In this age of uncertainty, few things are as sure as the inevitable rise of China. We hear about it everywhere we turn. How orderly and efficient China’s government is compared with the Washington clown show. How its airports gleam and its bullet trains whoosh. How its hundreds of millions of rising consumers promise a future of perpetual growth.
But what if we were to size up China’s future with the same critical eye we train on America and the West? We’d see a nation rich in cultural heritage and newly robust in its ambitions — but with some daunting challenges ahead.
Start with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a long-range plan to create an infrastructure for transportation and trade throughout Asia and Europe. It’s a bold attempt to undo the damage of China’s great Ming Dynasty mistake. Seven hundred years ago, an Italian trader named Marco Polo dazzled Europe with what he claimed were true stories of travels along the Silk Road to the court of Kublai Khan. Among the Europeans, an age of exploration, discovery and globalization ensued. But in China, the precise opposite occurred. Arguably the strongest nation in the world in 1300, China pulled into itself, closed out the world and sank into irrelevance.
One Belt and One Road, as it’s also known, amounts to a very expensive do-over, an effort to bring the Silk Road back to prosperous life and put China at the center of a vast trading network. As a consequence of China’s long isolation, however, the road now leads through some of the most impoverished and neglected nations on Earth. It’s a strange path to prosperity that runs through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Syria, with troubled Turkey and the weak states of Eastern Europe at the other end.
Even to reach the beginning of this difficult path, China must pass through some of its least-settled lands. As the Financial Times has documented in recent months, Beijing has rounded up hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province in hopes of preventing an ethnic uprising that would disrupt the road. As a long-term strategy, this is problematic to say the least. Persecuting its Muslim minorities is no way for China to win friends farther along the route.
The maritime phase of the project is less speculative — but tricky nonetheless. China envisions a network of sea lanes and modernized ports connecting Shanghai and Hong Kong with up-and-comers such as Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as long shots including Bangladesh and potential flash points such as the Bab el-Mandeb strait near the Horn of Africa.
Given enough time and money, Belt and Road may be transformative for these unfortunate lands. Still, there’s no reason to believe the transformation will be smooth or steady. The problems of these regions, which have perplexed Russia and the West for centuries, won’t magically melt away under the influence of Beijing. Instead, for the price of One Belt and One Road, China is buying a world of headaches.
And China is doing so under two large and looming clouds. The first is its dismal demography. Its working-age population will shrink about 10 percent by 2030 — and the dwindling of the nation will likely accelerate from there. China needs only look to nearby Japan to see what a shrinking, aging population does to economic growth.
The second dark cloud is the shift away from private enterprise to shore up state-owned companies under the autocratic Xi Jinping. Command-and-control economies may provide a degree of predictability unknown in market economies, at least for a while. But they do not provide the dynamism and innovation necessary to fund a superpower.
To disperse the clouds, China would need to open itself up — to immigration, as a way of brightening the demographic picture, and to market liberalization. It’s likely, though, that China’s ruling Communist Party will find such openness threatening. Indeed, Xi is pushing China in the opposite direction, using high-tech surveillance of both physical and virtual spaces to create an all-seeing, all-controlling government worthy of the term “Orwellian.”
China’s future is ultimately hostage to a paradox: On one hand, this great nation seeks to reach out to the world, as it failed to do when first given the chance some seven centuries ago. But at the same time, China seeks to wall its people off from the free flow of ideas and information so essential to the globalized West. No nation can have it both ways. If you dive into the pool, you’re going to get wet.
America is like an insecure teenager, finding every little pimple in the mirror, while imagining rivals to be unblemished. Maybe this anxiety keeps us on our toes. The reality is: China has plenty of bumps in store, and reports of the American eclipse are greatly exaggerated.
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