Decline and fall? The US puzzle facing Beijing

China had been in awe of the United States for over a century and a half, and during the period of reform and opening up introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, it was the model of development for the country. Even after the crackdown on the Tiananmen movement in 1989, the United States had shown its might.

It had defeated the Soviet Empire and stretched the border of NATO to the former Eastern Europe. In 1991, the Americans oversaw the actual demise of the USSR and its partition into several countries, and at the same time redrew the political map of the Middle East by mustering an all-encompassing alliance against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

During that war, it inaugurated a military revolution with high-tech precise missile launches. After that, the US stopped Serbia in its tracks in Yugoslavia and showed the force of its economy when all Asian economies toppled during the Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998 while Wall Street kept afloat.

After September 11, 2001, the Americans drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. In 2003, they were going to take hold of Iraq, and from there they could control oil prices and be at the crossroads of communications between East and West.

To China, the US was an uber power. Until 2004, opinions in Beijing were split between those who thought China should just follow the United States and change itself, or oppose it. However, both supporters and opponents of the United States didn’t doubt its power.

However, starting in 2004, something began to unravel in China’s sentiment toward the United States. People began looking with growing surprise at how Washington got bogged down in an endless and pointless war in Iraq. In the following years, the United States didn’t show much success as it failed to bring a new order to the Middle East.

Moreover, with the Jasmine Revolutions, Libya was turned into a wastebasket, and in Syria, the despised Assad regime managed to resist despite the tough fighting. The country was totally broken down and expanded Iraq’s no man’s land. Plus, fresh horrible enemies came to replace Al Qaeda. ISIS turned into a newer yet similar threat to that of Al Qaeda, and spread out all over the Muslim world.

US economy and Russia

In the meantime, the American economy stopped being the paragon of success. Already encumbered by the huge expenditures of war, the 2008 crisis showed the Chinese that the American financial system wasn’t as strong as Beijing believed it to be a decade ago.

In all of this, the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency also underlined the point. From Beijing, Trump tried to negotiate a trade agreement with the Chinese without an overall strategy. When Washington failed to cut a deal with Beijing, America didn’t have many moves to make.

In the meantime, the United States, since 2008, failed to stop Russian assertiveness. In 2008, Moscow invaded US ally Georgia and split up its territory. In the following years, it waged war against Ukraine, annexing Crimea and carving out the Donbas region, without effective American resistance. The Russians did the same in Syria, where they successfully backed Assad together with Iranian “volunteers.”

All in all, for the past 16 years, China saw the withdrawal of American power and interpreted it as a sign of its decline. The last straw in Beijing was the January 6 storming of Capitol Hill, conducted by Trump’s supporters. The fact that after the incident Trump was not punished in any visible way further gave the Chinese a sense of the weakness of American institutions against any challenge from within.

Also, at the very end of Trump’s presidency, China clinched two politically important trade deals, one with ASEAN and one with the EU. These two agreements, however weak in reality, show that the American trade system can be challenged and that Washington can be put on the defensive about setting rules for the global economy. That is, the United States may not be the only country that can establish the global laws of commerce, as it did in past decades.

Can democracy work in China?

All of this occurs on top of diverging trends. Infrastructure, the welfare system, and education are all improving in China while declining in the US.

This proved to the Chinese that democracy doesn’t work in the United States, which had been democratic for 250 years, and therefore it could never work in China, a country that never knew democracy.

The internet, which 30 years ago was supposed to spread democracy in its wake turned into a sophisticated instrument for control, monitoring all that people want and like. Besides, the unrestricted access to news earlier promised by the prophets of the internet became the main platform to peddle fake news and disinformation. China can have reasons to argue this in good or bad faith.