Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

Mar 31, 2020By Kishore Mahbubani

Behind “Has China Won?” (which it hasn’t) lurks a more important question: “Can America lose?” This question seems inconceivable. But future historians will be puzzled: a young republic, barely 250 years old, with one quarter the population of China, is taking on the world’s oldest and most resilient civilization. And it’s doing so without first working out a comprehensive long-term strategy. This is unwise.

George Kennan, the master strategist who formulated America’s long-term strategy against the once-mighty Soviet Union, would disapprove of America’s lack of long-term strategic thinking, if he were alive. He provided wise counsel on how to handle a powerful adversary: persuade the people of the world that America enjoyed a “spiritual vitality”, cultivate long-term friends, avoid insulting the Soviet Union. No such wisdom can be found in America’s policies towards China.

Instead of policies based on cool and hard-headed realistic analyses, American policies are based on myths. My intent with this book is to expose those myths. In what follows, I unpack three of them:

  • Myth 1: China, like the Soviet Union, is run by a rigid sclerotic communist party that remains in power only through suppressing its own population
  • Myth 2: American society, based on democratic accountability and capitalism, will always be supple and flexible
  • Myth 3: America and China have absolutely opposing interests and values. Both countries have no choice but to head for a complete confrontation

Myth 1: China, like the Soviet Union, is run by a rigid sclerotic communist party that remains in power only through suppressing its own population. For instance, Mark Esper, the US Secretary of Defence said in February 2020, “…under President Xi’s rule, the Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction – more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture.”

Reality: The greatest explosion of personal freedoms that the Chinese people have experienced in the past 4,000 years has taken place in the last 40 years, especially for the bottom fifty percent of Chinese society. 40 years ago the Chinese people could not choose where to live, what to wear, where to work, what to study. There were zero tourists leaving China. Today, 134 million Chinese (or one-third of America’s population) leave China freely. Then they return home freely. Instead of suffering repression, the Chinese have experienced a great liberation in their personal lives. Jean Fan, a Stanford psychologist, has observed that “in contrast to America’s stagnation China’s culture, self-concept and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace – mostly for the better”. Independent surveys, like the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 report, show that in China, 90% of the people trust their government. In America, only 39% do.

China is not perfect. It faces many real challenges. The biggest challenge it faces is long-term political succession. Who will succeed Xi? However the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not sclerotic like its Soviet counterpart. It has developed the world’s largest meritocracy. In contrast to American policy-making, which is driven by short-term electoral considerations, China’s policies are driven by careful long-term strategic calculations.

The core calculation is and remains that the Chinese people will tolerate some limits on their political rights (and those of others) so long as the government continues to provide them with what are, in practical terms, better, freer, and more prosperous daily lives. And the CCP is increasingly agile in upholding its end of the bargain.

Even though China’s environment was ravaged by rapid industrialisation a few decades ago (like in the Western Industrial Revolution), China has since then made a massive U-turn and launched an effort to become the world’s first Ecological Civilization. China learns quickly from its mistakes. After its initial mis-steps in Wuhan, the subsequent response of the Chinese government to the COVID-19 outbreak was one of the most effective of any government in the world. The WHO said “In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history… By extension, the reduction that has been achieved in the force of COVID-19 infection in China has also played a significant role in protecting the global community.”

America is therefore making a big strategic mistake in underestimating the strength and resilience of both the Chinese government and Chinese civilization. Professor Wang Gungwu says that the Chinese civilization is the only civilization to be knocked down four times and stand up again each time. Chinese civilization today is experiencing one of its strongest resurgences ever in its history. Many Americans are not aware of this.

Myth 2: American society, based on democratic accountability and capitalism, will always be supple and flexible. Unlike the rigid Soviet bureaucracy, American society is always reinventing itself and adapting creatively and intelligently to each new challenge thrown in its way. Hence, it can only triumph against communist party-run states, like China.

Reality: American society used to be supple and flexible. This generated some of the biggest triumphs ever seen in human history: the world’s largest middle class society, the moon-landings, the dramatic victory over the mighty Soviet Union without firing a shot, the world’s most successful new corporations. Yes, it would be a huge mistake for China to underestimate America as an adversary.

Yet, the latest data also shows tremendous deteriorations in American society. America was famous for its social mobility. Today America is the only major developed country where the average income of the bottom fifty percent has gone down over a thirty year period. Sadly, this stagnation of income has also resulted in a lot of human pain and suffering, as documented by two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton. The white working classes of America used to carry the American dream of getting a better life in their hearts and souls. Today, as Case says, there is a “sea of despair” among them. She and Deaton conclude: “Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.” The detailed study of Case and Deaton documents how poor economic prospects “compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies.” American society has never been more troubled.

In theory, American society can make U-turns and recover. In practice, this is a myth. American decision-making has become rigid and captured by special interests. For example, the primary contest with China will not be in the defence sphere. America should cut its defence budget, reduce its participation in foreign wars and focus on internal social and economic development. However, defence budgets are not decided by rational analysis. They are the result of intense lobbying by vested interests.

Myth 3: America and China have absolutely opposing interests and values. Both countries have no choice but to head for a complete confrontation. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, has said “It is no longer realistic to ignore the fundamental differences between our two systems” and the impact of these differences on “American national security”. He added that “we’re finally realizing the degree to which the Communist Party is truly hostile to the United States and its values”.

Reality: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not hostile to America. The former Soviet Communist Party declared its ideological opposition to America. Khrushchev once said “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” China has no such goal.

Nor does it have any desire to export its political system, culture, and values to the rest of the world. American leaders have always had a universalising mission. They believed that America’s role was to serve as a “shining city on the hill”. The more the rest of the world emulated American values and practices, the more it would be better off.

China has no such universalising mission. It believes that only Chinese can practice Chinese values. The primary goal of the Chinese government is to rejuvenate Chinese civilisation and ensure that there is no repetition of the century of humiliation it suffered from 1842 to 1949. In the eyes of many objective Asian observers, the CCP actually functions as the “Chinese Civilization Party”. Its soul is not rooted in the foreign ideology of Marxism-Leninism but in the rich cultural reservoirs of Chinese civilisation. In this regard there is no fundamental contradiction between America and China. Hence, if both America and China adopt a more live and let live policy, there’s room for both to live in peace with each other. Equally importantly, the six billion people who live outside America and China also want to see this happen.

Americans frequently oversimplify China’s aims – declaring that China is a threat to democracy, in America and the rest of the world. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat…  and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.” Curiously, the world’s two other largest democracies, India and Indonesia, don’t feel threatened by Chinese ideology. They are deeply concerned by the sharp increase in China’s power. But they don’t foresee any ideological confrontation with China. Neither should America.

Equally importantly in our shrinking, interconnected and interdependent planet, America and China also share common national interests in fighting pressing common global challenges (like Covid-19 or climate change). Both would benefit from greater cooperation. If America and China don’t come together to deal with their global challenges, future generations will see both of them as two tribes of apes that continued fighting over territory while the forest around them was burning.


Source: Ambassadors Brief