China: A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness

John Pomfret – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
July 27, 2008
Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China is the one wielding the shovel. The People’s Republic is on the march — economically, militarily, even ideologically. Economists expect its GDP to surpass America’s by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington’s; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West’s liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is poised to become the 800-pound gorilla of the international system, ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th.
Except that it’s not.
Ever since I returned to the United States in 2004 from my last posting to China, as this newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief, I’ve been struck by the breathless way we talk about that country. So often, our perceptions of the place have more to do with how we look at ourselves than with what’s actually happening over there. Worried about the U.S. education system? China’s becomes a model. Fretting about our military readiness? China’s missiles pose a threat. Concerned about slipping U.S. global influence? China seems ready to take our place.
But is China really going to be another superpower? I doubt it.
It’s not that I’m a China-basher, like those who predict its collapse because they despise its system and assume that it will go the way of the Soviet Union. I first went to China in 1980 as a student, and I’ve followed its remarkable transformation over the past 28 years. I met my wife there and call it a second home. I’m hardly expecting China to implode. But its dream of dominating the century isn’t going to become a reality anytime soon.
Too many constraints are built into the country’s social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons — dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn’t travel well — China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world.
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