Inside Mao's Cold-War Factories

When the imperialist powers of Europe and Japan finally withdrew from their Afro-Asian colonies in the 20th century, they left multiple legacies. One was a particular kind of transportation, communication, and industrial infrastructure. Despite self-congratulatory claims to the supposedly self-chosen “civilizing mission” in the 19th and early 20th century, imperialist rule never aimed at altruistically building up modern nation-states in Africa or Asia. Its basic objective was to further the interests — political, economic, military, and reputational — of the imperial center, whether this was London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, or Tokyo. The modern infrastructure put in place in the colonies simply served this overarching aim. Mines were dug, telegraph lines strung up, railroad track laid, freight rates set, harbors constructed, and legal systems imposed — all for the primary purpose of helping the military and economic needs and interests of the imperialist powers. In the process, local economies were shaped and deformed, and local competitors either co-opted or crushed but rarely allowed to flourish on their own. India from the late 18th century to the rebellion in 1857 serves as a perfect example of how imperialist rule subverted and crushed local economic and political interests.

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