It can be hard for people to evaluate the relative significance of different themes, currents and events in their own time. It’s far easier for historians to look back on a different time and say, no, that story’s not important, we’ve been talking about it too much. No, this, this story is the Real Deal. So it’s too early to say, but I am of the opinion that despite all the worrying about and attention given to Islamic terrorism and the instability of West Asia and North Africa since 9/11, it will ultimately be considered a minor theme of this era. Instead, one of, if not the, most important trends in the last few decades has been the emergence of a new rival to America’s international preeminence, a new force capable of swaying the globe to its whims and fancies, and a new society capable of acting as a model to others trying to figure out what to do next, even as it’s not entirely sure itself.

A (amateur) historian once wrote that history is most significant where there is change. By that yardstick, the most significant place in the world today might be China.

How is it that a country once disregarded by much of the world (and not too long ago, either) is now shaking the world?

There is one central fact about China, one important thing, that commentators keep coming back to, over and over again: it’s big. Reaaally big. This shapes things more than anything else. In land area, it’s the world’s third-biggest country, with 9.6 million km². More importantly, in population it overshadows all other nations (and has forever): 1.35 billion people, which is over 4x America’s population. That size, along with its central geographic position, rich bounty of natural resources, and equally rich bounty of artificial resources — a well-educated scholarly class, a mercantile culture, a vast mass of hard-working peasants, a sophisticated bureaucracy, and so on — made it the main force to be reckoned with in East Asia. By the Tang and Song Dynasties in the Middle Ages, which are usually considered China’s Golden Age, China had become pretty much the world’s economic center, with its crops and manufactured goods becoming hot commodities all over Eurasia and with fleets traversing its nearby oceans and camel caravans stretching across the western deserts.

China looked all set to dominate the world, but in what has to be one of history’s greatest missed opportunities and biggest fumbles, it didn’t. The reasons why are complex and made for an entire college lecture, but basically, it seems as if it just didn’t care. Investing in giant fleets and colonization projects is expensive, and China’s emperors decided not to bother. A technological revolution in the Later Song Dynasty was also not really followed up on. Instead, China closed its doors to outside commerce (except one port), and while the early modern period was a rich, flourishing period for it, it also stagnated while Europe advanced by leaps and bounds.

China would pay for this negligence dearly. In what is referred to in China today as “the Century of Humiliation,” Europe, and later Japan and America, took advantage of it. Starting with the Opium War in 1842, and continuing with several invasions, unfair trading arrangements, the loss of sovereignty over key ports, and almost unchecked foreign development, China realized how much it had fallen behind. It was almost powerless to stop foreigners from having their way with it. While its plight wasn’t as severe as in other parts of the world — it was never actually colonized, after all, unlike its neighbors in India and Southeast Asia — it was almost unthinkable for the Chinese to fall that far behind and to not be in a commanding role. To add injury to insult, China degenerated into a frenzy of peasant rebellions, millenarian movements, political upheaval, famine and general chaos. The old empire fell, and it was never very clear what would take its place. The crowning outrage came in 1937, when Japan finally invaded in full force and subjected China to one of the most brutal wars in history.

After the dust had settled, a Communist army had seized power, and China now joined the Soviet Union in the league of nations preaching Communism as the future. The chaos of the previous century was put to an end; tight central government control was finally established over most of the old imperial domains. Industrialization was finally begun in earnest, and heavy emphasis was placed on promoting China’s coal, iron and steel industries. But the national rejuvenation that Mao Zedong promised didn’t quite come to pass. China miserably failed to reach its economic targets. Millions died in a manmade famine. Chaos returned in the 1960s as Mao grew obsessed with developing a personality cult around himself and squads of angry teenagers roamed the land harassing their elders in the name of the Communist revolution.

When Mao died at last in 1976, he was succeeded (after a short interlude) by Deng Xiaoping, one of his proteges. Having personally suffered in the “Cultural Revolution” of the last decade, he wasn’t about to repeat the same mistakes. Concluding that Communism had failed his country, he reversed course beginning in 1978 and started to gradually lift the controls his government had placed on the economy. Much more pragmatic than Mao, he realized that most of China’s many problems would be solved through economic growth, so he decided to prioritize that. He also realized that despite all that he had learned all his life, Communism had failed. Despite its egalitarian ideology, China’s people weren’t really better off than before. So he decided to improve their lot in the best possible way: by unleashing China’s entrepreneurial prowess.

The world has seen the results. Until recently, China’s economy grew at a rate of 9% a year — a blistering rate by world standards. Average income grew 7x larger. 400 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty — more than any other time in history. (In fact, that’s more than the entire population of the US today!) Manufacturing was emphasized more and more. China’s traditional isolation, which had dovetailed nicely with the isolation Communist countries impose on themselves, was slowly abandoned, and the old ports (as well as some new ones) were open for business. Foreign investors swarmed in, and attracted by China’s vast and cheap labor force, more and more businesses relocated their manufacturing operations to China, so that by the ’90s, China had become the “world’s workshop.”

China’s growth has accelerated so that by now it is one of the linchpins of the world’s economy. It exports more in one day now than it did in all of 1978. Increasing emphasis on education — which has always been one of China’s strong suits — and more and more exposure to the rest of the world has given rise to a big Chinese middle class and a substantial upper class as well, meaning that any business without an extremely culturally specific niche wants to do business in China. It’s more and more the #2 market for businesses, and sometimes is #1. The economy spent the last decade steadily outpacing others in the G-8 (the world’s highest-ranked economies) until it reached #2.

