This is Why China Must Continually Strengthen its Military Might

The author is Ning Nanshan, an engineer from Shenzhen, a pioneering city in China's reform and opening up. Similar to many middle-aged migrant workers in China, he has witnessed China's development and enjoyed the resulting personal wealth and social status elevation. He has over 1 million followers in China. His articles are highly esteemed by the emerging middle class in China.
July 10, 2024
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Top picks selected by the China Academy's editorial team from Chinese media, translated and edited to provide better insights into contemporary China.
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I often hear this kind of saying, that is, it hasn’t been that long since the Chinese people started living a good life. Some say it was after the reform and opening up, while others say it was actually after China’s accession to the WTO in 2001.
Regarding this view, I actually agree. Why? In the year 2000, China’s per capita GDP was only around $800-900, which was obviously not enough to live a good life.
We can also see this from China’s trade surplus. According to the data, in the 1980s, China’s imports and exports were in deficit for most of the years, specifically from 1980 to 1989, except for 1982 and 1983, the rest of the years were in deficit.
It was not until after 1990 that China entered the era of trade surpluses, and the big explosion of China’s trade surplus was actually after its accession to the WTO in 2001.
Before 2005, China’s peak trade surplus was just over $40 billion, but in 2005, China’s trade surplus not only hit a historic high of over $50 billion for the first time, but actually reached a staggering $102 billion, more than triple the $32.097 billion of the previous year. It was a amazing leap. It can be said that from 2005, China’s trade surplus experienced an explosive surge.
The media reports at the time used titles like “Unexpected Surge in Trade Surplus” to describe 2005.

In 2006, China’s surplus further increased to $177.517 billion, breaking the $150 billion mark for the first time.
In 2007, China’s trade surplus reached $264.34 billion, the first time it exceeded $200 billion. This increased to $298.13 billion in 2008. Later, up to 2014, China’s trade surplus reached a historic high of $383.06 billion, the first time it exceeded $300 billion. In 2015, China’s trade surplus reached a record high of $593.90 billion, 26.3 times that of 2001. In 2021, China’s trade surplus reached a historic high of $636.61 billion. In 2022, China’s trade surplus reached historic highs of over $700 billion and $800 billion, reaching $837.93 billion. In 2023, China’s trade surplus was $823.22 billion.
The data shows that the view that China only gradually became prosperous after reform and opening up and after joining the WTO in 2001 is justified.
However, in this article I want to discuss another topic – that even for the West, which has the highest living standards globally, the ordinary people’s living standards have only improved for less than 150 years. During this period, there were two world wars and multiple medium-scale wars, with Europe as the center of the two world wars, where millions of Westerners died.
Excluding the wars, even for Westerners, the true improvement in living standards only came after World War II.
In my view, the genuine improvement of living standards for all of humanity, including in Western countries, really began after the Second Industrial Revolution, specifically in the late 1860s when humanity gradually entered the era of electricity and oil. This has been the case for just over a hundred years. The energy revolution involving the large-scale utilization of electricity and oil is closely related to this progress.
The book “Arrival City” mentions that during the period from 1800 to the First World War, around 50 million Europeans permanently left Europe for destinations like North America, Australia, and South Africa, with more than half of them settling in the United States. This does not even include 65 million temporary migrants. This is an extremely large-scale migration. China’s largest overseas migration was to Southeast Asia, but it was on a much smaller scale. This massive migration was primarily driven by economic factors. The migrants came mainly from the poorest and most backward rural areas of Europe, such as northern and eastern Lombardy in Italy near the Alps, and the provinces around the southern Apennines, as well as the Atlantic islands and mountainous northwestern Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal… The migrants from Scandinavia were most likely from the central and southern mountain regions of Norway and Sweden, while Scotland had an exceptionally high proportion of emigrants. Ireland, having suffered a great famine, also saw large-scale emigration abroad…This large-scale European emigration and expansion laid the foundation and consolidated the advantageous global position of the white race in terms of land area and natural resources.

