September 9, 2022
SEOUL – Suddenly, almost overnight, China is now seen as a declining power. Articles and columns discussing how slowing growth, an aging population, and inward-looking nationalism will send China into decline have appeared everywhere. This marks a sea change away from long-held predictions that China would become the pre-eminent economic power in the world.
The shift reflects a long tradition in the West of jumping to extremes in discussing Asia. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, the rise of Japan was a hot topic. “Japan as Number One” by Ezra Vogel came out in 1979 when the US economy was mired in stagflation. Inflation that year was 13.3 percent, unemployment was 6 percent, the prime rate was 11.5 percent. Japan, by contrast, had a fast-growing economy with low unemployment and low inflation. In the wake of two energy crises in the 1970s, smaller Japanese cars soared in popularity, sending US automakers into a tailspin. Japan had the edge in a wide range of electronics, and exports boomed in the 1980s as world economic growth picked up steam.
Published in 1982, “The Eastasia Edge” by Roy Hofheinz, Jr. and Kent Calder built on Vogel’s arguments and extended them to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, which had just begun reforms under Deng Xiaoping. The core of their arguments was that industrial policy and social cohesion helped drive economic growth, social development, and national competitiveness. As Hofheinz and Calder stated, “The name of the game played by China, Japan, and Korea, and the smaller Eastasian states is national survival in a world where production and marketing are as important as weaponry and firepower in keeping one’s country in the running.”
In 1992, the economic bubble burst in Japan and its glow began to fade. In the 2000s, it was soon to be China’s turn as county-of-the-future. “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” by Martin Jacques was first published in 2009 and revised in 2014. Jacques argued that China would displace the US as the most dominant power, which he viewed as positive. In the book, he stated that “the rise of developing nations like India, Brazil and Russia, along with China, will bring, in a rough and ready way, a far more democratic global economy.”
Like Japan before it, a sudden event has caused perceptions of China to change. That event was a series of draconian lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They showed that economic development and integration into the global economy had not tamed a harsh authoritarian tendency in Chinese policymakers. And like Japan after the bubble burst, reports of slowing growth and a rapidly aging population contributed to the rise of negative analyses.
The thread running through these country-of-the-future booms and busts is dissatisfaction with the status quo at home. In looking at Asia through the lens of self-criticism, the analysts can easily find things to praise: Good industrial policy, good education, good public transportation and, most recently, good public health. At the end of his book, Ezra Vogel summed up this impulse, “Other nations were devastated by foreign influence, but Japan was invigorated. This work is written with the hope that America, like Japan, can master the new challenges, that we will respond with foresight rather than hindsight, with planning rather than crisis management, sooner rather than later.”
Self-criticism limits the objectivity of country-of-the-future analyses, which explains why they fail to stand up to negative turns of events. A nuanced view that puts the objective analyses, not self-criticism, at the center offers a more balanced look. For example, Japan in 1979 was not No. 1, and Japan in 2022 is not a has been. Japan’s global standing has diminished, but Japanese people today enjoy a higher quality of life than at any time in history. The country’s industrial and technological base remains impressive. Meanwhile, China in 2022 faces problems that will most likely slow its growth, but the country’s influence and industrial prowess remains large. And its efforts to reduce rural poverty over the last 20 years have been successful.
So, what’s next? All signs point to India being crowned the next country of the future. Expect to see a wave of articles about India’s growing economy and future prospects, which will be followed by books touting India as the “next China.” But as you read, be on the outlook for self-criticism and trendy hyperbole.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at [email protected] — Ed.