The Debate | Opinion

Is China the 21st Century’s Great ‘Going Concern’?

Halford Mackinder is famous for his “heartland” theory, but another of his major theoretical constructs may be more relevant to China’s rise.

By Francis P. Sempa for
Is China the 21st Century’s Great ‘Going Concern’?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

China’s rise to global power in the 21st century is attributable to several factors, but perhaps the most important is that China for the past decade or more has been the world’s greatest “Going Concern.” What that means was best explained in 1919 by the British geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder in his timeless book “Democratic Ideals and Reality.”

Students and scholars of Mackinder sometimes focus too narrowly on the geographical aspects of his ideas and concepts. Contrary to some of his critics, Mackinder was not a geographical determinist. In his famous 1904 “pivot” paper, Mackinder wrote that the global balance of power was the product of “geographical conditions, both economic and strategic, and … the relative number, virility, equipment, and organization of the competing peoples.” Favorable geography was important, but by itself insufficient, to achieve global power. The other necessary ingredient was “social momentum” or what he also called the “Going Concern.”

It is no accident that Mackinder began “Democratic Ideals and Reality” by discussing the concept of “social momentum” or the “Going Concern.” This concept encompasses economic growth, sufficient population, and social/political organization, with organization being the most critical factor. Mackinder compared the structure of society to a “running machine.” It is that “running machine” that enables man to exercise greater control over nature and that produces “social momentum.” Social momentum produces scientific and technological advances, but society’s overall productivity and political stability depend upon the proper organization of those scientific and technological advances and the populace as a whole.

“The great organizer,” Mackinder wrote, “is the great realist,” and the organizer “inevitably comes to look upon men as his tools.” Mackinder explained, “In the sphere of politics, the organizer views men as existing for the state.” The organizer thinks about how strategically to use people, instead of protecting the rights of people. Mackinder identified Napoleon and Bismarck as great organizers, though Bismarck, he noted, was far more prudent because he possessed “insight into the minds of other nations than his own.” The great organizer, Mackinder wrote, also understands and appreciates “the lasting [geographical] realities of our earthly home.”

China since the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping has been a “Going Concern.” It has abundant “social momentum.” China’s most important businesses are tied to the state, which in turn is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP is today’s “great organizer” and it has provided China with “social momentum” and has made China a “Going Concern,” perhaps the 21st century’s greatest “Going Concern.” The CCP looks upon its citizens as tools who exist for the state.

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Mackinder warned, however, that a Going Concern was not self-perpetuating. If social momentum breaks down for whatever reason – economic downturns, social and political instability, war – the organizers may lose control of events. That is essentially what happened to the Soviet Empire in 1989-1991. “History,” Mackinder explained, “shows no remedy but force upon which to found a fresh nucleus of discipline in such circumstances.” And, he noted, “the organizer who rests upon force tends inevitably to treat the recovery of mere efficiency as his end.” The CCP recognized the danger of a Soviet-style collapse in 1989 when it forcibly crushed the Tiananmen Square uprising, and in its more recent repression of the Uyghurs and political crackdown in Hong Kong. Political and economic instability are the greatest threat to China’s social momentum because the CCP’s legitimacy no longer rests on ideology.

The CCP understands this, and it understands geographical realities – the Belt and Road Initiative is both an economic and geopolitical enterprise. The CCP has already expanded its economic and political influence across what Mackinder called the Eurasian-African “World-Island,” and, as Mackinder warned, “Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of the books “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century” and “America’s Global Role,” and has written frequently on history and foreign policy for the Asian Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, Strategic Review, the New York Journal of Books, and other publications. He is a federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.