Great Famine (Ireland)

This wave of migration also indicates that the absolute living standards of the European lower classes were actually not very good even before World War I. This inadvertently contributed a large number of migrants to the Americas, especially the United States, and facilitated the rise of the United States.
History is so fascinating. We all know that when the United States entered the 19th century in 1800, it had only just become a country 20-odd years prior, with a total population of just over 5 million. If the absolute living standards of Europeans had already been high in the 19th century, and they were unwilling to migrate abroad, then the number of white European immigrants to the United States would have been reduced by tens of millions. We all know that was the peak period of fertility rates, unlike the current Western countries where the fertility rate has already dropped below 2.0, and the population of hundreds of millions will still be increasing up to now.
Without those tens of millions of European immigrants, the population size of the United States would have remained much smaller, and it would not have become a superpower in the 20th century. In fact, it was precisely due to the large-scale acceptance of tens of millions of European immigrants that the US population surpassed 100 million by the time of World War I.
Who could have imagined that the general poverty of common European people before World War I would lead to the rise of the United States?
In 1845, Engels’ book “The Condition of the Working Class in England” was published, which described the shocking poverty of ordinary British workers. It cited a survey by the Statistical Society in 1840 of 5,366 working-class families, totaling 26,830 people, in the St. John and St. Margaret parishes of London, where the average household had over 5 members but three-quarters lived in single-room dwellings. A similar statistic was found for the aristocratic St. George’s parish, where 1,465 working-class families with nearly 6,000 people, two-thirds lived in single rooms.
Just imagine – a family of four or five living in a single room, with hundreds or even thousands sharing a single toilet, in filthy, foul-smelling conditions.
Not only was the housing cramped, but the working-class neighborhoods typically had unpaved, dirty, potholed roads, with piles of garbage, no drainage or sewers, and stagnant, foul-smelling pools of water, while the haphazard buildings blocked airflow. The streets would be strung with wet, ragged clothes hung out to dry from house to house on nice days.

