President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party inner circle are obsessed with the “China Century” vision.
The theory is that the United States and western democracies are in permanent decline and that the dawn of the red dragon will herald not only economic dominance but superpower pre-eminence.
Ordained by Xi and the Party, the Chinese people will be dragged along for the ride amid the patriotic drum roll of the country’s state-controlled media.
“The global geopolitical environment will continue to change profoundly. The balance of power will continue to tilt in favor of China, and China’s development will become unstoppable,” He Yafei, the former foreign affairs deputy minister, said, referring to China’s economic clout and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Plagued by long-standing domestic problems [such] as a widening wealth gap, inequality and identity politics, [the US] will find that its strength increasingly falls short of its ambitions, both domestically and internationally. The same goes for other major western countries. This is the grand trend of history,” he wrote in a commentary for China-US Focus, a website for academic debate.
Highly infectious, a similar mood prevailed among the Party faithful in Beijing this week during the National People’s Congress ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP.
In this auspicious year, Xi has already announced “complete victory” in eradicating rural poverty even though 600 million people, nearly half of the population, have monthly incomes of barely 1,000 yuan or US$154.
Another statistic has revealed that up to 290 million low-paid migrants account for about 66% of the urban workforce in a country that has more billionaires than anywhere else in the world.
Income inequality is not confined to the US and the West.
“Our research finds that the existing taxation and social welfare payment system has failed to narrow income inequality. In fact, they have actually made inequality worse,” Li Shi, of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, said at a forum, according to a transcript of his speech published by the School of Economics at Renmin University and reported by the South China Morning Post.
Confidence that the country will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by the end of the decade has also been shaken, throwing into doubt the “China Century” vision.
A growing gray army and low fertility will affect the very fabric of society as the population shrinks and Beijing grapples with an aging workforce. The number of people working will decline by more than 0.5% a year by 2030, a London-based research group has predicted.
By comparison, the US workforce is expected to expand during the next 30 years, boosted by higher fertility and immigration. Technology is unlikely to narrow the gap.
“The most likely scenario is that slowing productivity growth and a shrinking workforce prevent China ever passing the US,” Capital Economics said in a report, adding that if it did not claim the top spot by the mid-2030s “it probably never will.”
“And if it does, China may struggle to hold on to first place. State control of the economy is one aspect of Xi’s belief that the Party should be dominant in all aspects of China’s society,” Mark Williams, the chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, said.
“Most people think that China’s economic growth will remain much stronger, so overtaking the US is just a matter of time. My view is that China’s growth has slowed significantly over the past decade and that this is likely to continue, mainly because productivity growth is declining. If it does, China might get close to the US in economic size around 2030, but not overtake [it],” he told Newsweek.
In the past 18 months, a tightening of the Party’s intrusive grip at home and its shrill nationalistic “Wolf Warrior” policy abroad has further alarmed global democracies.
Xi’s stranglehold on power has “not been seen” since the days of Mao Zedong. Under his rule as CCP chairman, China has committed human rights violations against ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province and trampled on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“State President Xi has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades, but his actions have also triggered rising discontent among elites within and outside the Party. The country’s human rights movements continue to seek avenues for protecting basic liberties despite a multiyear crackdown,” Freedom House said in its annual Freedom in the Word 2021 report released earlier this week.
“The malign influence of the regime in China was especially profound in 2020. New evidence indicated the massive scale of projects involving the forced relocation of rural residents, the forced sterilization of Uighur women, the mass detention of Uighurs in “political reeducation” centers, and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of others by the courts,” the human rights group pointed out, adding that Xi’s regime had pushed ahead with its “demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties.”
Those hardline policies have even spilled over into the international arena. Tension has continued to rise in the South China Sea with Beijing claiming vast areas of the 1.3 million-square-mile waters as its “sovereign territory.” Sandbars and disputed mini islands have been turned into naval bases in a projection of military might.
Up to $3 trillion of trade traverses through this maritime superhighway, which Xi appears determined to dominate.
Taiwan is another flashpoint. Considered a renegade province, China has threatened to reunite the democratic island with the “motherland” by using “force” if necessary.
Yet behind the jingoistic rhetoric are economic priorities, such as taking control of Taiwan’s state-of-the-art semiconductor sector. Chips are the building blocks of high-tech industries, a 21st-century version of oil. Without them, nothing runs in today’s plugged-in world.
To curb Xi’s ambitions and the spread of his authoritarian doctrine, the US this week released a 24-page white paper outlining President Joe Biden’s national security blueprint.
“[China] is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system,” the document stated.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mapped out the road ahead in his first major foreign policy address. “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” he said in Washington, reiterating the Biden administration’s plan to pursue an alliance of democracies to tackle Beijing’s state-run model spearheaded by Xi and the Party.
In response, Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the US to “stop smearing” the reputation of the CCP. “We hope the US will keep pace with the times, see clearly the trend of the world and give up unwarranted suspicions,” he said.
Unless democracies can get their act together, the “China Century” will become more than a vision. It will turn into a grotesque nightmare for the West and its Asian allies.