Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

There is but one political question in most people’s minds once one is past the pandemic:  is China poised to become in the third, or even the fourth, decade of this century the world’s supreme power? 

In an opinion piece that I published in the Indian Express some days ago and that then appeared on this blog site, I described 2020 as the “year of American reckoning”.  America’s wars overseas over the last half a century have not gone well:  though the generals complain that they were forced to fight against the communists in Vietnam with one hand tied behind their back, the brutal fact is that the Vietnamese waged a war of attrition against the Americans and with a miniscule fraction of the firepower available to their foes dealt the United States a humiliating blow—though paying dearly with their lives.  In the Middle East, there is little to show for decades of massive, incessant, and mindless American intervention except the crumbling of some dictatorships, the installation of new ones, the emergence of warlords, and the descent of traditional societies into chaos.  The trillions of dollars expended on Afghanistan do not tell a very savory story either.  And, yet, it is still possible to think of 2020 as the year when the United States truly began to unravel.  Not only did the project of bringing democracy to countries that had little or no experience of it fail dismally:  democracy in the United States itself become imperiled.  On top of that, the United States, which gloated over the thought that it was the envy of the world, has become pitiable to much of the world.  It accounts, with 350,000 deaths, for a fifth of the world’s casualty toll from the coronavirus pandemic with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and is now even experiencing difficulties in rolling out the vaccine.

China, in contrast, appears to have outwitted the world.  In the fourth week of January, before the transmission of the virus outside China had been documented, all eyes were on the country.  The death toll in Wuhan was initially staggering; however, almost just as soon as the virus had arrived, it disappeared from China.  In late March, this message was circulating on WhatsApp groups in India and it was relayed to me by a friend in India:  “China created group ‘COVID-19’ / China added you / China added Rest of the World / China left.”  A friend in Beijing pointed out that cafes were open at this time, if social distancing and masking were being observed, and through spring and early summer, as countries around the world struggled to rein in the monstrous virus, the Chinese became the world’s suppliers of masks, gloves, personal protective equipment, and ventilators.  Some argue that reports of the country’s economic recovery are exaggerated, and they point to electricity blackouts and suppressed internal economic demand; on the other hand, there appears to be ample evidence that the economy has roared back and that manufacturing is at an all-time high.  Whatever the reservations that one may have about the word “normal”, life in China seems to have overwhelmingly returned to the normal.  China does not seem to be acting on the international stage like a country that has been humbled; to the contrary, its suppression of internal dissent has become all the more brutal, just as its swagger in foreign affairs has become discernibly prominent. 

It is, however, far too early to start writing the obituary of the undeclared American empire. Empires do not disappear overnight:  The Ottoman Empire was the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ since the mid-19th century but lingered on for another five decades before its dissolution. We can adduce at least four reasons why Chinese preeminence is, at best, a distant possibility, and why the 21st century is unlikely to be “the Chinese century”.  First, the ascendancy of China as the world’s reigning superpower would not be welcome to most of the world.  Britain, as an imperial power in the 19th century, had gained the approbation of at least some among those who were colonized:  some believed, for instance, that notions of individual liberty and the “rule of law” were ideas that would become their own inheritance in time to come.  The United States through much of the 20th century was a country which many people around the world held in considerable and sometimes deep affection.  It hogged the limelight as no country ever had.  On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that China is a country for which people outside China have any real affection, though this by no means controverts the fact there is considerable admiration for how China has risen over the last few decades and brought hundreds of millions of its own people out of poverty.  But there is no love lost between China and even its neighbors.  The deep misgivings with which Vietnam, also a communist state, views China is illustrative of this tendency, though the same suspicion is found among a dozen countries with which China is presently embroiled in territorial disputes as it goes around claiming “lost territory”.  The heavy hand of China, experienced in its willingness to pursue dissenters across the globe, or in its thuggish embrace of “national security”, makes it a country that is seldom if ever loved. The cynic may argue that the empires of yesteryears cared only about being feared, not loved.  But that is precisely the point: as we move into modernity, the modes of oppression do not remain the same.

Secondly, and relatedly, China has little cultural capital that it can leverage around the world.  The term currently in fashion to describe how countries insinuate themselves among other countries and attempt to win influence over them is “soft power”. During the Cold War, even in countries such as India which under Indira Gandhi had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, and was unquestionably viewed by the Americans with considerable suspicion and hostility as a nation that had gone over to the Soviet camp notwithstanding its declared intention of remaining neutral and charting a third path, Anglo-American culture absolutely predominated in the Indian middle class.  The history of the infiltration of American culture—pop music, the comic books of Dennis the Menace and Archie, the steamy American novels with blondes, Cadillacs, and martinis, the boxing matches of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman, Hollywood movies, and much else—into large swathes of the Indian middle class in the 1960s-1970s has yet to be written.  What was true of India was true of most other countries. There is very little if anything in contemporary Chinese culture—nothing comparable to Korea’s export of K-pop, the hold of Japanese manga and anime over the young, Brazil’s soccer culture—that endears China to the world.  This is not to say that there are no Sinophiles; nor is this to deny the fact that the number of people learning Chinese as a foreign language has grown around the world to 100 million. But the demand for English has grown even more exponentially, easily outstripping the demand for Chinese, and an estimated 1.5 billion people are learning English globally.

