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Colbertism failed in France. Will it work in China?

The world’s largest nation takes a page from the 17th century.

China is buying up the world’s finite industrial resources to feed its industrial growth. From Africa and the Americas to its own territory, Chinese state-run companies are acquiring access to oil, iron, copper, soybeans, and pork. China now controls 90 percent of the world’s rare earth industry—the minerals necessary for the production of technologies such as cellphones and computers—and strictly limits their export.

To political scientists, it can be difficult to characterize the current Chinese system. It defies definitions like communist, fascist, or even totalitarian. Yet to the historian, China’s mix of tight state control over the economy and its attempt to gain control over masses of natural resources actually looks remarkably familiar. It is a mercantilist approach that has already been tried—and that briefly succeeded—under Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in 17th-century France.

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