Eight years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made a prediction, of sorts. In the long term, he wrote, “China can’t continue to grow at this pace indefinitely by only permitting its people to have economic liberty without political liberty.”
The prediction was hardly unusual. It has long been the asterisk appended to China’s boom. Yet in her cover story this week, Ann Scott Tyson leaves little doubt: China is not backing down. If anything, it is doubling down. Ann’s story is punctuated by surveillance cameras, censorship, and, in one case, a plainclothes police officer trailing her though Beijing.
Still, China’s power grows. President Xi Jinping is now openly talking about China replacing the West as a global model, and a trillion-dollar plan to dramatically expand its trade routes to the rest of the world shows the financial muscle behind his vision.
Were Mr. Friedman and so many others wrong? Is China poised to replace the West?
The first question remains a matter of basic economics. At some point, China’s manufacturing boom will end, and like the West, it will have to grow by becoming more innovative. Authoritarian states do not excel at innovation. So score one for Mr. Friedman, it seems.
It is the second question that is far more interesting.
For the past 70 years, the United States in particular has pioneered a completely new kind of global power. Often dubbed “soft power,” it has been based less on military strength and more on cultural, economic, and philosophical influence. It has resulted in a network of alliances. It has championed the spread of free markets and democracy. It has made Hollywood and Silicon Valley global brands. Put simply, it has replaced the old modes of imperialism with a gospel of universal values.
When experts criticize the Trump administration for its “America First” policy, they worry that America is abandoning this remarkable legacy.
By contrast, the emerging contours of Chinese influence look more like Classic Imperialism 2.0. Maybe not the military “hard power” of the past, but a “sharp power” of bullying and coercion to achieve national aims. In other words, China isn’t going to browbeat you about becoming more democratic, but it’s also much more apt to treat you like an accountant. Its worldview trends more toward transactions than alliances.
It is, in some ways, what Ann saw within China, too – a country that, one man said, has become blinded by materialism.
Yet China is hardly without values. The government has actually identified 12 core values. From the outside, some – like “democracy, freedom, and equality” – appear far more aspirational than actual. But sitting on a park bench in Beijing, moved to tears by the memories that came flooding back to her as she watched an amateur opera, Ann saw other core values expressed by a gentleman who sat next to her: harmony, civility, friendship.
The question is not whether China can promote these values to the world. The question is when the Chinese government will realize they are among the nation’s most valuable assets.