Thirdly, and this is a distinct point, one is stretched to find the case of a country that has become a superpower that has not also been an intellectual powerhouse.  The American century was not crafted solely through cultural artefacts such as music, cinema, literature, and the arts.  The Americans set about creating an empire of knowledge.  American social science was not just preeminent; it was adopted, and usually copied lock, stock, and barrel, throughout the developing world and in most of the developed world as well. The influence, generally for the worse, of American social science—modernization theory, economics, sociology, psychology—has been staggering. There are reasons why Chinese students flock to foreign universities, mainly to the United States, and their numbers have grown, from 229,000 in 2009 to 459,000 in 2014 and 662,000 in 2018.  Britain and the United States, respectively the greatest powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, drew students from around the world; China, by contrast, sends more students abroad than it admits to its own universities.  On a more substantive note, it is difficult to think of even a single idea generated by intellectuals and scholars in China that has left a lasting impression, and that too globally, upon social science research or humanistic inquiry.

Fourthly, even if Chinese manufacturing dominates the world, having to everyone’s surprise become yet stronger during the pandemic, the global financial architecture which is of American vintage remains firmly in the hands of the United States.  The US dollar is still the backbone of the world’s financial system and by far the most acceptable currency in the world. There has been much talk over the last two decades, and more pointedly after the great recession of 2008, of the dollar being superseded but as of the present moment the renminbi and the euro lag far behind as the world’s principal reserve currency and similarly as the currency for international trade.  As of March 2020, 62 percent of the world’s exchange reserves were in US dollars, and only 2 percent in the Chinese renminbi.  The dollar is, indeed, everyone’s “currency”—the currency of their imagination, supremely iconic both of American steadfastness and panache.  The renminbi, whatever its official standing as a global reserve currency, is not even a poor country cousin.

Some commentators are of the opinion that we should be looking to a multipolar world, the outlines of which may become clear within a few years.  That is certainly a distinct possibility, particularly if the European Union can withstand the periodic assaults on its territorial integrity and the very idea of “Europe”.  Though, as I have argued, it is far too premature to speak of a “Chinese Century”, China may be able to make inroads into the global imaginary if it is able to take bold steps to reduce carbon emissions and become an instrument for effecting radical rethinking on the vital question of climate change. Though the pandemic appears to have been the defining experience of contemporary times, it is more likely that the rest of this decade will be rather more important in giving shape to the geopolitical future of humankind.

Translated into Bosnian by Amina Dugalić and available here.

26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

  1. A couple points here. There is a specific reason why the US remains the envy of the world in its intellectual/cultural capital: its creative innovation, above all in technology (but also in the arts, academics, etc.). Think of all the industry leaders–Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Tesla. By the time the rest of the world even recognized what these pioneers were doing they had been left in the dust and had no choice but to follow along. What China is adept at is taking these ideas and applying them on a much larger and more comprehensive scale. Living in China is a bit like living in an alternate universe, with its own elaborate and fulfilling ecosystem. Life keeps on improving, not just for the elite but for everyone–the creature comforts, the quality of the food and beverage industries, the museums, the bustling cities, the high-speed rail system (the world’s largest), and so on. The big downside, of course, is how technology is being used in the service of repression, not just in China but China is obviously at the cutting edge of this. Yet most people here don’t care or don’t seem to notice; it only affects the miniscule percentage of the politically dissident. If the international web is blocked, most people get along fine without it (in fact they get most of the same news as the rest of the world; China doesn’t censor news from without or distort the truth, as it doesn’t have to, e.g. regarding Covid in the US). If things become too oppressive and Orwellian, then foreigners will simply leave, and the rest of China won’t care that much and will go on. The Gov’t IS sensitive to how it’s perceived by the rest of the world, and they will have to finally find a balance. If it’s too inflexible and can’t think its way out of its old-school, militaristic paradigm, something will happen; it will implode with internal dissent, as things always have a way of doing in this country.


