How to stop China?

The rise of China to a position that will soon catch up and even surpass American dominance in terms of economic power and technological forefront represents a challenge that Western powers should address with negotiation and collaboration and not with confrontations as useless as they are dangerous.


How to stop China? This is a question that Westerners of every hue pose today, and especially the leaders of the West, from American to European, either rightists or liberals, progressives or Trumpists, honest or cheaters, connoisseur or ignorant, corporation chiefs or workers in the assembly lines.

Thirty years of growing at 10%, that is now descending to a non-alarming 6%, with a population that quadruples the American (the reader should know that United States’ population represents only 5.6% of the world’s population), huge investments, not only in infrastructure but also in intellectual capital, accompanied by the corresponding  military power and lately an expansion over five continents (through loans, dams, bridges, highways and acquisition of goods, from ports to entire companies[1]), make Chinese advancement towards the first position in geopolitics and strategy inevitable[2].

Recently, China has initiated a Copernican revolution in its development pattern: from the industrial-exporter model to a model of internal modernization (which does not prevent the exterior expansion such as with the neocolonialist type of enclaves[3]), that—modifying Prebisch—we could call of export substitution.  The United States always did that, and with increased speed and voracity after WWII.

In China, this turnaround is made with one contradiction: the development of the internal market in these days coincides with a greater centralization of power in the figure of a president for life and a single political party at his service. We have to be careful with this type of warning, as reasonable as it may seem. Since the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949, every Western expert said that the accumulation system was unsustainable. Later, after Mao’s death and under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the turnaround towards a directed capitalism under a single party was considered explosive if not impossible. From cover to cover they were wrong, thus, talking about a contradiction in Chinese models is always risky. However, we could say that the maturity of a thriving civil society in the long run is not compatible with a strong authoritarianism, not only because people better-off in terms of economics think more and better and are reluctant to follow the bureaucratic whims of a dictatorship, but also because authoritarianism is capable of stopping the technical and economic innovation in which it was based, now and them, the regime’s legitimacy. Managing this contradiction is something difficult but not impossible.

To clarify this last point, it should be noted that there are two main types of legitimacy of power: legitimation by origin (input) and legitimation by result (output). To refine the distinction, I will quote again a well-known phrase by Abraham Lincoln, in reference to democracy: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. After Mao’s death, the Chinese communist elite adopted a stated-directed capitalism as development model towards the economic wellbeing of the people. The system legitimacy has been based almost exclusively on the results. The other legitimacy, by origin or input, that is, the participation of the people in the formulation of projects and the critique of certain results was a taboo sustained by police control and repression. In short and in simple English, output legitimacy over and above input legitimacy.  Curious irony such of an avant-garde communist party that distrusts the people as it would be done by a prototypical bourgeois.

The Western situation is the symmetrical opposite. There is a marked regression  in output legitimacy for several main economic causes: a very slow growth, the subjection to cyclical crises ever more serious, an anemic recovery from crises and a great inequality in results. This generates a crisis  of representation and the mobilization “of the people by the people” (or an important part of it) secondary in nature, that is, as a reaction to the fall in living standards associated with an acute inequality. For the time being, it is a diffuse and reactionary mobilization, exploited by occasional demagogues and populists, with nostalgic touches of a severe authoritarianism and wishes for a comeback to an illusory past.

In the West, this reaction has taken traditional (technocratic[4]) elites by surprise and has made improvised populists get to power who exploit fears and offer escapegoats particularly for a population that is economically and demographically going backwards. The protests of “white supremacists” in a globalized and mestizo world are a rearguard desperate cry given the threat of losing status vis-à-vis new and different sectors of the population. I must remind the reader, especially he who is alarmed by the apparent return of  a “fascist threat,” that past revolutions that destroyed old regimes (paradigmatic cases: the fall of the French Ancien Régime in 1789 and subsequent years and the English revolution of the previous century, 1642-1651) started as reactionary protests against the status quo and later evolved towards unanticipated destines, among which a greater democratization, after passing through dictatorships. In these days, we are witnessing a diffuse upsurge against the globalization establishment[5] in the West, that is, against our Ancien Régime. This, as that, will evolve into unforeseen destinies.

