Why China Will Not Be the Next Superpower
And why freedom of information is key to stopping it (and any other form of authoritarian power)
There’s growing concern about the role of China on the global stage, but I think it is overstated: China won’t be the next nation-state superpower. No one will; this age is ending.
The main reason for my contention? Freedom of information.
In short, in an increasingly interconnected world in an Information Age, a nation that has tight control over that information and how it can be shared isn’t going to become a leader on the global stage.
Why America Became a Superpower
Consider how America became a superpower and how it outlasted the Soviet Union. Influential American political scientist Joseph Nye differentiated between “hard power” and “soft power” in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.
Often, when people focus on how the United States became a superpower in the early 20th century, the focus is on “hard power,” which Nye defines as “the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will.” Also, there is a focus on the material wealth of the United States in terms of its resources as well as how it was the one major country which, besides Pearl Harbor, had no major battles fought on its territory in either World War I or World War II so it emerged from those wars in a strong position.
Throughout the 19th century, the United States began its rise to superpower status, in part, by being a place where immigrants, mostly from Europe, came to pursue a better life. On one hand, this was related to being able to make a better material living for oneself, but on the other, it was related to going somewhere where a person could be free to choose their path and explore who they were as an individual.
By the 20th century and the birth of the Information Age, the U.S. began to export its culture through the “soft power” of the entertainment media, notably movies, TV shows and music, but also literature and radio. Meanwhile, the USSR lacked this soft power. Combining that with its structural problems in its economy and politics, it fell apart in the 1980s.
Does China Have Soft Power?
Compare that to China in 2020. Clearly, with its massive population, its large land and resources, its growing military and its economic role in being the “workshop for the world,” China’s hard power has been accelerating rapidly.
However, what of its “soft power?”
How many people have you heard in the past 20 years say, “I want to go to China to make a better life for myself?” How many people are turning to Chinese mass media, things like movies or TV shows or books or manga or music? How many of us have Chinese friends who live in China?
The answer to all of these, I think, is very few (that said, if you answered yes to any of those questions, please share your thoughts in the comments!). And that’s because the Chinese government is too authoritarian, it has very little interest in allowing for freedom of information and so it has a policy of cutting its people off from the world. That’s fine if you want to be an isolationist country, no one is stopping a country from doing that. But if you also want to influence the world? Well, again, unless you just use the brute force of hard power and can totally kick ass in that regard, you’re not going to get very far in this day and age.
According to this 2018 in-depth study of soft power, China is way down at #27, lower than places such as Portugal and Poland. Now, apparently Chinese dictator, er, sorry, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping, aka Winnie the Pooh, wants to change this, stating in 2014, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.”
That was six years ago. Has China made any advances in this fashion? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, with the COVID-19 crisis, it seems if anything the world has become more anti-China than being open to it. (Now, I am growing concerned about these trends, and Caitlin Johnstone wrote an excellent piece on this topic today.)
Two YouTubers Describe the CCP’s Rise in Nationalism
I’ll leave that thread dangling and suggest reading Caitlin’s article and checking out an excellent episode of the Tangentially Speaking podcast with two YouTubers named Matt and Winston who have produced a ton of YouTube videos and documentaries about China. They lived there for over a decade and, well, they are feeling rather bitter right now about what is going on with the CCP and the disturbing message it is sending its civilians.
You see, Matt and Winston arrived during the late 2000s and found a country that was booming, and, as a result, the average Chinese person was friendly to foreign faces. This was the impetus for them to start a YouTube channel so they could share China with the world.
However, a few years ago, the Chinese economy started to sputter and the CCP began to shift its message, using the age-old method of scapegoating to distract from its role in these setbacks. And who did they scapegoat? Anybody and anything that was not China. As a result, the climate inside of China has become increasingly unfriendly to foreigners and Matt and Winston feel that their efforts to help China become a part of the international community were not only ignored but shunned by the CCP. And sadly the population, which is indoctrinated by the CCP in ways those of us in freer countries can’t really wrap our heads around, usually falls into line with this propaganda.
