Admiral Zheng and China’s Future Fortunes
The Crypto Battle Between ‘Eunuchs’ & Confucian Conservatives
At first glance the legendary tales of 15th century China’s eunuch general, Zheng He, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Upon closer examination, however, the parallels are striking. This Ming Dynasty power struggle between the ‘tech’-oriented eunuchs and the conservative Confucian bureaucrats may foretell the changes that lie ahead for China and the world today.
Like the Bitcoin disrupters of the modern era, the eunuchs of 14-15th century China (like Admiral Zheng) were the innovators and fabulously wealthy ‘tech’ titans of their day (15th century tech = ship building and seafaring craft). But the ‘ship-tech’ titans were ultimately on the losing end of the great Ming Dynasty power struggles. The question that arises from this comparison is whether history will repeat itself with the rise of a conservative response to cryptocurrency innovation in China today. In the days of the Ming Dynasty, China’s early lead in a history-making technology (ship-building and global sea travel and trade) was ceded to the West. Will history repeat itself as China’s conservatives increasingly marginalize (and perhaps even eliminate) crypto mining, DeFi, DAOs, and transacting? Or will modern China maintain their considerable dominance in crypto, albeit as a more of a party-controlled version?
Admiral Zheng & His Fleet
Though it soon relinquished it to Europe, by the early 1400s, China was humanity’s first true master of the seas. How did this come to be? In the years preceding Admiral Zheng’s time, China was plagued by internal political strife (e.g the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty in 1368) and a closing of the traditional trade routes through central Asia (due in part to ongoing conflict with the Mongols to the north). Maintaining overland commerce via routes such as the Silk Road was quite difficult because of these conflicts. This in turn created strong incentives to develop sea routes. Aligned with this pressure of domestic goods seeking new routes to international markets, was a convenient political force as well. It happened that in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, the Emperors and their eunuch advisors and generals were keen to support this growing class of maritime magnates and foreign political engagement as a counterbalance to the extraordinary power of the inwardly-focused Confucian scholar-bureaucrats that administered the empire.
With these forces at work, Chinese maritime technology reached its peak in the Ming Dynastic period and under Admiral Zheng’s command, the fleet made voyages of exploration and trade such as the world had never before seen and wouldn’t again for many hundreds of years to come.
“What was even more impressive about these voyages was that they were done with hundreds of huge ships and tens of thousands of sailors and other passengers. Over sixty of the three hundred seventeen ships on the first voyage were enormous “Treasure Ships,” sailing vessels over 400 hundred feet long, 160 feet wide, with several stories, nine masts and twelve sails, and luxurious staterooms complete with balconies.” — excerpt from The Ming Voyages
It would not be until the 20th Century that such an armada would be assembled again. The Chinese dockyards of old were the locus of this history-making technological innovation. At its peak, these shipyards had fielded a fleet of several thousand ships (for comparison, the US Navy’s fleet numbers less than 500 today), with Zheng personally supervising the construction and commanding the voyages on behalf of the Emperor YongLe. Columbus’ three-ship fleet on his first expedition to find another route to the East Indies would have been quite something to see but the Chinese version was vastly superior:
“Zheng He’s nine-masted flagship measured about 400 feet long; for comparison, Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria measured just 85 feet. On the first voyage, from 1405 to 1407, 62 nine-masted “treasure ships” led the way, followed by almost 200 other ships of various sizes, carrying personnel, horses, grain, and 28,000 armed troops. Historians were skeptical of accounts describing the size of these ships until, in 1962, workers on the Yangtze riverfront found a buried wooden timber 36 feet long (originally a steering post) beside a massive rudder. It was the right size to have been able to steer a ship of 540 to 600 feet in length, and the right age — dated at 600 years old — to be from one of Zheng He’s ships.” — The Big History Project (KA)
So what happened? Why did this pre-eminence in naval technology disappear so quickly? Not long after Admiral Zheng’s sponsor, Emperor YongLe, had died, the powerful and conservative circle of Confucian scholar-bureaucrats became increasingly worried about the rising power and wealth of the seafaring traders and the eunuch factions within the court that backed them. And so, in one of the great ‘Sliding Doors’ moments in history, the eunuchs lost out, China turned inwards as it banned oceangoing trade¹, burned the fleet, confiscated Zheng’s “deceitful” records, and erased the memory of this extraordinary new “technology” called shipbuilding and global seafaring². A few decades later Christopher Columbus set sail and the stage was set for Western dominance for centuries to come.
Modern China and the Blockchain
Are we at the cusp of a similar ‘if only’ moment in tech and the history of the Great Powers? Let’s back up for a moment and briefly look at the state of blockchain technology in China in order to draw out this comparison.
Not unlike the way pressures of blocked land routes drove the exploitation of seafaring trade in 15th Century China, the current Chinese government’s tight controls on internal monetary policy and limits on international money transfers created the conditions for people to take advantage of new technologies to protect and expand their businesses and wealth. Crypto rails have the advantages of being decentralized, cryptographically secure, immutable, permissionless and anonymous. Because of these features, the blockchain and cryptocurrencies allowed individuals and businesses to move money in and out of the country and conduct business outside of the Chinese government’s restrictions. Not surprisingly then, given these pressures and China’s enormous size, wealth and sophistication, businesses and consumers were directing a huge amount of energy to using, researching and building upon these blockchain foundations. For example, Chinese companies accounted for nearly half of all blockchain-related patents applied for from 2013–2018 (see chart, below).
China also has become famous for dominating crypto mining (where massive amounts of energy are used to power computers that update the blockchain ledgers using so-called cryptographic “proofs of work”). This recently reached a point where China produces nearly two thirds of all new blocks mined in the entire world (see chart, below).
Is the last few weeks of crypto crackdown a similar moment? New coin offerings in China have been banned for some time. But now this ban is being enforced with over 90% of China’s crypto mining operations being shut down. And banks are finally being forced to stop allowing transfers from Yuan accounts to crypto accounts and vice versa.
Some would argue that the advent of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies is technology revolution on par with the invention of the Internet or the advent of oceangoing trade and exploration. Like the conservative forces of the Confucian bureaucrats long ago, will China’s moves in the last few weeks against this disruptive new technology cede the lead to the West? Or will they succeed in their efforts to build a tightly controlled government-backed digital finance network and come to dominate this new technology but in their own unique way?
Time will tell.
- See, for example, Princenton University’s Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton’s “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality”