Has China’s power peaked?
I had a fascinating debate on this question a few months ago with political scientist Michael Beckley, who wrote a thoughtful and compelling book arguing that China’s relative rise is over and, therefore, that the United States will remain the world’s sole superpower for the foreseeable future.
This isn’t a new claim. In fact, every few years going back decades we get a new big article or book saying China’s power is peaking and its decline (or even collapse) is imminent. So far, they’ve always been wrong. But could it be true this time?
Let’s break down the strongest arguments on both sides and decide (spoiler: I say “not so fast”).
Why China has peaked already
The exceptional rise of China over the past 40 years was just that – exceptional. It relied on a lucky combination of unique and irreplicable tailwinds that are rapidly turning into headwinds. By almost every metric, things have already stopped getting better and are starting to get worse for China.
China’s economic slowdown is structural. As China has grown wealthier, its labor force has become more expensive, diminishing the country’s attractiveness as the “factory of the world.” Official GDP growth had already dropped to 6% before 2019, despite government stimulus masking even weaker underlying growth, and three years of COVID-19 lockdowns only made it worse.
Not only has growth slowed every year for a decade, but most importantly, the quality of China’s growth has deteriorated. Infrastructure has been overbuilt to juice up growth, with dozens of “ghost cities” outfitted with new apartment buildings, roads, and bridges … and no people – the definition of growth without productivity. All this stimulus has been financed by an explosive debt bubble that Beijing has shown little willingness or ability to deflate.
Meanwhile, China’s closed political system and Xi’s statist economic preferences hinder technological innovation, the most reliable engine of long-term growth. While China’s research and development spending has increased massively, the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the tech sector are chilling entrepreneurship and technological experimentation. Many of China’s best and brightest have already left the mainland for more welcoming environments, taking their talent and capital with them. Add to that Western export controls on semiconductors and other dual-use advanced technologies, and China’s tech capabilities will face major binding constraints soon.
China faces the worst demographic trajectory of any country we’ve seen in peacetime. Its 1.4 billion population peaked last year and is now starting to shrink, owing to aging and plummeting birth rates. By 2035, China is estimated to lose roughly 70 million working-age adults and add 130 million seniors. Studies put its total population in 2100 anywhere between 700 million and 475 million (!), at which point one in three Chinese citizens will be over the age of 65. President Xi Jinping’s decisions to end China’s one- and then two-child policies have failed to reverse these trends, and in all likelihood, so will any new policies to boost birth rates short of liberalizing immigration (something Beijing is loath to do). The fact that the demographic implosion has hit China before it’s had a chance to grow wealthy makes its economic and political implications all the more dire.
China faces an increasingly hostile external environment. This is embodied by the United States’ explicit policy of containment of China’s tech sector as well as China’s growing strategic encirclement in its own backyard – where Japan and South Korea are increasing their defense spending, Taiwan grows more defiant by the day, and new anti-China alliances like the Quad and AUKUS are blooming like algae. Relations with India, meanwhile, have become more competitive on the back of military clashes on the shared border, causing Delhi to draw closer to Washington. Anti-China sentiment more broadly has increased as China’s global footprint has expanded, with more than 10 countries having suspended or canceled high-profile projects funded by the Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, China’s closest allies are imploding, with Russia now a pariah in the West, Pakistan’s economy in tatters, and North Korea having gone fully rogue.
China is ruled by an error-prone and capricious dictator who’s unfettered in his ability to pursue his statist and nationalist policy agenda. Much like Russia under Vladimir Putin, the unprecedented consolidation of power under Xi means less transparency and debate, less feedback flowing to the top, more arbitrary decisions, and more policy volatility. Dramatic shifts like the haphazard exit from “zero COVID” are inevitable in an environment of poor information and blind loyalty, radically increasing the risk of miscalculation and accidents and further undermining China’s growth and stability.
Why China hasn’t peaked yet
It’s true that unprecedented headwinds make China’s continued growth more challenging. It’s therefore possible that China will never surpass the United States economically or become a global superpower. But the question is whether China’s power has already peaked, and that’s just not the case.