    • I am in agreement with the general tenor of your observations. It is certainly the case that dissenters in any society are usually a miniscule portion of the population, and therefore the question of the stifling of dissent in China may agitate outsiders but is of little consequence in China itself. So long as most people continue to feel that their standards of living are improving, the Chinese communist party will get a free ride; but at some point the dam will burst. It always does–it make take another few years, perhaps a few decades. One reason why the US has been able to wage wars around the world with near impunity, and intervene in other countries’ politics (while of course objecting to others who seek to return the favor, so to speak), is that on the whole — and I know some will object to this characterization — minorities have given their consent, tacitly or explicitly, to the system of governance and have gained from their open admiration for the “American dream”. Certain immigrant groups, for instance, are among the loudest supporters of American adventurism and conservative politics.

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  2. Regarding the burgeoning “soft power” of East Asia: I have wondered about the durability of the new cultural clout of South Korea and Japan. As I first saw the world become enraptured with the cultural exports of East Asia, I did wonder if the Japanese and Korean “waves” signalled a coming multipolar world—if only in a cultural sense. However, I began to notice that the young people of the West, and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia, were developing affinities for Japan and Korea that were not sustainable. It seems the shock with which Japan and Korea were able to hit the cultural psyches of the Western young derived in part from the mystery which still shrouds East Asia in much of the West.

    The manicured societies presented in anime and K-pop, and even in the higher media of film and music, are attractive for a youth inundated with the realities of American racism, inequality, and political devolution. As a result, South Korea and Japan are held up in the youths’ imaginaries as polished, harmonious, and efficient places. But this perception is a house of cards.

    I cannot tell you how many times I have seen Black, Latinx, and other marginalized American youths pin their hopes on the nations they have discovered through anime or K-pop, only for them to find that South Korea and Japan cannot rescue them from their vulnerable position in Western society. They begin to craft fictional narratives of Japan and South Korea as affluent and promising places free from the baggage of American racism. This only for young Black Americans to visit South Korea and find that they have not been liberated from the bounds of racism, but have stumbled upon an even more mindless flavor of racism, which holds in store for them ejection from nightclubs, the clearing out of their neighboring seats on subways, and being spat on by the older and frankly, more candid generations of South Koreans. This rude awakening is often more severe for Koreaphiles who nurtured their affinities in such places as the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The Philippines’ digital #CancelKorea movement was launched in reaction to Korean internet denizens calling Filipinos an “uneducated race” and hurling gross insults at Filipinos because a Filipina-American social media star unknowingly tattooed an Imperial Japanese emblem on her arm. Of course, we will remember that the Philippines too was a victim of Imperial Japan’s aggression, and so the indignation of the South Korean denizens was rather curious given the shared history of victimhood.

    The problem of overt racism is less pronounced in Japan, but I hardly need to bring up the woes of the countless 外人 who have tried and failed to join or at least meaningfully interact with Japanese society. Many of them now bitterly belabor the point of Japan being exclusively for the Nihonjin.

    Of course, it is not the fault of South Korea or Japan if people develop fantastical notions about their societies. The history and culture of the region is grand and is not to be tied to the pop culture products they are now exporting abroad. It is up to the consumers of these cultural products to manage their perceptions of these places.

    But it does seem that the entertainment industries in Korea and Japan encourage the circulation of these idyllic images abroad. All of their cultural output appears rather coordinated, and the result is a portrait of both countries which advertises a cohesive and positive situation, albeit an artificial one.

    Many outside admirers find that despite its undeniable personality, Japanese TV quickly loses appeal when one tires of always being Genki, and when one learns that millions of Japanese are in fact not Genki.

    In this vein I think the USA has a cultural influence with far stronger foundations than any other nation currently vying for “soft power.” America’s problems become the world’s problems. The world watches the United States contort and flounder, but this only engenders a greater feeling of familiarity with American politics and culture among the rest of the world. The USA exports not only positive cultural developments, but also movements like BlackLivesMatter, MeToo, and as you mention, the intellectual wealth which undergirds these movements.


    • There’s no question that the mystique of the “Orient” was a factor historically in the Western interest in Japan and China, but I’m not so sure that this is an overwhelming consideration if one is attempting to understand the contemporary Western interest in Japan and, increasingly, Korea. I don’t think one can simply attribute this to the supposed exoticism of the Far East or to strands of Orientalism, even if shades of all that are still palpable. Here, again, though this is a far too complicated subject for me to address in this brief response, the aesthetic considerations present in the admiration for Japan and Korea are far from being similar. Japan is perhaps the only country in the world whose aesthetic appeal to outsiders–whether through zen, noh, kimono, ikebana, the tea ceremony, the samurai culture, woodblock prints, and countless other things–is a global story in itself. But I think you have pointed to something else which is critically important, and with which I agree, namely that pervasive forms of discrimination in both Japan and Korea are hidden to outsiders. What you say about the blatant racism directed at Black people in Korea is something about which there is little awareness, and it is all the more ironical and repugnant given that the Koreans themselves are second-class subjects in a country such as Japan. However, going back to the main subject of my essay, I think it is indubitably the case that China has a long way to go before its cultural and intellectual capital, whatever that may be, can be enlisted by the Chinese communist party in its quest for dominance.


