Apr 072020

That’s the title of a new book by Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean scholar, author and diplomat and former president of the United Nations Security Council. Subtitle: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.

Mahbubani, the so-called “muse of the Asian century” per his Amazon blurb, is plowing familiar ground. Exactly two years ago he published a similar book (Has the West Lost It) arguing (again quoting Amazon’s web site) that “the West’s two-century epoch as global powerhouse is at an end. A new world order, with China and India as the strongest economies, dawns.”

Here are three graphs from John Thornhill’s review of the book in the Financial Times that in particular caught my eye:

In Mahbubani’s telling, written before coronavirus struck, the US ruling classes think their rivalry with China is a rerun of the cold war with the Soviet Union — and they know how that movie ended. It is surely only a matter of time and political gravity before the liberty-loving, free-market superpower sees off the latest uppity communist dictatorship.Mahbubani picks up on that cold war analogy. But this time, he argues, the roles are reversed: the US is the inflexible, ideological, systemically challenged superpower, while China is the adaptable, pragmatic and strategically smart rival. “America is behaving like the Soviet Union, and China is behaving like America,” he writes.


It is in the nature of a polemic to maximise all evidence supporting an argument and minimise everything that contradicts it. So it is with Mahbubani: unsparing on the US’s failings, he glosses over China’s manifest flaws. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, in which tens of millions died, merit one sentence. The current unrest in Hong Kong is dismissed as a struggle between the homeless and real estate tycoons.


the US’s social and economic model has stopped delivering for most of its people. [Mahububani writes that] “America is the only developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 per cent of the population has gone down over the past 30 years. In the same period, the Chinese people have experienced the greatest improvement in their standard of living ever seen in Chinese history.”

Thornhill writes that in the end Mahbubani ducks the question that his book’s title poses. Thornhill reports that “Despite his criticisms of the US, he recognises its many strengths: an individualistic culture; the best universities in the world; a magnetic attraction for the world’s best and brightest (including 351,000 Chinese students); and its strong institutions — although Donald Trump is working on that.”

For an antidote to Mahbubani’s latest polemic, check out the work of China scholar David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In the South China Morning Post last fall, Shambaugh wrote that “By any number of measures – economic statistics and social development indicators, security and territorial integrity, foreign relations and China’s standing in the world – China has achieved unprecedented progress in world history and is now one of the world’s major powers.”

But he also wrote this:

On the surface, many indicators still suggest that China’s “great rejuvenation” is on track. Yet, under the surface, many problems lurk: an ageing population and gender imbalance; an unaccountable Leninist political system; a state-dominated fiscal system and economy; a rigid educational system; high income inequality; severe repression of civil society, dissent, and religion; draconian controls over Tibet and Xinjiang; thorough censorship and controlled media; a still-high level of corruption and kleptocracy; capital out-flight; industrial overcapacity; ballooned corporate and local government debt (about 300 per cent of gross domestic product); slowing GDP growth; the middle income trap; housing market bubbles and overbuilding (ghost cities); environmental degradation; and a dictatorial leader with no succession plan. These maladies do not add up to a China in crisis or a system under imminent threat, but they are serious problems and realities that any honest stock-taking of present-day China must recognise.

Five years ago Shambaugh wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the “coming Chinese crack up.” Citing five indicators of the Xi regime’s vulnerability and the Communist Party’s systemic weaknesses, Shambaugh wrote that the “endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun.” Maybe Shambaugh was not wrong but just early. Stay tuned.

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