By Lee H. Hamilton
February 16, 2022
The 2022 Winter Olympics, wrapping up in Beijing, have again focused the world’s attention on China. The games have provided China with an opportunity to impress a worldwide audience and to distract attention from criticism over human rights violations and other issues.
But there is rarely a time when China is not in the spotlight. With the world’s largest population and its second largest economy, China commands our attention whether we like it or not. It occupies a unique place in the world, with other nations watching what it does.
For a period of decades in the last century, the People’s Republic of China was marked by government mismanagement, environmental disaster and vast social problems. The failure of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the disruption of the Cultural Revolution left the country poor and struggling. The Chinese people suffered through times of chaos, turmoil and hardship.
More recently, China has had periods of remarkable economic growth and social transformation. China rebuilt its infrastructure and made massive improvements in the economy, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. There’s no question it has become a power to be reckoned with under a series of leaders, including Xi Jinping, who has exercised authoritarian rule since 2012.
China has mixed a command economy with the entrepreneurship and energy of capitalism, and its leaders have never doubted their one-party system of government. China’s focus has been on developing industry and defense, with a real emphasis on science and technology. Its goal is to build a modern, prosperous socialist economy by 2035 and to become the world’s dominant power by 2050.
Its system includes a lot of restrictions on economic and political activity. Freedoms are curtailed, including freedom of speech, the press and assembly, reflecting a fear of disorder that is a feature of Chinese history. The centrality of the Communist Party is unquestioned. There is no such thing as democracy in China, at least in our sense of the word.
The world’s view of China is largely negative. Surveys conducted in 2021 across advanced economies in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region found disapproval of China and its policies had increased significantly. Eight in 10 people in those nations faulted China for not respecting the personal freedom of its people. The Olympics are unlikely to change that.
In the United States, 90% of the public views China as a competitor or an adversary. Americans don’t like Xi’s iron-fisted control of China’s economy, the repression of China’s Uyghur minority or the penchant for unfair trade policies and theft of intellectual property.
But China has a friend in Russian President Vladimir Putin. With the U.S. and its allies worried that Russia was poised to invade Ukraine, Putin met with Xi at the Olympics, and the two leaders showed a united front and a shared sense of grievance against America and the West. It was Xi’s first meeting with another foreign leader in nearly two years, underscoring the importance of the relationship and evoking the time when Communist China and the Soviet Union stood against the capitalist West.
In the future of China and its role in the world, we can expect competition between authoritarian rule with a single-party system and a more democratic system emphasizing choice. For now, China is sticking with the former. It believes American global leadership has eroded and sees an opportunity.
The Chinese people are resilient and determined, traits they have developed through hard experience. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate them.