Both Matt and Winston make something very clear at the end of the podcast which I want to reiterate:
The problem is not the Chinese people, the problem is the Chinese government. The Chinese people are victims of their government.
A frequent theme of Matt and Winston’s travels into the Chinese countryside was how the national government has been deliberately wiping out local cultures to create One China. This just seems to be a part of the human experience, an aspect of colonization, but as someone who celebrates the diversity of cultures and individuals this is very troubling and more evidence as to why I think the CCP must be opposed.
On a personal level, I’ve lived in Japan since 2004 and have watched the CCP use Japan as its scapegoat a number of times. There’s a long history of enmity between the two nations and, in my honest opinion, the Japanese do need to do some soul-searching and honest recognition of the role they played in causing the Chinese to have such strong feelings against them. Notably the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the crimes of World War II, but again, that’s another rabbit hole that is best skipped over for this article.
The point of this section, though, is that it’s hard to see how a country that so frequently uses foreign countries as scapegoats can become a global leader, especially without the influence of soft power. In addition, we live in an Information Age and yet the Chinese government has cut off its citizens from full participation in this age. How can they truly use soft power when its people are not allowed to freely interact with the rest of the world? If anything, I’d argue that they have fallen further behind in the past decade as social media has become a bigger influence in human relationships.
A Warning About Where Things Can Go If We Emulate China
But I want to close with a bit of a warning about all of this: China may not become the nation-state global superpower, but what concerns me is a merging of current superpowers using the Chinese model.
On a recent episode of the excellent Useful Idiots podcast, Matt Taibbi spoke about his concerns along these lines, and he started by referencing this article from The Atlantic magazine, which has the rather shocking headline and subhead of:
“Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal: In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.”
The authors of the article, two law professors, write, “In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.”
Now, this is a huge topic about the dangers of censorship on the Internet as a response to COVID-19 and I focused on it in this episode of my podcast linked below where I used a longer clip of this discussion between Taibbi and co-host Katie Halper.
One thing I don’t get to in that clip is Taibbi speaking about the lack of humility in these discussions and, well, this is something I am noticing in so much of my social media feed these days. It doesn’t really matter the source — mainstream, alternative, fringe, or even a person posting their thoughts on social media sites — so much of the cultural conversation in 2020 seems to be presented in an over-the-top arrogance and total intolerance for any other perspective.
But to bring this back to my (and Taibbi’s) concerns about where things could go regarding China and our global future, Taibbi finishes this discussion with this comment,
“My secret worry about China always is that China is the model that corporate America likes. It is a capitalist paradise because it’s essentially state-sponsored private-enterprise where all the profits are privatized and the losses are socialized, the labor force has no rights, there’s no political freedom, there’s no speech freedom, there’s absolute control of the Internet and there’s a lot of people who I think who would like that model. … I think that’s an extreme way of looking at it but this is an indication of where certain parts of the intelligentsia in this country’s heads are at. … It’s something to keep an eye on.”
Indeed. For this reason, I think we simply can’t dismiss out of hand discussions about a potential dystopian New World Order, and this is one of the reasons I’ve been growing concerned about increasing censorship of these topics on sites like YouTube and Facebook.
These are sticky, challenging issues, but the point is if we look at the way China treats its citizens, imprisoning and torturing folks who are outspoken against the CCP’s policies, including civil rights lawyers and peace activists, we need to be very wary of anything (person, tech company, government) that suggest we need more control over information.
Yes, these are challenging seas we are sailing through, but to put the blinders of censorship on as well all try to steer the S.S. Civilization to a better future seems to be one of the surest ways to sinking our collective ship. Hopefully, we can avoid such a fate, but it won’t happen unless we commit to the principles of free speech which have made Western nations stronger than China on the global stage.