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In December 1926, the engineer Peter Palchinsky wrote to the prime minister of the Soviet Union. Science and technology, he argued, did more—even than Communism!—to shape modern society. The twentieth century was "not one of international communism, but of international technology. We need to recognize not a Komintern, but a ‘Tekhintern.’"[1] Ideas like these would get Palchinsky shot in Stalin's Russia. For the Nationalist movement of China's Guomindang, which three months later quit the Comintern and purged itself of Communists, they were at the heart of its conception of modernity.

Shanghai—as Leo Lee has argued so eloquently—may have been the native place for a new, public culture of private life; but in 1928 Nanjing was the capital of a "new China" whose aim was as much the physical as the cultural remaking of the nation. If in Shanghai modernity could be defined as "the material transformation of everyday life,"[2] Nanjing was consumed with the industrial metamorphosis of national life, planned by a central—and centralizing—government. China would be industrialized and internationalized (for the two went hand in hand) through the mediation of the state. This was a quite different vision of the modern than could be found in Shanghai's kiosks, cafes, and department stores. At a time of permanent national crisis, it was ultimately a compelling one.

The new government aimed to "reconstruct" China to make it modern. A gleaming capital would rise out of the mud alleys of Nanjing, a city twice destroyed in the previous century. The cities would be industrialized, the countryside electrified, and the provinces joined by networks of railroads, motor roads, and— most exciting of all—air routes to get the "stagnant race" of Chinese (Sun Yatsen's phrase) on the move.[3] The landscape would be transfigured through electrification, industrialization, and communications. All this would be planned "scientifically"

by a government imbued with a technocratic confidence and cooperating with advanced industrial nations.

To some extent these transformations were under way well before 1928, even in the absence of a working central government. China was enjoying a "dynamic and robust" industrial boom that had begun over a decade earlier.[4] Its major cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, and even Chengdu) engaged in rudimentary urban planning.[5] An embryonic rail network had been created with foreign capital. But the National Government came to power with an agenda to do much more. Its late leader had proposed a "second industrial revolution" in which a hundred thousand miles of rail would be laid, the Yangzi tamed and its Three Gorges dammed, and automobiles manufactured so inexpensively that "everyone who wishes it, may have one."[6]

Sun Yatsen's Industrial Plan (Shiye jihua, published first in English as The International Development of China six years before the establishment of the Nationalist regime) was the first attempt to design the integrated economic development of a unified China. One author dates the beginning of "modern China" from its publication.[7] Today, many Three-, Four-, Five-, and Ten-Year Plans later, it remains the most audacious and memorable of national development programs. Sun's strategies to develop "the vast resources of China… internationally under a socialistic scheme, for the good of the world in general and the Chinese people in particular" would be shared by his Nationalist and Communist successors.[8] The realization of his Industrial Plan became the cardinal goal of Nationalist economic policy. In the People's Republic, Sun's "great legacy" for the management of the modern Chinese economy would be celebrated.[9]

Sun's more concrete plans also left their mark.[10] His sketch of a national Chinese rail network, which emphasized political aspirations (linking provincial capitals) over economic relationships, provided the framework for Nationalist and early Communist routing plans.[11] His two-paragraph proposal to "improve the upper Yangzi" with an enormous dam spawned seventy-five years of effort and debate.[12] When construction finally began in 1994, it moved an unpoetical engineer, P. R.C. Premier Li Peng, to verse:[13]

As we begin to carry out the blueprint
It is a new era
And the tide is high

Sun was the visionary, not the scientist, economist, or engineer. Yet projects of the scale and complexity of those he advocated would bring scientists, economists, and engineers into the center of Chinese governance. The academies, commissions, and ministries created to "reconstruct" China would, in turn, change the mission of the Chinese state. If Sun Yatsen could admire publicly Lenin's New Economic Policy, praising its promotion of state capitalism and "national socialism,"[14] his successors would lay the foundation for a Stalinist state in China, the economic management of which would be the responsibility of the world's largest bureaucracy.


The result would not be "technocracy," a term that has been rendered in Chinese as "the dictatorship of engineers,"[15] for among Sun's other contributions to the modern Chinese polity were the supremacy of the Leninist party-state and the centrality of the military in it.[16] But with Sun began a dream of modernity to be interpreted by a transformative government. Revered by his disciples as the Republic's founding father, or guofu, Sun was more precisely the spiritual father of the Chinese developmental state.[17]

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