AS IF a global financial-market meltdown, the deepest U.S. recession in seventy years, an existential crisis in the euro zone and upheaval in the Middle East hadn’t already created enough trouble for one decade, now the unrest and anxiety have extended to some of the world’s most attractive emerging markets. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen a rough ride for India’s currency, furious nationwide protests in Turkey and Brazil, antigovernment demonstrations in Russia, strikes and violence in South Africa, and an ominous economic slowdown in all these countries.
Adding to the uncertainty, as the carnage and confusion in Syria remind us, is the fact that there is no longer a single country or durable alliance of countries both willing and able to exercise consistent global leadership. The Obama administration and congressional Republicans don’t want to alienate a war-weary U.S. public by spending blood in the Middle East or treasure in Europe. Europe’s leaders have their hands full with the euro zone. And though the governments of emerging markets want a more prominent international voice, they face far too many tests at home to welcome new responsibilities abroad. Because no one is providing predictable leadership, international problems are more likely to become crises in the years to come, and the world’s wildfires will burn longer and hotter.
WITH THIS in mind, it is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months. Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.
Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke. This is a country that has come a long way in a remarkably short time. It is now home to the world’s second-largest economy, one bigger than those of its fellow BRICS countries (India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa) combined. In 1977, China accounted for just 0.6 percent of global trade; in 2012, it became the world’s largest trading nation. Today, 124 countries count China as their largest trade partner, compared to just seventy-six for the United States. China is expected to become the world’s largest energy importer later this year, and it’s already the leading carbon emitter, automobile market and smartphone market. Roughly six hundred million of its citizens are now online. All this success has earned the leadership considerable credit with China’s people.
The fact that China has so far avoided the unrest and uncertainty plaguing so many other countries these days is good news for those who depend on China’s strength for the stability of their own economies, but it is bad news for those who hope that China’s leaders will soon begin to adopt new attitudes toward global politics and market-driven capitalism. Outsiders, particularly Americans, have called on China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system and have wished aloud that as its economy depends more heavily on investment in countries and companies in every region of the world, it would begin to behave as a global partner, one that privileges peace and predictability above all else. There is little evidence that this is happening. Beijing continues to limit its involvement in most international disputes to calculated moves to protect its various commercial interests and to diplomatic efforts to blunt U.S. influence and extend its own.
Some have also expressed the hope that a new generation of Chinese leaders will launch a Gorbachev-style drive for political opening at home. But that, too, is unlikely. Though some elite-level Chinese officials are too young to remember the violent chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, they remember well what Gorbachev’s reforms meant for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s—and for Gorbachev himself.
Nor should we expect a near-term push to fully dismantle China’s system of state capitalism, though there are plans to try to make it work more efficiently. China’s leaders know they must gradually reduce the role of the state in the economy as they seek to transition away from an economic model that is too dependent on corporate and government investment. The country must also shift from a twentieth-century manufacturing-based economy to a digital-age model that relies on the power of Chinese innovation.
Both these transitions will require a significant transfer of wealth and decision-making power from public to private hands, and although China’s leaders recognize that these changes must come, they have adopted a gradualist approach. The leadership has demonstrated considerable urgency in making changes to China’s banking system and in opening new areas of the economy to foreign investment, but for now, it is working mainly to improve the country’s state-led growth model, not to bury it. State capitalism—a system in which political officials use state-run companies, privately owned national champion firms, state-owned banks and sovereign wealth funds to ensure that China can generate growth, jobs and wealth without empowering potential domestic political rivals or losing control of the pace of development—has been at the heart of China’s success for many years, and it will be central to China’s development for some time to come. State-owned enterprises and the companies affiliated with them now account for more than half of China’s output and more than half of its jobs. Their dominance is easy to document: in 2012, there were seventy mainland Chinese companies on the Fortune Global 500 list, and China’s government owned sixty-five of them.
Nor are we likely to see a pause in China’s military buildup—even if its political leaders have lately adopted a less confrontational approach with the country’s neighbors. In 2012, territorial conflicts with Japan in the East China Sea and with Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea sharply intensified. Then, with the elevation of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang earlier this year, the new leadership has made a concerted effort to ease tensions in the region and with the United States.
But the military and other security voices are likely to push back against this shift over time. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is home to more hawks than any other area of China’s government, and beyond ideological or strategic differences with civilian leaders, future funding levels for the PLA will depend on the military’s ability to maintain the public perception that it is of central importance for China’s security.
Even when its economy has surpassed that of the United States to become the world’s largest, China will still be a relatively poor country with many unanswered fundamental questions about its future. Its single-party politics and its relative social stability have defied apocalyptic predictions for more than two decades, yet its ability to power forward over the near term should not lead us to underestimate the longer-term questions to come.
Not all of its tests will come at home. As China’s growth depends increasingly on expanding and deepening trade and investment ties in every region of the world, the country’s leaders will find themselves involved in many forms of international conflict with which they have little direct experience, particularly in the Middle East, and they are likely to discover that its global economic presence does not imply global power.
Though the restoration of America’s economic dynamism, the redesign of the euro zone, Middle East turmoil and the diverging fortunes of other emerging markets are vitally important stories, China, its challenges and their implications for everyone else will be the world’s most important wild card over the next generation. Given the growing stakes that the rest of us have in its stability, China’s problems will be our problems too.
PEOPLE HAVE been predicting a hard landing for China’s economy and a direct challenge to the Chinese Communist Party for at least twenty-five years. Hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos began warning in 2009 that the country’s real-estate market had moved China’s economy onto a “treadmill to hell.” Wei Yao, an analyst at French bank Société Générale, warned earlier this year that China might soon face a “Minsky moment,” the point at which China collapses under the weight of the debts accrued by Chinese companies. Gordon Chang, author of the 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China, argues that its current slowdown is nothing less than China’s “Lehman moment,” a reference to the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Chanos, Wei and Chang have plenty of company, and their warnings may one day be proven right. Whatever the imbalances in China’s economy, however, they are unlikely to stoke regime-threatening levels of unrest in the near future because three decades of go-go growth and swelling national pride provide leaders with considerable political capital.