In his Dec. 20 article, “Wake up a friend about China at Christmas,” Tom Plate recommends that readers give their friends a book about the Middle Kingdom for the holidays, specifically one with the scary title “When China Rules the World.” Everyone, East and West, seems to agree that China is the emerging superpower, but people my age may remember that two decades ago the same thing was being said about Japan.
It’s hard to believe that a country now deeply afflicted by self-doubt and economic stagnation was once viewed by pundits like Plate as an unstoppable economic and technological juggernaut that would leave the United States and other Western countries in history’s dustbin — as most vividly conjured up by the late Michael Crichton in his mildly racist novel “Rising Sun.”
China is, in fact, Japan times 10: a much bigger country, but with the same focus on national unity and homogeneity (Tibet and Xinjiang are Beijing’s Taiwan and Korea); top-down bureaucratic control of society, conformity, competitive materialism rather than enjoyment of life; and schooling rather than education. It is governed by a closed elite, the Communist Party, very much like Japan’s own venal and self-serving political caste.
The problem for both China and Japan is that social and political characteristics such as unity, discipline and bureaucratic rule, which are keys to economic and military success under certain circumstances, become major liabilities when those circumstances change. The “future” — in Asia, at least — may in fact belong to India, not China.
Journalists, politicians and some scholars tend to indulge in what could be called “power structure thinking,” which is based on seriously shaky assumptions: that trends taking place in the present (Japan’s/China’s rapid GDP growth) will continue indefinitely; that power is both “hard” and easily measurable in terms of something tangible such as GDP, military force or academic test scores; and that “civilizations” — a dubious concept — are locked in a grim Darwinian struggle for world domination in which there is no room for overcoming national/racial boundaries or synthesis.
This bleak vision is hypnotic, especially for Westerners who lack confidence in their own future. But we can all take solace in the knowledge that no power is forever. Failure is embedded in the success of every powerful state, which is as true of China — and the U.S. — today as it was of Rome 2,000 years ago.