One of The “Slum” Streets In the East End of London, 19th Century

Child labor was also extensively used. In 1839, a statistical survey was conducted on the structure of workers in the Greater Britain area. The book does not say whether the survey was complete, but among the hundreds of thousands of workers surveyed, nearly half were child workers, meaning they had no opportunity to go to school. The total number of underage workers under 18 was 192,887, of which 112,192 were underage female workers; the number of adult male workers was 96,569, and the number of adult female workers was 130,104, totaling 226,673. It can be seen that nearly half of the workers were minors, with some child workers as young as 9 years old working over 10 hours a day.
It was not until the Second Industrial Revolution, when humanity entered the electricity and oil age, that living standards saw a significant improvement. Electric lighting was not widely adopted until 1879 when Edison invented the commercially viable incandescent lamp. The global application of electricity also occurred during the Second Industrial Revolution, with the world’s first power plant being built in the 1870s-1880s.
Automobiles were not invented until 1885, and the first airplane not until 1903 – both being major consumers of oil in the oil age. It was only later that household appliances like washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, and telephones that used electricity became widespread. Inventions like the refrigerator greatly extended the preservation time for meat and vegetables, while the automobile allowed agricultural products to be quickly transported to urban markets, ensuring city dwellers had access to fresher food and reducing the incidence of disease. In the medical field, the first antibiotic, penicillin, was not discovered until 1928. These mass-produced industrial goods in turn drove rapid growth in market demand and increased the need for industrial workers, raising their wage levels. In agriculture, the large-scale production technology for fertilizers, critical for increasing food production, was not achieved until the breakthrough in Germany in 1909.
The large increase in food production has also created the conditions for people to have enough to eat.
I previously wrote an article reflecting on my reading of the book “Science: The Endless Frontier”.
The 1945 report mentioned that due to the advent of penicillin and advanced vaccine technology, “in the past 40 years, the life expectancy of Americans has increased from 49 years to 65 years, mainly due to the decline in infant and child mortality. In the past 20 years, the child mortality rate has decreased by 87%.”
In other words, in 1905, the life expectancy of Americans was only 49 years.
Overall, the Western countries actually entered a high standard of living only after the late 19th century. For example, the 8-hour workday, although Western workers were already demanding it in the late 19th century and it began to be implemented in some countries and industries, it was not legally established in all major Western countries until after World War I – Germany in 1918, France in 1919, Belgium in 1924, and Australia as late as 1948. In the United States, different industries began to implement the 8-hour workday from the late 19th century, with Ford Motor Company leading the auto industry in 1914 by also increasing wages, but the 40-hour 5-day workweek was not legally established until 1940.
Therefore, the Western people did get richer earlier, but they did not truly enjoy a more modernized high standard of living until after the large-scale commercialization of new inventions from the Second Industrial Revolution starting in the 1860s, which took until the early 20th century, especially after World War I.
During World War I, over a hundred thousand Chinese laborers who went to work in France, as well as the several tens of thousands of Chinese sailors working on the trans-Atlantic routes during World War II, had a number of them marrying local women, which was related to the fact that the absolute living standards of the European lower classes were not that high at the time.
This is a story previously reported by the British newspaper The Guardian:
A chance-discovered story: More than 70 years ago, over a thousand Chinese men who had carried out Atlantic Ocean shipping line tasks were expelled by the British, along with their Liverpool children.
Of course, if we consider the brutal impact of the two world wars on Europeans (while Americans were fortunate to have not experienced the world wars on their homeland), and the global economic crisis that swept across Europe and the US in 1929, the Western people truly began to enjoy a good standard of living only after WWII, which is less than 100 years ago.
I spend time writing about this today because I feel that our entire human race has truly not enjoyed many years of peace and development, even after WWII, as there have been continuous regional conflicts.
The Nagorno-Karabakh war that started in 2020 was brutal between Armenia and Azerbaijan; the Russia-Ukraine war that began in February 2022, for which I’ve watched hundreds of hours of battlefield footage, has been extremely cruel – my phone may have played just dozens of seconds of the videos, but on the other side of the world, many lives have been lost.
Although the current war reports from both sides are hard to believe, based on various statistics, the total military deaths on both sides in the over two years of the Russia-Ukraine war are estimated to be at least over 100,000.
There is also the Israel-Palestine conflict that started in October 2023, which has already resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, mainly Palestinians, who have suffered severe loss of life and property.

Just in the past two years, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine conflicts have collectively claimed hundreds of thousands of lives – these were people just like us, who studied, fell in love, strolled in parks, walked their children, and went online, but are now gone.
In Taiwan, the US not only continues to upgrade weapon sales, but also erodes the one-China policy. In early June, US President Biden stated in an interview with TIME magazine that the US military intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict cannot be ruled out.
On June 10th, The Washington Post published an interview with the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Paparo, who openly claimed to create a “hellscape” in the Taiwan Strait. He said that if the Chinese fleet starts to cross the 100-mile waterway of the Taiwan Strait, the US military will flood the region with thousands of drones, unmanned surface vessels and submarines, giving Taiwan, the US and allies time to respond.
You can see that to block China’s reunification, some US forces are even willing to directly confront the Chinese military, not hesitating to plunge China and the US, two nuclear-armed countries with a combined population of over 1.4 billion and accounting for over 40% of the global economy, into a war whose impact would be global.
We are used to living in an environment of peace and development, but this world is not so peaceful. There are forces that do not like peace and development, and want bloodshed and conflict to continue, even expanding to more places.
Therefore, China’s development and the continuous strengthening of the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities have taken on greater significance. China’s powerful industrial strength, its soldiers, and weapons like the J-20 stealth fighter, electromagnetic aircraft carrier launch systems, J-35 fighter, hypersonic missiles, Type 055 destroyers, robot dogs, and drones, are not just about defending China’s own security and development rights. They represent the most important force to prevent all of humanity from falling into hardship again.

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Top picks selected by the China Academy's editorial team from Chinese media, translated and edited to provide better insights into contemporary China.
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Financial Columnist
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