In my new Quartz article, I play the amateur historian. The topic is whether China is destined to be the world's preeminent country. I've been meaning to take on this meme for a while, and finally got around to it. Here are some excerpts:
China’s awe-inspiring rise is often framed as the return to a historical norm. A common belief is that for most of the last 5,000 years, China was the world’s center of wealth, culture, technology, and power. The 19th and 20th centuries, we are told, were a brief aberration, and China is now simply retaking its rightful place as the world’s preeminent nation. This trope gives China a certain air of inevitability.
The problem is, it’s not really accurate.
The truth is that for most of its history, China has struggled to overcome a number of chronic difficulties that have usually kept it from global preeminence...
China has always been one of the world’s leading civilizations over the last five millennia. But it has only held both economic and military preeminence for brief periods of time—the late 1300s and 1400s being the most notable. Why has China not been preeminent for longer stretches? History is not a science, but we can make some guesses. The very thing that makes China so powerful and important–its titanic size–also endows it with fundamental weaknesses...
In other words, China is vulnerable now for the same reason it was vulnerable in ages past. History is not a tale of Chinese preeminence, but a tale of Chinese oscillation. The same thing that often kept China from realizing its potential as the world’s dominant nation—its tremendous, unwieldy size—means that although it will surpass the US in total GDP, its supremacy may well be short-lived and incomplete.
Read the whole thing here!