China is Confident: How Realistic?

Commentary No. 439, December 15, 2016

Every country has mixed feelings about its future, but some are more self-confident than others. At the present moment, there are very few countries in which self-doubt does not seem greater than self-confidence. This seems to me true of the United States, both western and eastern Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and most of Africa and Latin America. The biggest exception to this global worry and pessimism is China.

China tells itself that it is performing better in the world-economy than just about anyone else. To be sure, it seems to be performing less well today than a few years ago, but so is the rest of the world, and it is still doing better than the others.

China also tells itself that it is growing stronger all the time in its geopolitical position – first of all in East and Southeast Asia and now secondly in much of the rest of the world. It seems to be contemptuous of U.S. claims of a new position in Asia to which it says it is giving priority. To be sure, they do worry about the degree of self-control of the U.S. giant, especially now that the unpredictable Donald Trump is coming to power. But again China seems to think it can handle, even tame, what it considers to be U.S. arrogance.

The question is how realistic is this self-assessment of China? There are two premises embedded in China’s self-confidence, whose validity need to be investigated. The first is that countries, or rather the governments of states, can actually control what is happening to them in the world-economy. The second is that countries can effectively contain popular discontent, whether by suppression or by limited concessions to demands. If this was ever even partially true in the modern world-system, these assertions have become very dubious in the structural crisis of the world capitalist system in which we find ourselves today.

When we look at the first premise, the ability of countries to control what happens to them in the ongoing life of the modern world-system, the greatest evidence that this proposition is dubious is what has been happening in the last few years in China itself. Surely no state has worked as hard as China to guarantee its continued high performance. China has not left its activities to the workings of the “market.” China’s government has constantly intervened in economic activity within China. Indeed, it has virtually dictated what is to be done and how it is to be done. Yet, despite all that the government has done, China has been encountering of late worrisome setbacks. The government has been preoccupied with these setbacks, but the best it has been able to do has been to moderate them, not prevent them. I do not denigrate the actions of the Chinese government. I merely insist on noticing the limits of their efficacy.

If we look at the geopolitical arena, China has counted on being able to insist that other states recognize and implement its “one China” policy. Considering what the global situation was fifty years ago, China has done exceptionally well in this regard. Nonetheless, recently Taiwan seems to be regaining some ground in its struggle for autonomy. Perhaps this is a momentary illusion, but perhaps not.

The second premise is seeming even more dubious these days. Popular uprisings against regimes because of their harshness or the corruption they have fomented is not new. But they seem more frequent, more sudden, and even more successful than in the past. A good example is right next door to China – in South Korea. There President Park Geun-hye has catapulted downward in public favor seemingly from one day to the next. She has been impeached despite her impressive electoral victory and her control of the state’s administrative machinery.

A look at these popular uprisings shows that, while they often succeed in overthrowing the regime in power, they do not appear to create a lasting new regime. But this observation would be of very limited comfort to any regime, and certainly not to the present regime in China.

It is not that the Chinese government, and its interlocked partner, the Chinese Communist Party, are unaware of these arguments. Far from it! But they believe that they can and will overcome the obstacles and emerge over the next ten to twenty years as the dominant economic structure in the world. And, given this, they expect that they will prevail geopolitically over others, and in particular over the United States.

No one can be sure how this geopolitical rivalry will play out. I do counsel skepticism about the two premises of China’s self-confidence. I return, as I always do, to viewing the current world situation as part of a rivalry between two groups that are contending not about how to manage the current world-system or prevail in it, but rather about what should replace a capitalist system that is no longer viable, either for its super-elites or for its large oppressed classes and peoples.