What China’s ‘New Era’ Means for How America Views Itself
At the recent 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping declared that China is entering a “new era.” Central to his speech were two ongoing developments. First, China is reforming its economic and political model to adjust to achievements and challenges in domestic development. Second, it is transitioning from being a “major country” to a “major power,” a shift that carries broad global implications.
Shortly after the congress, on the eve of U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia to shore up relations with American allies and attend a much-feted “state visit-plus” with Xi before flying on to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam, Time magazine released the provocative cover of its Nov. 13 issue. Written across a split-panel red-and-yellow design, half in English and half in Chinese, was a single terse sentence: “China won.”
Whether China has in fact “won,” whether its sociopolitical system is too fragile, or whether the U.S. is in decline have all become hot topics for discussion. The official Chinese position is that the country is taking a different path to development: one that reflects so-called Chinese wisdom, one that pursues a multipolar world where China is a major power, and one that stands ready to demonstrate alternatives without compromising sovereignty.
In the West, and particularly in the U.S., these developments have deepened a debate within an influential gaggle of policymakers and scholars who worry that China’s official position and vision for the future might be coming true in ways that effectively deconstruct one of the central theses underpinning America’s conception of itself and its position relative to others: namely, a privileged sense of “manifest destiny” culminating in what one-time Reagan-era intellectual Francis Fukuyama infamously described as the “end of history.”
This sense of privilege has its roots in American exceptionalism from the Revolutionary period and its growing colonial and imperial ambitions in wars against Mexico and Spain in the 19th century. However, it reaches its fullest expression with Fukuyama’s well-known 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” which was published the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union and argued that the worldwide spread of Western-style liberal democracy and free-market capitalism heralded the apex of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. While much American policymaking today is more sober and clear-headed than this grand claim, thinking like Fukuyama’s continues to exert an undue amount of influence on American foreign policy, including policy regarding China.
Within this general context, the loudest voices can be grouped into one of two camps. The first is what New Zealand-based academic Anne-Marie Brady has described as the “collapse thesis.” This holds that the Chinese political system is fragile, and that increasing economic liberalization creates unbearable tensions for a one-party system. Eminent China thinkers like David Shambaugh, Bruce Dickson, Susan Shirk, and Joseph Fewsmith tend to fall into this camp.
The second camp views China as a threat to American power, with some believing, very differently from the “collapsers,” that China’s political and economic models outcompete America’s for the very reason that they pay so little heed to Western values. Into this group can be added The Atlantic’s correspondent James Fallows and columnist Peter Beinart, and influential American journalist Bill Gertz.
A popular concept among the “China threat” camp is the idea of the Thucydides Trap. Derived from the ancient Greek historian’s 5th century B.C. work “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the term refers to a rising power (in the original, ancient Athens) inevitably challenging an existing power (Sparta) for regional or global hegemony.
In recent times, American political theorists have applied the Thucydides Trap to China, most notably in the work of Graham T. Allison, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a longtime security and defense consultant with the Pentagon. However, setting aside the reductive and patently ahistorical application of a thesis about a conflict between two city-states roughly 2,500 years ago in what is now Greece, the “trap” thesis has been thoroughly debunked by experts in ancient Greek history. University of Pennsylvania professor and CIA consultant Arthur Waldron notes that Allison — an expert neither in ancient Greece nor contemporary China — is guilty of catching what Waldron calls “China fever,” a condition that causes respected academics and policymakers to make rash, uninformed, and fearmongering pronouncements about China.
To sum up, then, two of the West’s main theories about China today revolve around two competing theses: one holding that China is dangerous only insomuch as its system will inevitably collapse with global repercussions, and the other arguing that China’s system has provided it with competitive advantages that pose an existential threat to the Western — and particularly, the American — way of life.
