In the final days of 2017, as China’s leaders gazed out at the changing landscape of a Trump administration and a European Union being pulled apart by Brexit, President Xi Jinping stood before a gathering of the country’s foreign diplomats in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and urged them to adjust their thinking.
“Look around the world. We know we are facing unprecedented change not seen in a century,” he said.
It was the kind of language used to describe the rise and fall of empires. And in the years since, the notion of a century project has become a rallying cry for a country that sees itself as destined to eclipse a weakened United States amid the dislocations of a faltering Western liberal order.
Before 2017, the phrase “unprecedented change not seen in a century” appeared just once in the People’s Daily, the central propaganda organ. Since 2017, it has appeared 1,100 times, encapsulating the belief that the postwar order is fracturing; that the dominance of the U.S. is fading; and that, despite the risks inherent in a moment of turbulent change, China is peering out on an epochal opportunity to advance its own interests.
For Beijing, the strength of that conviction has diminished the importance of what is taking place in the U.S., where voters have chosen to supplant a president who launched a trade war with China with a president-elect who has vowed to rally America’s allies in opposition to Beijing’s ambitions.
China’s leaders have been slow to respond to the results of the U.S. election, with the Foreign Ministry waiting until Friday to issue a congratulatory message to Joe Biden.
The long wait suggested a desire to avoid the recriminations flying around Washington as the Democrats and the Republicans fight over the election results.
But it also reflected a measure of insouciance. China’s leaders see history already marching favourably in their direction, and whoever occupies the White House appears unlikely to alter that sense of destiny. The century project is well under way.
As Mr. Xi told the diplomats in 2017, “So long as we bite the bullet and bravely march along the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, our country will become more and more prosperous, will increasingly approach the centre of the world stage and will make greater and greater contributions to mankind.”
The idea of “unprecedented change not seen in a century” is based on the view that several globe-altering movements are taking place: an artificial intelligence-powered fourth industrial revolution, the shift of influence from the Atlantic to the Pacific region and the anticipated dethroning of the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent economic power.
“The global order, national power and the technological revolution have all undergone major changes unprecedented in more than a century,” said Wang Wen, director of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University.
Whether those changes help or hurt a country will depend on its ability to adapt, he said, offering as an example China’s dousing of the pandemic that erupted inside its borders.
“What matters is the countermeasures you take. COVID is strong proof,” he said.
China’s leaders have been careful not to declare an interest in eclipsing the United States. The draft of the country’s 14th five-year plan, approved in October, does not mention the U.S.
But that doesn’t make it any less inevitable. “By improving the lives of the Chinese people, the GDP will absolutely continue to grow, and China will surpass the U.S. as the largest economy,” Prof. Wang said. Even if the U.S. remains the most important external factor, with “the rise in China’s own power and the diminishing power gap between China and the U.S., we can see that the importance of the U.S. is undeniably in decline.”
Unsaid but present is a singular ambition: “It has long been China’s goal to overtake the United States,” said Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong.
Recent history, including Beijing’s increasingly confident management of economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis, “has convinced many Chinese strategic thinkers that its time has finally come,” he said. Beijing’s actions suggest it believes it has already become “the hegemon of the East.”
And while it “undoubtedly adjusts its policy according to the political and policy dynamics in Washington, D.C., it’s clear that the Xi administration is pursuing a grand strategy that in many ways is independent of who occupies the White House.”
Part of China’s confidence is born of the belief that the U.S. has already inflicted so much self-damage that Washington has little scope for other priorities.
“[Biden] will first need time to deal with domestic issues. Given the economic problems, the epidemic and tears to the country’s social fabric, he probably won’t have much energy to prioritize China,” said He Weiwen, a former Chinese diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based government-backed think tank.
The person at the helm of the U.S. matters, of course, and Beijing sees Mr. Biden as a leader who would treat China as a competitor rather than an enemy.
But ultimately, that’s less important than what Mr. He called a realignment of the continents, with “the role of Asia gradually rising.” In that world, there is no longer room for a single superpower.
China is pursuing other century projects, including the building of a moderately prosperous society by next year – a target it insists it will meet – and the establishment by 2049 of a “modern socialist country,” although Mr. Xi has called for the country to “basically achieve socialist modernization” by 2035.
China’s People’s Liberation Army, which traces its roots to 1927, has its own century project: the transformation of the military into a modern fighting force, with an eye to achieving parity with the U.S.
Mr. Xi’s project, however, is an expression of concern as much as ambition. Global governance shocks, disruptive new technologies and any deterioration in the international security environment all stand to challenge his country’s development.
“Overall, Beijing seems to be signalling alertness to the fact that the international system – and China’s place in it – is changing rapidly and China needs to adapt to these changes, lest it be swept up by them,” said Ryan Hass, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
There is no guarantee of success. The growth of Beijing’s ambition has been matched by a rising disaffection for China among many of the world’s richest countries. In those places, Chinese companies and diplomats now encounter a new hostility and skepticism that stands to frustrate their agenda. The idea of containing China is openly discussed in some Western capitals, particularly Washington.
Still, if Beijing can succeed with its century project, it stands to boost its global standing. (Approval ratings for China in poorer countries remain higher, surveys show.)
“China really has no interest at all in being the world’s policeman. What they do mean is that in the absence of a coherent order, China should take care of itself,” said Jeremy Paltiel, an expert on China at Carleton University in Ottawa. In so doing, China’s leaders can offer Beijing as an alternative “pole of stability,” he said, “an island of stability in an unstable world.”
Other slogans that have gained currency recently speak to a similar objective, including references to “China’s moment in history,” which also expresses the notion that “a sea change in world history is occurring. Like when monarchies fell to democracies, like when imperialism spread throughout the world, like when the ‘British century’ became the ‘American century,’” said David Ownby, director of the Center of East Asian Studies at the University of Montreal.
That prospect underpins an intellectual current in China positing “that China is on the right side of history” and that scholars and everyday people alike should abandon any remaining "faith in American democracy and embrace Xi Jinping’s China,” he said. “I suspect that Xi Jinping sees things largely the same way.”
With a report by Alexandra Li
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