No other government is simultaneously detaining millions of an ethnic minority for forced indoctrination as the China Communist Party (CCP). And while other governments commit serious human rights violations, no other government flexes its political muscles with such vigour and determination to undermine the international human rights standards and institutions that could hold it to account. Meanwhile China’s economy is booming, it’s companies are having global impact and it is rolling out a massive infrastructure project called the Belt and Road Initiative that spans across three continents. The West has grown more weary of a more powerful China as it inevitably rises to the top position. It’s not because China will have greater wealth concentration in its control or their growing military budget. If China were a democracy there would be few concerns. What concerns the West is the underlying ideology that modern China is built on: communism. In the midst of this the US and its allies struggle to unite on key issues after the previous administration’s America first (policy) led to a deterioration of relations.
An Economic Miracle
In 1980 the disposable income for the average Chinese family was just $280 US dollars a year. Fast forward to 2020 and that figure has increased an astounding 18 fold to $4950. That’s tremendous growth in just 30 years in a country of 1.3 billion people. According to experts China is projected to pass the US in gross national product by 2028. Although the average income for China is still a fraction of most Western nations it is clear China’s influence is growing and its not showing signs of slowing down. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects China’s economy will grow 8.1 percent in 2021 and 5.6 in 2022. The rise of companies like Huawei, a company with a global influence in telecommunications, technological advances and the forward thinking and planning by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to expand its reach have made China a contender for global supremacy and power.
Since 2013 the CCP has focused a large portion of its resources abroad into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), known in Chinese and formerly in English as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), a global infrastructure development strategy. This included funneling billions of dollars into over 70 countries and international organizations with the goal of building key infrastructure, including ports, railways, highways, power stations, aviation and telecommunications. The aim of the project is to to boost the economies of the countries it links, while funneling money back into the coffers of China and centralizing global power in the hands of Beijing. Some critics argue the agreements being signed surreptitiously convince poorer and desperate nations such as Myanmar and Kenya to sign unfair agreements which obligate them to hand over ports to 100 year leases should they be unable to make their payments. Kenya failed to make it payments in 2018 and many had expected them to hand over the port of Mombasa, a national treasure, but China is yet to take action. But it’s not only developing nations China is bringing into it’s reign. Developed countries by the likes of Germany and the Netherlands have also signed up.
Why the World Fears a Rising China
The CCP believes political freedom would jeopardize its grasp on power, and so has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system known as the Great Firewall of China to monitor and suppress public criticism. Abroad, it uses its growing economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights since that system began to emerge in the mid-20th century.
The purpose of the ‘Great Firewall’ is to prevent citizens from being exposed to any criticism of the government from abroad and expressing themselves. Recently the government has increasingly attacked critics, including foreign government, companies and universities. Indian and Myanmar officials have taken notice, adopting a similar approach recently blocking Twitter and other social media accounts of media and individuals. Some argue blocking content from reaching citizens is a slippery slope that doesn’t bode well for Chinese people or the world as China’s influence grows.
Mature the Powerful
Since the 30s the US has been a poster child for the West, for Democracy and celebrities. The country has been a nation where big personalities are celebrated and solicited from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. These larger than life personalities are known worldwide for their ideas, inventions, movies, music and vision. China’s rise is putting the pressure on the once all powerful nation and giving it a lesson in humility. There is a growing realization among Americans that they might always be in first place. What Americans should realize is it’s okay to be second, and sooner than later. The nation and its people will still be great, as Britain has been after America displaced it in the early 20th century. What cannot be avoided is this power shift will have a significant impact. It will alter how America shares its ideas, governs, but equally as important, how the world accepts and adopts American ideals. In order for this transition to occur peacefully a maturation among the leaders must take place.
Unite the Free World
Even many Republicans will now admit election of the previous president was an experiment. A result of Americans disappointed with the results Obama produced and his failure to execute on his promises, leaving the country disgruntled and frustrated. The next four years will be a test for the Biden administration. Whether they have what it takes to bring back the accountability that was lost with the previous administration is yet to be seen. Biden has an obligation to bring accountability back to the White House, and to organize a new era of partnership between the US and its allies with hopes of remaining firm against China. As we very well could be witnessing the formation of a new Cold War.
There is a potential silver lining to the rise of China that many have failed to see. A united front. Examples in history show us fast growing empires such as the Persian, Roman and Mongol, Ottoman empires, and most recently the Soviet Union. A story many do not know is that of the once mighty Ottoman Empire that stretched as far as the deserts of Arabia to North Africa and as deep into Europe as the Hungarian capital. In the late 18th and 19th century the threat of an ever expanding empire united European powers to push back their aggressive encroachment. By the end of World War I the empire had been dissolved and dozens of nation states established.
