In 1941, Life magazine editor Henry Luce prophesied an American Century. The prediction was correct. America did indeed emerge from the great wars as the world’s global leader, both militarily and economically
Now in perverted twist on this trajectory, the COVID-19 pandemic has given China an opportunity to further their global ambitions and accelerate the arrival of the “Chinese Century.”
The contrast though is remarkable: the U.S. hastened its century by helping win both world wars and rebuilding Europe; China is using an array of intimidation, addictive drugs, corruption, and a deadly virus, which it unleashed on the world, to usher in its own.
World War II left much of the world in ruins — physically and economically. Rebuilding it and a global economy were massive efforts. Only the United States emerged from the chaos with a large, intact and thriving industrial base. So, the need for munitions went and the demand for household goods came. American industry kicked into high gear, the nation’s economy became the world’s largest and the US dollar the world’s reserve currency.
As the 1950s arrived, the Communist party was just beginning its transformation of China’s economy, crippled from war, civil and international, and foreign occupation, from agrarian to industrial. At the outset of Mao Zedong’s rule, the country made up less than five percent of the word’s economy.
Of course, it had not always been this way. From the Renaissance forward, China’s economy was a titan; in 1400 it was 30 percent of the world’s economy, compared to Britain’s 1 percent. In 1700 it was 22 percent, to Britain’s three percent. Then in the 19th Century, Pax Britannica turned the tables. After two devastating Opium Wars, where China rose up to stop the British drug trade only to be crushed each time, its economy was halved.
Though a century and a half have passed, the memory of these conflicts still stirs anger among the Chinese people; their government regularly invokes it to defend its honor on the international stage. It is why the Chinese government reacts with such indignity to any international slight both big — the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada for violating sanctions against Iran, and small — the eviction of a family of Chinese tourists from a boardinghouse in Stockholm.
The Chinese people are regularly reminded by their Communist government of the humiliation suffered during the Opium Wars. And this resentment fuels the Communist Chinese government’s sights on not only reclaiming its former mantle of largest economy, but now their ambition to dominate the world.
Much progress has already been made. Using the equalizing measure of purchasing-power-parity, the China’s economy has exceeded America’s since 2013. And though it is only two thirds the size of America’s in the aggregate, it won’t be long until they exceed this measure too. They have also created Chinese-controlled alternatives to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and NATO.
It is important to note, though, that while strategic altruism and a dedication to a set of ideals paved the way for America’s success in the last century, China hopes to make this one its own by far more dubious means.
For example, while the UK has honored its agreement to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the Chinese have not honored their commitment to their own citizens in Hong Kong to maintain a “one country, two systems” form of government. Facing massive and persistent protests, the Communists have resorted to intimidation and force to circumvent the elected Hong Kong legislature and strip the region’s autonomy.
And in what may seem poetic justice to the Communist government, Chinese companies have staged a quasi-sequel to the Opium Wars. And until last year, when China began a high-profile public relations crackdown, deadly fentanyl was regularly and unrestrictedly making its way from China to American shores, fueling a deadly opioid epidemic that has decimated parts of our nation.
Elsewhere China plays the part of predatory lender, offering a financial hand to cash-strapped developing nations. The terms of these loans, though, are hazy, and defaulting on debts usually means surrendering valuable national assets. Such transactions are setbacks to struggling countries and help advance China’s own ambitions. See China’s military base in Djibouti, the small but strategically located East African nation deeply in debt to the CCP. Similarly, China’s share of the debt owed by poor nations doubled from 2013 to 2016 and will continue to rise because of its ambitious international infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Now the COVID-19 pandemic has improbably given China another opportunity to bring on the Chinese Century: Political operative Rahm Emanuel famously once said “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The authoritarian regime in China is taking that advice to heart.
Remember there is ample evidence that the Communist Chinese leaders knew COVID-19 could be transmitted from human-to-human as early as January 14, 2020 and likely earlier. But President Xi Jinping did not go public with this information until January 20. And while China locked down its cities and borders to prevent the spread of the virus internally, it allowed its citizens to leave China for unsuspecting countries. The consequences have been globally devastating, but less so for China.
China’s factories are springing back into action — while the rest of the world’s struggle to return to life after the lockdowns. And not so coincidentally, while two of U.S. aircraft carriers assigned to the Pacific (USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz) were out of commission due to COVID-19 infections (and the third, the USS Ronald Reagan is undergoing maintenance), China sent the Liaoning, one of its two carriers, in an uncontested show of strength to Taiwan and also near disputed islands near Japan.
And with the rest of the world distracted by COVID-19, China has further locked down dissent in Hong Kong and transported troops into the Galwan Valley, a disputed territory in the Himalayas which India claims as its own. These aggressive maneuvers have been accompanied by a new combativeness from China’s diplomats and increasing nationalism among its citizens.
So is the Chinese Century underway? There are reasons for skepticism. It is arguable that the space China seeks to fill, the one they wish to dislodge America from, belongs to nations dedicated to democratic ideals. And China’s ascent has most certainly not been built upon them.
It is likely that were he alive today, Henry Luce would not be predicting a Chinese Century. A nation motivated by the memories of old grievances with a win at all costs mentality is not yet ready or capable to do the good works needed to earn the global goodwill and respect needed to indeed be a true world leader or win this century.
Ed Moy served as the 38th Director of the United States Mint from 2006-2011.
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