Donald Trump loves a good construction project, so it’s no surprise that he’s a fan of the Great Wall of China. A couple of months ago, Trump said this about the feat: “The Great Wall of China, built 2,000 years ago, is 13,000 miles long, folks. . . . And they didn’t have . . . tractors, they didn’t have cranes, they didn’t have excavation equipment.”
Last night, Trump compared his own planned wall on the border with Mexico to the famed barricade:
“The dishonest media does not report that any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!”
In that tweet, and on the campaign trail, Trump famously promised that Mexico will foot the bill. But that country has repeatedly declined the invitation, and Congress has other ideas. This week, Republican leaders said construction could start as soon as April – and that it would be paid for by American taxpayers, at least at first.
That means Trump’s “Great Wall” shares something else with its namesake: its funding source.
China’s Great Wall was started by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century B.C. to keep barbarian nomads out. The project lasted thousands of years, one of the most massive construction projects ever undertaken. Like most projects of huge ambition and overrun, it was also tremendously expensive. Historian Walter A. McDougall estimated that the Ming Dynasty alone spent “several million ounces of silver” on construction costs during its reign from the 14th to 17th centuries A.D. All that silver came from taxes and other government revenue, including the huge amounts of silver the Chinese mined in Peru and shipped back across the Pacific via Southeast Asian trade routes.
How much Trump’s wall may cost depends a lot of who you ask. Trump has said it’ll run about $8 billion, while CNBC predicts that the real price will run between $15 and $25 billion, plus maintenance costs.
Of course, China’s Ming dynasty was also able to “control” costs thanks to a relatively cheap labor force. Most construction was done by soldiers, convicts or commoners who were essentially forced to work. It was dangerous and often deadly work, keeping workers in cold and remote places for months or years at a time. The wall earned the nickname of “the longest cemetery on Earth” because there were so many deaths – 400,000 by one estimate.
Another reason for Trump to take note? Historians agree that China’s Great Wall was a major boondoggle and probably not worth it in the end. It didn’t really keep foreigners out. Anyone could sneak in – they just needed to find an unmanned entrance or gap. Eventually the military conscripts sent to guard the wall started mingling and trading with the Mongols, giving the barbarian hordes what they really wanted all along: customers for their wares.
Or, as historian Arthur Waldron told Mother Jones: “the Great Wall was bad fiscal and foreign policy, mainly paid for with pain.”