It was claimed by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama that the culmination of the Cold War represented the ‘end of history‘. The capitulation of communist Soviet Union heralded the inevitable spread of liberal democracy and free market capitalism around the world. It was posited that mankind had reached its final destination of ideological evolution, as capitalism irrevocably transformed the world for the greater good. Naturally, all nations around the world would seek to adopt this sociocultural model to usher in the prosperity and liberation of a new age.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can observe that Fukuyama’s proclamation did not pan out as predicted. While the West, specifically America, would enjoy a short spell of unchallenged dominion around the world from the early 90s, the Great Recession of 2008 shook the very foundations of Western hegemony to its core in an unprecedented period of economic ruin, the effects of which are still being felt a decade later around the world.
Ultimately, the Great Recession represented two decisive starting points; the beginning of the end for Western hegemony, and the exorbitant rise of China. Following the collapse of global markets, the US and the EU went in to a state of apoplexy as unintended results of free market capitalism crippled economies. China, in contrast, managed to weather and emerge the economic crash relatively unscathed, and certainly in comparison to other economies, thrived. Now the world’s second largest economy, China’s ascent as a global powerhouse shows no sign of ceasing any time soon.
How do we understand the unique and stratospheric rise of China that we are witnessing today? Has Fukuyama’s prediction finally been realised almost thirty years later than predicted? Although a whole host of compelling and reasoned arguments can be put forward, I would posit that China has and will continue to thrive unanswered for now, made possible by a tripartite of three important and interconnected considerations.
The first and perhaps most controversial of China’s continued success is the infallible authority of the Chinese Communist Party. In early March 2018, China passed historic legislation eliminating the traditional ten year term limit of its government, in effect allowing Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the CCP, and his party to rule indefinitely. According to a piece by the Wall Street Journal, delegates and officials of the CCP say that under Xi Jinping and his “centralized unified leadership”, a constant flow of continuity and decision-making will help steer China towards modernization.
Corrupt? Yes. Effective? Yes. In China’s case, the two often go hand-in-hand, and it is perhaps unsurprising given China’s record on human rights and political dissent that such dubious legislation has been passed. Although nominally a democratic state, the abolition of term limits will only heighten international condemnation of China’s faux-democracy as it continues to enhance its global position.
The US and Europe, however, pride their societies on the democratic, peaceful transition of power between elected officials with strict term limits. While unlimited terms are certainly not an admirable practice that should never sought to be emulated, it will enable Jinping to safeguard his ambitious plans for China well in to the future without fear of discontinuation from a rival political party in the
unlikely event the CCP had lost during the next election cycle.
Hyperopia vs Myopia
Defined as far-sightedness, the hyperopia of China’s political decision making has been further made possible by the abolition of term limits for the CCP. In October of 2017 Xi Jinping stated that China will be a leading nation in terms of global power and impact by 2050. Plans to achieve this goal include relaxing the traditionally strict Chinese market for foreign access, increasing focus on the production of clean energy, and a modernisation of its armed forces.
In perhaps its most ambitious project, China is currently implementing a colossal development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Incorporating 68 countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and an estimate of 4.4 billion people, the trans-regional initiative will encompass a myriad of interlinking trade deals, transport networks over land and sea, and multinational infrastructure projects that will act as a vehicle for China to promote trade and investment, while also enabling it to ship its massive overproduction of products such as steal to international markets. As mentioned above, the abolition of term limits as a conduit for China to enact long-term goals will ensure that strategies such as the Belt and Road Initiative are brought to fruition.
China’s drive to to dominate the international stage will only further be aided by the contrasting political myopia of Western powers. To take the US as an antithesis, the democratic system of governance on which the nation prides itself can also be its own Achilles’ heal. Despite a four year term, the President in essence has a only small window of roughly eighteen to twenty months to push through pivotal laws and legislation before once again turning their attention to the next election campaign. Because of how American politics is structured, many politicians in the US value short term political point scoring against rival parties, catering to the interests of lobbyists, and the certainty of retaining their job over the sustainability of long-haul projects and strategies, as exemplified by the chronic disputes surrounding healthcare and gun control.
It is difficult to see how the US or any European power will be able to compete with China if they are to continue implementing short term solutions to long term problems. The Trump administration has and is set to continue withdrawing the US from its global commitments and alignments, eschewing America’s capability in the future to shape political shifts that occur around the world. Europe too is not without its own turbulence. Performing a volatile juggling act, it is attempting to negotiate the terms of Brexit, tackle slow economic growth, manage the large influx of migration, and combat erratic right-wing nationalist parties, all the while attempting to manage an unruly and unpredictable relationship with the US, whose partnership appears unsettled for the first time in decades.
The removal of term limits and the ability to strategize long-term in China would ultimately both be unattainable without the third point of the trifecta that is nationalism. Every major political decision implemented by the Chinese is underscored by what is known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’. The Century of Humiliation encompasses approximately the years between 1839 and 1949, a period during which China suffered enormously under the brunt of imperialism from Western powers, such as Britain and France, and its neighbour to the East, Japan.
China’s century of humiliation is considered to have begun with the commencement of the First Opium War between the United Kingdom and the Qing Dynasty of China, the result of a British practice of illegally exporting opium to the Chinese market. Opium had been causing serious social devastation amongst the Chinese, and in March 1839 the government decided to confiscate and destroy over 20,000 chests of the addictive narcotic, an event which ignited tensions that would commence hostilities. Although unequal trade relations had been a point of contention between China and Western powers for years, the First Opium War effectively signalled the beginning of a social and political implosion that would consume and ravage China over the next number of decades.
During this tumultuous period, China endured considerable internal fragmentation, lost virtually all of the wars it fought, and was repeatedly forced to concede to the demands of the great powers (Britain, France, Japan) in successive treaties. This once proud and powerful nation had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, which had for centuries dominated Eastern affairs unchallenged.
Given the relatively recent occurrence and scope of its national destruction, it is unsurprising that the Chinese are unwilling to confine these painful years to the annals of history any time soon. Invoking Chinese nationalism is a powerful tactic of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political strategy, and continuous reinforcement of remembering the century of humiliation to instill nationalist sentiment is a key component of that tactic. After falling victim to the superior power of Western nations keen to quench their imperial thirsts, China is adamant in ensuring that it never again capitulates to a foreign power. The capability of China to retain a firm grasp of its history while simultaneously mapping out its long-term interests have and will continue to secure its dominance in the international arena as long as this powerful tool of nationalist pride is utilized.
So long as China continues to pursue this bureaucratic trifecta of influence at home, it is unlikely that its stratospheric growth abroad will be tested any time soon. Although it may seem enticing, seeking to emulate the Chinese model of success should not be seen a viable solution to Western problems and the unique identity of its sociocultural evolution.
Before the US or Europe can seriously consider challenging China’s international dominance over the next few decades, it must be willing to recognize the diminishing clout of the conventional post-Cold War order, the necessary improvements that are needed to political, social, and economic institutions in order to compete, and the implementation of prudent and extensive blueprints to match the ambition of its largest Eastern competitor.
Benjamin Moore is a recent Masters graduate of international relations from Dublin City University. His areas of interest and research include the intersection of pop culture and politics, US and European history, and global trade relations. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada. Read more of his pieces at https://sonofgothamblog.wordpress.com/