April 2, 2021

Phenomenal Works

Phenomenal Works: Ho-fung Hung

Ho-fung Hung investigates the role of economic development in state formation and global power, with a specific focus on China and East Asia. In his 2015 book The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, he argues that despite predictions that China’s growth would fundamentally challenge the prevailing power relations between the East and West, the nation continues to depend on the existing global order—in a system maintained by the interests of Chinese elites. Hung’s 2011 book Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty examines over one thousand protest actions in China over the 18th and 19th century. Hung studies the state and market conditions that catalyzed popular protest in the form of petitions, rallies, riots, and market strikes, and ultimately challenges the dominant narrative of dissent as tied to Western political thought.

Hung currently serves as the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy at the Sociology Department and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.

Ho-Fung Hung

Capitalism & Imperialism

Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism is a well-known but long misunderstood work. For decades, many have used it to critique the “(neo-)imperialist” relation between developed and developing countries. But the book’s insight is much greater. Lenin drew on British economist J. A. Hobson’s works to look at how inequality, lack of purchasing power of the working class, and overproduction urged advanced capitalist economies to export capital to underdeveloped regions of the world with a higher rate of return. Capital exporting powers needed to carve out their empires or spheres of influence to protect their investments. Such acts fomented rivalry among capitalist powers, precipitating world war.

Lenin paid particular attention to the urge of Germany, as a late imperialist power, to finance railroad construction projects in Latin America, Central-Eastern Europe, and the Middle East on the condition that the projects procured German equipment, train cars, and other materials. This put German banks, German industrialists, and German diplomatic-military apparatus into direct competition with established capitalist powers, above all Britain and France.

Many passages in the book read like they are addressing current discourses around China’s underconsumption and economic slowdown, China’s urge to export capital through public loans and construction projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s threat to US influences in Eurasia and Latin America. In one example, Lenin mentions Wilhelm II’s plan to finance the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad railroad that cut through the spheres of influences of Britain and other great powers, intensifying international tension and paving the way to WWI. The Berlin-Baghdad railroad is Germany’s Belt and Road at the turn of the twentieth century.

In recent years, non-Marxist political economists including a banker, a Wall Street Journal columnist, and a US Treasury economist have noticed Imperialism’s relevance to the understanding of contemporary US-China relations. The political economy behind the UK-Germany antagonism in the early twentieth century resembles the dynamics underlying the US-China tension today in many ways. Rereading Lenin might offer us insights into whether and how we could prevent an unavoidable inter-capitalist competition from escalating into inter-imperial war.

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