  3. The fall of the United States from grace is fundamentally the fall of the culture of capitalism it engendered. It created an inverted world, by inverting the promising values of the enlightenment. Apart from its technological advances, America invented nothing. It borrowed or appropriated everything it could from around the world and from the natives, and sacrificed it all on the altar of capitalism. This unrelenting human sacrifice to the deity of wealth is now revealing its barbarity quite openly. Propaganda is no longer working.


    • I agree wholeheartedly that the bedrock to all this is capitalism and there are of course some thinkers and activists who have been focused on furnishing a critique of capitalism. I’m as stringent a critic of the US as anyone else, but I don’t know that I would agree that apart “from its technological advances, America invented nothing.” We’d need to know what you mean by “invention”: were blues and jazz invented in the US or not? Of course you could say that these forms of music owe everything to the experience of slaves, but in the last analysis nearly everything is “borrowed.” African Americans also think of themselves predominantly if not overwhelmingly as Americans, and I think blues and jazz could only have come out of the US. The point here simply is that I think you would have to refine your ideas further though I agree with the general trajectory of your remarks.


  4. I think it’s really important to note that both America and Britain were always out to maintain their supremacy over China and had to actively ensure that they were not overtaken by them in history. Firstly, I think it’s important to note that we learn history from a Euro-centric perspective as we have never learnt about history from the Chinese perspective as their work is usually not translated. It is also important to note that before the Industrial Revolution, China was one of the main 3 producing bodies of the world’s GDP. Even when the British conquered India and were trading with China through the East India Company, they had nothing to offer them but rather were desperate for silk and tea. The Opium war was staged by the British as they are the ones who created the demand for opium in China as in the 1880’s, approximately 6 million pounds of opium was being sent into China. China’s aggression today and view of the West can be explained by their humiliation and reaction to this period of time. If they didn’t go through this, they could’ve possibly mirrored Japan and copied the West, leading them to become the world’s supreme power.


  5. China will probably continue to be an economic superpower because of their ability to make products for such a cheap price and dominate the global market. It costs much more to make similar products in America, so it’s unlikely America can compete with that level of manufacturing. Also, it’s interesting how even during the middle of the pandemic China managed to become the suppliers of masks and other PPE for the world. That’s surprising since the pandemic actually started in China and yet they were still able to push through and find a way to restart their manufacturing in order to make money. Along with that, capitalism plays a major role in China’s ability to maintain its power. They make the goods cheaply and sell them globally, which is unlikely to change in the next century. However, the country is not very likable because they are known for abusing their power over their people. The article mentions that strict government control might be how they managed to get the coronavirus under control so quickly compared to other countries around the world. Despite everything, America has become a world power not only through capitalism but also due to the spread of American arts and knowledge. American cultural capital such as music, movies, TV shows, and books are popular throughout the world. America will also remain a world superpower as we have more cultural capital than China, despite not being able to mass produce products as cheaply as them.


  6. Both of my parents are actually from Wuhan, the place where the COVID-19 pandemic was originated. Throughout January 2020, they were in constant contact with our family that lived in Wuhan, and they spent every second worry about their health and wellbeing. This was the time before the virus had reached the US, and the only way we could create our perception of the virus and the shutdown of society that it caused was only through reading about it in the news. However, flash forward to 5 months later, when the pandemic has hit the US in full force, and Wuhan and the rest of China already seems to have returned to a level of normalcy. There is also now a clear reversal of roles in our family: our relatives in Wuhan were now the ones constantly messaging us to see if we were okay, and they were now doing the worrying. The difference in the rate of the return to normalcy between the US and China is incredible to me. As a citizen of the US, it is extraordinary for me to see that my family in Wuhan has already returned to normal life and has been experiencing a degree of normalcy for months now, whereas in my home country we have been struggling with this virus for more than entire year. Such a difference in the response to COVID-19 speaks out to one of the main points of your post, where the US seems to be slowly losing its position as the most dominant and competent force in the globe to China, which has been advancing itself for decades now. Such a difference makes me wonder how long it will take until China can officially become recognized as the new dominant force of the world.