Yes, China’s economy is growing slower than it used to … but it is still growing faster than America’s. You’d expect growth to slow in any low-income country that has become middle-income in the span of a generation. Still, the IMF projects that China will continue to narrow the gap with the US in the coming decade – growing from 73% of US GDP today to roughly 87% by 2027 and achieving parity around 2030. Chinese labor costs remain dramatically lower than in advanced industrial economies, and China’s already deep integration into global value chains means any decoupling will be slow and incremental rather than sudden and absolute.
As for quality, China’s growth hasn’t been primarily stimulus-driven since shortly after the global financial crisis (except for the COVID reopening period). And while infrastructure spending used to be unproductive, eventually that led to fiscal reforms imposing stricter profitability conditions. Indebtedness is admittedly a huge issue that Beijing has delayed dealing with through the pandemic, but the government remains committed (at least in principle) to getting it under control.
Xi is ideologically committed to a statist economic agenda that will drag on Chinese growth, but he also understands that he shouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (the private sector in general, the tech sector in particular). China continues to invest massive state resources in advanced technologies, and it has already achieved parity or surpassed the US in many fields (e.g., voice/facial recognition, smart infrastructure, telecommunications, and electric vehicles). If AI ends up becoming the new commanding height of the global economy (as I think it will), China’s data advantage and strong AI talent pipeline will make it competitive if not dominant.
Demographics are an undeniably real and massive challenge for China … but not a near-term one. And there are plenty of things Beijing can do to kick this can down the road. For example, China’s retirement age is low by international standards (60 for men, 50-55 for women) and hasn’t changed in decades despite big jumps in life expectancy. China can halve its demographic tax by 2035 by bringing 40 million more people into the workforce – a reform Xi flagged in his recent Party Congress report.
Moreover, China’s educational system has only recently seen dramatic increases in funding, with the associated improvements in labor force quality still to come (especially in rural areas). China can further boost productivity by increasing urbanization (now at 65%, compared to an average of 80% in developed countries) and, in particular, moving workers out of low-productivity agriculture (still 25% of the workforce, compared to 3% in most industrialized countries). All this room to grow its labor force participation and productivity gives China a minimum of 10-15 years of runway to address the more stubborn challenge posed by low birth rates.
China’s external environment has become hostile … but no one really wants a “cold war” with Beijing. While the US-China relationship is tilting more antagonistic, Biden (and Xi for that matter) wants to put a floor under it. His containment policy seems to be limited only to narrow sectors deemed critical to national security. And while most US allies want a stronger security relationship with Washington and they’ll abide by any potential US sanctions, none are prepared to decouple economically from China as they have from Russia. China continues to be by far the most important trade partner for nearly all the world’s developing countries – most of whom are sympathetic to Beijing’s prioritization of economic development over ideological alignment.
China has the largest diplomatic network in the world, and its global soft power projection is just getting started. Increased hostility toward Beijing among most wealthy countries doesn’t change the reality that for much of the world, there simply are no feasible economic alternatives at scale. Despite all the talk about decoupling, even the US remains happy to continue selling record levels of agricultural exports to China.
Xi isn’t Putin. His decision to shift away from his zero-COVID policy in response to public demonstrations was clunky and poorly executed, but it was a better choice than cracking down on demonstrators or doubling down on a failed policy – which is what the Russian dictator would have done. Xi remains considerably more risk-averse than him.
This is a dramatically more challenging domestic and global environment than China has experienced in decades … and it’s only going to get worse. But while China faces “stormy seas,” I think on balance it still has substantial upside. That’s why things like AUKUS and the Quad keep popping up: not because the US and its allies think China’s power has peaked, but because they know that it will continue to increase.
A “Chinese century” may not be in the cards, but another decade of reasonably robust economic growth and increased international influence is very likely.Readers, tell me what you think: Has China’s power peaked already or does it still have room to grow?