Some Thoughts and Doubts about the Chinese Century

Vinay Lal

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.

[Vinay Lal is Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. He writes widely on the history and culture of colonial and modern India, popular and public culture in India, historiography, the politics of world history, the Indian diaspora, global politics, contemporary American politics, the life and thought of Mohandas Gandhi, Hinduism, and the politics of knowledge systems.]


Back to Home Page

Jan 16, 2021


Your Comment if any