Plans are useless, but planning is essential
On great modern mythmaking, 100-year plans, and the basic math of making babies
Underestimating your rivals can be a terrible mistake, but so can be overestimating them. Turning an ordinary-sized opponent into a 10-foot-tall giant is a recipe for inaction and paralysis. And as Dwight Eisenhower put it, "Initiative, confidence, and boldness are among the most admirable traits of the good combat leader."
■ One of the great myths that has emerged in the modern age is the belief that China acts according to some mysterious but comprehensive 100-year plan for world domination. It is entirely possible that there exists some form of long-term strategic plan that guides the Politburo, but evidence of any such plan's usefulness are not forthcoming.
■ Just look, for example, at the country's incapacity to properly assess its demographics. Until 2016, China was effectively under a strict limit of one child per family. Then that limit was doubled, permitting up to two children per family. And then in 2021, it was raised to three.
■ Notwithstanding the obvious affront to human dignity that any such limits represent (and indeed such limits are odious), the ineptitude of the planning involved is plainly evident: Facing the ballooning (and potentially ruinous) costs of an aging population, the ruling powers tried tripling the birth limit in just six years. As the phrase is occasionally used in computer programming and project management, "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned".
■ Nor can a country turn around its demographic decline by tripling the number of "permissible" children in less than a decade. Either they really aren't thinking 100 years ahead, or the Politburo lacks the most rudimentary skills of arithmetic.
■ On immediate crises, their feted plans fare no better: Consider the case of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere. As BBC correspondent Stephen McDonell points out, "Jilin Province has been locked down for weeks. [Tens] of millions of people here are restricted to their homes today." Jilin is a province of 24 million people. Shanghai has 24 to 26 million people in a single city, the largest in the world. For perspective, the entire state of Florida has just shy of 22 million residents.
■ The Chinese government's zero-Covid policy indicates that they didn't fully assess the likelihood that the pandemic would be around to stay, and that command-and-control remains their only strategy. But even when people aren't especially ideological, they usually do have feelings about the most practical aspects of government effectiveness. You may not care about the Supreme Court or international treaty obligations, but you probably do care about potholes on your street -- or being locked up and barked at by a dystopian robotic dog. The measures are extraordinary even for an authoritarian state, and they simply must be having grassroots consequences.
■ Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time leader of Singapore, looked to the long-term plans of his giant neighbor and warned that "One thing is for sure: the present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years. To achieve the modernization of China, her Communist leaders are prepared to try all and every method, except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system." Lee himself had both an affection for long-term plans and autocratic tendencies. But his advice here is valuable: The system itself cannot be preserved in its present form indefinitely, much less for 100 years or more.
■ Plans -- especially long-term strategic plans -- will always have a place, not so much for the steps they lay out as for the thought process they impose. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, but likewise there is no substitute for the process of looking forward and considering where chance will intersect with objectives. Clearly, some parties are getting more credit for their plans than they deserve -- which is all the more reason for the rest of the world to look ahead to the future we want for the whole of humanity and commit to confidently taking steps to get there.