By Alex Hacillo
The US continues to flag as the world’s last superpower, and critics fret that China is poised to take over the reins. Should its perceived dominance be cause for concern?
Tosee the fruits of China’s economic transformation requires only a cursory glance across its physical landscape. In 1979, Shenzhen was a market town of just 30,000 people. Today, it is a sprawling metropolis, home to over 10 million people, with factories churning out microprocessors for the global market of electronics goods; a country of wooden ploughs and subsistence agriculture has become the world’s workshop. The roots of America’s status anxiety are clear: while the old industrial hubs of the West rust and decay — Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis — Chinese cities are on the rise.
In China, industrialisation has been compressed into two decades of breakneck growth. What was once a long process of haphazard development has raced to completion within a fraction of a human lifespan. Just 25 years ago, US Gross Domestic Product was 15 times greater than that of China. But the East has caught up fast, and some forecasts predict that China will overtake the US within the decade.
Take China’s extraordinary growth, extrapolate it into the near future, and you’ll understand the hand-wringing in the American press, the countless articles about the decline of the West and the end of the “American century.” It isn’t difficult to find grim portents for American decline by raiding the historical larder. Rome once held sway over the known world before falling prey to barbarian hordes at its frontiers. The British Empire, which once covered a quarter of the globe, fell behind the US and Germany before disintegrating after the Second World War. States and empires have a natural life-cycle, so the theory of decline goes. Global hegemony is temporary, all great powers will invariably fall, and armed conflict between stagnant empires and rising powers is all but inevitable.