China Will Never Be a Superpower
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
For the past few decades, prominent academics, economists and the general media have pushed the narrative that China will overtake the US as the world’s next superpower.
This transition will not happen, and if it does, the Chinese will not achieve the same sort of ideologic domination that the US has.
The reason for this is that China’s culture is unappealing to foreigners, unlike American culture which is revered across the globe.
If you watch the news, browse any social media, or engage in conversation with intelligent people, it’s hard to miss this notion.
A quick Google search of “China next superpower” returns almost 24 million links, most to journalism and scholarly articles making the case. The academic, financial, and political elite in this country have gone to great lengths to push this narrative, and present to you all this compelling evidence that we ought to batten down the hatches and prepare.
Interestingly enough, which I will harken back to, this sentiment is rarely shared by the average person beyond complaining about outsourced labor (unless they are parroting some politician’s soundbite).
A great deal of prominent and successful families are spending thousands of dollars a month to teach their children Mandarin, in anticipation for this supposed Chinese overtaking.
The topic has received more mainstream attention thanks to the rise of President Trump, who used China as a successful foil in his campaign, and continues to play up their role as a US boogeyman while in office. Every other week we get news about the hostile back and forth in the trade talks between the two nations.
What exactly are these modern day Paul Reveres scared about? In order to properly express why China will not become the next superpower, it is vital to first examine the case to the contrary—the prevailing opinion.
The case for China’s eminence can be best divided into two core arguments: its massive collectivist-minded population, and its centralized government/economy.
It’s a well-known fact that China boasts the world’s largest population, coming in at almost 1.5 billion individuals.
Just on sheer numbers, that statistic can be daunting, given that there are 5 Chinese people for every one American. Imagine some sort of unrealistic all out war involving the general citizenry, and you’d correctly assume that the numerical advantage would be too much to overcome.
The collectivist nature of the Chinese people means their force is multiplied, given that there is less independence and internal conflict than in the US. Of course, I’m using broad strokes here, but it is well documented that the secret strength of China is its collectivism.
There are few places in the world where people value honor and duty to higher social orders more strongly. What do I mean by higher social orders? Well, given that almost 3/4 of Chinese people do not believe in a God, you can surmise that I am not referring to anything religious.
Instead, Chinese people structure their responsibilities and direction in life based on the social hierarchies they have kept for centuries. First is of course the family unit, or duty to one’s father, mother, wife, children, etc. Then it extends to the broader family name, or community. And lastly, it extends to the greater country, and fellow countrymen. The individual pursuit is always secondary.
What does this translate to? Well, Americans on the other hand are notorious for being passionately independent, even willing to discard their own parents in the pursuit of their own success. I’d argue this is a better approach, and has led America to become the worldwide hub of innovation. Too often I see friends from Asian cultures abandoning their hopes and dreams in order to pursue a traditional career just to make their parents happy, or entering relationships for the sake of their family’s pride.
What good is a massive subservient population if there is no one to lead them?
This is where the centralized government comes into play, as they channel the collective labor, and capital into massive projects that spur China along. Given that it functions as one single-minded organism, it makes decisions much quicker and authoritatively than a free flowing democracy like the US.
There exists a singular party in Chinese politics, the Communist party, although the name has meant less and less every year. Their ranks are tightly controlled, and even the private sector giants (Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, JD) take their instructions from Xi and his team of advisors. Again, can you imagine trying to replicate this in America? 9 out of 10 CEO’s would tell every American president to fuck off.
Ever since China took a neoliberal turn and embraced globalism, it has been successful in undercutting the labor force of all other nations. This is the oft-repeated mantra of “China is taking our jobs,” and “our jobs” referring to blue-collar work, primarily in manufacturing.
America could and cannot compete with the sheer scale and low-cost of China’s operation. The very same people calling for tariffs and for everything to be Made in America will be sorely disappointed when everything is much more expensive as a result. There is a reason the free market has settled at the current equilibrium.
That is not to say that I am not patriotic. Quite the opposite, I fully believe that yes, China is a legitimate threat and that we should do everything in our power to assert our dominance over them. I am just less sympathetic to the voices of blue-collar workers making the argument in terms of their fulfillment.
Moving along, China’s government gives their economy another distinct advantage—not prosecuting, and actively encouraging intellectual property theft. What does that mean? Chinese entrepreneurs and companies literally steal ideas, copyrights, and products from foreign businesses, produce them for cheaper, and then sell them to their own people and the rest of the globe.
This severely handicaps any American companies attempting to make in-roads in China. Take a look at Uber’s losing battle in China. If the country operated as a true free market, there’s little doubt Uber would have gained a sizable foothold, but because of the Chinese’ governments dirty tactics (but hey, respect to them for doing whatever it takes to win), their Uber clone DiDi won out.
