The end of the Old Regime?
People make a big mistake when they assume that the Western way of life is the end and the goal (as well as the end goal). It is not necessarily the end of history because the complex mess of history has undone all great and once insurmountable regimes, from the Roman Empire to Roman Catholicism; it is not necessarily the goal because goals are notoriously subjective lest we commit the uppermost arrogance or narrow-mindedness (I can see overconsumption, alcoholism and Love Island looked back upon with baffled disgust – we cannot assume they’re here to stay because they’re good!). That the conveniences, luxuries and power of the modern West rest on a great deal more than mere contingency is a stance I’ll let somebody else take for now.
Britain’s GDP is predicted to have fallen by over 11% last year; the economy of the US is expected to return to 2019 levels by 2022. China’s, on the other hand, grew by about 1.5% in 2020. The latter country’s dominance in trade in South East Asia is clear and unmatched. Its position in Africa is formidable, with loans and grants channelled to it and 10,000 Chinese firms rattling around the continent. China continues to occupy nearly half of the Electric Vehicle (EV) market (the Initial Public Offering of its XPeng also occurred last year) and its sheer size alone gives it leverage when making any deal on climate. As if to demonstrate the lower levels of competence, prestige and even relevance of the West, countries like China and Vietnam have handled the Covid-19 pandemic arguably far better than Britain, France and America, where inconsistencies reign, health services founder and death rates soar.
All of this suggests that China is better prepared for the geographical realities and policies of the second new world. So has Western dominance come to an end? China’s intimacy with Africa signals a new picture. China was once the periphery (and in large part still is) – that is, the provider of cheap labour for the wealthy and finance-heavy global cores. A similar relationship might happen with Africa, but with China as the core – the latter country increasingly sophisticated and the former continent youthful and increasing in population. More African students are found in China than Britain and America combined. Yet it will be complex. The idea that the West will be reduced to ruins is presently fanciful, and what exactly will be sold and how will be very different to the core-periphery relationship of old. It is better to argue that the global picture is now more complicated, with more players at big tables and more interests to take into account. The Biden Administration holds promise for a reinvigorated US. Markets and indexes like Nasdaq look incredibly and suspiciously healthy, with a 16 per cent rise for the S&P500 and a remarkable 40 per cent rise for Nasdaq last year. Even the FTSE100, far more pessimistic and slower to recover than US markets last year, is on the up in the mists of a miserable January and a third lockdown. There is plenty of capital sloshing around US and European companies. Western governments will do well to extend the optimism by ensuring that the financial collapse rasping on the door of their countries does not bust its way in.
In any case, the West still has enormous and virtually unchanged cultural or ‘soft power’ leverage, from The Economist to Hollywood. These raise money and distribute ideas, whether it be a few quid for the rule of law or a trip through Wokeland. In May, a Universal Studios theme park will open in Beijing. And while considerable numbers of African students are found in China, the Asian country has no problem allowing plenty of its students (and their money) to enrol in Western universities.
However, China is in no rush. The country has an exhaustively long history and a people with different mindsets to those encountered here – they are prepared to delay immediate gratification and even leisure time to achieve their goals. Of course, these virtues are present in the West, but with collectivism and some beliefs in reincarnation or rebirth, the Chinese can expand them over lifetimes to achieve things for the community chronologically distant from their entire lives today. We’re talking hundreds of years, perhaps more.
The situation is compilated. The West is far from its deathbed but one thing is clear: China is increasingly sophisticated and increasing. The world must find room for two mammoth forces.