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China is turning its back on the world


After a brief period of “opening up”, China is once again withdrawing from the global economy, says Michael Schuman in The Atlantic. In the 1970s and 1980s, the then “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping transformed his country’s insular economy by allowing in a “torrent” of foreign money and ideas. But now Xi Jinping is closing the gates. He wants to make the economy “self-sufficient” to protect it from US sanctions – by spending hundreds of billions of dollars on homegrown semiconductor companies, for example. And it’s not just the economy. Xi has also vowed to curtail foreign cultural influences in a bid to “infuse more ‘socialist’ values into Chinese society”.

Dramatic as this all sounds, China has always gone through “periods of openness and isolationism”. The height of the Tang dynasty (618–907) was one of the country’s most “internationally minded” eras: central Asian fashion was all the rage, and the empire’s capital, Chang’an, imported delicacies from around the world. Foreigners were assimilated into Tang society – one poet even wrote about the charms of a “Western” bar girl who “laughs with the breath of spring”. By contrast, the emperors of the later Ming dynasty (1368-1644) built the Great Wall and tried (unsuccessfully) to ban all private maritime trade in order to stop citizens mixing with foreigners. When Portuguese traders began settling in Macau, the Ming built another wall to keep “newcomers bottled up and, if necessary, deprived of food supplies”. Once again, this “historical cycle” seems to be repeating itself.

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