The Great Recession of 2008 represented two decisive starting points: the beginning of the end for Western hegemony, and the rapid rise of China. Following the collapse of global markets, the US and the EU went into a state of apoplexy as the unintended results of free market capitalism crippled economies. China, in contrast, managed to weather and emerge from the economic crash relatively unscathed and, in comparison to other economies, thrived. Now the world’s second largest economy, China’s ascent as a global powerhouse shows no sign of ceasing any time soon.
How do we understand the unique and stratospheric rise of China we are witnessing today? Although a whole host of compelling and reasoned arguments can be put forward, I posit that China will continue to thrive unanswered for now, enabled by three important and interconnected factors.
The first and perhaps most controversial reason for China’s continued success is the absolute authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In early March 2018, China passed historic legislation eliminating the traditional ten-year term limit of its government, in effect allowing Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the CCP, and his party to rule indefinitely. According to a recent piece by the Wall Street Journal, delegates and officials of the CCP say that under Xi Jinping and his ‘centralized unified leadership’, a constant flow of continuity and decision-making will help steer China towards modernisation.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given China’s record on human rights and political dissent, that such dubious legislation has been passed. Although nominally a democratic state, the abolition of term limits will only heighten international condemnation of China’s faux-democracy as it continues to enhance its global position. Unlimited terms are not a desirable practice, especially for the US and European states who pride themselves on the democratic, peaceful transition of power between elected officials with strict term limits. However, this move will enable Xi Jinping to safeguard his ambitious plans for China well into the future without fear of discontinuity through losing an election.
Hyperopia vs Myopia
Defined as farsightedness, the hyperopia of China’s political decision-making has also been made possible by the abolition of term limits for the CCP. In October 2017, Xi Jinping stated that China will be a leading nation in terms of global power and impact by 2050. Plans to achieve this goal include relaxing the traditionally strict Chinese market for foreign access, focusing more on the production of clean energy, and modernising China’s armed forces.
In perhaps its most ambitious project, China is currently implementing a colossal development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Incorporating 68 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and an estimated 4.4 billion people, this trans-regional initiative will encompass a myriad interlinked trade deals, transport networks over land and sea, and multinational infrastructure projects that will act as a vehicle for China to promote trade and investment, while also enabling it to ship its massive overproduction of products such as steel to international markets. The abolition of term limits guarantees a continuity in policy that will ensure that strategies such as the Belt and Road Initiative are brought to fruition.
Countries incorporated in the Belt and Road Initiative. Image: Tart via Wikimedia Commons
China’s drive to to dominate the international stage will be further aided by the contrasting political myopia of Western powers. To take the US as an antithesis, the democratic system of governance on which the nation prides itself can also be its Achilles’ heel. Despite a four-year term, the President in essence has a only small window of roughly 18 to 20 months to push through pivotal laws and legislation before once again turning their attention to the next election campaign. Because of the way American politics is structured, many politicians in the US value short-term political point-scoring against rival parties, catering to the interests of lobbyists and the certainty of retaining their job over the sustainability of long-haul projects and strategies, as exemplified by the chronic disputes surrounding healthcare and gun control.
It is difficult to see how the US or any European power will be able to compete with China if they continue implementing short-term solutions to long-term problems. The Trump administration has been and is set to continue withdrawing the US from its global commitments and alignments, eschewing America’s capability in the future to shape political shifts that occur around the world. Europe, too, is not without its own turbulence. Performing a volatile juggling act, it is attempting to negotiate the terms of Brexit, tackle slow economic growth, manage the large influx of migration and combat erratic right-wing nationalist parties, all while attempting to manage an unruly and unpredictable relationship with the US, whose partnership appears unsettled for the first time in decades.
Both the removal of term limits and the ability to strategise long-term would ultimately be unattainable without the third point of the trifecta – nationalism. Every major political decision implemented by the Chinese is underscored by what is known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’. This encompasses approximately the years between 1839 and 1949, a period during which China suffered enormously under the imperialism of Western powers such as Britain and France, and its neighbour to the East, Japan.
‘China — the cake of kings and… of emperors’– French political cartoon from 1898.
The Century of Humiliation is considered to have begun with the commencement of the First Opium War between the UK and the Qing Dynasty of China, the result of a British practice of illegally exporting opium to the Chinese market. Opium had been causing serious social devastation amongst the Chinese, and in March 1839 the government decided to confiscate and destroy over 20,000 chests of the addictive narcotic, an event which ignited tensions that led to hostilities. Although unequal trade relations had been a point of contention between China and Western powers for years, the First Opium War effectively signalled the beginning of a social and political implosion that would consume and ravage China for decades.
During this tumultuous period, China endured considerable internal fragmentation, lost virtually all of the wars it fought and was forced to concede to the demands of the great powers (Britain, France and Japan) in successive treaties. This once proud and powerful nation was reduced to a shadow of its former self, which had for centuries dominated Eastern affairs unchallenged.
Given the relatively recent occurrence and scope of its national destruction, it is unsurprising that the Chinese are unwilling to confine these painful years to the annals of history anytime soon. Invoking Chinese nationalism is a powerful tactic of the CCP’s political strategy, and the continuous reinforcement of remembering the Century of Humiliation to instil nationalist sentiment is a key component of that tactic. After falling victim to the superior power of Western nations keen to quench their imperialist thirst, China is adamant in ensuring that it never again capitulates to a foreign power. The capability of China to retain a firm grasp of its history while simultaneously mapping out its long-term interests will continue to secure its dominance in the international arena as long as this powerful tool of nationalist pride is utilised.
As long as China continues to pursue this bureaucratic trifecta at home, it is unlikely that its stratospheric growth abroad will be tested in the near future. Although it may be enticing, seeking to emulate the Chinese model of success should not be seen a viable solution to Western problems.
Before the US or Europe can seriously consider challenging China’s international dominance over the next few decades, it must be willing to recognise the diminishing clout of the conventional post-Cold War order, make the improvements to political, social and economic institutions that are needed in order to compete, and implement prudent and extensive blueprints to match the ambition of its largest Eastern competitor.
The original version of this article appeared on Benjamin Moore's blog, Son of Gotham: https://sonofgothamblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/26/the-end-of-history-chinas-trilateral-triumph/