The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
“The East is rising,” Chinese leaders took to declaring around the time U.S. President Joe Biden entered office, “and the West is declining.” The second part of that declaration may draw eye rolls or angry objections in Washington and allied capitals. But the first has become a point of near consensus: a self-assured China, bolstered by years of dazzling economic performance and the forceful leadership of Xi Jinping, has claimed its place as a world power and accepted that long-term competition with the United States is all but inevitable as a result.
But past performance does not guarantee future results. On closer examination, the obstacles to China’s continued success look daunting—as Xi himself is well aware, which accounts for both the urgency and the audacity of his agenda, argues Jude Blanchette. “Ambition and execution are not the same thing,” Blanchette writes, “and Xi has now placed China on a risky trajectory, one that threatens the achievements his predecessors secured in the post-Mao era.” A similar dynamic is at play in the economic realm. Daniel Rosen notes that Beijing’s recent policy record is one not of world-beating mastery but of failed attempts at sorely needed reform followed by panicked retreats to central control. Meanwhile, China’s official efforts to overcome “its own Gilded Age” have been hamstrung by Xi’s simultaneous suppression of the very forces that could tame inequality and corruption in the country, Yuen Yuen Ang reveals.
Other risks loom beyond China’s borders. Two of the country’s most important scholars convey how the world today looks from Beijing, with Yan Xuetong outlining China’s growing willingness to challenge U.S. dominance and Wang Jisi explaining why “most Chinese observers now believe that the United States is driven by fear and envy to contain China in every possible way.” And Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that, amid such distrust, “for the first time in three decades, it is time to take seriously the possibility that China could soon use force” against Taiwan.
This year, Beijing is marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party with ample “nationalist bravado” and “an avalanche of official party histories portraying China as a monolithic powerhouse,” writes Orville Schell. Yet in tracing the course of China and the party over the past century, Schell makes clear that such triumphalism obscures a more complicated and varied past. Perhaps more important, it masks uncertainty about China’s future.
—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor