One of the most consequential events of the past 40 years escaped attention when it happened on Dec. 22, 1978. Only years later would it become evident that China’s decision at a Communist Party meeting to allow farmers to sell excess grain at market prices would reverberate — would, in fact, change the world.
What did China’s experiment with private enterprise mean? Certainly not the rise of a competing superpower. That would have seemed unimaginable. Maybe it signaled the emergence of, oh, another Yugoslavia, a middling state adding some capitalist spice to communism. And yet …
Ernest Hemingway, in “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote that a change in fortune can happen two ways — “gradually and then suddenly.” So it was for the Chinese economic miracle. In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s visit to China started the conversation, but the leadership of Mao Zedong wasn’t ready to move forward. In 1976, China emerged from a disastrous decadelong interruption, the Cultural Revolution. Two years later, Deng Xiaoping endorsed modest reforms to spark economic activity in an overpopulated country that couldn’t feed all its people. Two years after that, the government permitted the creation of privately owned factories in some villages near Hong Kong as part of a special economic zone.
Today those villages are as good a symbol as any of what China has achieved. Where 30,000 people once lived, the city of Shenzhen has a population of 12.5 million. The region, known as the Pearl River Delta, is China’s original industrial hub. If you own an iPhone, maybe it came from there. Huawei, the tech giant, is based in Shenzhen.
But that doesn’t scratch the surface of China’s might. Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing — each is a global business and manufacturing center with a metro population exceeding 20 million people. Then there are Chengdu, Xi’an and Tianjian, each larger than New York.
China’s economy is second in size only to that of the United States. President Xi Jinping rules as Communist Party chief, but the country operates in hybrid fashion: It’s an authoritarian state that embraces free market principles. China has both billionaires and political prisoners. It is a crucial trade and investment partner of the United States. It also is a growing military power in the Pacific, bumping up against the U.S. mission to keep the peace. That means China is both a customer of the United States and a competitor. Friend but possibly foe. The relationship is complex and unresolved.
The rise of China does not present an existential threat to the United States. The two countries are entwined economically, dependent on each other to maintain living standards and therefore motivated to get along.
The biggest risk factors are China’s lack of democracy and loner status as world power. With its increased wealth and influence, China inevitably will assert itself internationally and seek to protect its position militarily.
Today China may still be no match for U.S. overall strength, but it has achieved a significant milestone in the Pacific: “China is no longer a rising power but an arrived great power and peer competitor to the United States in the region,” Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress this year. Depending on the scenario, Davidson warned, “there is no guarantee that the United States would win a future conflict with China.”
It may be China’s destiny to match the United States in wealth and firepower. Those are not reasons to fear China. They are reasons to engage the country today as a partner and challenge Chinese intentions when they appear threatening. Understanding that China is an old country but still an emerging global player is critical to both aims.