The Myth of China as Superpower
Back in the days of the Cold War, much was said about the titanic power of the Soviet Union. The USSR, we were told, was a superpower the equal of the United States, possibly even superior. This meme was spread by lefties who wanted the USSR to win, by sincere pacifists hoping to stop war before it could begin, and by an enormous cohort of liberals who repeated it because they heard it from the first two. (Much liberalism can be explained this way. It's the ultimate "I heard it from somebody" ideology.)
Needless to say, it was gibbering nonsense. The late '80s Soviet collapse revealed that the USSR was never any kind of power at all – an economy that didn't produce, weapons that didn't work, a populace addicted to drink and overwhelmed with despair. "Bulgaria with nukes" is how someone characterized it, and truer words were never spoken. That remains the case today, despite Vlad Putin's chest-beating, and it's likely to remain the case as far ahead as anyone can see.
The same trope is being repeated regarding China. China, we are told, is the coming nation. The second largest economy on Earth, soon to be the first. A billion and a half people, each more educated than any American; a military power second to none, with advanced weapons of a nature that we can only gape at. A country exercising its power over vast reaches of the Pacific and moving into the Indian Ocean, Africa, and the Mideast with no one to oppose it.
We hear this from the likes of Thomas Friedman, who has spent much of his career looking for his personal Mussolini. It's repeated by deeper figures across the political spectrum. In fact, it can be said without exaggeration to have become received wisdom.
There's no point in asking how true this is. The proper question to ask is whether it embodies any truth at all.
Whatever strengths China may possess, it has three enormous weaknesses, all of them crippling, all self-inflicted to one degree or another, all apparent to anyone who cares to look. All have been misrepresented or go unmentioned in the current debate.
- Blue China – That's the term China uses to describe the South China Sea, which, it claims, in defiance of international law, to be Chinese territory on the grounds that Chinese ships passed through centuries ago. (Using this logic, the Antarctic Ocean is part of Connecticut, since U.S. whalers scoured the region throughout the 19th century.)
The fact that there are next to no land areas in the region didn't bother the Chinese – they set out to create them, using dozens of dredges to expand reefs into good-sized islands, largely in the Spratlys and Paracels, starting in 2013. They then built military installations, constructing airfields, radar installations, and hundreds of missile sites. Chinese claims encroached on the property of the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brunei, and Vietnam. None acknowledged them.
Western China hands view this as a coup de main that cannot ever be undone – a new fact of life that all must accept with lowered heads. The Chinese position is impregnable, and it's best simply to give in.
In fact, China hasn't created an impregnable line of fortresses any more than Japan did prior to WWII; rather, it now has a collection of hostages to fortune. China is challenging the two most experienced maritime nations on earth, the U.S. and Japan (it's attempted a similar strategy involving the East China Sea as well). The Chinese plan to defend "Blue China," termed "area denial," depends on the U.S. Navy doing exactly what the Chinese want it to – to charge wildly into Chinese missile range. This is unlikely. Any conflict would be wrapped up within 72 hours, and not in China's favor. (For that matter, what happens to these artificial sand-based "islands" when a typhoon whips through, as they tend to every few years?)
China could have approached neighboring nations as a friendly power interested in helping them exploit the region's resources, much the way the U.S. behaves in the Western Hemisphere. It could have set itself up as a second pole in competition with the U.S. in the Western Pacific, building up goodwill and establishing cooperative ventures. Instead, the countries of the region are outraged and frightened (Vietnam in particular – China murdered several hundred Vietnamese in seizing the area). It's a lost chance, one that will not return. China has unilaterally created one of the major flashpoints of the early 21st century. Its maritime "empire" is built on sand.
