The rise of China has been one of the clearest, most predicted, and most predictable realities in a century of international politics. Rather than the result of a sudden shift like the decline of Britain after World War I or the rise of the Soviet Union after World War II, it has been gradual, widely foreseen, and was not the result of a conflict that transformed the world. In 1985, Carter’s former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China is about to become a superpower.”
This article will ask: If China’s rise was foreseeable, why was so little done to prepare for it? In answering this question, I will stay neutral on the extent to which China’s rise was a threat or an opportunity, whether preparing for it meant readying the U.S. and allied militaries to fight the People’s Republic tooth and nail, more complex but peaceful options of containment, or highly profitable and amiable engagement. I will argue that the rich world failed to prepare for a rising China for two primary reasons. First, it was distracted, certainly by their own domestic issues, but also by troubles arising in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Russia’s adventurism. Second, as the cost of engaging, containing, and/or combating a rising China became more apparent, so did motivated reasoning that downplayed China’s rise and justified taking little action.
Even if potentially profitable, preparing for the Chinese Century called for huge outlays of resources well in advance of any potential challenge or opportunity that China would offer. While the nature of the threat or opportunity was highly unclear, many investments, such as in Chinese language and country expertise, would have value no matter what shape China’s rise took. In a sense, it was the high probability of China’s rise that has made the rich world’s responses so lackluster. Rather than face that reality and allocate the massive resources necessary to prepare for the rise of China, the West in general and the U.S. in particular preferred China ostrichism: burying its head in the sand, criticizing China, complaining about it not playing fairly economically, inventing reasons it could not compete, and falling back on motivated reasoning to argue that it needed to do little to prepare itself.
Was China’s Rise Foreseeable?
China’s rise has been widely predicted as quick list of the titles of books on the subject makes clear: William Overholt’s The Rise of China: How Economic Reform is Creating a New Superpower (1993); Francis Lee’s China Superpower: Requites for High Growth (1996); Geoffrey Murray’s China: The Next Superpower (1998); Ted Fushman’s China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World (2006); Bergsten et al.’s China: The Balance Sheet: What the World Needs to Know Now About the Emerging Superpower (2007); Susan Shirk’s China: Fragile Superpower (2009). In addition to these books, articles with similar titles appeared in publications as diverse as Public Relations Quarterly in 1998, Problems of Post-Communism in 1996, and the Thunderbird International Business Review in 2000, to name a few. Nor was this merely a view held among academics and pundits. A 2011 review of a London kebab shop included the off-topic fear that “China loses patience with the fat and pointless West and just slaughters us all in our beds one bright cold day in April.”1 By 2011, Pew found that “in 15 of 22 nations, the balance of opinion is that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower.”2 There were, of course, skeptics of China’s rise. Many of the titles listed above pointed out the ways in which China might not continue to rise. But, by 2012 and the debatably failed pivot to Asia, it was clear that China’s rise to superpower status was a highly probable outcome.
The Motivated Reasoning of China Ostrichism
As the scale of China’s growth and influence became clear, it was increasingly evident that it would be expensive to deal with China, whether that meant increasing engagement and both competing and cooperating economically with China or employing more confrontational approaches that might include armed conflict. From the over 5,000 sailors that could be lost on a single aircraft carrier in the Taiwan strait, to the $250 billion price tag of the China competitiveness bill, to the 2,200 hours it takes to become proficient in Chinese, governments and individuals were reluctant to make the investment necessary to prepare for China’s rise. Instead, the rich world preferred to make the increasingly unlikely bet that they would never really need to deal with an authoritarian Chinese superpower. This meant indulging in China ostrichism, of which I identify three types. First, China would democratize and therefore no longer prove a challenge to the rich democratic world. Second, China would stagnate. Third, China would collapse. In the subsequent paragraphs I will consider each flavor of China ostrichism in turn.
