Fighting ‘China’ Smart II: ‘Is China About to Collapse?’
In the first article of this series, I compared America and China to a breakfast I once shared in Yunnan Province with a German woman and two Chinese. While eating, I engaged in two starkly different conversations: in English (from her) about how awful China was, and in Chinese about what it was like to grow up on fishing boats in the South China Sea. The world’s two superpowers are now likewise talking past one another from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. I gave a minor example of how we misread China, involving a repair bill for air conditioning at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But it is the rise and long-rumored fall of China about which we blunder most dangerously.
Foster Prosperity — Squelch Dissent
In May, 1989, students from around China gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to protest corruption and call for a better future. Living across the Taiwan Straits, I joined a demonstration at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Park in downtown Taipei to support them. But on June 4th, our hopes were dashed when Peoples’ Liberation Army troops put down the protests, killing hundreds of people.
The media speculated that some PLA generals might take the protesters’ side, and the communist regime would fall in ignominy. After all, a People Power revolution had swept Ferdinand Marcos from power in the Philippines in a similar way just three years earlier. And that fall, the Velvet Revolution would bring down communist regimes in Eastern Europe, then the Soviet Union itself.
But the Chinese Communist Party proved to be made of sterner stuff. China’s leaders learned two lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union: foster prosperity, while squelching any peep of political dissent.
China’s Path of Growth
Chinese used to confess to me, with shame, that their country was “backwards.” But the country enjoyed several advantages: a culture of ambition, love of education, intact families, opening markets, and outside sources of technology and investment. (Largely, in those days, through Hong Kong.) Noting that China had already begun following the path of growth once traced by Japan and Taiwan, I deduced that by 2015 or 2020, China would likely draw even with the United States in Gross National Product.
Gleefully trumpeting the coming “collapse” of China is not only delusional at this point, it also sets us up to fail, by alienating potential Chinese friends.
That’s why, when someone told me a few days ago that Xi Jinping had lifted 100 million Chinese out of poverty, I knew it was poppycock. The Community Party obstructed the people for many years, but by the 1980s, had gotten enough out of the way — along with lending security and infrastructure — that the Chinese lifted themselves, years before Xi came to power. China now has almost 20% greater GDP than the U.S. by Purchasing Power Parity, almost three quarters of American nominal GDP. (Xi probably slowed economic progress down.)
China’s Amazing Transformation
Despite the amazing transformation taking place before my eyes, I kept hearing predictions of China’s impending doom from American conservatives. Some talked about “Potemkin villages,” suggesting that the apparent growing prosperity was a front to fool outsiders. An American friend told me several years ago that hundreds of millions of “peasants” in inland China were “half starving.” I replied that I’d walked by the home of farmers in Hunan that afternoon, and found them washing their car and having a water fight. “Perhaps they should conserve their strength,” I suggested sarcastically.
In 2019, a geographer named Joel Kotkin published an article in Quillette entitled “China’s Looming Class Struggle,” claiming that poor migrant workers and farmers were apt to sweep the regime away in revolt. I wrote a rebuttal in the same journal, describing the changes that those of us who have known China for a long time have witnessed:
For the first time in thousands of years, most Chinese are not farmers and do not live off the land … A one-child policy remained in effect until recently, and that one child often is in the city making earrings, like the lady I met on the subway yesterday, who spoke of her peasant-family past as of a distant dark age. Or they are delivering packages on scooters, manning coffee bars, or, yes, pounding away at the new high-rises that sprout in every major (and many minor) cities, as well as the subway and bullet-train lines that connect them …
China’s Long-Rumored Fall
Senator Tom Cotton recently compared China with the former Soviet Union, arguing that as with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the USSR, if we stand firm and decouple economically, America will win again. But China has five times the population of the USSR. Germany and Japan were the size of large Chinese provinces. And China is more unified than the USSR: while the Soviet “Union” ruled 15 ethnically-distinct “republics” as one “evil empire,”: 90% of Chinese are ethnically Han. Most of the rest are culturally Han.
The most prominent Chicken Little in conservative media today may be Gordon Chang. Twenty years ago, Chang wrote a book whose title the Chinese media is still mocking: The Coming Collapse of China. (Instead of collapsing, China grew 11 times in wealth during those years!)
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But Chang’s biggest error was not his failure to forecast the future. More importantly, those who talk about the “collapse” of China, or how to “Beat China,” (as Cotton put it) forget the fishermen across the breakfast table. They force ordinary Chinese to sit with Xi Jinping, when they ought to join us.
Should our goal be the “collapse” or “defeat” of China?
If that’s what we’re aiming at, no one in China will take our side. We reinforce communist propaganda, and doom our own efforts.
We need allies against Xi Jinping and his minions both among other Asian nations, and among potential friends within China. Gleefully trumpeting the coming “collapse” of China is not only delusional at this point, it also sets us up to fail, by alienating potential Chinese friends.
Confronting the bullies in Beijing will not be easy. I will explain some of the dangers in later articles. We must begin by understanding a little about recent Chinese history and communist strategy, to see what will hurt or help. The challenges are great, but we also hold a few advantages, which I will also describe: (1) wonderful aspects of Chinese culture which have blessed the world; (2) conservative philosophy and a traditional fear of God that go back thousands of years; (3) the fact that, unlike other great powers, and despite communist lies, America has often been a great friend to China.
This is a conversation that we need to have, among ourselves, and then across the global breakfast table.
David Marshall holds an undergraduate degree in the Russian and Chinese languages and Marxism, a masters degree in Chinese religions, and a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.