- Population imbalance – China's "single-child policy" is a world-class example of unintended consequences. Initiated by the Communist Party in September 1980 to control population, the policy forbade more than one child outside exceptional circumstances. It immediately ran up against cultural preconditions – in China, as in most of Asia, male children are prized for both economic and religious reasons. Females marry out of the family, which means they are not available to care for elderly parents. It is also up to the male child to maintain religious observances regarding ancestors to assure a worthy and stable afterlife. (This is still taken quite seriously even with China's policy of national atheism.) The result was a wholesale massacre of females by both abortion and infanticide measuring in the millions. Today China has a surplus of males, officially acknowledged as being around 4% but probably much higher. This means that millions of Chinese men will never marry and, in many cases, will never have a girlfriend. This will inevitably lead to frustration, anger, and acting out. The Chinese version of Fight Club will be no joking matter.
Another effect is legions of older people with not enough of a younger population to support them, a social security problem that dwarfs any such in the West.
The Chinese solution is likely to be simplicity itself: shoot the punks and let the geezers starve. Either way, it means social upheaval.
- Social Credit – The most recent Chinese communist brainstorm involves the "Social Credit" (shehui xinyong) system, which has no connection whatsoever to the utopian early 20th-century economic proposal of that name. Under the Chinese system, citizens are issued 1,000 "credits" and then monitored cybernetically, electronically, and socially. Any "anti-social" or anti-party activity results in credits being taken away. It's impossible to add points. After points drop to a certain level (It's unclear exactly what this actually is. It's also unclear how many points each offense costs, along with other details.), penalties kick in. These range from being banned from airline travel and expelled from high-ranking schools to cutting down internet access and taking your dog away.
The China lobby excuses the policy by comparing it to Western customer loyalty programs and asserting that it's not in place around the whole country yet. In truth, it's a typical aspect of Chinese communism, which loosens the reins for a period before tightening them again. Mao instituted the "Thousand Flowers" campaign in the '50s that encouraged criticism of the party, following up a few years later with the Great Cultural Revolution, in which those critics were shot or sent to the Gobi.
Like it or not, progress of any sort – social, scientific, artistic – is propelled by the mavericks. Beethoven, Tesla, Einstein, Patton, Kubrick, Trump...all individualists – cantankerous, arrogant, belligerent – who pushed against social inertia, no matter what the consequences. Their story, from Socrates on, is the story of the West. With the "Social Credit" program, China is returning to its immemorial preference for stasis, which has led to disaster time and again. The end result will be a society that is stratified, ossified, and petrified. There is evidence that this is occurring right now.
To these failings we can add an entrenched system of intellectual theft on a worldwide scale that curtails any tradition of serious research and scholarship. Pollution on an order as yet unwitnessed elsewhere, ravaging public health to a degree unknown but doubtlessly horrendous. Central Asian provinces constantly on the verge of revolt. Open hostility from virtually all of China's neighbors, including such touch-me-not states as Japan, India, and Vietnam.
Some failings are more subtle. A popular restaurant near Peking consists of dining areas surrounding a large pit containing a number of lions, who are fed live goats, sheep, and other livestock for the viewing pleasure of diners. This is a level of decadence that leaves the West in the dust (itself a concept that boggles the mind) and suggests serious social and psychological issues that have yet to be acknowledged, much less grappled with.
And these problems, we're told, are going to be overcome by a national leader who poses as Mao while having the gravitas and charisma of a junior accountant – not to forget his national party stocked from bottom to top with virtual clones of himself.
Misconceptions about the USSR kept the Cold War going for decades longer than necessary. Western states, in fear of nonexistent Soviet power, groveled before the Kremlin, allowing the Russians greater slack than any other nation in history, and worked assiduously to cover up Soviet crimes. Every time the USSR began to fade, a Western EMT team was dispatched to put it back on its feet. Not until Reagan did this process end, with the final collapse of the USSR and its synthetic image.
Soviet weaknesses were obvious in retrospect, yet few saw them, and the consensus was fooled completely. Many are shared by China, along with novel failings we unimaginative Westerners would never have come up with. Whatever we do, we should not repeat the mistake of the Cold War.