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Chinese Scholars’ Views on China and the U.S. over the Next 10 Years

[Editor’s Note: Qiushi Theory republished a report from the International Economic Review, a bi-monthly publication by the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The report was based on what a few people from Chinese think tanks expressed about the global leadership positions of the U.S. and China over the next ten years. Their discussions touched multiple areas, including international relationships, politics, economics, culture, and science. The following are excerpts of some of their views.] [1]

I. It Does Not Appear That the U.S. Will Go Downhill in the Next Ten Years

By Wang Jisi, School of International Studies, Beijing University

First of all, whether the U.S. will go up or down in the future is mainly a political topic rather than an academic one. Many politicians and scholars who smear the U.S. normally do so because of their personal emotions. That is, because the commentators’ personal preferences and interests tend to influence their judgments. This does not mean that their opinions are not important. When we think about this issue, we must consider the effect of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If all of us believe that the U.S. will go downhill, the thought itself will bring the U.S. down.

The second part is the benchmark used to measure the current state of the U.S. If we tried to compare the U.S. with its past, we would also need to be selective about which period to use. For example, the era from Nixon to Carter can be considered the darkest age in the post-war era of the U.S. The current U.S. is definitely much stronger than it was when looked at from either the economic or overall national strength perspective. I believe that the Clinton era was the most prosperous period in U.S. history; it was better than how the country is currently faring. The first part of the George W. Bush era was able to enjoy the benefits left from the Clinton era but later on, the administration encountered a series of problems including the financial crisis and the Iraq War. If we try to compare the current state with Bush’s time, I would say it is worse than the first half but better than the second half.

If we compare the current state of the U.S. with other countries, we need to be mindful of which country to use for the comparison. If compared to the European countries or Japan, the U.S. is in a much better situation, but if compared to those rising countries, then the U.S. is becoming weaker. The uniqueness of the current debate about where the U.S. is heading is that the rising countries such as China, India, and Brazil are being put on the table, whereas China leads all of them. The focal point, however, is not the relative positional change between the U.S. and other countries. If we take a look at those countries, we will find that none of them have caught up with the U.S. overall because the U.S. has its own unique nature and its openness. For example, anyone in the world can become an American if he chooses to, but no foreigner can become a true Chinese. Even if he becomes a Chinese citizen, it is still very hard for Chinese society to accept him as “one of our own people.” That is why it was possible for the U.S. to become the world giant that it is today.

Another uniqueness of this debate is that it originated as a result of the recent financial crisis. The financial crisis hurt the U.S. significantly. Many people thought it symbolized the end of the capitalist development model and the “Washington consensus” and that China’s development model and the “Beijing consensus” would replace it. There is also another underlying theme to this debate, which is that people have started to have doubts about the dominant position of the U.S. dollar and the U.S.’s financial hegemony.

Rarely is there a question about the U.S.’s military hegemony. Many believe that the U.S. still maintains absolute dominance in the military area. Clinton once said that it was only a matter of time before other countries caught up with the U.S. economically. Thus to maintain its current status and standard of living, the U.S. must establish the international rules before it loses its dominant economic position. However, if any country wants to surpass the U.S. in military power, it is a totally different story (meaning the U.S. will not allow it to happen). What the U.S. is currently concerned about is no longer Germany or Japan, but China. The U.S. has increased its vigilance with regard to China in the military area.

On the soft power side, the image of the U.S. has improved significantly since Obama took office. Another important factor is that the U.S. has changed its strategic choices. I think the future state of the U.S. is largely dependent on its own choices and on whether it is walking on the right path.

From the perspective of international political affairs, the U.S. demonstrates a long term vision. For example, when there were issues in the Middle East, the U.S. was very cautious and didn’t directly deploy any of its armed forces. It tried not to repeat the strategic mistake it made during the Iraq War. The U.S. also adopted policies to balance its relationships with other large countries. It tried to bring them closer instead of distancing itself. On the Sino-U.S. relationship, the U.S. said that it welcomed the idea of China growing stronger. China also expressed its wish for the U.S. to continue to play an active role internationally. China has no desire for and will not pursue hegemony. Unlike some elite groups and the general public in China, Chinese leaders are cautious about commenting on the future status of the U.S.

In conclusion, I disagree with the theory that the U.S. is “losing its dominant economic position.” The U.S. military, its economy, and its scientific power will continue to increase. Its core values and its democracy system will remain the same. The quality of education is questionable, but it continues to attract the best students from around the world to go there for higher education. That demonstrates the U.S. education system’s superior status. Compared to other countries, the status of the U.S. as a superpower will hardly change for some time. The rising countries such as China may impact the U.S., but they do not have the ability to replace the U.S. Overall, the West may decline, but the definition of “West” has become broader. For example, countries such as Japan, Korea, and India basically share the same political value system with the West. Also, the West does not yet have any rivals. The U.S. has reached its peak, but the peak is a plateau. In the future, the U.S. will go up and down, but it will remain on this plateau until it comes to an end.

Logically speaking, if the U.S. is to decline, it will be because the factors that made it strong no longer exist. There are many such factors. The first one is the tradition and spirit of the rule of law. The fact that the U.S. depends on ruling by law to maintain its social stability has never changed. A second factor is the uniformity and cohesiveness of its social values, which has guaranteed the country’s cohesive power. The U.S. has always maintained the concept of freedom as its core value, which has surpassed any religious or racial values. A third factor is technology. Up until today, the U.S. has been leading the world in technological renovation, which is a reflection of its soft power. A fourth factor is its advanced civil society system. U.S. society has a strong ability to self-correct. The government maintains a close relationship with society. The U.S. is able to utilize both the nation’s power and society’s power in diplomatic affairs. As long as these factors remain the same, the U.S. will not experience any major change.

