China has become a topic of endless debate: Will China replace the United States as the next superpower? Is China’s trademark authoritarianism superior to democracy? Is China’s seemingly unstoppable economic pace sustainable? These are all relevant questions. The attempts to answer them and define future scenarios abound. The outcome carries huge implications for Mexico.
Countless authors of all stripes have tried to answer these questions. I relay two views here, interesting in that they offer contrasting answers.
In his most recent book (You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-form the World, 2020) financial analyst David Goldman outlines the enormous transformation that the Asian giant has undergone and what drives it. His argument is sometimes counterintuitive. For example, Goldman says that China is a nation characterized by a relentless meritocracy that contrasts with Western benevolence: its educational system is so brutal and deterministic that children compete to the death because their future is determined by university entrance exams. The result is a society of few friends, where competition begins at birth, and to which two additional elements must be factored in: first, that in China most are only-child households, and second, because of the complexity of the language (and the extraordinary diversity of languages), Chinese households are practically silent. The social structure is pyramidal and the bureaucracy, since ancient times, and now commanded by the Communist Party, dominates all aspects of life and the economy.
The Chinese government, says Goldman, has succeeded in legitimizing its position vis-à-vis the population, overcoming a structural insecurity stemming from centuries of floods, invasions and other catastrophes. Chinese authoritarianism is not new, but has now become a banner because, from its perspective, it has proven to be more functional and successful than the Western capitalist model. Its bureaucracy develops long-term plans and acts rationally, surmising that the same is taking place in the rest of the world (a source of tremendous misunderstandings).
The ambition displayed by the Asian nation is unlimited and evident in all fields, but particularly in technology, where it aspires to dominate artificial intelligence, 5G broadband connectivity, and quantum cryptography, all with both civil and military applications. China has a comprehensive transformation plan where economic cost takes a back seat to political and geopolitical goals. Although Goldman’s argument isn’t infallible, it has the enormous virtue of explaining the consistency and coherence of the Chinese economic and political model.
In a more recent book (The Return of Great Power Rivalry. Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China, 2021), political scientist Matthew Kroenig focuses on the geopolitical competition between the United States and China. Kroenig analyzes the contrast between the feasibility and permanence of the democratic development model versus the authoritarian one, which he calls autocratic. Analyzing history and literature, from the feud between Athens and Sparta to the present, the book is a fascinating study. It shows that, in each era, there was always a power that achieved enormous functionality and efficiency in its dealings, but at the same time always found limits to its development by the absence of checks and balances. Kroenig concludes that the virtue of democracy lies in the fact that citizen participation, while complicating and making decision-making less effective, has the effect of reducing or limiting bad decisions that usually take place in autocratic regimes. In other words, the approach is essentially institutional and its conclusion is that the Chinese system will inexorably lead it to make mistakes that will limit its progress.
Time will tell if China achieves its ambitious goals, much of which will depend on how the United States responds and acts in the future, especially on the technology front. However, what is interesting about the contrast between the determinism of each of these two readings of reality is that both are uncompromising.
Unfortunately, Mexico is doing nothing to improve its tech position or to attract investment located in China today. What is absolutely certain is that the competition between the United States and China can only increase. The opportunity for Mexico is obvious, but it will not come about by itself. It will depend on concrete actions on the educational front, infrastructure, and investment promotion, none of which are a priority for the current Mexican administration.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubio