Any casual observer of American, or even more wider Western politics, is likely to have noticed that the rhetoric being used when referring to China has changed a great deal in a fairly short time. What was not so long ago an interesting, somewhat opaque, often annoying, but overall still fun place to visit and do business with, is now an official strategic rival of the United States, and unofficially, the common enemy of liberal democracy. Scarcely a day passes today without seeing an article denouncing China’s nefarious influence in our economy, our universities, our politics or those of our allies.
The change can be traced to the national security intellectual scene. Back in 2011, Graham Allison coined the term “Thucydides Trap,” but it was hardly noticed at all. Only in late 2015 did the term explode in popularity and not by coincidence. That was the start of the 2016 presidential election campaign, in which China became a focal issue—and not in a good way. Soon, all candidates were competing to see who was going to be tougher with China; and Thucydides was in the mouths of highbrow pundits, casually chatting about the next Big War.
It is quite odd of U.S. intellectual circles that they all readily accepted the Greek metaphor. After all, the Peloponnesian War was about Sparta, a totalitarian slave state where all citizens were raised to be cogs of a war machine, invading Athens, a rising democratic commercial polity whose culture basically started Western Civilization. Perhaps the national security pundits take comfort in that Sparta, the established power, did win the war, and the budding Athenian empire was destroyed for good.
The accuracy of the analogy notwithstanding, the hostility is quite real. And what might have begun as yet another electoral point, one of many to be used for its rhetorical effect, is now public policy. Tariffs on Chinese goods will soon be in the books; Chinese technology companies are being banned or investigated. In defense circles, there is open talk of “Cold War II.” And perhaps most academic and journalistic writings on China have a patently hostile bent, so much so that some of our best researchers are reconsidering their career choices.
Which is rather unfortunate. Because China may be bad, and often yes, hostile. But it deserves study. Careful study, of a totally different nature to the intellectual approach we had towards the Soviet Union back during what at this rate we will soon be calling Cold War I. We need to do better.
Many can agree with the strategic necessity of confronting China, which is indeed increasingly powerful and increasingly vocal about changing the ruling international order since 1945. China is now overtly declaring its ideological hostility to liberal democracy, something it had never done before. China’s Chief Justice came out last year to explicitly reject the separation of powers, and especially an independent judiciary, the cornerstone of Western liberal politics. And Xi Jinping himself, perhaps informed by his close confidant, famous researcher of Western politics Wang Huning, very early spoke derisively of Western ideology, including its freedom of the press, accusing Western powers of being masters at “invisible propaganda.”
And it is also easy to see why many are alarmed at Chinese foreign policy, pushing its now hefty economic weight around to impose its will on its neighbors. Chinese claims to 90% of the South China Sea were alarming enough; now, China effectively controls islands just a few miles off the coast of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. And China, through its “sharp power,” is effectively functioning as an alternative hegemon, providing money and diplomatic backup for states which for some reason have bad relations with the United States, such as Russia, Myanmar, or Iran.
So, nobody contests that a new Cold War makes sense, as China indeed is equivalent to the Soviet Union in its ostensible ideological hostility, and most importantly in its ability to refuse American demands, and even to impose its will upon nominal American allies. But that’s where all the similarities end. China and the Soviet Union are extremely different countries, and that fact will make the coming conflict a very different one from the first Cold War.
Sure, China is a communist country, the same as the Soviet Union was, so it is easy to sell a narrative where America with the help of its Western allies is again fighting for freedom against a foreign communist dictatorship that hates our freedoms. The narrative is made easier by the efforts of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who has made it his life mission to save the communist enterprise in China. He is especially vocal about the need to learn from the mistakes the Soviet Union, why it fell behind economically, and why its flawed attempt at political opening ended in its collapse in 1991.
That said, the Soviet Union was nothing like the China we face today. The Soviet Union was a poor, badly managed, and rather ghastly place. Central planning created an economy of widespread misery, where people had to wait in line for basic necessities such as bread and butter up to the very end. The Soviet Union was not only poor and mismanaged; the very structure of incentives that a central planning economy sets up for people produces a completely different psychology from people in capitalist societies. As anyone who had any experience dealing with citizens of communist countries before the 1980s can tell you, those people didn’t work as we work, didn’t play as we play, and didn’t think as we think.
On the flip side, Soviet society, full of problems as it was, did not face many of the problems that Western societies faced. The Soviet Union didn’t have issues with restless students demonstrators, with industrial strikes, with ethnic conflict or with changing cultural and sexual norms. It either did not have the causes or its political system was able to deal with them in an effective way. Its economy was of a totally different nature. All jobs were assigned by the state, residence was tightly controlled, there was no Internet, no press, no instant messaging, no chance of studying abroad, no need, or really ability to produce technological innovations apart from the military.
None of that applies to China. China is a wealthy, efficiently managed and thriving economy, with modern cities and infrastructure equal and often superior to what you can find in the West. China not only has plenty of food, it also has what amounts overall to the best light and heavy industry base in the whole world. There are still some pockets of poverty, especially in rural areas, and its industry lags behind in many high-end areas such as machine tools, engines, or microchips, but its economy and infrastructure are thoroughly modern, and in some areas the best in the world. China built a 25,000 km network of high-speed rail which delivered 1.7 billion trips in 2017 alone, and will soon expand to 38,000 km by 2025. China’s economy has also fully adopted the internet, and its billion internet users now amount to more than 40% of the whole world’s e-commerce. Its commercial operations are fast expanding overseas, just as Amazon starts to encounter obstacles in its expansion plans.
