The new National Government had sought to control China's progress from the center; one should try sometime to count the extraordinary number of party and government institutions founded in 1927–28 that began with the term zhongyang, or "central." But in considering the Nanjing regime as an embryonic "developmental state," there is no pretending that a single or coherent developmental strategy existed until the overwhelming threat of war brought military-economic considerations to the center. Over forty years ago Douglas Paauw summed up, quite accurately, the Nationalist approach as one emphasizing "some aspects of the technological preconditions for economic growth." What also existed, however, was an ethos of optimism, not describable or even rational in economic terms, that China could be remade physically, and indirectly economically, by the planned application of international technology under the leadership of homegrown scientific and technical talent. For the new National Government after 1927, economic planning was not just policy: it was gospel and ritual. All arms of government were believers and practitioners. There was, in Sun Yatsen's Industrial Plan, a centrally distributed catechism, but no GOSPLAN. But there was the spirit—captured well in an international textbook of the period—that planning, with its "philosophical faith in the power of scientific research and constructive imagination," offered "a new mode of feeling, life, and living."
"Constructive imagination" was certainly at the heart of Sun's grand project, which proved at once an inspiration and, because it could not possibly be realized, a burden to the National Government. Yet this was a burden undertaken cheerfully by a young and talented (at minimum, well-certified) government that, like Sun, dared to think big: to plan a stunning national capital; to electrify the country and dam the Gorges; to tie the country together in networks of roads; and to build overnight the nation's heavy industries.
The effort to accomplish even part of this required more than Promethean values. It compelled an ideal of professionalism (zhiye zhuyi) in the central government
Lenin had once looked forward to the "very happy time" when politics would "recede into the background" while engineers and agronomists would "do most of the talking." This would occur in neither Russia nor China. By 1937, however, when the Japanese rolled into Nanjing on the new Shanghai-Nanjing road, the retreating Chinese government was quite different from the partyled army that had marched north from Canton a decade earlier. It still was no "technocracy," if by that term we mean a government under the political rule of technical elites. Yet an army of engineers now moved with the seat of government upriver, to Chongqing.