“China has overtaken the U.S. in all respects,” said Tsinghua University professor Hu Angang last year.
The high-profile Hu is only one of many Chinese proponents of the notion that this era belongs to their nation. The United States, they maintain, is a spent force.
Therefore, we should not be surprised that they believe the international system either is now or will soon become China-centric. In any event, the prevailing narrative in China and elsewhere is that the world has passed its “unipolar moment”—the years immediately following the Cold War when Washington was dominant—and is “bipolar” or “multipolar.”
Arrogant Beijing leaders may not agree, but the United States will continue to dominate this era. However bright the Chinese sun shone in recent years, the People’s Republic is at this time stumbling. Decades on the rise, China looks like it has started a long period of decline.
We start with the conventional wisdom. “No one denies that in the long term, things look good for the People’s Republic,” writes Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College in a recent opinion piece.
Actually, the situation is not good. The economy, the engine of China’s extraordinary four-decade advance, is clearly exhausted.
Juiced by debt—especially since the end of 2008—the country now cannot grow without gobs of it. When the so-called “hidden debt” is taken into account, the economy is incurring one-and-a-half times as much indebtedness as it is producing nominal gross domestic product if official GDP figures are accurate.
They’re not. China is not growing at the 6.7 percent pace claimed for the first three quarters of this year. In reality, it’s less than half that. The combination of slow growth and unprecedented accumulation of debt suggests the country is heading to a systemic crisis.
While China moves toward its debt crisis, Xi Jinping, its ruler, is reversing the “reform and opening up” policies that fueled China’s rise. It is ironic that as the country approaches the 40th anniversary of the start of its era of economic liberalization, Xi is reembracing not only state-dominated economics but also totalitarian-style politics.
The embrace of Maoism leaves China ill-prepared to meet the critical challenges of the eroding environment, crumbling demographics, and emerging societal modernity. Xi can coerce but not persuade. His ideological campaigns are leaving the Chinese people, for the most part, cold.
Externally, Xi is showing a face of China that most abhor. Beijing is grabbing territory from neighbors, closing off the global commons, and proliferating nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It makes common cause with a host of bad actors, such as genocide-committing generals in Burma and misery-creating autocrats in Latin America. Even Beijing’s friends recognize it has chosen the wrong path. For instance, Brown, the King’s College professor, is the author of “How China Is Losing the World.”
China has already lost the U.S. The Chinese progressed in recent decades in large part because the United States and others paved their entry into global commerce and international diplomatic councils. A succession of presidents, from Nixon onward, made success of the Communist Party a goal of American foreign policy.
Now, that’s no longer the case. Americans have run out of patience or optimism, but in any event President Trump is pursuing policies either undermining Beijing or ignoring its interests. Moreover, President No. 45, unlike at least two of his last three predecessors, is not trying to manage American decline. He is all about asserting American power and is, to modify his signature line, “Making America Great Again.”
Whether or not one thinks America has always been great, the new line of thinking is trouble for Chinese communists. Many of them know Beijing cannot win a long-term struggle with America. Unfortunately, their leader is not acknowledging that reality, which means he could take China down with him.
The world is still unipolar. There is only one superpower. It is not China.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Chang lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades. He is a columnist at The Daily Beast and also writes regularly for The National Interest. Chang has given numerous briefings at the National Intelligence Council, the CIA, the State Department, U.S. Strategic Command, and the Pentagon. Chang frequently appears on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Bloomberg, CNBC, MSNBC, and PBS. He is a regular co-host and guest on The John Batchelor Show. He has served two terms as trustee of Cornell University.