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Re-Engineering China’s Economy

The recent “phase one” trade deal between the United States and China does not resolve core outstanding bilateral issues, and the two countries’ strategic rivalry will likely intensify in the medium to long term. But the accord gives China’s leaders a new opportunity to develop better and more open domestic markets.

HONG KONG – On January 15, US President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He signed a “phase one” agreement aimed at containing the two countries’ long-running bilateral trade war. But no sooner had the deal been concluded than China was confronted with an emergency in the form of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

These recent developments indicate that China is still struggling with what the father of the country’s nuclear program, Qian Xuesen, called in an influential 1993 paper  an “open complex giant system” issue. Qian, a leading student of systems engineering, argued that because human brains have one trillion interacting neural cells, individual humans are themselves open complex giant systems that are open to complex material, energy, and informational exchanges with other humans. Likewise, a social system is a macroscopic open giant system that interacts with other social systems, and thus is too complex for any computer to model. 

Indeed, any systems engineering aimed at civilizational development would have to address even more complex material, political, and spiritual aspects of transformation and interaction that are not reducible to quantitative terms. The only solution, therefore, is a process of qualitative analysis followed by rigorous and reiterative testing against empirical facts until different paths or policy options are found – or, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, “crossing the river by feeling the stones.”

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