If politics is defined by power, then power is defined by two factors – population, and technology.
We can take several examples from history as an example of this phenomena, but possibly the best example is that of China. For much of history, China has been one of the most powerful civilizations in history. China’s share of global GDP has regularly fluctuated between 30-40% for the last two millennia, only dropping in the past three centuries. Chinese culture has proliferated across the Asian continent, with Korea, Vietnam, and Japan all sharing Confucian values and (at some point in their history) using the Chinese writing system.
Historically, China has had a colossal population. For much of its history, China’s population has hovered between 20-40% that of the global population – China’s population was typically larger than that of the entirety of Europe combined. This huge manpower base undeniably played a large role in allowing for China to truly dominate East Asia. A large population allowed for greater specialization – while 10 farmers may be able to support 5 professionals, 100 farmers may be able to support 50 professionals – who may, in turn, develop better farming techniques, helping to fuel a cycle of population growth and specialization. China’s massive population also allowed for gigantic armies – China possessed the most powerful army on Earth for much of its history.
Yet, the pace of technological development in China and its importance in Chinese history cannot be understated. Chinese scientists developed the compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing – known as “The Four Great Inventions” – hundreds of years before their European contemporaries. China’s Tang Dynasty made several advancements in mechanical engineering and medicine, helping to usher in a “Golden Age” for Chinese civilization. The Song Dynasty arguably represented the pinnacle of Chinese scientific achievement, overseeing the development of cannons, a 6-fold increase in iron production, and the creation of paper money, evolving into an economic giant in the process. The strength of the Song Dynasty is evident when one examines the Mongol conquest of the Song Dynasty. While it took five years for the Mongols to overrun Russia, and only two years to annihilate the Persians, the Mongols spent 25 years and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in their conquest of the Song Dynasty.
China’s success cannot be solely attributed to either population or technology. Instead, these two factors provide a railroad for the Chinese juggernaut to glide along. The two factors work hand in hand, one strengthening the other. Furthermore, when one factor – that of technological development – disappeared, Chinese power rapidly waned. The rate of Chinese technological development began to slow in the 1500s after the Ming dynasty took power. When the Ming were replaced by the Qing dynasty, scientific progress virtually ground to a halt. When hostile European ships arrived in European ports, with superior firepower and armor, the Qing dynasty found itself unable to hold off a “century of humiliation”. The Opium wars saw China’s population become addicted to drugs and the dividing of China into foreign spheres of influence. Japan’s invasions wreaked havoc on China, and when China was finally united under Mao Zedong in 1949, a sort of “technocratic-nationalism” soon followed. A desire to never technologically regress was ingrained in the Chinese national psyche.
In 1949, China had the manpower to become a superpower. But it was 50-100 years behind the rest of the world, technologically speaking. Chinese GDP per capita was lower than that of much of Africa. China was weak, and its first attempts to regain its power ended in horrendous failure. The “Great Leap Forward” – an attempt at rapid industrialization – ended up killing between 20 and 50 million people. Mao Zedong’s distrust of academics did not help Chinese progress, either. However, after the death of Mao Zedong, China began to develop. Foreign investment led to the rapid industrialization that the Great Leap Forward failed to achieve. Deng Xiaoping formulated an eight-year plan for the future of Chinese science, constructing research institutes and universities across the nation. The Chinese government itself changed – once a Marxist state led by fanatical revolutionaries, the 1980s saw the Chinese government draft engineers and scientists into its ranks. Chinese industry grew increasingly technical, as China began to produce more electronic components in the 1990s. As of 2018, China has overtaken the United States in terms of academic papers authored. China’s “Made in China 2025” plan aims to assert Chinese dominance over the vital semiconductor industry. Chinese researchers are increasingly taking the lead in artificial intelligence research, and China has also made impressive strides in quantum computing within the past few years.
Overall, China’s combination of raw manpower and technical skill is why many in the United States fear the rise of China. The combination of manpower and technical skill has historically paid dividends for China, and ultimately, will likely grant China immense power. Yet, this phenomena does not need to exclusively be Chinese. The German Empire dominated Europe, in large part due to its industrial base and large population. India has immense potential to replicate China’s feat, along with much of Africa. The United States has the third largest population on Earth and several established universities, and millions of young, hungry, and bright individuals desire to immigrate to America – America merely needs a government willing to tap its potential.
Ultimately, the future of the world will be determined by who has mastery over the vital technologies of the future – massively parallel computing, clean and efficient power generation, spaceflight capability – and who has the manpower to develop and exploit these technologies. Governments capable of pursuing these two ideas will succeed. Governments who ignore science and let their populations collapse will fail.