Even by the usual Washington standards, the current debate about China is remarkably caricatured. Indeed, it says more about us than about them, and, sadly, what it says is how much our self-confidence has taken a beating.
Now, every Chinese militarized rock in the South China Sea is a strategic defeat, and every Chinese bad loan to Africa is a debt trap. It is easy to understand why, politically, the Biden administration is tempted to sell what we ought to do in any case — like dramatic increases in government R&D for basic research — as a way to compete with China, shades of President Eisenhower and the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, sold as a Cold War necessity. The risk, though, is that the sales pitch only unleashes the helots who care more about bashing China than building technology.
The reasons for thinking again about China are three.
First and most obvious are the challenges China faces. Depending on how it is calculated, America’s national income per capita is either three and a half times China’s or almost six times. Unlike Japan or western Europe, which are growing older after becoming rich, China is growing older while it is still poor. By 2050 it will have gone from eight workers per retiree to two. It is exhausting profitable places to build infrastructure, and its debt has doubled in the last decade, from 141 percent of GDP in 2008 to over 300 percent in 2019.
Many of the loans it has made as part of its fabled Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will not be repaid, and while Washington frets over “debt trap diplomacy,” fearing China will strong arm recipients into trading debt for equity, ceding ports for example, China will still take the financial hit. Already, there is a backlash, one familiar to Americans but all the more reasonable for the poorer Chinese: “Why are we spending money abroad when there are so many needs at home?”
The second is succession. No one knows how long Xi Jinping will remain in power, but one thing seems tolerably certain: The longer he stays, the messier the transition will be, as grievances accumulate. Xi already has been in power for long enough to seem the permanent face of China. Yet it is worth remembering just how different modern Chinese leaders have been, both in circumstance and approach. Mao, a murderous agrarian populist, was followed by very different leaders, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who were urban reformers.
Hu Jintao, facing the social stresses caused by their reforms, curtailed social and market liberalization. Then, in William Overholt’s words: “Xi Jinping was chosen to deal with the centripetal forces of Hu Jintao’s decade: indecision, stalled reforms, ministers ignoring the prime minister, local governments ignoring the center, the private economy overrunning the state economy, civil society threatening the role of the Party, and military leaders focused on real estate deals.”
However long and messy the transition and whoever the successor, he — alas, we can be confident about the pronoun — will face circumstances that are almost the mirror-image of Xi’s: an aging population and relatively stagnant economy, at least by Chinese standards, a large debt burden, an officialdom that ranges from grumpy at being ignored to angry at being prosecuted for corruption, and neighbors still attracted to China’s economy but chafing under its heavy hand. A new leader with a quite different view of the world would hardly be a surprise.
Finally, if it is important to remember how different Chinese leaders have been, it is equally critical to bear in mind China’s dynamism. China is not just a monolithic Communist party sitting in Beijing hell bent on imposing its authoritarian ideology and state-centric development model around the world. So too, American images of China’s burgeoning middle class tend to run to head-down money making and “parachute” children in Vancouver or Orange County.
In “Middle Class Shanghai,” Cheng Li lays out a very different view, one driven by looks at higher education, avant-garde art, architecture, and law. He argues that China’s cosmopolitan culture — both exemplified and led by Shanghai — could provide the basis for a reshaped American engagement with China, one based on the deep cultural and educational exchanges that have bound them together for decades.
A future China that was less Beijing and more Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei might be an even more formidable economic competitor. And in the short-run Xi’s race for China’s place in the sun will continue to be seen as a threat by Washington. In responding to that threat, however, it is important to bear in mind that Xi’s China is not China forever, and America’s policy should be driven by what is good for the United States, not what might be bad for China.
Gregory F. Treverton is co-founder and chairman at the global TechnoPolitics Forum. He stepped down as chairman of the National Intelligence Council in January 2017. He is a senior adviser with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a professor of the practice of international relations and spatial sciences at Dornsife College, University of Southern California, and executive advisor to SMA Corporation.