He was China’s first and perhaps most formidable traveling salesman. From the 2nd century BC, in fact, Zhang Qian set forth to canvas Central Asia and to promote and sell China’s products and services to the world. And as he carved out a sort of superhighway of strip malls across Asia, he subsequently opened new markets thus restoring the People’s Republic of China to the single most powerful nation on earth!
What isn’t widely known is that China, under the Han Dynasty, was in the red. Their peasant populations were slaves to the State, and the State itself was broke! Engineering a 4,000 mile highway due west opened endless opportunity to sell its free labor to the world. Silk, musk, and, of course, fine china were considered exotic in the West, and schlepping their wares in India, Egypt, Iran and Rome helped to establish and refortify the Far East. While the Chinese were known for bargaining with their tchotchkes, they were notoriously stingy with their intelligence: hoarding discoveries in technology and medicine and science to themselves. In fact, this politically closed, religiously fervent, and socially polite and quiet people have endured for more than 4,000 years, and today hold the distinction of being among the world’s oldest, largest, and perhaps most indomitable civilizations in human history (Network, Page 29).
Long considered a threat to the United States, it was President Richard M. Nixon who made the first official visit to Communist China. Emerging from Air Force One in February 1972, he and the First Lady set forth to visit the Forbidden City, walk along the Great Wall, pay their respects at the Ming Tombs, and to dine with and amongst the Great Hall of the People in globally televised images that were described as an “Encounter with Destiny.” A warm and unlikely friendship ensued between the two leaders and, as a result, between our two countries. And as their successors built upon the trust they’d created, trade, social reform, and tourism flourished at both ends (US-China Summit, Page 17).
By the dawn of the 21st century, however, it was no longer China but the United States that was in the red. And when we asked our old friend for a loan, they happily obliged by snapping up $1 Trillion in US debt, bonds, and securities. See, while we were busy consuming, they were hard at work saving what they’d earned, living conservatively, and keeping the value of their currency low. And as they’ve emerged as the largest consumers of energy in the world, so too will they determine the price and preference of the world’s energy supplies, thus eclipsing the United States as the largest and most influential economy in the world (China: Energy Superpower, page 26).
As China’s President Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago last month, I was reminded of his predecessor, Zhang Qian, who some 2000 years ago now ran the very first recognizance mission to the West. Consumerism sustains our economy at home. Creating consumers abroad is what expands it. And as the entire world came to buy and rely upon China’s products and services, China grew from a crouching tiger to a formidable dragon for which we and the world will now have to answer.