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China as Number One?

Don’t bet your bottom dollar.

| Mon May 2, 2011 4:36 PM EDT

As you think about that, keep something else in mind. China's story over the last century-plus already represents one of the great discontinuous bursts of energy of our modern moment. To predict most of the twists and turns along the way would have been next to impossible. In 1972, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong had set in motion six years earlier, to take but one example, no intelligence service, no set of seers, no American would have predicted today's China or, for that matter, a three-and-a-half-decade burst of Communist Party-controlled capitalist industrial expansionism. The pundit who offered such a prediction then would have been drummed out of the corps of analysts.

No one at the time could have imagined that the giant, independent but impoverished communist land would become the expansive number two capitalist economy of today. In fact, from the turn of the previous century when China was the basket case of Asia and a combined Japanese/Western force marched on Beijing, when various great powers took parts of the country as their own property or "concessions," followed by ensuing waves of warlordism, nationalism, revolutionary ferment, war with Japan, civil war, and finally the triumph of a communist regime that united the country, the essence of China's story has been unpredictability.

So what confidence should we now have in projections about China that assume more of the same, especially since, looking toward the future, that country seems like something of a one-trick pony? After all, the ruling Communist Party threw the dice definitively for state capitalism and untrammeled growth decades ago and now sits atop a potential volcano. As the country's leaders undoubtedly know, only one thing may keep the present system safely in place: ever more growth.

The minute China's economy falters, the minute some bubble bursts, whether through an overheating economy or for other reasons, the country's rulers have a problem on their hands that could potentially make the Arab Spring look mild by comparison. What many here call its growing "middle class" remains anything but—and there are literally hundreds of millions of forgotten peasants and migrant workers who have found the Chinese success story less than a joy.

A Revolutionary Tradition for the Ages

It might take only a significant economic downturn, a period that offered little promise to Chinese workers and consumers, to unsettle that country in major ways. After all, despite its striking growth rates, it remains in some fashion a poor land. And one more factor should be taken into consideration that few of our seers ever consider. It's no exaggeration to say that China has a revolutionary tradition unlike that of any other nation or even region on the planet.

Since at least the time of the Yellow Turban Rebellion in 184 CE, led by three brothers associated with a Taoist sect, the country has repeatedly experienced millenarian peasant movements bursting out of its interior with ferocious energy. There is no other record like it. The last of these was undoubtedly Mao Zedong's communist revolution.

Others would certainly include the peasant uprising at the end of the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century and, around the time of the American Civil War, the Taiping Rebellion. It was led by a man we would today call a cultist who had created a syncretic mix of Chinese religions and Christianity (and who considered himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ). Before Qing Dynasty forces finally suppressed it and a series of other rebellions, an estimated 20 million people died.

When Chinese leaders banned and then tried to stamp out the fast-spreading Falun Gong movement, they were not—as reported here—simply "repressing religion"; they were suppressing what they undoubtedly feared could be the next Taiping Rebellion. Even if few intelligence analysts in the West are thinking about any of this, rest assured that the Communist rulers of China know their own history. That's one reason why they have been so quick to crack down on any Arab-Spring-like demonstrations.

In addition, though I'm no economist, when I look around this planet I continue to wonder (as the Chinese must) about the limits of growth for all of us, but certainly for a vast country desperate for energy and other raw materials, with an aging population, and an environment already heavily polluted by the last 40 years of unchecked industrial expansion. There is no question that China has invested in its military, put together a powerful (if largely defensive) navy, elbowed its neighbors on questions of control of undersea mineral rights, and gone on a global search to lock up future energy resources and key raw materials.

Nonetheless, if predictions were to be made and trends projected into the future, it might be far more reasonable to predict a cautious Chinese government, focused on keeping its populace under control and solving confounding domestic problems than an expansively imperial one. It's almost inconceivable that, in the future, China could or would ever play the role the US played in 1945 as the British Empire went down. It's hard even to imagine China as another Soviet Union in a great global struggle with the United States.

And speaking of the conjunctures of history, here's another thought for the US Navy: What if this isn't an imperial planet any more? What if, from resource scarcity to global warming, humanity is nudging up against previously unimagined limits on unbridled growth? From at least the seventeenth century on, successive great powers have struggled over the control of vast realms of a globe in which expansion seemed eternally the name of the game. For centuries, one or more great powers were always on hand when the previous great imperial power or set of powers faltered.

In the wake of World War II, with the collapse of the Japanese and German empires, only two powers worthy of the name were left, each so mighty that together they would be called "superpowers." After 1991, only one remained, so seemingly powerful that it was sometimes termed a "hyperpower" and many believed it had inherited the Earth.

What if, in fact, the US was indeed the last empire? What if a world of rivalries, on a planet heading into resource scarcity, turned out to be less than imperial in nature? Or what if—and think of me as a devil's advocate here—this turned out not to be an imperial world of bitter rivalries at all, but in the face of unexpectedly tough times, a partnership planet?

Unlikely? Sure, but who knows? That's the great charm of the future. In any case, just to be safe, you might not want to start preparing for the Chinese century quite so fast or bet your bottom dollar on China as number one. Not just yet anyway.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). This piece is a follow-up to his recent post "Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark."

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