The headline accompanying this column is a rather dramatic way of putting it, but the reality is that China aspires to meet and surpass the USA economically, technologically and militarily, to become the putative leader of the world. Can they? Having been a “China watcher” for many years, and having travelled to China many times, let me offer some thoughts on this contest — United States vs. China.
As Americans, unless we collectively smarten up and put an end to our my-way-or-the-highway partisan squabbles, many of us will soon be dismayed if not stunned when China glides past us on one or all of these fronts. China’s GDP is on track to move past the U.S. in six to seven years, according to the Bank of America. China now has the largest navy in the world although it still lags behind the U.S. in structural force with fewer carriers, cruisers and submarines. China has astonished the rest of the world by already putting a land rover on Mars and launching its own space station, planning now to partner with Russia in space exploration. China’s strongman and strong-minded leader, Xi Jinping, has promised his people that China will focus its future development on less cheap-labor enterprises and more on higher value economic enterprises like aerospace, robotics, advanced information technology, semi-conductors (computer chips), bioengineering and other enterprising innovations, and it has the capital reserves to be aggressive with these plans.
According to the World Bank, China’s per capita GDP is now about $10,500 against a global average of $10,925. China currently accounts for almost 50% of all global exports. Xi Jinping said recently in a speech celebrating 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that China’s goal is to put an end to “a century of humiliation.” In trying to gain favor with other nations, China has been making billions of dollars in loans, especially to developing countries, for its infrastructure development: roads, rail, dams, information technology and airports. For some of these countries under duress, especially from the effects of the pandemic, it has provided over $2.1 billion in debt relief. Two billion isn’t a huge amount of money given the scale of foreign direct investment, but it does pay disproportionate dividends when it comes to foreign policy and economic diplomacy.
All that being said, despite China’s incredible development from one of the poorest nations in the world to middle-income status in just a few decades, China under Xi Jinping faces some serious problems and so the match for supremacy is far from over.
The CCP is an absolute authoritarian ruler and President Xi is the absolute ruler of the CCP. He has set himself up to be a ruler for life, unless he’s hoisted by his own petard due to policy failures in resolving China’s pending problems.
Biggest of these problems is China’s aging population of over 1.2 billion people. Hmm, how to pay for all those pensions when China’s young seem less interested in having children. China’s birth rate has declined from about 6% in 1960 to about 1.2% in 2020. This problem also manifests itself in declining labor resources for mass manufacturing which is what has brought China to middle-class income status; hence, President Xi’s interest in shipping China’s cheap state-run labor manufacturing off to countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and India and shifting to higher-quality commercial enterprises such as research, state investments in the production of things like renewable energy platforms, semiconductors, robotics bioengineering and artificial intelligence.
The problem for Xi Jinping is that to make these kinds of shifts requires fewer state run industries, more corporate liberties, less control over information and more allegiance to international law, rules of trade, commerce and intellectual property. But more laissez-faire business practices and commitments to international rules and laws will compromise the power and influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
China has had many failures on its way to recent successes. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a disaster. The attempts to grow the economy through communes and the “Great Leap Forward Movement” was also a disaster of Biblical proportions with an estimated 45 million deaths. The struggle for modernization and more responsive Communist Party leadership culminated in the Tiananmen Incident that resulted in thousands of deaths. Even today, President Xi has had to implement tough social controls and discipline using extralegal detentions, cybersurveillance, and CCP purges to maintain loyalty for his agenda and to stem the growing disparity and dissatisfaction between the wealthier segments of society and the poorer classes.
Bottom line is that growth in today’s global economy and marketplace requires a certain amount of liberalization which is anathema to the Chinese Communist Party.
There are, of course, many other forces at work for and against China’s ambitions. To name a few: How to feed 1.2 billion people, the deleterious effects of climate change for a country still stuck in fossil fuels, Hong Kong and Taiwan; Law of the Sea and the South China Sea, and how to keep the free flow of information from seeping through China’s iron information curtain.
The New York Times is currently running a series of essays under the theme of, “The Great American Languishing.” It begins with: “The United States used to be a country of dramatic invention and dynamic change, but today our policies are sclerotic, our culture is in a crisis and our dreams are small. What happened?”
Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern University, argues that the U.S. has lost the dynamism and spirit of growth of the 1800s, instead diagnosing America as a nation with hardened political arteries, deadlocked between politicians determined to “simply hang onto power and those seeking modest tweaks.”
As the future contest between China and the United States unfolds, both countries have challenges to overcome. Immerwahr suggests that, “A painful fact about U.S history is that it often takes a military conflict to transcend the habitual holding pattern of a checks-and-balances government.” It’s time for the United States and its leaders to think big, like we did to get us out of the Depression and post-World War II. It’s in our DNA if we can just get past the empty, arrogant partisan squabbles.
From my standpoint, China’s biggest problem is Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. In my view, they are problematic and obsolete. My bet is on America because I know what we are capable of, but we’d be fooling ourselves not to believe that we are up against stiff competition. In the jargon of the sports world, we better suit up, bow our necks, and get mentally focused on the contest.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.