As always in rapidly modernizing societies, China’s traditionally rural population has been urbanizing. The number of cities with over a million inhabitants has been growing quickly with newcomers from China. The Big 4 Chinese cities — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou — have ballooned above 10 million and rival other world cities for size. Its top city, Shanghai, is the world’s largest, and dazzles newcomers with its futuristic, ambitious new skyline. Construction cranes and massive skyscrapers dominate the country; there’s always some new infrastructure project going on. Perhaps influenced by the leadership’s background in engineering, China is building high-speed railways over huge distances, highways, canals, dams and super-modern subway systems. Visit China 10 years after your last trip, and it probably won’t look the same.

And there’s another aspect to this rapid growth on all fronts: China’s newly potent military might. It was obvious that the new Chinese regime would be more ambitious than its predecessors from the outset when it invaded Korea in 1950. It continued to show bullishness in 1962, when it attacked India in the Himalayan Mountains; in 1969, when it skirmished with the Red Army along its northeastern border; and in 1979, when it attacked Vietnam. In more recent years it’s been carrying through a military buildup, with an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, fighter aircraft, and snazzy missile systems. Its military forces are the world’s largest, and it spends more on them than any other country besides the US.

The heady days of the ’00s came to an end in 2009, when the global economic collapse caught up with China. While it didn’t affect China as much as other countries — the government enacted a giant stimulus far overshadowing America’s — the economy’s white-hot growth has cooled somewhat, although at 7.5% it’s still far ahead of the other major emerging economies. It seems increasingly clear that an era has been passed and that China’s outstanding growth is behind it. Still, it retains its position at the head of the pack of newly emerging powers shaking up the international system, and will continue to awe and serve as a model for other ambitious developing states.

The question remains how China will use its newfound power. It has projected its commercial energy around the world, perhaps most obviously in Africa. Chinese investment in Africa is prompting a development boom there as well, even if for the most part it’s focused on extracting resources from the Dark Continent for use at home. China’s also investing heavily in Europe to try to keep it afloat after the devastating euro crisis. Mostly, though, it’s focusing on East Asia, its own backyard, which it sees as its particular sphere of influence.

North Korea, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are (or were) all countries in China’s vicinity that are more or less propped up by Chinese money and support. More egregiously, though, China is beginning to throw its military weight around. It’s engaged in a confrontation with Japan, which it sees as a chief rival in the neighborhood and a potential competitor for lucrative contracts. It’s also trying to take over the entire South China Sea, irritating the countries bordering that sea (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia) to no end. The border dispute with India has never actually been resolved, and skirmishes break out now and then between the garrisons stationed up there.

In some sense, China’s sheer size and power, dwarfing that of most of its neighbors, is what causes all the anxiety. But there’s another crucial element that shapes the situation: China’s not a democracy. Despite shedding its Communist ideology over the decades, it never abandoned its paranoid, totalitarian outlook. Democracy is limited to local elections. Protests are strictly banned and dissidents are imprisoned. Censorship is pervasive; an entire bureaucracy polices the press, airwaves and cyberspace, deleting any mention of anything remotely politically inflammatory or suggestive. Censorship goes beyond political repression; China’s creative industry has been hobbled by strict and sometimes inexplicable restrictions as the government strives to control its citizenry’s thoughts and behaviors. Faced with this kind of authoritarian, aggressive outlook, it’s no wonder China’s neighbors are nervous or beyond nervous at its rise.

For the most part, the rise of China is a good thing. For starters, anything that lifts 400 million paupers out of poverty is good. (China is mostly responsible for the huge reduction in poverty around the world in the past 15 years.) China’s economic growth has become an engine for the global economy and powers that of several other big economies, like Australia, Brazil and Germany. Its low labor costs mean cheaper and more goods for everyone. Its ultra-ambitious infrastructure projects are spilling out beyond its borders into Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. An uptick in Chinese immigration thanks to loosened restrictions mean more technical and entrepreneurial skills for other countries. The boom has inspired optimism and a buoyant sense of possibility (now called “the Chinese dream”) among a people that suffered so much over the 1900s.

But there’s a flip side to all this. Despite lots of predictions to the contrary, China’s leaders never loosened up politically. They remain intransigent, pathologically paranoid, insecure, stiflingly controlling, and occasionally unresponsive to public pressures and needs. While they’re committed to improving their people’s well-being — which is more than can be said for a lot of dictatorships — their instinct is to crush any opposition, any defiance, any rebellion, any sense of criticism or complaint. Their overriding prerogative, like all politicians, is to stay in power, and I believe they would probably sacrifice economic growth for that if they had to. Despite losing their Communist ideology, they remain committed to controlling their people’s thoughts in any way they can. This has produced an environment where Chinese are now unused to getting criticism or negative feedback, and they block out or ignore things from abroad they don’t want to hear.

I am not pathologically anti-Chinese. The rest of the world has much to learn from them — as J.M. Roberts put it, “if, anywhere in the world,modernization might turn out in the end not to mean ‘westernization,’ it could be in China.” They are industrious, determined, pragmatic and value education highly. They are easily some of the friendliest, most good-natured people I have ever met too. But they are also proud, overconfident, greedy and stubborn. I do not believe the rest of the world wishes China ill either, but is reacting defensively against what it perceives as an aggressive emergence from poverty and stagnation. The fate of the 21st century largely depends on China’s role in it. If its economy keeps chugging along, pushing it past America and overawing its neighbors, it will become a Superpower and wield the influence it desperately seeks. But if it suffers a catastrophic collapse (as some pundits predict/wish for) or lets its cockiness propel it into foreign blunders, the future will turn out very differently. And probably not for the better.


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