These fears are magnified by how purported Chinese achievements contrast with a sense of ongoing crisis in the West. For example, given China’s extraordinary growth and development, the U.S. National Intelligence Council and other domestic security bodies estimate that China will achieve effective economic and military parity with the U.S., or surpass it, around 2030. Meanwhile, the U.S., the U.K., and other liberal democracies that privilege both private property rights and so-called civil society have struggled in recent years as essentially two-party systems became doubly complicit in a succession of political and economic crises, from the global financial crisis of 2008 to the growing equivocations over global governance and free trade manifested in Brexit and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — all systems put in place when these powers held positions of comparative privilege.
Of course, one might instead argue that a greater threat to the American way of life is the very fact that these two theses appear to have the greatest influence on American intelligence and military officials, especially given ongoing efforts by the U.S. to construct an emerging but dangerously shortsighted containment strategy called the “Anti-China Quad.” This strategy recasts the Pacific Ocean as the Indo-Pacific and aims to draw in Japan, India, and Australia as buffers against perceived growing Chinese hegemony in the region, a view that many international observers have described as a brash return to Cold War-era policymaking.
The point here is that America’s hostility toward a rising China and other perceived dangers deflects the U.S. away from facing what appears to be its greatest adversary: itself. And this is hardly a novel idea. Soviet thinkers believed that the U.S., like other historically great powers (and, ironically, the Soviet Union itself), would only fall in the event of internal political and cultural decay.
In China, longtime Party intellectual and newly elected Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning made essentially a similar argument more than a quarter-century ago in his book “America Against America.” Wang, who himself studied in the U.S., noted the decline of American education, the purported collapse of the nuclear family, the erosion of so-called traditional family values, a general tendency toward cultural relativism and spiritual nihilism, and the emergence of drug and crime epidemics, racial conflict, increasing poverty — combined with a population with little critical historical awareness or perspective — as, in his view, key indicators of internal decay.
For those who know the U.S. well, his observations are even truer today than they were then. To the list can be added other problems related to health care, gun control, immigration and migrant labor, taxation, and the inability to implement even the most compelling economic reforms necessary for preventing a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.
To him, the issue was not that problems existed — problems can always be solved — but that the problems appeared systemic. In his estimation, the U.S. system had either lost its way or exhausted itself, in large measure because it was deeply entrenched and incapable of substantial reforms. Obviously, his modus operandi was not only to outline the challenges facing the U.S., but also to laud China’s accelerating culture of reform.
Politics in America today generally revolve around those who are nominally conservative versus those who claim progressive positions. On the one hand, the U.S. elects Barack Obama under the mantle of progress, and little progress is made. On the other hand, Obama is followed by Donald Trump, who spouts mantras promising to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan essentially copied from Reagan’s political promises in the 1980s and which, more than any other piece of rhetoric, demonstrates the circular, conservative nature of American politics.
Far from occupying a privileged position at the end of history, American politicians appear to be chasing their tails in a cul-de-sac. Of course, many Americans are aware that their model of governance contains systemic problems, and many of them thus voted for Trump or, in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders, who later lost the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. But did Trump and Sanders offer genuine alternatives to the system? Or were they still limited to some interpretation of what they considered to be a more “authentic” rehash of the same old politics?
As the U.S. continues to struggle under the faded grandiosity of the “end of history” thesis and its self-negated “universal values” left ravaged by its so-called War on Terror, conditions both at home and abroad continue to decline. In the meantime, Xi has declared a “new era,” emphasizing a raft of substantial changes and signaling China’s commitment to bold advances domestically and globally. Can China realize these commitments in the face of inevitable difficulties?
Contrary to the implications of the “end of history” thesis, one can never reliably predict the future or prewrite history. However, we can observe that Wang’s critical analyses of the U.S. system have proven more accurate than Fukuyama’s once-giddy hubris. Astute observers have noted Xi’s confidence in the Chinese system during his congressional address — a confidence that, at least at present, appears well-founded.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A woman straightens a Chinese national flag before a strategic dialogue meeting with the United States in Beijing, July 10, 2014. Ng Han Guan/Reuters/VCG)