    • Your account of Wuhan’s quick return to “normalcy” while the US sought unsuccessfully to contain the virus of course has a touch of the personal in it which makes the narrative less abstract. However, with respect to your main point, namely that it is only a matter of time before china becomes “officially recognized as the new dominant force of the world”, I suggest that such an outcome may perhaps be somewhat premature, for reasons that I briefly outline in the essay. I am certain that there will be considerable and growing blowback in the US and elsewhere in the world to the Chinese assertion of dominance.


  7. Hello, professor. As a Chinese person, I’d like to listen to something about the Chinese Century. Especially in the most recent period of COVID-19, Chines people show a high degree of unity and responsibility. The various broke in Wuhan and finally prevent and cure in a short time. That has an essential reason with the ideological system. Chinese Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism always are an excellent ideology that should be studied. The most important is that China announces that it never seeks hegemony and China always is a practitioner of peace. On the other hand, in the eyes of Westerners, China used to be a closed and self-defense economy, basically isolated from the world economic system, like being in a completely parallel time and space. No matter the discourse system, the way of thinking, or the context of development, it was incompatible with the outside world. It seems that there are too many obstacles to be overcome in China’s modernization process. China is constantly learning, learning from, and integrating with the world, and the world also needs China’s presence, promotion, and guidance. Today, China and the world can hardly be separated from each other.


  8. Hello, professor. China has been widely accepted for the the world and China also changed a lot after the founding of country. On the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up, China has created many miracles unprecedented in human history. In recent years, China has not only become the world’s largest market for automobile and smartphone industries, but also one of the world’s busiest sea lanes through the South China Sea, where more than 40 trade routes are the “lifelines” of the world. Then there are some scholars who believe that with the rapid development of China’s economic and political forces, the world pattern will eventually change. In particular, in October 2014, the International Monetary Fund awarded China the title of “world’s largest economy”, a position that had been held by Americans for more than a century.  Although the ranking of reference is purchasing power parity algorithm, and according to the actual exchange rate, China’s economic size is still not more than the United States, but this set of data, in the eyes of some scholars, the media, is still the epoch-making, if the past belongs to the United States in 100, that people are at the dawn of the “Chinese century”. China’s development will be sustainable. China’s per capita gross domestic product is far below that of the United States, but China’s total GDP will surpass that of the United States in the near future. That means China’s economy could double or even triple its current size.


  9. China in recent decades has come into the discussion of becoming a threat to America’s position as the world’s supreme power as a result of being a more centralized force in their efforts while America is often caught up with military interventions that lead to a loss in both lives and finances. Additionally, China has taken the initiative in increasing their foreign influence and economic might through their successful attempts in exerting their hand in many developing countries within Africa, such as by giving loans which trap these countries to massive amounts of debt which many will be crippled by and dependent on China. I agree with the many points stated that suggest that China is lacking influence in culture compared to other countries like the U.S, Japan, or South Korea when it comes to music, movies, literature, and etc. I believe that in order for China to overcome the U.S they will need to be the leaders within the innovative sphere instead of mirroring what other countries like the U.S technologically in order for them to take the leap forward as the frontrunner.


  10. In my personal opinion, It doesn’t matter if China can become the 3rd or 4th superpower country; Even if China becomes the 3rd or 4th superpower country, China still has always stood for peace. The undeniable thing is China is becoming a superpower country. As we can see, China is the second-largest economic entity, and the financial gap is gradually narrowing with the United States.
    During in COVID-19 period, China and Chinese people took the COVID-19 seriously and concerted action to avoid the virus to expansion. It only took a few months to control the Covid-19, and as we knew, China had built a hospital in a week that can accommodate 1000 people. At the same time, China has shown speed, unity, and strong. In 2020, China was the only country that has a growing economy. China was an economically weak, corrupt, feudal, and backward country In the late Qing dynasty. After that, China has gone through 14 years-long war, and the people’s republic of China was founded in 1949, which token 72 years to be like now. China has one of the largest working populations in the world, which supports China’s economic development. Unlike Korea and Japan, both of them have the new influence of K-pop and cartoons. In today’s world, K-pop and cartoons have a huge impact thus among which brings the trend of Economic development is going straight up. Although China has potential, I personally think it is still a long way from becoming a superpower country.


  11. Hello Professor Lal! While I grew up in Mexico, it is true that there was a fantasy among the population that the U.S. was the ultimate goal and many families risked their lives to achieve this. The U.S. and its people will defend their image and reputation fiercely and during the 20th century, the U.S. was easily able to paint its interventionist policies as just. However, with the onset of the internet and especially mass media, people have more liberty to expose the government. Since the U.S. cares deeply about how it is perceived, domestic mass media is able to sway the government if they are causing trouble abroad. Yet, the Chinese government does not face this issue because they are able to suppress internal media; therefore, their internal actions go largely unnoticed by the international community. Thus, world governments have to constantly speculate on how powerful China actually is and China uses this to its advantage to scare its neighbors into giving it more territory. While most of China’s modernization is largely centered on its east coast and has vast amounts of underdeveloped areas, it is on the road to becoming a global superpower while deceiving its enemies.


