ground, and detracts from global progress. It won’t improve the health, wealth, or living standards of the Chinese, The Russians, or the West.
However, in the same breadth, placating or accepting the outward lashings and aggressive provocations of an inwardly turning China or an outwardly attacking Russia will be no catalyst for progress. The coming year will require a measured approach with both arms open and backs up for China, Russia, and the West.
It's all too easy to fall back on grand tribal narratives, an “us versus them” zero-sum view of the world, a worldview that has historically failed to provide civilization, peace, prosperity, or a better standard of living, after all, our brains are physically wired for it. It takes effort and practice to overcome our tribal instincts and identify false narratives of a better future through a closed world. It’s difficult but not impossible, and the reward is that we nudge the global zeitgeist incrementally toward a more prosperous and open future.
If we seek to build a better future through 2023, we must mitigate and ultimately overcome our biological and historical propensity for turning inward toward our own tribe, with turning outward toward the world. It’s a low-cost, high-impact way to help change the world.
Tony Morley is a progress studies writer and communicator, specializing in the historical trends in global living standards and the forces that drive human progress and flourishing. His written work has appeared in TIME, Big Think, Freethink, The Foundation for Economic Education, HumanProgress.org, and Quillette, among other publications. Mr. Morley is currently working on Human Progress for Beginners, the world’s first children’s book on progress, scheduled to be published with Pantera Press in Q4 of 2023.
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