Chinese IP theft has increased ever since the government has made the pivot towards becoming a second stage economy—leaving the cheap labor jobs to India, and other Southeast Asian countries, and focusing on creating technological enterprises and cultivating entrepreneurial talent.
Part of building an empire of course includes retaining other countries as your outposts, and making them bend to your will. China has wasted little time on that. In the past decade, China has gone to great lengths to build relationships with neighboring countries, and enter economic partnerships. Most prominently, China has taken great interest in cultivating a strong bond with Pakistan, viewing them as a key ally and tool in the region.
Finally, apart from the societal unity, the collaboration between a strong central government and economic actors, the Chinese military is no joke either. I’m not too well versed in this arena, but well-respected sources have affirmed that they are something to fear. Again, you can thank the centralized government for that.
In case you forgot, my thesis is that despite all this, China will still never become the superpower that the US is/was.
The difference is, these authors spend all their time and effort refuting the explanations I have given above. Their argument is that those who speak of China’s economic, military, and political might have mad grave errors in their assessments.
I differ from them here, as I propose that I believe all the aforementioned factors are properly assessed (at times overstated).
The crux to my argument is much simpler. China will never be a superpower because they will not be able to dominate the world in a critical area: media and entertainment.
That’s right. I believe cultural hegemony is just as instrumental to achieving global domination as having a strong army, and a flourishing economy.
Here’s a quick exercise: name a new Chinese movie. Name a new Chinese song. Name a famous Chinese actor that only performs in China. Count how many drop dead attractive Chinese men or women you’ve encountered in your life (Chinese-American doesn’t count).
Well Matt, you’re asking a bunch of Americans about Chinese culture, obviously we’re going to know very little.
Fair, although I bet that a good portion of you could answer those questions if I substituted Chinese with Korean, Japanese, Indian, etc.
Not only that, but the point still remains, that Chinese culture has done little infiltrate any countries outside of the immediate surrounding region.
Economically this isn’t a big deal. The Chinese population is large enough that the media and entertainment industry can self-sustain by catering to its own citizens. The emerging middle class in China has propelled the film market to the level of Hollywood in short time.
The point is, I don’t see kids in Africa emulating Chinese movie stars any time soon. I don’t see Chinese rockstars embarking on global world tours that sell out stadiums. I don’t see men across the globe giving up their lives at home to move to China and marry a beautiful Chinese woman.
Yeah, this argument borders on being insensitive, and some may say it is inherently prejudiced. To that I say, tough luck, as there’s no skirting around the facts here.
If you want it put even simpler—Chinese people are lame, and Americans are cool. Americans have been cool ever since WWII, and our perceived coolness has not gone away. Sure, people may think less of Americans depending on who our President is, or may think we have less of a backbone depending again on the current administration, but the world never doubts that Americans set the tone for what is considered socially desirable.
The greatest triumph of America is our independence, and our innovative spirit. Check the Facebook comments of any post about America in a foreign publication, and you’ll see hordes of foreigners begging to come to this country, as they are pulled in by our magnetic optimism and opportunity. In attracting the hardest working and most open-minded across the globe, we only continue to increase our desirability through unmatched diversity that brings together the world’s top talents.
The key point here is that we have diversity in origins, in backgrounds, in starting points—but not diversity in mindset, which is the most important component. People come to the US from different countries, upbringings, class, gender, sexuality, race, etc. but all the people who come here are drawn here because they think the same way. They’re go-getters, they’re ambitious, courageous, and are blind to everything but people’s capabilities and intelligence.
The reason we have been able to attract this swath of the world population has not only come from our economic successes, in the form of transnational corporations, and far-reaching startups, but also from the movies, TV shows, music, and advertisements (think Coca-Cola ads) that further this narrative.
Americans are superheroes, they’re the good guys in the world, the shining beacon of hope in the world. Men across the world fawn at our models, and the beauty ideal we’ve created. Women across the world dream of our handsome movie stars, and of marrying an American man and having American children.
Little boys and girls across the world quote American movies, sign along to American songs, and dream of one day making it to our soil.
China simply does not have the cultural draw. Although Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) are the most spoken languages in the world, they are not the most widely spoken. English is the most spoken second language in the world, and it’s not even close. As you can see, the trend is that the rest of the world conforms to America, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon.
Again, this is not to say that China’s economy will not overtake America’s, that its military will not be capable of defeating ours, but that even if China were to truly surpass America in all these aspects—the world will be bowing to China, not willingly submitting themselves to their influence.
I usually hedge my predictions, but I’m pretty confident about this one. So long as the US does not succumb to the pressures that have toppled other empires, and continues to evolve, I do not see our reign ending anytime soon, much less giving up the crown to China.