by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 15
December 2022
Chart
13:00

Zero Covid means no ‘Chinese century’

Xi Jinping's Covid restrictions have stunted his country's progress
by Peter Franklin
The Chinese century that never was. Credit: Getty

With the benefit of hindsight, we can be certain that futurologists are often wrong. Contrary to the expectations of earlier decades, no one is living on Mars, nor do many of us commute to work in a flying car. 

However, there was one favourite prediction that did seem absolutely nailed-on. At some point, perhaps as soon as this decade or the next, China was set to overtake America to become the world’s biggest economy. The professional prognosticators didn’t have to stick their necks out very far; they just had to compare GDP growth rates and extrapolate a bit. After all, China had already overtaken all the other Western economies, so doing the same to America was surely just a matter of time. Hence, those breathless predictions of a ‘Chinese Century’.


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Except that the experts have been having second thoughts. The latest example is the Japan Center for Economic Research (JCER). As recently as last year, the Japanese think tank was predicting that the crossover point for the world’s two biggest economies would come in 2033, but now they’re not so sure. Indeed, a new JCER forecast — which extends to 2035 — shows no crossover point. America stays clearly ahead of China throughout this period. 

Source: IMF, forecast by JCER

According to a Nikkei Asia, a key reason for JCER’s change-of-mind is the increasingly obvious failure of China’s Zero Covid policy. Back in 2020 we were led to believe that, despite the pandemic’s point of origin, the Chinese authorities had everything under control, while Western governments — especially those of Britain and America — were floundering as the virus ripped through the population. In 2022, it all looks very different. The people of the West are getting on with their lives, while a poorly-vaccinated China braces itself for the collapse of Zero Covid.

Nor is this the only failure of Chinese government policy that’s become hard to ignore. Most obviously, there’s the enormous liability of the country’s over-inflated, debt-ridden property sector. Meanwhile, Western governments are belatedly realising that trade with China mustn’t be allowed to compromise our security. Hence the American ban on semiconductor exports to the country and British restrictions on Chinese involvement in new nuclear power stations. 

Overall, Chinese exports are massively down — and though demand will probably recover, Beijing will find that the West is a much less naïve trading partner than it used to be. 

Looking further ahead, the People’s Republic is also facing a demographic meltdown. It’s hard to maintain a rapidly growing economy with a shrinking working age population — just ask the Japanese. So if the Chinese economy doesn’t overtake America’s within the next few decades, the likelihood is that it never will.

But as much as we need to take a more sceptical attitude to claims of Chinese economic prowess, there are also some searching questions that need to be asked of the West. Above all, why we were so willing to fall for the hype over China? 

Well, there is the very human tendency to fall down in fear before accumulations of worldly power. This is especially true of power in undiluted form — displayed without embarrassment and wielded without checks and balances. In other words, the sort of power that is still found in countries like China and Russia. 

And yet both China and Russia now serve as object lessons in the downsides of over-mighty government. For all the loose talk about the rise of the authoritarian model and the decline of democracy, I still wouldn’t bet against the West.  

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Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago

While the author is correctly pointing out the correlation between China’s authoritarianism and its declining economic prospects, the notion that “the West” has not succumbed to “power in undiluted form – displayed without embarrassment and wielded without checks and balances” is a bit absurd to anyone living through the last few years. We very much dabbled in exactly this type of authoritarianism, and we are only just beginning to pay the price. And the opposite of authoritarianism, is not democracy – its liberty and the rule of law. A terrified mob can easily be tricked into voting in an authoritarian regime.

Garrett R
Garrett R
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Arguably, the West is correcting on this measure by virtue of its independent institutions and frequent elections. China cannot boot Jinping out and he will likely rule into his 80s. The West has come far too close to an authoritarian turn, but with reshoring on the horizon and an economic paradigm shift, I think the West (and Japan) once again shows its system can self-correct more easily than its rivals can.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago
Reply to  Garrett R

Well we all hope so! But Russia has elections too, as does Turkey. If the authoritarians control the institutions, if the media becomes a propaganda mouthpiece, if dissent is censored and dissidents are harassed and prosecuted (all of which we are seeing more and more of) then democracy in and of itself will not provide much of a correction.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

And in USA elections are decided by the Social Media Barons, and the behind the scenes Power Oligarchs –

The USA 2020 and 2022 elections were no more fair than the Chinese one of late. They were bought and paid for by the hidden backers of the Democrat Party.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Please look up the Russian Federation Constitution on the iternet. Except in the war situation we are in today, it’s President is no more authoritative than the American President.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago
Reply to  Iris C

Their constitution and reality are 2 different matters.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Ironic that you would mention Turkey.

Erdogan used his control of the police and courts to have the opposition presidential candidate imprisoned this week.

Joe Biden used his control of the DOJ to have the home of a former president and leader of the political opposition search and ransacked, and his cronies in New York and Georgia are attempting to have him imprisoned.

I would love to think there is a difference here. But I’m increasingly less certain that there really is.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Garrett R

Absolutely. This is a critical advantage of the West that we in the West seem to ignore. Our systems can learn and self-correct – eventually. It usually takes far longer than we’d like. But it happens.
Authoritarian and ideology-driven regimes can never admit fault and that makes it far harder to learn.

