by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Why have so many been so off about China for so long? In part it’s because policymakers and academics alike look for patterns, not exceptions. We are trained to generalize across cases and use history as a guide to the future. But China has always been sui generis—an innovator in the ancient world that became a poverty-stricken nation in the modern one; a nation with a deep and proud imperial history ruled by a post-1949 Communist leadership with an aversion to remembering it; a rural nation with some of the world’s most sophisticated high-tech surveillance.
There is also a fundamental disconnect in how American and Chinese leaders see time. For Americans, memories are short, attention is fleeting, and policy lurches from crisis to crisis. In Washington, passing a budget and keeping the lights on seem increasingly like heroic acts. In China, by contrast, memories are long, attention is enduring, and the government plans for the long haul. China’s rise in artificial intelligence and other technologies has been in the works for years. Its military modernization started in the 1990s. Back then, a Chinese admiral was asked how long before China would build its own aircraft carrier. He replied, “in the near future”—by which he meant sometime before 2050.
These different views of time hang over of modern geopolitics. For American leaders, U.S. global leadership is the way of things. For Chinese leaders, it is an aberration: China was a great power until the Opium Wars in the 1840s ushered in a “century of humiliation” by the West. In Beijing, China’s rise isn’t new. It’s a reversion to the way things used to be.