The print media has painted a painted a pretty bleak picture: not only that the best days of Western democracy are far behind us, but also China’s global hegemony in the next century is written in the stars. Many already speak of the twenty-first century as “The Chinese Century.” This is presented in concert to the conventional wisdom that the twentieth century was “The American Century” and the nineteenth century was “The British Century.” There is no doubt that China will be a major global player in the next 100 years (and I have a good bit of my future riding on it). But many geopolitical realities, as well China’s inherent weaknesses, ensure that the next hundred years will most certainly not be a Chinese century. I have listed eight of the most important:
1. America isn’t going anywhere.
Even amidst a stuttering economy and political gridlock, the United States of America still has many, many advantages in the coming century. A relative decline in American power is probably inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that America is suddenly going to vanish off the planet. When China enthusiasts muse about a world dominated by Communist-Confucianism, they forget that a strong and dynamic United States will continue to be a geopolitical fact for the foreseeable future.
2. China’s political system is brittle and unprepared to face upcoming challenges.
In private conversations, I have yet to meet a single Chinese citizen truly enthusiastic about the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With around 70 million party members, the CCP inevitably has some out there. But that leaves well over 1.2 billion people who are not party members, and many of them are already wishing for change—even in the face of double-digit GDP growth. If and when times get harder in China, the anger and resentment already felt by many Chinese towards their government can only increase. Short of armed repression, the CCP has few tricks up its sleeve to deal with widespread discontent.
3. China’s economy is dangerously imbalanced.
Amidst today’s doomsday predictions that China’s nominal GDP will surpass America’s, it is important to understand the Chinese economy’s many inherent weaknesses. China’s growth model in the last 30 years is in many ways reminiscent of Japan’s stunning rise from the 1960s to the 1980s. Aided by the state’s heavy-handed guidance and a currency kept at an artificially low rate, both China and Japan had export-driven economic booms. Just as Japan’s did, China’s export-driven growth model may soon sputter out. Despite China’s need to revalue the yuan and rebalance its economy, there has been little progress on both fronts. With some figures estimating that public debt already stands at around 80 percent of GDP – and given the fact that both Japan and the United States have fallen victim to massive asset bubbles in the past two decades, it is important to bear in mind that China is not “too big to fail.”
4. China does not innovate.
The saddest aspect of China’s lack of inventiveness is that the Chinese have always had a fiery entrepreneurial spirit. It is ridiculous that the CCP has published a plan to exponentially increase innovation by 2050; it is unlikely that a top-down mandate of “Be creative, everyone!” will be very effective. For now, I guess hacking into Pentagon servers and stealing copyrighted intellectual property will have to suffice for the Chinese.
5. China’s baby bomb.
Since the implementation of its one-child policy in the late seventies, China’s demography has been a ticking time bomb. In the coming decades, China will experience a massive shrinkage of its working population – a tidal wave of senior citizens will drain money out of the pockets of the young, leaving behind millions of bachelor males faced with long term population stagnation and decline. When the baby bomb goes off, it will be far worse than the demographic pressures in present-day Japan and Europe because China still will be a rather poor country trying to support hundreds of millions of senior citizens. In short, China will be old and relatively poor.
6. Chinese is hard.
As a student and great admirer of the Chinese language, I have to admit that the complexity of Chinese will be a hindrance to China’s emergence as a global political and intellectual leader. This doesn’t mean that Chinese people won’t be thinking or publishing, it just means that most people won’t read it unless it is translated into English. Chinese is an incredibly difficult language for most non-native speakers to master, and as long as the rest of the world has trouble with the Chinese language, the Chinese people will have to continue learning English.
7. China isn’t cool.
At first glance, this point may seem both subjective and irrelevant. Who cares if China and Chinese culture are considered “cool” around the world? However, a good bit of Western dominance is cultural. Walk through any Chinese mall, and you will be serenaded by the voices of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé. Same goes for any night club. The most sought-after brands are Western prestige labels—D&G, Burberry, Prada, to name a few. Just try naming a single significant Chinese clothing brand. You can’t can you? Maybe try a singer? Or even a movie? (No, Kung Fu does not count). When it comes to trends in music, fashion, and art, China greatly follows the lead of the West, and thus, China isn’t cool. Cultural confidence and leadership matter when you want to dominate a century.
8. It’s going to be a multi-polar century.
China is rising. So is India. So is Brazil. So are Indonesia, Russia, and other regions of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. There is serious doubt as to whether China will ever be able to establish hegemony, even in its own backyard – the challenge comes not only from a continued American presence, but also from the host of other proud, rapidly rising Asian nations that neighbor China. In the face of such a dynamic (and much more egalitarian) world, there does not seem to be any room for China wholeheartedly to assert global power in the same way the United States currently does.
It is true that the United States did emerge as the global power in the twentieth century. But now, all across the world, many countries are rising, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, and joining the titans of the West in building a multi-polar world order. In a century of cooperating giants, China was merely the first to awake.