  12. Though China has become a dominant power in the international community, it is most likely impossible for the country to surpass the United States. Being at the center of capitalism, social science, technology, and culture, America will always remain a greater world power. Based on the article, the US is the “backbone of the world’s financial system” and the architect of capitalism. Also, the currency, the dollar, is the most used in the global economy. Even though China’s manufacturing dominates the world, the country’s major trading partner is the United States. China’s economy plays into American capitalism. Furthermore, considering other countries like Japan and South Korea who have become major players in the cultural aspect due to K-pop and anime, China lacks cultural influence. However, I was most intrigued by the article’s claim that America is the “empire of knowledge.” It implies that America is intellectually on a greater level than China. Rather than attending university within the country, Chinese students “flock foreign universities, mainly to the United States” paying thousands of dollars. Thus, China becoming a power would not pose a threat to the United States. America would always be ahead and its downfall would have a domino effect globally.


  13. Hello Professor Lal,
    I agree that China is unlikely to surpass the United States in terms of world power. As other people have brought up, it lacks the global clout, infamy, and intellectual and cultural capital that the United States has. Although the United States is arguably not in its prime as it was before, it still has significant sway in world politics that will likely keep it as one of the great powers for more years to come.
    However, I’ve seen Chinese scholars argue that Chinese officials understand that it is unlikely to achieve a status comparable to its status in past or even the U.S. today and aren’t seeking world hegemony. I wonder how this holds up to their actions today especially regarding neocolonialism, and how much of the narrative that China is trying to achieve global hegemony is rooted in yellow peril/Sinophobia versus actual fact.
    I also think the cultural export point is very interesting because I’ve noticed that c-dramas, specifically Chinese LGBTQ+ content, as well as Chinese games like Genshin Impact, are gaining popularity in the West among younger generations. I agree that Chinese soft power in terms of entertainment comes nowhere close to rivalling the United States or even South Korea and Japan, but I think it’s inaccurate to say that there is little China has to offer to endear itself to the world. I believe as the Chinese entertainment market develops further we will see more Chinese entertainment becoming popular in the West.


  14. After reading these article I found many points to be interesting. It was my previous assumption that the United States has continued to be successful in influencing and maintaining a positive view from foreign nations throughout this era. However, while reading your claims about their failures and shortcomings, this argument does leave room for China to step up as the next world power. I would like to bring up another example of China’s surge to the top of the world power scale. Very recently, China began the One Belt One Road Initiative, which provides developing countries with infrastructure development loans, allowing them to grow their economy. This serves as an alternative to the OECD or possibly the World Bank for developing countries. Much of the opposition argue that these loans are used to increase Chinese influence within these developing nations for years in the future. I agree with this claim, but at the very least it places China in a favorable outlook by other nations, because of their willingness to support these countries.


  15. It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte once stated, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” China has indeed been awaken, and the Western powers are to blame as they arrived in China in the mid-19th century. China had to modernize as their empire was forced to be opened to the world, beginning with Britain. China has become a threat to an extent as it is obvious that they are trying to become a superpower of the world. However, I don’t think that the US will lose its status as a superpower as long as we are able to resolve our domestic issues. The threat that China presents might just actually help the current strenuous relations between the left and the right here at home. The country unites during times of danger, and comes back stronger. Hopefully this trend continues.


  16. An important debate indeed, Professor Lal.

    I think one important factor to keep in mind is the shockingly small sample size we have to compare any potential rise of China to. That is, the change from one global hegemon to another has happened a very small number of times. This makes any such debate on the topic extremely difficult to verify, and yet no less important. I think this juxtaposition means that this debate will continue in earnest for many years.

    I find your arguments compelling. China seems to have built up plenty of ill-will throughout the world. I also find China’s relative lack of cultural capital troubling to the claim that they are soon to emerge as the hegemonic power in the same way that the U.S. has served.

