Why the US is quietly outshining China
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Why the US is quietly outshining China

Xi Jinping likes to say China owns the future and the West is in decline. But appearances can also deceive.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

“The East is rising and the West is declining.” This was a popular refrain in Beijing when China recently marked the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party. Party leader Xi Jinping himself used the phrase in a speech in March.

The idea that the US-led West is waning and a China-led East is ascending to world leadership is common in Australia, too. In fact, I have written in this newspaper that the United States is likely to decline as a strategic power in Asia, and that therefore Australia is increasingly on its own.

Donald Trump represented a widening of the American political system; Xi Jinping represents a narrowing of China’s system. 

But it’s always worth interrogating one’s own assumptions and prejudices. And in this case, there’s the additional problem of availability bias, the mental shortcut we all take when making judgments and decisions. Availability bias refers to the tendency to put too much weight on evidence that comes immediately to mind or can be easily recalled.

It’s not hard to see how availability bias might shape our perceptions of the US-China balance of power. The Chinese system is relatively closed so we don’t learn much about what its leaders get right or wrong. What we do know is that China has grown spectacularly in recent decades, so there’s a tendency to think China’s leaders don’t make big mistakes.

China projects an image of stability, efficiency, and an ability to get things done fast, an impression reinforced by its successful suppression of COVID-19.

To begin with the US, it can be argued that American democracy is thriving. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are two of the most influential figures in the Democratic Party, who have moved political debate much further left than was imaginable even a decade ago.

Donald Trump has had a similarly seismic impact on the Republican Party. These three figures have vastly expanded the boundaries of what is permissible in America’s national political debate.

The effects have often been disturbing and sometimes violent, but it might have been worse if such figures had been excluded from formal politics. And that openness to new ideas and personalities could also produce something special which would never make it to the big league in a more closed and ordered political system.

So American politics might be better than it looks, and China’s is probably worse.

The usual examples are also the most powerful: in its rush to modernisation, the Communist Party is responsible for environmental degradation, corruption, inequality, and political repression, most notably of the Uighurs and the people of Hong Kong.

These examples are bad enough, but we also know that the Party is an institution capable of atrocities such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which killed tens of millions. When we’re thinking about the performance of China’s system, we should judge it on more than just the past 40 years.

There is one other area of vulnerability for China’s leaders: the internet. It was once commonplace to hear Western liberals argue that the internet would eventually bring down dictators worldwide. That optimism has faded, particularly since the Arab Spring fell short of expectations and we have learned more about China’s online surveillance and censorship efforts. Indeed, the conventional wisdom today is that the Communist Party has tamed the political impact of the internet.

That judgment is premature. The internet is less than two generations old, so it’s far too early to be making firm predictions about its impact on the world. What we can say about its influence so far is that it shakes all forms of authority.

As the writer Martin Gurri has argued, when information is scarce, institutions with a monopoly on information – government, media, the financial sector, academia – become authoritative. But the internet created an environment of information super-abundance in which all authority erodes.

An environment of information anarchy, in which previously venerated institutions are suddenly no more authoritative than a lone social media voice, is what created the space for Trump, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to rise to prominence.

So far, the US has found a way to absorb this disruptive new information environment into its system of government. China has chosen suppression rather than absorption. It is working for now, but confident predictions about the sustainability of this approach should be treated cautiously.