An illustration of Xi Jinping (Adrià Fruitós / For The Times)
Ruben S. Ayala High School

Opinion: China, the emerging superpower

Like it or not, the American hegemony on the world order is ending soon. This may sound overly alarming to some, but to overlook this critical point in history would be foolish.

As the world shifts from a unipolar world order revolving around America to a multipolar one, Americans must be vigilant if we are to survive and prosper in this new era of uncertainty.

The rise and fall of world superpowers over the past 500 years has been astonishing with the title being shared and ping-ponged amongst Western Civilization. Through most of this time period, these great kingdoms, nations and empires wanted to maximize their own profits while minimizing their competitors’ wealth.

Thus, the mercantilist economic system was born. According to William H. McNeill’s book “The Rise of The West,” mercantile empires were forged to gather raw materials from within their borders to make internal trade easy while making external trade hard.

Yet despite this fierce competition to be entirely self-sufficient, there is one empire that all the others traded with, even when the goods traded were sold at an astronomical cost: the Chinese. 

EastAsia25
(Wikimedia Commons)

For as long as goods could be traded across Eurasia, China has been the world power that all others revolved around. China had the most people on some of the most fertile soil with the most stable and efficient government in the world for over 2000 years, according to McNeill.

Its fertile heartland was surrounded by mountains, deserts and jungles, making outside invasion nearly impossible. China had all the luxuries that everyone wanted: silk, tea, porcelain, salt, sugar and spices, according to McNeill. These were China’s primary exports and the only form of payment they accepted was silver, according to McNeill.

Several wars were fought to get access to ports and trade routes that lead to China, according to McNeill. The age of exploration was done to find better trade routes to China, according to McNeill. The Americas were accidentally discovered by the Spanish when a Genoese navigator by the name of Christopher Columbus thought he could sail west to get to China, according to McNeill. 

However, it was these American lands that gave the West a springboard to become the dominant world civilization. As settlers farmed what turned out to be some of the best farmland in the world, they created a surplus that could feed an ever-growing population, according to McNeill.

This massive population could be used to harvest and process goods that would decrease reliance on China. Gold and silver mined in the Americas financed Western expansion into the Far East, according to McNeill. Certain empires conquered the rich lands of India and Indonesia, cutting out the Chinese middleman and weakening China’s global power, McNeill said.

Despite this ever-increasing irrelevance, China refused to make any change to accommodate this new world order, according to McNeill. After all, in the Chinese’s eyes, they were the only true civilization. The rest were barbarians that should be thankful their god-emperor acknowledged their existence by taking their silver for a few tea leaves.

All of these rising tensions between China and the European powers culminated in the Opium Wars and the seizure of Hong Kong, where the once mighty China was defeated by some tiny impoverished isle from the other side of the globe called Great Britain, according to McNeill. From this point forward, the world powers would all be western, vying for power amongst each other until one came on top.

Although there are many names for the time period between 1839 and 1949 here in the West, the Chinese have developed their own term: 百年耻辱, the Century of Humiliation.

Eventually, the social pressures flared up so high that, according to the United States Office of the Historian, the dynastic Qing Imperial government was ousted and left a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Communist party. Mao Zedong and his communist followers were trying to create a communist utopia, and they decided that the best way to do that was to, according to the Association of Asian Studies, essentially starve the peasantry, destroy the intellectual class and desecrate ancient monuments and artifacts.

During this time China functioned more like North Korea than the Soviet Union, completely isolated from the world outside of the USSR and other communist countries. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed due to social and economic strain, according to the Japanese Research Institute, the Chinese Communist Party made an unthinkable move out of desperation to maintain power: they opened up China to world trade.

That massive population China had was perfect for cheap mass manufacturing the west craved. With investments from the capitalist world, China began its rapid industrialization, which led to, according to the Congressional Research Service, the fastest GDP growth in all of history. China grew so fast that, according to the Washington Post, it used more concrete in three years than the United States had used in a century.

With a newfound source of economic might, China took to spreading its influence abroad.

It is important to reiterate that China is, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, not a free society.

Public shaming for defiance against the central authority, forceful integration of minorities into Chinese culture through concentration camps and threats to dam rivers that support over a billion people downstream, according to National Geographic and BBC News, are common practices for the government, and the fact that China feels that it doesn’t need to hide it from the rest of the world goes to show how confident a regime the CCP is.

China’s fairly recent Belt and Road initiative, according to the Council of Foreign Affairs, is the most ambitious and expensive infrastructure plan the world has ever seen. New roads, ports, and even cities are built up to facilitate China’s trade.

These countries that China is investing in are usually too unstable for western banks and corporations to consider investing in, according to the Council of Foreign Affairs, but that may very well play into China’s hands. According to the New York Times, If the country China invests in can’t pay China back, China just leases whatever infrastructure that is being built with the Chinese money for 99 years, just like the British did with Hong Kong.

China’s plan is to build up relations with its resource supplies while also new markets for its manufactured products. Despite the current blunders of COVID-19, China, according to Forbes, is using this time to further its grasp on the world.

While the world is distracted by America’s internal conflicts, China is slowly gaining influence by providing aid and building infrastructure to impoverished countries around the world, according to the Council of Foreign Affairs. As America, according to Charles A. Kupchan’s book “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World,” slowly turns towards isolationism, China serves as a much more predictable and rational trade partner than the volatile US.

If America doesn’t get its act together, we will be left behind in the world order and the oppression and totalitarianism of China will inspire developing countries to follow in its footsteps, leaving the world devoid of freedom and democracy.