The most Pollyannaish school of China ostrichism predicted that China would soon democratize, and this author should admit his own weakness for this line of thinking. In 1998, Chinese dissident Juntao Wang argued in the Journal of Democracy that “most Western observers believe that China will democratize, although they do not expect this to happen anytime soon.”3 In 2011, a Tsinghua University Professor published an article with a colleague from Macau entitled “Why China Will Democratize.” There were good reasons to believe this might be true. Most countries democratize as they grown rich. China’s neighbor South Korea democratized at a per capita income of around $5,000 (in current U.S. dollars) and Taiwan at a bit more than twice that level. A decade ago, when China was just approaching Korea’s level of development and a new generation of leadership was taking over it seemed reasonable to think that medium term democratization was likely. Just a few years later, however, it became evident that Xi was consolidating power and democracy was not the direction that China was headed.
China will stagnate might appear the most reasonable camp of China ostrichism. “If the development model doesn’t change, China will stagnate,” wrote Derek Scissors in 2015 while discussing China’s very real environmental problems.4 Yet, this school also seemed prone to be victim of motivated reasoning and debatably even a type of Orientalism that views China as static, undeveloped, and unchanging. Following the financial crash of 2008, pundits and businesspeople increasingly sought to explain why China’s economic model would not allow it to overtake rich democracies. Many settled on the idea that China could not innovate. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled: “Why China Can’t Innovate” and Kerry Brown of King’s College London argued that “The Chinese government under Xi can pour all the money they want into vast research and development parks, churning out any number of world-class engineers and computer programmers. Even with all of this effort, however, China is likely to produce few world-class innovative companies.”5 The logical conclusion of this was supposed to be that China would not be able to compete with developed democracies and that its economy would stall at a middle-income level. Yet, in some ways this thinking seems even more wishful than the argument that China will democratize, because the reality was that China had been innovating economically in meaningful ways for two decades. By the time this argument was being made, fairly similar East Asian economies, thousands of small manufacturers, Tencent, Didi, and Alibaba had already proved it incorrect.
The “China will collapse” school of China ostrichism is probably the most perennially popular. Since the economic slowdown, runaway inflation, and massive protests of the 1989-90 era until this year, China’s growth has never dipped below a robust six percent and it has never appeared to be particularly close to collapse. Yet, this has not stopped an endless parade of predictions of China’s eminent demise. The problems these predictions cite generally include some combination of: succession problems, corruption, lack of rule of law, lack of democracy, land expropriations, slowing economic growth, economic overheating, real estate bubbles, environmental degradation, lack of innovation, income inequality, export dependence, a bottomless appetite for natural resources, large numbers of executions, organ harvesting, sex-selective abortions, ghost cities, unemployment, lack of intellectual property protections, the arrest of foreign executives, inflation, and unrest among or the mistreatment of: workers, criminal suspects, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, activists, lawyers, and/or journalists.
In 1996, when Deng Xiaoping’s health was beginning to wane, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, carried essays with titles such as “After Deng the Deluge” and “Why China Will Collapse.”6 In 2012, The Economist declared it a “dangerous year for China,” yet similar analysis shows up every year. In 2008, it was the Olympics, riots in Tibet and the global financial crisis. In 2009, it was the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen and riots in Xinjiang. In 2010, it was Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize. In 2011, it was the Arab spring and Gordon Chang’s prediction that the CCP would collapse because of the inefficiency of state-run enterprises, a reluctance to build a more open democratic society, and non-performing loans. In 2012, it was the leadership handover. The fact that people continued to publish and listen to predictions of China’s collapse show how they want to believe that the “China problem” would take care of itself. If China was truly going to implode, rich democracies would not need to face the challenge its different model presented, and individuals would not need to learn in a world defined by a rising China.
