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.

6 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.


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