Will China become the most powerful country in the world?

Will China someday be the most powerful superpower in the world?  Yes, they will.  It may take 10 years or 20 years or 50 years or more.  The Chinese are not in a rush. 

There are many reasons China’s continued ascension seems inevitable.  Here are four very simple factors that convinced me:

1. China is really, really big

China’s population is 1.4 billion, or more than four times that of the US (327 million people).  Seven of the world’s 50 largest cities are in the US, topped by New York with a population of 8 million.  But China accounts for 17 of the 50 largest cities, and they are much larger than ours:  27 million people in Shanghai, 20 million in Beijing, 15 million in Chongqing, 13 million in Tianjin, and so on.

American companies already sell more than $100 billion worth of products to China every year.  Many companies – including such name brands as General Motors, Starbucks, KFC, Coca Cola, Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Gillette, and Nike – rely on China for a significant portion of their revenue.  And the potential buying power of 1.4 billion consumers makes CFOs salivate as they project future sales. 

China’s sheer size also makes it a formidable foe, and the country has been flexing its diplomatic muscle in Southeast Asia for some time.  At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010, when the discussion turned to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, “China’s foreign minister matter-of-factly [said]… ‘China is a big country, and you are small countries.’”

2. The people work harder than we do.

There was a time when the US was known as a worldwide leader for its hard work and “can do” attitude.  Now, it is known as a leader in obesity, entitled workers, and people pushing for a shorter work-week.  Summer jobs that used to be filled by college kids are now handled by illegal immigrants, because they are the only ones willing to do heavy lifting.

Meanwhile, in China, many companies follow the “996 system,” working from 9 AM to 9 PM, 6 days a week, for a total of 72 hours. 

So let’s do a little math.  According to Pew research, the US labor force includes 157 million workers.  For simplicity, let’s ignore lunch, assume that they are all employed, and work 40 hours per week.  This would come to a total of about 6.3 billion labor hours per week for the US.

China’s labor force consists of about 806 million people.  If each worked 72 hours, China’s total would be 57.6 billion work hours per week, or about nine times as many total labor hours as the US. 

3. They study harder than we do.  

According to one recent study the average student in China spends 65-77 hours a week studying.  As they get older, the number goes up.  When it comes time for college admissions, every student in China takes the same standardized test over the same three days.  The gaokao, as the test is called, includes Chinese literature, English, Math, Physics, Chemistry, History and Politics.

In the US, of course, standardized tests are an important factor in determining college admissions. But they are just one factor.  Grades, class rank, essays, recommendations, interviews, sports, extracurricular activities and more are also considered. 

In China, everything depends on your gaokao score. Of the 10 million students who take the gaokao, about 60% will not get into any college.  For the rest, your score will determine whether the college you attend will be the Chinese equivalent of Harvard, or Podunk Community College.  And this will in turn have a major impact on the job you get after graduation.  In other words, in a way your whole professional life depends on this one score.  Students are therefore under enormous pressure to do well.  Some of them spend an entire year preparing for the gaokao in “exam factories,”  where they study up to 16 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Some of this work ethic survives even after people emigrate from China to the US.  In a Wall Street Journal article entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, author of the bestseller The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, described a study comparing the attitudes toward education of American mothers and Chinese immigrant mothers.   “Almost 70% of the Western mothers said [things like] ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’… By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe… that ‘academic achievement reflects successful parenting,’ and that if children did not excel at school… parents ‘were not doing their job.’”

4. They cheat

My post “The Biggest Theft in History” provided a number of examples of the way Chinese merchants and scientists do not play by our rules and have stolen intellectual property to leapfrog their US colleagues. 

Stealing intellectual property is not just a habit of imitation Apple stores, under some circumstances it is actually required by law.  “According to Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law ‘Any organization or citizen… shall support, assist with, and collaborate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law’… In addition to espionage and cybertheft by the Ministry of State Security, the party tasks some Chinese students and scholars in the U.S. and at other foreign universities and research labs with extracting technology.”

So, to sum up, China has four times as many people as the US, its laborers work nine times as many hours as ours, and its students work much harder than ours too.  And oh yeah, stealing intellectual property is the law of the land. 

As a reformed academic, trained to examine both sides of every coin, I feel compelled to admit that not everyone agrees that China will become more powerful than the US.  For example, a recent report from Capital Economics concluded that “The widespread assumption that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy is likely to be proved wrong.”  The most common counter-arguments usually stress key challenges China faces, including economic storm clouds, enormous debt, an aging population, income inequality, and corruption.

I reviewed corruption in a recent post, will discuss each of the other issues in the future.  For the purposes of this five minute post, I will simply agree that all of these challenges potentially affect the leadership of the Communist Party, and even its very existence.  But while they may slow China’s progress, I don’t believe they will derail it.

Regime change may sound attractive to some politicians, but, according to a Washington Post article:  “Given the landscape of nationalism and xenophobia that already exists in China, a successor regime to the CCP is likely to be as unfriendly — if not even more belligerent — than the present leadership.”

What’s more, according to Richard McGregor in The Party (p. xxii) “The Party’s marginalization of all political opponents makes it somewhat like the Iraqi army after the second Gulf war.  Even if it were disbanded or fell apart, it would have to be put back together again, because its members alone have the skills, experience, and networks to run the country.”

Similarly, Harvard Ph.D. and CNN analyst Fareed Zakaria has written that:  “China’s… population dwarfs that of the United States, and [it is] the world’s largest market for almost every good… It houses some of the planet’s fastest computers and holds the largest foreign exchange reserves on earth. Even if it experienced some kind of regime change, the broader features of its rise and strength would persist.”

Current US policy sometimes seems friendly to China and other times seems shaped by the belief that “This planet ain’t big enough for both of us.”   As I explained in my post entitled “Dueling superiority complexes” politicians in China and in the US are both convinced that “our system is better than your system.” 

I certainly agree the US system is better for me.  The more I learn about China, the more I want my grandson to live under the US system, and fear what it would be like if he had to live under Chinese rule.

In any case, it is clear that “China’s ascension to global power is the most significant new factor in the international system in centuries.”  Sooner or later, the US must find a path to an acceptable world order in which we are tied for number one or – gasp – clearly number two.