None of these types of China ostrichism was illogical or lacking in evidence and intelligent supporters. The assessments were not foolish or even necessarily wrong. They pointed to real problems in the political and financial systems of the PRC. Indeed, Christopher in 1985 or Overholt in 1993 were making a relatively risky bet in predicting China’s rise. But, around the time of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the odds would seem to have shifted and, as we have already seen, it was clear that a future with an authoritarian Chinese superpower was at least fairly likely. Hindsight is 20/20, or in Chinese “everyone is Zhu Geliang (a famous strategist) after the fact (事后诸葛亮).” My purpose here, therefore, is not to condemn past failures, many of which are defensible or at least understandable, and more to highlight the issue so we can do better in the future.
A United States Distracted
During the second Bush era, the focus of foreign policy by the U.S. and many of its allies was unapologetically on the Middle East. North Korea was included in the axis of evil, but its nuclear program was allowed to come to fruition while the U.S. addressed Iran’s nuclear aspirations and got bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration declared a pivot to Asia, but a lack of deep and energetic commitment to the region was evident. As president, Obama spent all of seven days on three trips to China, two of which were for APEC and G-20 summits. This was equal to the number of times he visited Poland and Canada and fewer trips than he made to Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany. When choosing a secretary of state for his second term, Obama could have made a choice that signaled a commitment to Asia, perhaps naming a person with experience in Asia and maybe even Chinese language skills, but he did not. The Obama administration came in at the moment China’s rise became clear, correctly diagnosed the problem and made the right noises, but ultimately failed to prepare the democratic world for the 21st century.
Graph 1: Country Mentions in U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates 2000-2020
The extent to which China has been overshadowed by other international issues is evident from Graph 1, which depicts the mentions of various countries in U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates since 2000. As is clear, while mentions of China have grown over the past two decades, until around 2020 China was always overshadowed either by issues related to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa, including Afghanistan) or Russia. Given that China received only a single mention in 2000, this is not only a product of the September 11th attacks, although they certainly exacerbated the situation. By 2012, as China continued to rise and the Iraq war was fading, China looked ready to emerge as the primary issue in U.S. foreign policy. Yet, Russian interference in the 2016 election forced it to take a back seat until it finally emerged in 2020. While it is normal for geopolitical concerns to shift, it was clear that none of the countries dominating attention had a chance of becoming a superpower or competing with China for influence on the shape of the 21st Century.
It is often claimed that the Chinese word for crises contains the characters for “danger (危)” and “opportunity(机).” This is a common misconception as the second character implies a pivot point, not necessarily an opportunity. This may be a small and subtle point, but it illustrates the lack of attention to and understanding of China by rich democracies during the last four decades. Rich democracies need to realize that China’s rise is not a crisis and cannot be addressed quickly or at the last minute, but that it still could be an opportunity. Careful attention to Asia could pay handsome dividends in both political and economic terms. But, any pivot to Asia needs to represent an abiding commitment to and investment in the region, despite what might be going on in the Middle East, North Africa, Russia, at home, or anywhere else.
- Giles Coren, “Giles Coren Reviews E. Mono, London,” sec. unknown section, accessed August 29, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/giles-coren-reviews-e-mono-london-cg32xjl29px. ↩
- 1615 L. St NW, Suite 800 Washington, and DC 20036 USA202-419-4300 | Main202-857-8562 | Fax202-419-4372 | Media Inquiries, “China Seen Overtaking U.S. as Global Superpower,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project (blog), July 14, 2011, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2011/07/13/china-seen-overtaking-us-as-global-superpower/. ↩
- Juntao Wang, “Will China Democratize? A ‘Gray’ Transformation,” Journal of Democracy 9, no. 1 (1998): 48–53, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.1998.0019. ↩
- “China Lawmakers’ Pollution Battle Adds to Growth Challenges,” Bloomberg.com, March 9, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-09/chinese-lawmakers-pollution-battle-adds-to-growth-challenges. ↩
- Kerry Brown, “Why China Can’t Innovate,” accessed August 30, 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2014/08/why-china-cant-innovate/. ↩
- David Bachman, “Succession Politics and China’s Future,” Journal of International Affairs 49, no. 2 (1996): 371. ↩