Brian M Downing
In all recorded history, China has had the strongest economy in the world, with the exception of the previous two centuries. The West’s preeminence seems timeless and preordained in much of the world, but in China it’s an historical fluke, one that will be made plain to all and rectified in coming decades and centuries.
Rising to global power entails a strong economy, powerful military, and determined leadership but also a coherent, supportive political culture in which most of the population believes their institutions, beliefs, and leaders are legitimate and able to fulfill a great destiny. National confidence becomes intoxicating.
In Britain, Germany, and to a lesser extent America, this sounds ethnocentric, archaic, even dangerous. It doesn’t in China.
China’s will to power
The people of China are not homogeneous. A Han population predominates. Some other groups, as will be noted, oppose their power and ambitions but most, including traditional rural dwellers and townspeople, accept the Han leadership, if reluctantly, because it expelled foreign powers, restored stability, directed an economic program that brought astounding wealth, and made China respected around the world. Dazzling skyscrapers have shot up in coastal cities. National greatness is no longer confined to lore.
Chinese companies are constructing railroads, port facilities, highway networks, and urban centers around the world, especially in Africa and Central Asia. As though taking cues from Theodore Roosevelt, China is building a blue water fleet and planning a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific. As though taking cues from a later president, China is determined to land on the moon in the next decade.
Rapid growth of course brings resentments and yearnings for a traditional past. This has not thus far led to significant opposition. Most people look upon neighbors and coworkers as partners in a common enterprise. The strongest opposition is from Tibetans in the south and Uighurs in the west – people who are not ethnic Chinese and not partners in the enterprise. They are deemed internal enemies. For most, a Chinese century is at hand.
American will, past and present
Along with rising power come concerns over sea lanes and established states opposing changes to the status quo. These concerns are bringing China into conflict with established states. American political culture is quite different from China’s– and relevant for its ambitions.
The United States in the years after World War Two was confident in its beliefs, institutions, and leadership. It had defeated two totalitarian empires and planted its flag from Tokyo to Berlin and in a thousand islands and cities in between them. The American century had dawned. By the early sixties the US was dedicated to pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship – and of course to put a man in the moon by the end of the decade.
Ten years later, though, much of that confidence was gone. Military blunders and rapid modernization had undermined it and brought on an incoherent, self-absorbed, and polarized country. The turmoil continues to this day. Parts of America hold on to older traditional orientations, but many other parts find great fault in them and wish to be done with them. The two sides shun and loathe one another. The US is presently undergoing another internal upheaval that may be as jarring as the one of the 1960s. China sees this as a further sign of its destiny.
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The advantage in political culture is to China, though it is not as overwhelming as it might appear. Most Americans are indifferent to global commitments and military action. US foreign policy is in the hands of an elite which operates above the tumult of most political debates. Foreign commitments stretching back to the post-WW2 era and Cold War have been able to persist. The human costs of war are taken up by a small minority drawn chiefly from traditional America.
China’s rapid growth may in coming years bring the same transition to a modern, highly-individualistic society much like the one that emerged in 1960s America. Indeed, the pace of change may be at least as great as it was in post-WW2 America. And of course a sense of limitlessness and destiny leads to serious blunders in the world, as it did for Britain, Germany, and America.
Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.