    However, my cynical side tells me that this is simply wishful thinking. There are some good reasons to doubt these indicators: for one, the U.S. and Britain didn’t become the dominant force in world politics by making friends. Britain unquestionably achieved its status by militarily defeating a bogglingly large number of states and imposing their will on those countries without their consent. The United States came to dominance by being the only country not thoroughly destroyed by the largest war that the world has ever seen, and its activities as hegemon included toppling any regime that dared to side with its enemies. Conversely, it’s not like China has no assets in this arena. They are currently investing resources into many countries that the U.S. has devoted less energy to. They pose a real threat of becoming more influential than the United States in many countries. On the question of cultural influence, China is quite thoroughly behind the United States in every way imaginable. However, this is a dynamic state. It can’t be guaranteed that Chinese media won’t eventually gain more footholds globally. Also, I would contend that of the four domains laid out in the article (diplomatic, cultural, intellectual, economic), cultural influence is likely the least important to the creation of a hegemon. I believe in the cases of Britain and the U.S., culture followed from hegemony, not the other way around (though I could be wrong, of course).

    I won’t try to address the points on China’s relative weakness academically or economically. I am neither a scholar nor an economist, and any contribution I make on this issue will surely be so misinformed as to negate any value. I will, however, express doubt in the certainty of the claims of China’s weakness in these domains. I don’t feel that any single factor could demonstrate an incurable detriment to China’s power. I would predict that if one applied the same lens to America and Britain before their respective hegemonies, one could probably find similar factors which could lead one to believe their pre-eminence would be unlikely.


    • You’ve argued your case well, Adam, and of course I could give a rejoinder of greater length. But the idea was not to score points. If the essay works as a provocation, it is good enough; each point would have to be elaborated upon at greater length. I will say that what you term the ‘cultural’ domain is deeply undervalued and similarly the idea of ‘cultural capital’ is not so easily dismissed. My point was that China does not form part of the imaginary of the world. There is no doubt that China is becoming increasingly hegemonic as an economic, diplomatic, and military power, but to be part of the imaginary of a people is something else. I’m not arguing for the predominance of one point over another, but only suggesting that those who speak (too easily, in my view) of China’s ascendancy are not sensitive enough to the considerations I’ve raised. When 9/11 took place, the world declared: “We are all Americans”. I doubt that everyone will be shouting to say, “We are all Chinese”, if a similar incident were to occur in China. With regards to whether the US or Britain became world powers by making friends, of course not; but nevertheless the colonized, for example in India and Africa, came to develop an affection for the English language, for certain things British, as they do for American things–even while deploring American imperialism. These subtleties are important, in my view, but the tentativeness of the arguments is suggested by the title of the essay, “Some Doubts …. about the Chinese Century.” Nevertheless, I like your spirited reply.


  17. If we’re going to frame this as a kind of contest between China and the West, or the US standing in for the West, I think the game’s over. The US leadership has lost all moral authority to comment on China much less the rest of the world, and Americans themselves aren’t terribly informed about China or even interested in the country. The US is an increasingly violent, frightening, and unpalatable place to visit, live or work. Much of this violence has always been there, but it’s clearly getting worse, with the orgiastic proliferation of guns and Trump-inspired racism. You have Gestapo-like police killing Blacks, and redneck urbanites sucker-punching Asians on the streets. If the violence increases, nobody will want to visit the US anymore. Higher education will implode, as universities lose their large foreign-student population – and their budgets. There’s also worsening financial terrorism – many people already have to choose between medical expenses and food, if they’re not already in debt. The one thing I can say about the US that’s positive is it still has a relatively free press, but so do many countries which are more attractive in so many other respects as well. The US is beginning to fade into international irrelevance, though it still looms over the rest of the world militarily and may be more likely to use force abroad to rally nationalism at home or shore up economic advantages.

    China has its problems – an anal-obsession with control and censorship, to the extent of bullying countries that dare not toe the Party line on Xinjiang, Taiwan, etc. They want a world where they are effectively able to extend their censorship regime to every citizen of every country. They are already bumping up against this problem and are struggling with the best approach to keep in the world’s graces while not compromising their agenda. To some extent it’s sheer bullheadedness and thick-headedness on their part. They’re probably banking on the fact that most Chinese here and abroad are used to censorship and not all that bothered by it, because most Asian countries have varying degrees of censorship. No one in Singapore seems bothered by the censorship there. You can go to jail in Thailand for insulting the King, but I’d rather live in Thailand or Singapore than the US, as I believe most informed Americans would. Those who really need access to the international media (as I do) can simply skirt the Great Firewall with a VPN. The Chinese, by the way, do get a great deal of international news here, far more than Americans get about China. My Chinese wife often comments on exactly the same news stories occurring abroad in her cellphone news feeds that I get from Google News, etc. (the US of course has enough bad news for other countries to gobble up).

