Argument: China is already undergoing a demographic shift unparalleled in both speed and scale, transitioning from a young country to an elderly one within a single generation. Its vaunted “rise” is fraught and likely doomed, but this is not something to rejoice over. The many terrible crises China will soon face will be the story of this century. Our story.
It’s high time to throw some cold water on one of the enduring narratives of our time: the rise of China and its usurpation of America’s throne. Simple math says this will prove impossible: China is aging rapidly, so rapidly that it is already as old as the US and will soon surpass it. This dilemma is neither unique to China nor the result of some moral or cultural failing: we’re all going to experience it. The real problem, from China’s point of view, is the timing and speed of it all. Having just entered the ranks of the developed world, its economic foundation is still fragile and nascent, struggling to downshift from an export-based model to a more sustainable one based on consumption. The last thing it needs is to weather a structural headwind whose scale rivals the tailwind that brought it here. It needs time, time to adjust, wean itself off cheap debt and labor, and mature. Like Sheridan, it has only twenty of your years.
The first issue, as is typical, is language. Let’s stop using the word “miracle” to describe what’s happened to China. It distorts and diminishes the picture. Beijing’s admirable path from impoverished backwater to world-shaking giant has been nothing but a textbook example of industrialization and market reforms, the unleashing of mountains of potential economic energy. There’s a lot of money to be made in creating factory jobs for workers, building houses for them, and meeting their new economic needs, particularly when there are a billion of them. This is normal. Ordinary. As is what will happen next. It would be nice to not have to read tons of articles from dazzled journalists headlined with banal variants of “WTF happened to China?” “How could this happen?” “How could they have fucked this up?” Look, you try it. The best-case scenario is Japan, a country with a stalwart, diversified economy coupled with extreme cultural and social homogeneity. China has to handle ten times the people with half the tools. Fuck off, future journalists. Imagine if America had to deal with this. It staggers the mind.
That being said, the second issue is China’s government, which is filled with idiots who melt in the shadow of their predecessors. It took a lot of courage and practicality on the part of China to abandon its ideology wholesale, though it’s worth remembering that things were so bad they had little choice in the matter. Contrast that with Xi Jinping writing himself into the Constitution, a beige Manchurian obsessed with his legacy, which, like Putin’s, seems to be to sip martinis and wave at a last, best hope for peace and prosperity as it floats by. This isn’t the time to be fucking around and pretending things will stay this way–and that’s exactly what they’re doing. The attitude of the Chinese government can best be described as “complacent”: they’re acting like they’ve already won, that the future is theirs, that Trump is a gift that keeps on giving, that all they’ve to do is wait.
No, seriously: everything.
The third problem is perception. What’s propping this collective delusion up is the notion that the Chinese people are wonderful, docile, loyal subjects that would never ever grumble, resist, or cause any sort of trouble for its benevolent leaders in the Forbidden City. Or whatever. First off, that’s fucking racist. It’s just Orientalism 2.0: “the Chinese people are special, bestowed with mystical qualities of obedience and a breathtaking capability for collective action and sacrifice. They’re different. They’re not people, like us.” Second off, no student of Chinese history would ever buy this idea. Revolution and upheaval is more endemic to China than it ever was to France. China seems (seems) serene only because of the massive economic progress made over the past two generations and the intrinsic social contract that’s come with it. How surprising to discover that if things are going swell with the money, people aren’t as likely to revolt. A paragon of socioeconomics, that.
Eventually this will correct itself. No one can say how. It could happen overnight in a flash. It could happen over a series of moderate to serious crises. It could happen very, very slowly, an unlikely but remotely feasible scenario. The details matter little; what matters is it’s going to suck. The world has gotten used to China’s status as a burgeoning behemoth, an inexhaustible factory with a coordinated centralized government bereft of the pesky vicissitudes of liberal democracy and petty political agendas (seriously?) that get in the way of serious policy. When reality sets in, when people realize that China is mortal and has a shitton of serious problems that it can’t solve easy and doesn’t know how to tackle, the economics will also adjust. The consequences will reverberate across the globe.
Most terrible of all will be the human cost of this. People are going to lose their jobs, not just in China but in America, in Europe, in every developed country that does business with China. As the share of China’s elderly population doubles over the next two decades, then doubles again in less that time, millions will suffer and die due to negligence or poor care. Parents will outlive their children, children will be unable to take care of their parents or families, the government will have to take care of them somehow, which means less cheap credit for businesses dependent on endless loans, which means less business alongside of fewer consumers with fewer needs, et cetera, et cetera. Given China’s history, it’s likely these run-of-the-mill internal growing pains will ruin more people than live in entire developed nations, their voices petering out into a dead sea and the vacant night above it. Did you know 20-30 million Chinese died in a massive civil war ten years before our own, one that involved a guy who thought he was Jesus’ younger brother? Remember how 50 million Chinese died less than 50 years ago?
And this going to happen everywhere: Europe is aging, America is aging, Japan has already aged. Even the lesser countries will struggle with Thanatos’ cold breath, a chill wind that will blow across our globe more or less simultaneously. That’s without mentioning water scarcity, the crushing effects of climate change, and all the other stuff awaiting us over the course of our lifetime. All of you morons out there who like simulating horrible world wars between the US and China as some sort of weird dick-measuring contest can’t grasp how pitiful such fantasies will prove before the real future.
Prepare for fun.