Michael Askew
Michael Askew
1 month ago

It’s time for us all to recognise that China is hostile to the West, and bent on world domination by any means. We need to bite the bullet and be prepared to pay extra for products not made in China.

Last edited 1 month ago by michaelaskew170
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

I’ve long held the belief that countries which are able to take criticism, including self-criticism on board, have an innate advantage over those which aren’t.
This isn’t a paean to democracy as such, but as with each individual human being, self-reflection and the ability to change upon that reflection confers (overall) an advantage which applies to the wider realm.
For all our hand-wringing in the West, there’s a tradition which allows for re-invention of ourselves. We’ve been here before, whereas countries such as China, for all it’s long history, hasn’t. (Replacing one form of autocracy with another isn’t re-invention.)
The same argument, i believe, applies to those societies in which female emancipation has succeeded in bringing all the talents and energy of both halves of the populace into the workplace. Absolutely, this has created issues which need to be worked through, and the pages of Unherd are the perfect example of the kinds of debates that need to be had in order to do so.
Ultimately, we’re stronger than we think we are. Those commentators who subscribed to the Chinese Century theory couldn’t have anticipated the political repercussions of Covid. Those commentators who predicted a weakening of NATO couldn’t have anticipated a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both of those are the result of authoritarianism.
This is why i remain essentially optimistic. It’s not out of some naive belief in democracy and the relative freedoms which it confers, but quite simply that events have a way of bringing the advantages of our freedoms into focus whilst those who predict our demise should think harder about the freedom they’ve been granted to peddle pessimism.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Murray
J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

You make an excellent point, imo. The fear I have for the West is not China, but the so-called progressive movement. It has become detached from reality and, among other things, seeks to silence (aka cancel) its critics and redefine language to suit its own ends. It is attempting to dismantle the freedom of speech you identify as so important. So far, the progressives seem to be winning. Western society so lacks core values it seems incapable, even unwilling, to effectively oppose the progressive nonsense.
China’s greatest threat is its own totalitarian ideology, not the West. The West’s greatest threat is its homegrown progressive ideology. I don’t know how we stop the internal rot.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

China’s greatest threat is a fertility rate of about 1.3, a per capita GDP of about $10k and a population so big that even a British government couldn’t import sufficient immigrants to paper over those cracks. Ideology doesn’t even make the top 10 on their list of problems.

As for the west – well we have similar problems, but the Chinese are running into them at much greater speed. Happy the country that has children whose ideology it can worry about!

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You both make excellent points. But I suspect the “progressive” (what a ridiculous label) stuff will blow itself out. If it doesn’t self-destruct first. Just look at where all the gender stuff is going – almost heading towards a civil war amongst the “progressives”.
I don’t think our core values are that weak. We just have a media and political class trying to tell us they are and attempting to coerce us into adopting different values. If we can recover from this infection, we may emerge stronger.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Spot on Peter – we, including me, get excited about relative trivia; meanwhile China and Russia are dealing with far greater and more fundamental issues, and it looks like they’re both going down the pan for the next 20 years.

Chris Hillcoat
Chris Hillcoat
1 month ago

I think the demographic point is the stronger one, in the long term at least. The population of China has peaked at 1.4 billion and by the end of this century could have fallen to half that. Meanwhile the population of the USA is currently 330 million and will continue to increase, both because of higher birth rates and the demand for immigration. So I don’t think there is any chance of China overtaking the USA in overall economic power – they are a busted flush.

Andrew F
Andrew F
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Hillcoat

Problem with idea that mass immigration of millions of low IQ people into USA will result in stable and growing country is that eventually they will become majority.
Question is: if their presence is of benefit, why could not they develop their own countries?
Obviously Europe is facing exactly the same problem.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago

So, swings and roundabouts then.
China might be butting its head against that capitalist maxim of “You break it, you own it”

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Don’t forget all of the other viruses bottled up in China by its lockdown. They are going to come boiling out of the locker room ready to play.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago

The Chinese Zero Covid was NOT about health – it was about something very weird and hidden, nothing to do with stopping the public getting this flu.

Also the Sino-vac, Chinese vaccine was not given much at all – and it was NOT a mRNA gene therapy treatment like the ones given to the world, but a conventional kind.

Makes me wonder if getting us to take the vax – made in china with Chinese products for the most part, for a Chinese bio-weapon virus, Is part of this plan. Gene Therapy treatment – not a vaccine in fact….Who knows what happens in the coming years.

My guess is this article is a bit early…. come back in a couple years and let us look at the situation on the ground. Something very weird has happened – and in the West, East, and rest – it had NOTHING to do with this Chinese flu – it was 100% something very weird, and my guess is it has changed the world order.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 month ago

Ironically China cares not about how many people die, only about economic prosperity and proving to be equals to the West. We shall see how this turns out.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago

I hope we are not “cutting off our (economic) noses to spite China’s face” in our dealings with that nation as we did with Ukraine and the Russian Federation.