    The reality is that 99% (statistically it’s probably higher than this) of Chinese are doing just fine. Outside Hubei Province, the pandemic never really affected the country from the start. I’ve been in Beijing since 1994 and am still here. My life wasn’t altered in any respect since Jan. 2020; we could come and go freely and many bars, cafes and restaurants remained open. Now that life has returned to normal, there’s an astonishing variety of cuisines, nightlife, and entertainment. The streets are perfectly safe, and solitary women can be seen outside at all hours of the night. Drunkenness and sexual harassment is rare. It’s just not a violent society. Basic health care has been improving by leaps and bounds, and even poor, rural Chinese have much better care than a decade or two ago. It’s unfortunate what’s going on with repression against the Uighurs, but before we focus on that, it’s no worse, perhaps much less worse, than the millions trapped in the American Gulag – the prison industrial complex. What China lacks on the cultural front is a true, lively intellectual class; even the Soviet Union did a better job at safeguarding this. Chinese universities are doing well in international rankings in science, technology and engineering, much less so in the Humanities (the profession of history probably has it the worse, which barely exists in any meaningful sense, modern Chinese history anyway). On the other hand, the big bookstores here have large collections of all kinds of literature in both English and Chinese (I just saw Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun translated into Chinese the other day), and there is a very lively arts scene.

    Americans’ and Western democracies’ hostility to China aside, I think much of the rest of the world don’t feel as bad about China. You just don’t see the same anti-Chinese sentiments. I can say this having traveling extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia in recent years (before the pandemic). Inter-regional travel was exploding. I haven’t been to Africa but despite all the problems and conflicts there between Chinese and local business interests, what I’m hearing is that there is a general eagerness at all levels of society to encourage Chinese investment and relationships. There was a large African population in China before the pandemic, and many will likely return post-pandemic. In short, I see China increasingly becoming a major player in the world for a host of reasons, and the US increasingly withdrawing into itself, devolving into a cauldron of intractable, self-inflicted problems, as the rest of the world moves on.


  18. Professor, many of the points you make here are quite interesting, particularly the points you make about the intellectual capability and cultural stronghold. I feel that much of the motives behind the sentiment of the “Chinese Century” is fearmongering incited by people who would benefit greatly in increased hostility and conflict with China. Whether this be politicians hoping to rile up their base around a common enemy (ex. Trump), or even the military industrial complex who hopes that enough fear will eventually generate into increased military spending to keep up with the increasing military power of China which is often brought into the discussion of the “Chinese Century”. Either way, I feel that it is far too early to say if China will eventually overtake America’s pole position as being the great superpower of the world. China is of course making great strides in it’s country and is growing at an exponential rate that is quite alarming to the western world who claim that they are ideologically opposed to the People’s Republic of China, a one party Marxist-Leninist socialist republic.


  19. I am of the opinion that China will rise and a great power conflict will come with it—a great power conflict that could end the domination of the US. However, the four reasons you bring up do make me reconsider my opinion. Chief among them is the intellectual argument. With the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, the top-ranked universities in the world are all in the United States. The United States influences the intellectual world far more than China. And I think that this intellectual edge will be critical for the United States to remain on top of China. The United States is doubtless the place of greatest innovation and the birthplace of many new technologies. These new innovations and technology will be invaluable if a great power conflict arises. Even China realizes how much of an innovation powerhouse the United States is. I have read of the countless times China has tried to steal or reverse engineer American technology. The intellectual edge that the United States has will certainly play a part in the rise or fall of China.


  20. I’m in agreement with most of what you’ve said, although if I’m honest I know next to nothing about China so this blog post was more me learning than me thinking. Although, that’s not to say that I don’t have a few thoughts. At the beginning of your post, you mentioned how much military power America has and honestly it’s shocking to see it all in one paragraph like that. So much of my generation doesn’t even care about these wars or agree with them, what the hell are we doing in these countries? Although maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in my contemporary American History classes. I think also the way that China handled the coronavirus in amazing. America’s efforts reminded me of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj just because we’re so capitalism/profit oriented and don’t always pursue the public good. I’ve definitely met a lot of selfish people this year who had told me they didn’t care about going out without a mask.. I think if there will ever be anything that holds America back from advancement, it will be outselves.
    Last thing I wanted to say, maybe this is a little too forward or idealistic – I feel like the world should be past the point of who is what # world power.. Feels a lil old fashioned now, I wish we could fast forward to the part where stuff like this isn’t a competition anymore.


    • I most definitely agree that we have to move past the idea of what is the number one world power and all that. What’s so great about being the world’s preeminent power? or about being a nuclear state? But we have to think dialectically as well as against the grain: for instance, what would you or anyone else think if I said that victory is more traumatic for the victor than the vanquished? That would sound absurd to many. But look at the United States: it is the greatest military power in the world and yet obviously the US has not yet come to grip with its own past, the history of genocide that is also very much a part of this culture. The US remains traumatized by a past that it dare not acknowledge–for fear that the very idea of ‘America’ will have forever altered.


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