Given the visible rise of China to a superior position in geopolitics and given the confused distraction of the once dominant power and its allies (USA and Europe, followed by Japan)[6], the bases for a larger conflict are being built, that could trigger a XXI-century-style military confrontation (that is, more electronic than nuclear). A Harvard historian (badly) quoting Thucydides’ reflections on Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian war, says that such situation in a trap for an inevitable war[7].  I do not think so, not then not now.

The alleged historic inexorability is a retrospective fallacy of the type post hoc, ergo propter hoc (because something happened, it was inevitable) which does not take into account either inventive genius or human stupidity. Without Athenian arrogance, yesterday as now, the fruit of the superior aplomb of who does not know doubt or does not want to put himself in the shoes of his rival, Sparta would have reached an agreement and Athens would have survived to enjoy its much-touted democracy in a way less ephemeral than that of its sad destiny.[8]

Given an ever more visible decadence, Western elites will want to halt the Chinese advance. In my humble opinion, the strategy they are choosing is wrong, but nonetheless dangerous. As a starting point, let us discard the alleged truce between the two powers announced in the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, It is far from clear what it is really about and if it will last. More than Trump’s outbursts in December, we better remember the words of his vice president in Papua Nueva Guinea in October, when he openly declared the beginning of a new cold war. Mr. Pence clearly said that if United States were to lose the initiative in new technologies they would soon be overwhelmed by China’s numeric advantage, of four to one. If the West allows China to continue “stealing” intellectual property, force Western companies that invest in Chine to share technology, or acquire those same companies in Western countries, then China will first match and then surpass today’s dominant powers. Some of these demands seem reasonable, but it is also reasonable to agree with the Chinese that, even if they accept some of those demands, the American objective is to prevent a Chinese presence in the fields of semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Such claim is non-negotiable for the Chinese as it amounts to a demand for an unacceptable capitulation.

Given these demands, I would say that, even if China suffers some setbacks, alia iacta est,, that is, from a geopolitical point of view the die is cast. China invests 2.1% of its GDP in Research and Development avant-garde technology (in 2000 it invested only 0.9% of its GDP). Not only the quantity but also the quality of Chinese patents have risen a lot in the last years. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have already been trained in the best American universities, an academic openness that has given their country an advantage in technological development. Even by stopping such temporary immigration, Chinese human capital already exists and it will reproduce without the need of “stealing” anything from anybody, and not even copying. The rise of Chinese universities in terms of global reputation is already amazing.

If there are barriers to the maelstrom of Chinese development, they are more internal than external, that is than the result of any Western aggressive policy (say mercantilist). The ageing of the Chinese population and the political centralization under Xi Jinpin can halt innovation. However, what is already running will continue its course. Intelligent negotiation and not confrontation (as result of fear that is generated by an arrogance surprised in its torpor) is the intelligent path to follow to arrive at a mutual accommodation without “sum-zero” demands.

Chinese authorities understand and respect strong positions but not the erratic and arbitrary confrontations. They also do not accept an imposition tone that reminds them of the humiliation of other times. Unfortunately, the United States under its present “leadership” seems only capable of superficial and cosmetic concessions and ready to disregard not only a true collaboration with its Chinese rival but also the contribution of its allies. If the situation continues, we could well fall into the “Thucydides’ trap,” not because of a  fatality but because of stupidity. In that case, we would baptize it as the “Tru(m)p of Thucydides.”

[1] . Argentines do not believe that the Chinese expansion not only in economics but also in military strategy is something exotic and distant. To show that it is not like that, it is enough to see some article regarding the Chinese aerospace base in Patagonia In terms of internal security, the arrival of Chinese tanks to protect G-20 leaders is just a foretaste of the future that awaits us.

[2] . See the development of the new “silk route.”

[3] . As it was explained in their time by sociologists Enzo Faletto and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Desarrollo y dependencia en América Latina (Developing and Dependence in Latin America).  Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1977).

[4] . The “serious” Western press tries to translate rebellion from economic data. They miss sociology in this exercise.

[5] . Once more, in Europe, Paris is the epicenter of the upsurge.

[6] The issue of internal distraction is talked about in my recent book Strategic Impasse.  Social Origins of Political Disarray, New York & London: Routledge, 2018-19).

[7] For Graham Ellison, the defining question of this time is if China and United States fall or not for the “Thucydides trap,” the fatal logic that makes two geopolitical rivals—one established and the other one on the rise—enter into conflict for the weapons.

[8] . Everybody knows that Athens invented democracy, but not that it ended in civil war. And it was finished.

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