In a previous post, I explained four reasons I think China is likely to become the most powerful country in the world, sooner or later. It’s starting to look like sooner.
Last year, the Chinese economy went up and ours went down. In 2020, GDP (Gross Domestic Product – the total market value of all goods and services produced by a country) increased 2.3% in China and decreased 3.5% in the US.
When global insurance company Euler Hermes published an analysis of world economic trends a few weeks ago, they titled it “The world is moving East, fast.” The report concluded: “we now expect China to catch up with US GDP in 2030 instead of 2032, as expected at the end of 2019.”
As a country, we have grown quite comfortable in our spot as the largest economy in the world. According to a recent book by Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani (Has China Won?, p.4) “At the end of World War II… America’s share of the global GDP was close to 50%… [although it had only] 4 percent of the world’s population… Throughout the Cold War, the GDP of the Soviet Union never came close in size to that of America, reaching only 40% that of American at its peak.” (p. 4)
So the US has been “number one” for 76 years. Starting nine years from now, in 2030, we may need to get used to being “number two.”
One reason why is obvious to every American who has been locked in the house for the last year, lost their job, binged on Netflix, or actually gotten covid: the differing reactions of the two countries to the pandemic. As of February 11, 2021, the official death rate from covid was 1,430 per million people in the US, and under 4 per million in China. This difference in success combatting the virus, and in the economic and political implications, are outlined in a January 26 CNN piece entitled “China is rehearsing for when it overtakes America.” It explains how China managed to expand its economy while the rest of the world was slipping into the covid recession: with “harsh quarantine measures and additional actions intended to spur growth.”
For example, last month when just 16 new covid cases were reported in Heilongjiang province, one city in the province put 5.2 million people under lockdown and another city banned people and vehicles from leaving for three days. I despise the very idea of authoritarianism, but it sure can come in handy during a pandemic.
Another advantage China has in this situation its central control, with approximately one third of the economy managed by State Owned Enterprises which, according to the Euler Hermes report, were required by the government “to maintain economic activity and retain employment (even [when it was] unprofitable).”
The result: “While countries worldwide are sliding into recession… from the Covid-19 crisis… China has emerged stronger and more assertive.”
Sooner rather than later, the US is likely to be faced with a problem it has never faced before: “what to do if a rich and capable rival with very different conceptions of liberty, human rights, social order, justice, and the role of government in society emerged and was fully committed to a course of action that threatens U.S. security?”
Along with their economic progress, China is also winning the propaganda war for what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has called “soft power”: foreign policy success based on using attraction and persuasion rather than force.
Mahbubani argues (Has China Won? p. 6) that “From the 1960s to the 1980s, American soft power soared. [But] since 9/11, America has violated… international law and international human rights conventions (and became the first Western country to reintroduce torture)… and American soft power has declined considerably.”
Meanwhile, in the next few years, as the pandemic recedes, many countries will face internal challenges and perhaps instability. In this type of environment, the “countries most adept in using soft power to facilitate positive collaboration will be better placed to… shape global events.”
According to a Mercator Institute for China Studies report on China’s 2021 agenda. “One thing is certain, China will continue to gain influence globally. Its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ will probably contribute to this: China supplying urgently needed Covid-19 vaccines – as it is currently doing in Indonesia – will shore up relations with developing countries.”
And, as if all that is not bad enough, all of our post-election mayhem last month has had a very negative impact on perceptions of the US by enemies and allies alike. A February 4 Washington Post article summarized how the Chinese propaganda machine quickly seized this opportunity. Within 24 hours of the January 6 Capital riot, videos began to appear on Chinese social media with headlines that referred to the US with such terms as “permanently damaged,” “a failed state,” and “the greatest threat to world peace.”
Graphika, a company that uses artificial intelligence “to reveal and study online communities” issued a report which summarized Chinese social media use of Capitol riot videos, and concluded that the overall message was that “The United States, which has always promoted democracy and human rights, has become a country of riots, conflict and curfew.” The report went on to say that “The unifying theme that underlay such posts was that America is broken, and American democracy is not a model that any country should emulate, regardless of which party rules in Washington: the storming of the Capitol ‘tore the false mask of American democracy to pieces,’ as one video narration stated.”
The Global Times, an English newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party, poured it on by tweeting “@SpeakerPelosi once referred to the Hong Kong riots as ‘a beautiful sight to behold’ — it remains yet to be seen whether she will say the same about the recent developments in Capitol Hill.”
In short, as the Washington Post article summed it up, all of 2020’s “bad news for America has been good news for [China]. Because the overall narrative they’ve been building is China’s rising and America’s falling.”
But before you start studying Mandarin, it is important to note that China has plenty of problems of its own. According to a recent Foreign Affairs article with the ominous sub-title “The Risk of War Is Greatest in the Next Decade,” “The Sino-American contest for supremacy won’t be settled anytime soon.”
The article goes on to note that “Since 2007, China’s annual economic growth rate has dropped by more than half, and productivity has declined by ten percent. Meanwhile, debt has ballooned eightfold and is on pace to total 335 percent of GDP by the end of 2020. China has little hope of reversing these trends, because it will lose 200 million working-age adults and gain 300 million senior citizens over the next 30 years.”
In short “America would present a formidable challenge to China if it were a united, strong, and self-confident country.” (Has China Won?, p 51)
Let me think. A truly United States of America? In which Republicans and Democrats met in the middle with a bi-partisan approach, and politicians put the good of the country above their personal ambitions? I sure would like to believe that’s in our future.