II. The International Status of the U.S. Is Largely Dependent on What China Will Do

By Zhang Weiying, Guanghua School of Management, Peking University

The status of the U.S. as a world leader is unlikely to undergo any major change in the next 10 years, or even in the next 20 to 30 years. As a matter of fact, the U.S.’s leading status fits in with China’s interests. China is not yet ready to lead the world. In addition, being the leader is a huge international responsibility; the cost is too great for China to bear.

In recent history, the U.S. is best qualified to be the world leader. This is because U.S. society is full of energy, with a strong ability for self-correction and self-recovery. At the same time, the U.S. has attracted the best talent from around the world. This melting pot has laid a solid foundation for its prosperity.

My view is that the structure of the world and the status of the U.S. are largely dependent on what China is doing. If China continues to make mistakes, the status of the U.S. will be solidified. In the past two to three years, I changed my view on China’s development from optimistic to cautiously optimistic. The first reason is that some of the things that we thought would have never regressed have regressed. One of those is the reverse of the economic system, such as the increasing government control, even on price control and the return to a planned economic system. In addition, nationalism has had a heavy influence.

Also, it is human nature to pursue personal happiness, but there are two ways to do so: one is to gain happiness by causing others to suffer misfortune, which I call “Gangster Logic,” and the other is to reach happiness by making other people happy, which I call “Market Logic.” History has taught us that “Gangster Logic” will not get us anywhere. For example, World War II, launched by Germany and Japan, resulted in catastrophe. Then after the war, these two countries made a comeback by producing products that people around the world like very much. Market Logic helped them to win. The U.S. basically follows Market Logic, even though it may occasionally use Gangster Logic from time to time. China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) use their monopoly power to expand, making it more and more difficult for private businesses to survive. This has had a very serious negative impact on China’s development. I can guarantee that the more China returns to a planned economy and to SOEs maintaining dominance, the stronger the U.S.’s leadership position will be.

From the political perspective, China’s future development is largely dependent upon the reform of its political system.

Basically we face two major challenges: one is populism and the other is nationalism. China has been developing for decades now. We can’t simply use the past wars or opening up and reform to justify the legitimacy (of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] being in power). In order to maintain political legitimacy, one brave approach is to promote political system reform. If we don’t have courage, are indecisive, or lack the authority to push for political system reform, and we instead simply rely on populism and nationalism, it will be very dangerous. In this case, we cannot push forward with major reform. We will likely go backwards. When the leaders at the lower level misbehave while the upper level leaders do not have the authority to stop it, bad things are likely to happen. If populism is combined with nationalism, it will make it hard to take any rational actions. The way we deal with problems is normally not to follow market logic or the spirit of the law, but rather, we use other means, including the media, to set a moral tone on the issue. Then we handle the case by ignoring the legitimacy of the solution. In conclusion, political system reform is the key factor for China’s future development.

As to international relationships, China does not have any firm public allies. Compared to the U.S., which has many allies around the world, China will have a hard time challenging the U.S.’s leadership position.

If China can continue to advance market reform, conduct political system reform smoothly, and adopt an effective diplomatic strategy, the U.S.’s world hegemony status may not last long. If, on the other hand, China chooses a wrong path, then the changes in the U.S.’s and China’s positions will become very delicate.

III. Is Strengthening the Rule of Law over the Next Ten Years the Key to Advancing China’s Political System?

By He Huaihong, Department of Philosophy, Peking University

In my opinion, the key to advancing China’s political system is to continue moving towards the rule of law. In other words, we need to establish, implement, enforce, and strengthen the rule of law. This will involve a balance between law and democracy. I agree with many of my friends that the order of the two should be that the law comes first and then democracy. We can even be radical with implementing the law and purposely slow down the adoption of democracy. Ruling by law is the test field for democracy. It also improves the quality of our citizens and provides an assurance of civil rights, democracy, and people’s livelihood. It is unlikely that China will go wrong or cause strong social turmoil if it improves the rule of law. (Editor’s note: What the author implied is “But adopting democracy is likely to impinge on the CCP’s power.”) The legal system I talk about should guarantee the protection of people’s basic rights and exercise the laws that are in the constitution. We not only need a well-defined legal system but, more importantly, we need to establish the rule of law and train people how to respect the law. When there are conflicts between authoritative power and the law, if the law keeps winning, then it will be possible to build a legal and civil society. In the end we will be able to form a democratic society that works together with the legal system. Democracy is realized through the rule of law; so is social justice, which should also be achieved via the rule of law and be the result of the application of the rule of law.

By Zhang Weiying, Peking University

In my opinion, over the next 30 years, China should focus the first 15 years on the criminal justice and legal system, and focus the next 15 years on democracy reform. It is very important to place the legal system ahead of democracy. In the long run, China needs to explore a new (political system) path. It should leverage and study the experiences of Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Vietnam. China can start from a functional constituency or democracy within the Party. Maybe within 30 years we can slowly transition into democracy.

[1] International Economics Review, “China and the U.S. in the Next 10 Years,” Issue 3 of 2011.
[2] Qiushi Theory Online, “China and the U.S. in the Next 10 Years,” May 9, 2011.