John M. Owen IV—
The smart money, it seems, is now saying that China has peaked. The slowing of the country’s economic growth is starting to seem like more than a COVID speed bump. Demography, a bursting housing bubble, high indebtedness, and Xi Jinping’s determination to wrest control from markets and private actors have led some analysts to declare that the Chinese economy may never surpass the American after all.
China’s ruling party has surprised Westerners before with its ability to learn, pivot, and restore growth and development. It may do so again. But even if its long economic miracle is over, China is far from finished with shaping the world in ways that harm democracy. The recent BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) forum, the counter-American club that just admitted six new members, is only part of the story. For years, Beijing has been trying to bend the international order away from its bias toward liberal democracy. China’s leaders believe doing so is essential to their country’s ability to compete.
The United States and China are effectively in a long contest to steer what we can call international evolution. Each wants the global social and political environment—the rules, institutions and information in which countries operate—to favor itself and its type. In a sense, they are imitating species in the natural world that manipulate the environment to favor their own traits. Long-toothed beavers came to predominate over their short-toothed cousins because long teeth give the ability to manipulate surroundings to one’s advantage—to fell trees and trap food.
Governments try to do something similar. In particular, two traits matter to the leaders of the United States: its power, and its domestic regime of liberal democracy. They want a world that neither handicaps their power nor presses them to become more authoritarian. Likewise, China’s rulers want their country to be powerful and to remain a single-party autocracy. Indeed, they clearly fear that a democratic China would fall apart.
Over the centuries, America’s leaders have had some success in biasing international evolution to favor democracy. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was an attempt to keep monarchies out of the Western Hemisphere. Woodrow Wilson’s aspiration to build an international order to make the world “safe for democracy” was realized later by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, with their matrix of liberal multilateral institutions and alliances. Later still, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others modified that postwar environment to encourage economic innovation and efficiency. The resulting international order helped force the Soviet Union radically to adapt—Gorbachev’s reforms—and ultimately to collapse.
It is no surprise, then, that China’s government has been trying to eliminate that same ecological bias in favor of liberal democracy. Although China owes its spectacular rise in part to its participation in the liberal environment, its leaders resent several features of that environment. Global rules, norms, and information, the sheer predominance of wealthy democracies, all press upon Beijing a hated dilemma: liberalize, or else be held down permanently.
From the 1990s through roughly the 2008 global financial crisis, China’s ruling party followed a “hide and bide” strategy, embracing economic openness but resisting pressure to adopt the rule of law and multiparty democracy. Since 2008, and particularly since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China has changed tack, using its growing leverage to do some ecosystem engineering of its own.
China has been busy cobbling together international “partnerships.” At the UN, it has led other autocracies in trying to make human rights about nations and economic development rather than individual freedom. The group has co-opted social conservatism and successfully depicted the West as irredeemably decadent. It has propagated a global internet norm of national censorship. China’s example of a rapidly industrializing, politically stable single-party country has altered the information environment as well, and elites around the world have warmed to the authoritarian “China Model.” And Beijing has poured immense capital into dozens of infrastructure projects, including high-tech surveillance, that buttress authoritarian rule in the Global South.
China, in other words, is only doing what the United States has done for many decades: fixing evolution to favor itself by favoring its type of state. It is trying to force America and its democratic partners to confront the converse of the same dilemma it has faced: become more like China, or decline.
If China has stagnated, it is all the more a reason for it to work to make the world select for autocracy. Insofar as it succeeds, America’s ability to compete as a liberal democracy will be increasingly hampered. Pressure to centralize power and exert more control over citizens and civil society will grow. Avoiding a world unsafe for democracy will require an America that chooses to rebuild liberty and democracy and the international environment that sustains them.
John M. Owen IV is Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Miller Center of Public Affairs, at the University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.