Do We Want to Live in China’s World?

by Robert Daly / January 19, 2017 / ChinaFile

Each weekday morning, I cross D.C.’s National Mall and pass a sign on Constitution Avenue bearing an epigram by the U.S. architect Daniel Burnham: Make No Little Plans. Little plans, Burnham warned, have “no magic to stir men’s blood,” so we must “make big plans; aim high in hope and work,” and “remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.”

And every morning, these words make me think not of Burnham’s 20th century United States, but of 21st century China. That is now where staggering plans are made and funded. Some Chinese plans will improve lives around the world, while others may erode the liberal international order the United States has led since 1945.

By 2016, a broad swathe of Americans had begun to feel the effects of China’s development in their everyday lives—in shopping malls, at the multiplex, in paychecks—and to sense that the center of global power might be shifting from the United States toward China. Since the two countries established relations in 1979, U.S. institutional and ideational impact on China has far outstripped China’s minuscule influence on U.S. tastes and values. In 2016, China’s big plans may have begun to tilt the balance. Consider the summer of 2016: In June, China built the world’s fastest supercomputer (unlike the previous fastest machine, also made in China, the new one used only Chinese chips—and no U.S. hardware); in July, China completed the world’s biggest radio telescope; and in August, it sent the world’s first quantum-communications satellite into orbit.

China’s 2016 successes followed its construction of the world’s longest high-speed rail network; its creation, over the last few decades, of cities, like Pudong and Shenzhen, out of rice paddies; and its development of the world’s largest telecom system. It is now China, not the United States, that uses industrial policy to master emerging technologies, makes massive capital investments, appropriates land, and quickly brings new ideas to market on a continental scale. China increasingly drives global supply and demand, while the West settles for Nobel prizes.

China’s ability to plan big depends in part on foreign innovation, some of it stolen, and on an authoritarian government that botches many of its grand projects. But that will be scant consolation for Americans if the next wave of discovery, not to mention both the hard and soft power accrued by it, is spurred by Chinese telescopes and satellites. China, furthermore, is aware of its creativity deficit. In 2016, Beijing accelerated its Silicon Valley shopping spree, buying tech and talent it couldn’t produce at home. Americans often observe that China is imitative, not innovative, and that its politicized universities and denial of personal freedom make it dependent on others for new ideas. That may have been important before China got rich, but does China’s inability to foster innovation still matter now that it can purchase it overseas?

China’s big plans don’t stop at its borders. Beijing intends to lead the integration, through infrastructure, of Eurasia and Africa. (On January 1, the first China-United Kingdom freight train set off from the city of Yiwu.)

If China builds the infrastructure that binds and enriches the world’s non-American nations, most of which already count China as their top trading partner, the United States will be a bystander to one of the century’s great transformations. The United States offers developing nations sermons on democracy; China builds their airports, harbors, and highways. Which approach will garner greater influence? As David Lampton, author of The Three Faces of Chinese Power, has said, “put your money on money.”

While the scope of Beijing’s investments is staggering, the purchasing power of Chinese consumers may prove more influential yet. Credit Suisse estimates that, since 2015, China has had a larger middle class (people with U.S.$50,000-500,000 in annual income) than the United States. That means China will be tastemaker to the world. Products will be designed to satisfy Chinese consumers and Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) regulations. Some cell phones sold in the United States are already built to Chinese specifications. Hollywood studios, aware that China may soon offer the world’s biggest box office, rewrite scripts to ensure U.S. movies play on Chinese screens. These erstwhile architects of U.S. soft power have given the C.C.P. a channel for the export of censorship.

What’s At Stake?

Barring a domestic economic or political collapse—both unlikely—China is destined to be the world’s largest market for most products and commodities, the top issuer of everything from Ph.D.s and patents to greenhouse gases, and a leading shaper of global norms and institutions. There is nothing nefarious in this; it’s just the law of large numbers. When hundreds of millions of people in the same country get rich fast, that country’s power increases. In broad terms, China is doing what other rising powers, including the United States, have done: using financial and military power to shape the external environment to its aims.

It is those aims, not Chinese power per se, that should concern China’s neighbors and the United States.

The C.C.P.’s primary goal is maintaining its monopoly on power. China’s military strategy, trade and investment policy, global media, and cultural and educational exchanges all serve that end. Because the C.C.P. feels constrained and demonized by the modern liberal order, it uses its economic and military might to break constraints and change minds. Beijing is trying to persuade the world to accept the C.C.P.’s domestic standards for the treatment of individuals, information, and institutions as legitimate alternatives to liberal norms. This program is evident in China’s rejection of international law in the South China Sea, its gaming of international trade rules, its curbing of Internet freedoms in the name of “cyber security,” its attempts to weaken NGOs in China and at the United Nations (U.N.), and in its readiness to punish nations which host the Dalai Lama or celebrate Chinese dissidents on their own soil. China pushes these policies even as it provides a growing number of public goods, including U.N. peacekeeping, disaster relief, medical aid, and badly needed infrastructure investment. For the C.C.P., there is no contradiction between the illiberal and beneficial aspects of its foreign policy: protectionist authoritarianism provides the stability that makes Chinese generosity and trade possible. All of these variables should be understood and welcomed, in Beijing’s view, as essential parts of a balanced equation. Read more…


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