Democracy is Still the Best Option
The freedoms the West enjoy ultimately have made countries like the US, Canada, Norway and Germany the most sought after places to live in. Many in the West don’t so much concern themselves with the many human rights violations occurring in China, but they do worry that as its power continues to grow freedoms we experience today might be experienced by future generations.
The West has an opportunity. It has been proven time and time again that fear, alienation, sanctioning and even boycotting do not work. Working with China will be unavoidable as the economies are interconnected, and a continuing partnership will be mutually beneficial. However, that does not mean the West should condone China’s violation of human rights and growing censorship. Nor do they need to continue to support their growth. The greatest ideas still originate in the West, and that is likely to continue for the forseeable future.
Rather than focus on China, and fear their power and success the West should admire their accomplishments just as it did with ancient China. Great companies focus on making their products the very best in class and always looking ahead. A company that is constantly comparing or attacking their competition risks becoming distracted which can in some cases lead to eventual failure. In the West’s case they should continue to offer the best of what their instituations stand for which include liberty, freedom, ingenuity and opportunity, and look ahead to the future. That’s what the West has done since the Age of Enlightenment when there were many other empires similar to size and power of China. Doing so will continue put the West in a position to continue to lead in education, science, arts and technology, while attracting the very best of talent globally. Perhaps equally as important Western society will move into an age of political modernization, improving upon democratic values and institutions, modern, liberal democracies.
How China’s growing influence and power will well play out is anybody’s guess. It be similar to the Ottomans and the Soviet Union or China and the CCP will prevail and sustain the test of time. If the CCP’s power continues to grow and its policies remain as virulent, the West will unite and firmly push back, and seek to systematically dismantle Chinese influence abroad. China knows it must tread carefully or it will face a fierce rebuttal from the West. They aknowledge the West has grown weary of its success and plans for global domination.
A rising China could very well pose a threat to democracy, but that does not mean it will lead to its demise. Many things are threatened, but those that are true and good always persevere. What the West should do is take a page from China’s playbook and learn from its success. There is much to learn from the Chinese economic miracle. Instead of thinking like a fatalist the West should think like an opportunist seeing the world as a big apple, as it has for the last 500 years. The West must remain vigilant and united, and its leaders accountable to their people and institutions. Accepting China’s rise is equally as important.
Cooperating with the CCP will be critical to the future of the global economy and peace. It’s equally as important the US begin to collaborate with its allies on levels not seen since World War II. Doing so will improve the resolve of the West, and act as a catalyst to build an effective alliance for the purpose of setting ambitious goals for advancing science and technology, and modernizing infrastructure. An economically stronger China will come with plenty of challenges, but international cooperation and strategic planning can position the West.
A rising China has the potential to move the world into a new and exciting age, acting as a sort of catalyst for progress on multiple fronts. Chinese medicine for example looks holistically at the entire body and poses to offer many great contributions for medicine globally. There are also arts, poetry and culture that have for many years been subdued on a global level, but can positively impact the world. The West should not fear China and what it doesn’t stand for (democracy, liberty and freedom). If China happens to be an antagonist geopolitically China’s rise will not last long. Global markets are not kind to aggressors or violators. China will need to cooperate and be a participator in the global economy. As for the West, it should continue to focus on its strengths, and seize the opportunity to build a better world.
Through this acceptance and cohabitation which will at times he messy and uncomfortable there is the potential for the world to emerge, rapidly advancing in arts, science, technology, and infrastructure like we have not seen in decades. Before we identify China as a threat we should consider another way. Kishore Mahbubani, a diplomat, expert in public policy and author of “The Great Convergence?” put it plainly, “The world is still bound by 17th century Westphalian concept… the things that make us interdependent in the world are far greater than the things that divide us.”
- China’s Global Threat to Human Rights. Human Rights Watch. July 5, 2019.
- China’s middle-class boom. CNN Money. June 26, 2012.
- Households’ Income and Consumption Expenditure in 2020. National Bureau of Statistics China. January 19, 2021.
- New chart shows China could overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy earlier than expected. CNBC. January 31, 2021.
- IMF projects China’s economy to grow by 8.1% in 2021, with global growth of 5.5%. Global Times. January 27, 2021.
- What Happens When China Becomes Number One? Harvard Kennedy’s School‘s Institute of Politics. April 08, 2015.