Due to Covid-19, travel is all but impossible (in case you didn’t know). In the coming weeks, I’m going to use the opportunity to write about some of the other destinations I’ve visited but not written about so far in my life. I’m also going to do my best to pretend that the world will be absolutely fine really soon and back to normal, so I‘ll be on the road again in no time.
Country #45. The next global hegemon won’t be a democracy. While the West fights among itself over petty things like Brexit, China has been positioning itself as the world’s next hegemon for many years. The country is fascinating. When I visited in 2015, I found the scale of development hard to comprehend. Doubtless this has only accelerated in recent years.
China used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the entire 20th century. In the last 20 years, China has built twice as much high-speed rail as the rest of the world combined. Cities you’ve never heard of are impossibly vast, teeming with neon lights and skyscrapers. China’s state-led economic model has worked better than most had thought possible, casting doubts about the unquestioned utility of democracy as the world’s pre-eminent social system. Its GDP (total economic output) was a quarter of Japan’s in the year 2000. Its economy is now three times the size of Japan’s, making it the second largest in the world. It will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade.
Because China’s population is roughly four times the size of America’s, the average person will have much less wealth per head than in the US for many years to come. But this gap will shrink over time, and China’s huge population – albeit shrinking due to the one child policy – offers it huge catch-up potential. This is especially true given that it still has a much smaller urbanised population. There is still scope for hundreds of millions of rural workers to leave their farms and plug into China’s wider manufacturing-based economy.
Why Is This Important?
For all of the flaws of the US – particularly at the moment – the world has seen unprecedented peace since the end of WWII, especially since the end of the Cold War, with the US left to act as the sole global hegemon. US military spending accounts for roughly 40% of military spending globally. Put simply, if the US declared war on the rest of the world, it would have a good chance of winning. This poses many issues. But in my view, the fact that the leading global power does at least espouse democratic ideals, respects individual rights and liberties over that of the state, as well as freedom of expression (at least notionally), has to be a good thing. Even with a man-child in charge. In China, the state and the nation will win every single time.
The Future’s Bright. Or Grey, Perhaps.
Any visit to China will tell you more about the future than the past. Granted, exquisite and ancient history is not hard to find. China has a historic and ancient core which reveals itself in visits to places like the stupendous walled city of Xi’an and the city’s Terracotta Army. In Beijing, the Forbidden City is magnificent (even though my visit was somewhat spoiled by several parents letting their children defecate on the floor in China’s most sacred national monument. Really). The Great Wall of China is one of my favourite of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, snaking into the distant horizon and working in tandem with the undulating scenery.
But it is the future, more than the past, that unveils itself to you in China. And perhaps more broadly for the world. Travelling on bullet trains – or better yet, Shanghai’s wheel-less floating Maglev train – is a thrill. At times, the two sides of China press uncomfortably against each other. Verdant paddy fields end abruptly, with towering new skyscrapers and empty ten-lane motorways encroaching onto nature in one of the country’s many planned cities. Pudong, the space-age financial district of Shanghai, was made up of drab and low-rise factories just 25 years ago. It now looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie. The pace of change on show was electrifying, or perhaps terrifying, depending on how you view it.
Everywhere You Go, Here Comes China
It’s from outside China that you gain a true reflection of the ever-growing reach and soft power that the country wields. China is spending staggering sums of money building most of the world’s infrastructure, in Africa in particular. The business model is thus: China grants a loan for the construction of an infrastructure project, and then sends its own workers to the country to construct the said project. As well as building up goodwill with the benefactor nation, there is scope for these countries to be ‘on the hook’ to China in the future, in the not too uncommon scenario where the benefactor cannot repay its loans.
For example, Montenegro offered parts of its land as collateral for the Chinese to construct a motorway in the country. Given that it has less land than almost any other country on Earth, this was a bold move. The word reckless springs to mind. The Chinese are constructing huge ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, in return for being granted the use of large chunks of land in each nation. As part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure programme – which hopes to increase trade links across the old ‘Silk Road’ trading route – China is funding huge road, rail, port, and electricity projects in Central Asia. In a visit to Tajikistan in 2019, I saw Chinese workers all over the country. My guide complained, “We need their help, but the Chinese now own everything in Tajikistan. We are powerless”.
The Scramble For Africa (Part Two)
The Europeans don’t have a leg to stand on, given their subjugation of the entire continent of Africa, which began during the scramble for Africa (1881 to 1914). But China is currently engaged in a new scramble of its own. A better and less forceful one, it must be added, without the use of violence and while building vital infrastructure that the continent badly needs. The city that personifies this is Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, which I visited with a friend in 2019. It feels like a Chinese city, with new tower blocks and infrastructure being built in every direction. And to a large degree, it is. Cars run on smooth Chinese roads, Chinese cranes lift the skyline, tourists arrive (theoretically) at the new Chinese-built giant airport terminal, and commuters ride Chinese trains to work.
The African Union – Africa’s equivalent to the European Union (EU) – is in Addis. It has shiny new headquarters, built by, guess who? In a visit to Algeria in the same year, I saw Chinese cranes and construction sites all over the country. China has built over 250,000 new homes in Algeria since the year 2000, many of them low-cost social housing which have acted as upgrades for those living in slums. And an opera house to boot.
While some resent the impact China is having in Africa, most do not. China is improving infrastructure and lives, all over the continent. While the rest of the world’s population growth is slowing, Africa’s won’t. Its population of around 1.2 billion will double to 2.4 billion by 2050. If the West and China get into a large dispute, it takes no genius to see which side most countries in Africa would be on. In the decades to come, China’s economy and military will get closer to catching the US. And it won’t have any reason, or desire, to back down as it takes centre stage in the running of our planet.
What’s The Problem?
The Chinese are certainly acting in a more benevolent and less violent manner than the Europeans did when they colonised the world for centuries. So, what is the issue? Well, perhaps there isn’t one? After all, democracy is not perfect. The victory of Western liberal democracy has been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War in 1991, described famously by Francis Fukuyama as the “end of a history”. China’s economic explosion in recent years has extolled the virtues of state-led economic development, supported by the ability to make long-term decisions and not swayed by short-term considerations about public opinion.
Nations usually try to emulate the global hegemon, and those that espouse similar values tend to do well. What will the world look like when illiberalism is held up as a badge of national pride? You might say, “Like it does now!” with a smug look on your face, but the changes I’m talking about could last decades, not just one electoral cycle. We might one day rue the loss of the Western values which we love to criticise.