China’s meteoritic growth over the past thirty years, which has lifted over a hundred million Chinese from extreme poverty, has brought about colossal changes in the world’s most populous country. Modern industry has developed at breakneck speed, a new middle class has emerged, and the nation has witnessed the rise of more megacities than anywhere else.

China is now an aggressive competitor for the world’s natural resources—everything from oil to minerals, water, and food—and a growing concern for Western countries. Some feel that its pursuit of these dwindling resources, if allowed to continue unchecked, is unsustainable.

By All Means Necessary, released in February by Oxford University Press, explores China’s resource quest. How is the Middle Kingdom’s search for raw materials transforming the world? To what extent is it driving up global commodity prices? Is it the main force behind the China’s obstinate foreign policy and the hurried buildup of its naval power? These are the questions that Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations, set out to answer.

Economy and Levi take a selective but wide-ranging look at China’s trade and investment in countries such as Canada, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil.

What they find is an emphatic departure from alarmist media reports that accentuate the harmful long-term consequences of China’s turn outward in search of resources—consequences for the environment, labor, and the rule of law.

To make their point, Economy and Levi draw a parallel with Japan in the 1950s through the 1970s. After Japan emerged from World War II, it became dependent on resource-intensive investment to fuel economic growth. The West—the United States in particular—became alarmed that Japan was quickly depleting global reserves and using unscrupulous methods to secure them.

“Just as rising Chinese commodities consumption in the 2000s coincided with growing popular fears that the world was running out of natural resources,” Economy and Levi write, “so too did growing Japanese demand collide with worries about ‘limits to growth’ rooted in resource scarcity.”

In the end, however, American concerns about Japan proved to be misplaced. The Japanese economy never became the dominant force that some people predicted. In fact, Japan soon stagnated while the rest of the world grew, and its demand for resources dropped off to sustainable levels. More importantly, the United States was able to retain control of what it needed, including critical oil supplies in the Middle East.

Today, China seems to be following in the same footsteps. Like Japan, its growing reliance on imported materials has made it impossible for the nation to return to the self-imposed isolationism it experimented with in the 1950s and 1960s. China’s deepening engagement with the wider world today is, if properly managed, as good for China as it is for the West.

When China’s state-owned companies, backed by cheap government loans, began “going out” in the 1990s to lock up reserves in small resource-endowed countries, they embarked on a process of creating their own mercantilist system for trade.

Many worry that China is prepared to exploit the resources of vulnerable countries by all means necessary. “When the Chinese companies arrive,” Economy and Levi write, “they variously enrich despots, despoil the environment, exploit labor, and intensify corruption.”

China, of course, is doing nothing that other major powers before it have not done. Economy and Levi draw several historical examples, from ancient Athens, which obtained timber in Macedonia and corn in Egypt, to Spanish and English colonialism in the New World. They also mention European powers in Africa and the Middle East in the first half of the twentieth century.

The study could have been enriched, perhaps, had Economy and Levi delved a little deeper into these subjects. After all, the magnitude of China’s recent resurgence seems to warrant broader historical treatment. The context of a few decades seems too narrow to fully appreciate the implications of China’s return to its former economic strength, which centuries ago attracted generations of merchant-adventurers, from Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus on down to the British East India Company.

What would emerge, for example, from a comparison between China today and the East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as it established its own global mercantile-colonial system with the help of the British navy? And how much of China’s resource demand today is actually global demand as China, the “factory of the world,” uses these resources to produce exports?

By All Means Necessary is nonetheless a fascinating look at the multiple dimensions of China’s resource quest and the repercussions it has for America’s economic, security and diplomatic presence in the world. Economy and Levi believe it is critical to understand and appropriately respond to China’s global resource enterprise. “The rest of the world cannot determine the outcome of China’s resource quest,” they conclude. “It can, however, help ensure that China’s impact is as broadly benign—or even beneficial—as possible.”

Photo: Aldas Kirvaitis (cc).

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
Paul Nash
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.