10 years of the Jamie Doctrine: not a symposium of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House

There have been a hell of a lot of opinions put forward about modern China – from the Blairite vision of a superpower of economic liberalism with lots of CCTV, integrated fully in the system, to cold-warrior visions of a monolithic neo-USSR, anarchist hopes of a convergence of mass-group incidents into revolution, tankie fantasies of vindication, and even the official ideological statements of the Communist Party itself – but very few of them have lasted. If you believed any of these, you would have been left grossly misinformed.

The only one I can think of that has proven enduring is the one cult Mancunian blogger Jamie Kenny introduced in around 2010 – the principle that China tends to export its internal chaos to the rest of the world. Strangely I can’t find a canonical statement of this in Jamie’s blog archives, only allusions to it being said somewhere else (this is the earliest but it was already a Jamieism then), so it’s possible that it emerged from conversation in his comments threads or the wider blogosphere rather than having an onlie begetter.

The theory of internal chaos was first of all that the politics, economy, and society of post-economic reform China was characterised by chaos. This chaos arose from the social and environmental changes caused by extremely rapid industrialization, from unregulated and intransparent forms of political competition, from pervasive corruption and a deficit of social trust, and from the fundamentally Leninist structure of the party-state.

It has quite a lot in common with Chinese novelist Yu Hua’s classic essay On Revolution, from China in Ten Words, and I presume Jamie read it, as he recommended it to me. Yu argues that the Party can only be understood as a specifically revolutionary organization, designed to prosper in chaotic revolutionary conditions, and as a result, one that tends to respond to challenges by mobilizing the Chinese public for revolutionary action and hence, unleashing chaos. (We might note that this is a case both of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility and Dan Davies’ critique of it, to the effect that someone who prospers in chaos and tends to create it is probably a dangerously irresponsible actor.) This isn’t so much a strategy as a trait of personality; if the top leadership don’t want chaos, it might break out spontaneously from below anyway.

Yu held that the economic reform era could be understood as an effort to redirect the revolutionary impulse from politics into economics, in a Freudian sense, sublimating the physical violence inherent in the concept into the pursuit of material wealth. This might remind us of Keynes’ crack that it’s better for a man to tyrannize over his bank balance than his fellow creatures, but the problem is of course that the tyrannical impulse didn’t go away, and reform was achieved precisely by integrating the Chinese economy – the arena of chaotic political competition – into everybody else’s.

So, periodically, we should expect chaotic events in China to spill uncontrollably over into the rest of the world. China is big, and connected, so we won’t be able to ignore them. They are chaotic, so their arrival will not be predictable, although it is a certainty that they will eventually happen. Greater economic and technocratic integration, of course, will cause this to happen faster and with more geographical spread, with outbreaks of exported chaos occuring all over the place.

At this point I shouldn’t have to produce an airline network diagram to make the point that this just totally happened and that’s why I’m blogging rather than going to the pub.

The Jamie Doctrine has numerous advantages over other popular theories of relations with China. It can be verified empirically – China observably exports internal chaos – and it leads to clear policy recommendations – don’t go all-in on economic integration, be very careful about importing Chinese standards, trust but verify – that don’t involve either kowtowing or militaristic chestbeating.

So why did you have to know a niche blogger from north Manchester with no wider platform or official status to get it? If we could answer that one we might also be able to understand why the United States has also become a exporter of internal chaos at scale. Also, he’s too good for Chatham House and he’ll hold out for the IISS. Mezhdunarodnik Nur-nur-ny-nur nur.

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