Chinese wages have outstripped most of the developing world and are fast approaching the level of Southern Europe. It is fair to say that China’s economic power, and most importantly, its average living standards are comparable to anything in the Western world. Which means they are orders of magnitude higher than anything in the old Soviet Union.
This is not to say that China is a much stronger threat than the Soviet Union ever was. The Soviet Union, for all its poverty and mismanagement, still had a state-of-the-art military apparatus, and most importantly, it had a cutting-edge ideological weapon. Communism wasn’t born in Russia; it was a pan-Western ideological movement which happened to get lucky in Russia first and resulted in the formation of the Soviet Union. Even when not in power, communism remained widely popular across the world and became a strong foreign policy asset to the Soviets, who exploited this vulnerability through its world-class intelligence apparatus, making it a formidable adversary indeed.
China enjoys nothing of the sort. Communism has been for the most part utterly discredited across the world, for many reasons, but mostly because people saw the reality of what living standards were in the Soviet Union. But most importantly, compared to the lofty orthodox Marxism-Leninism that the Soviets exported, Chinese ideology comes off as bizarre and insincere. Much of it has to do with how Chinese internal politics promote strange wording and increasingly convoluted jumps of logic in order to please its propaganda bureaucracy. At any rate, few are ideologically attracted to Xi Jinping’s Theory of a New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics or his One Belt One Road.
Which makes it all the more odd that the growing industry of Cold War II academia is growing exactly along the path laid by Cold War I Soviet studies, or what was then called Kremlinology. There is no shortage of articles by academic institutions and think tanks focusing on this and that Belt or Road, on what the latest layout of photos of politicians in the People’s Daily really meant, or on analyzing the latest paper in some obscure provincial Communist party publication, where some local party bureaucrat tries to marry Marxist-Leninism with some medieval Confucian philosopher.
All that tells us nothing about China, as professional “China-watchers” are starting to admit. Not that it really told us much about the Soviet Union either, whose fall took the Western political establishment completely by surprise. But the locus of analysis when trying to understand China should be in a completely different place. The Soviets were to some extent an ideological menace to the West, and they knew it. But China is not an ideological menace in the same way. China’s advantage lies elsewhere. China’s advantage lies in its governance, in how it has managed 40 years of strong, uninterrupted economic growth, the longest streak of consecutive GDP growth ever achieved in recorded human history.
It has achieved that feat while maintaining social stability and effectively dealing with many of the social ills of modernity, the same problems developed democratic societies are dealing with. Whatever our differences, and they are vast, China and the West are very similar societies which face many of the same problems. The similarities between us are larger than those between the old two sides of the Iron Curtain. Arguably, China and the United States in 2018 are more similar than West and East Germany in 1980.
China’s economy is every bit as modern as ours. Its software, at least on the consumer side, is if anything more advanced and widespread than anything on the West—certainly beyond anything in Japan or Europe. As a result, we share the same consequences, good and bad, of the information age.
Increased inequality, as the economies of scale of a computing-based economy create winner-take-all dynamics which result in huge corporate giants with massive economic power. Technological unemployment, as improving industrial automation and AI takes jobs from both blue and white collar workers. Or the overcrowding of a few big cities where all high-end economic activity tends to concentrate. Or housing bubbles in big cities and their suburbs. Or the dire problem with demographics and how all advanced economies have birth rates below replacement.
The problems of modernity are legion, discussion of which can and has filled many books. But perhaps the biggest problem of modernity is the lack of diverse approaches in how to deal with these problems. Liberal democracies have a limited set of policy options, both because of the very structure of democratic institutions, and also because of our own ideological bubble.
We can be hostile to China, but we should appreciate the fact that they have a different set of institutions, which allow them to deal with their problems in a different way—problems which we also face. When China solved its housing bubble, we should have been paying attention to how they efficiently solved a problem we ourselves were unable to solve, and in our inability, almost crashed the whole world economy in 2007.
The growing market for Cold War punditry is likely to explain away every useful political innovation coming from China as being derived from their most reviled aspects: their disdain of human rights, their opaque decision making, their open denial of separation of powers. But China is not as different as the West or China itself wants to believe. Both China and Western democracies are states ruling wealthy, advanced economies with populations constantly connected to the internet, where states need popular support and a healthy business climate in order to subsist. The details are indeed different, often very different, but it is this diversity which we should be focusing on, as it produces valuable examples of policy approaches which can be effective at solving real problems.
It is clear that the world is moving towards a multipolar equilibrium of power, one in which no single hegemon has a completely superior position to all other states. That itself should surprise no one, the history of the world has seen many such cycles. “The world, long united, must divide, long divided, must unite,” says the opening lines of the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
An undermentioned fact, though, is that the more fragmented an international order is, the more the political arrangements and often the cultures of the different states tend to converge, as the competition the different actors are engaged in produces best-practices in administration and warfare, which soon spread to all the other states, in an evolutionary arms race which affects all aspects of society. We saw this phenomenon in the ancient Warring States in China, in medieval Europe, and in early modern Japan. The incentives to learn and adapt are, after all, much stronger in times of conflict.
This is going to happen; no, it is happening as we speak. And if we want to make the best of this inevitable process, it behooves us to keep our eyes and our minds open, and look objectively of what our rivals are doing. They surely are observing us.