America’s decline and China’s rise

January 25, 2018 08:00
A recent Gallup poll finds that more people in the world approve of Chinese than American leadership in the age of Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

China is opening 2018 by doing something that it never used to do: boasting about its achievements and comparing itself favorably with the United States, backed up by a Gallup poll that showed more people in the world approved of Chinese than American leadership in the age of Donald Trump.

While the US economy grew a respectable 2.5 percent in 2017, an improvement over the 2.1 percent of 2016, it was way outdistanced by Chinese economic growth of 6.9 percent.

Still, China is still only the world’s second-largest economy. In actual numbers, the size of the Chinese economy exceeded US$12.5 trillion by the end of 2017, smaller than US GDP of roughly US$19.5 trillion.

However, China’ National Bureau of Statistics reported that, if calculated by purchasing power parity terms, the Chinese economy already exceeds US$20 trillion.

Still, China was honest enough to acknowledge some problems.

Thus, it acknowledged a gloomy demographic situation, with a drop in the birth rate, despite the government having switched from enforcement of a tough one-child policy to now encouraging two children. China is now encountering the serious problem of gender imbalance and the population is aging rapidly.

Overall, however, China is doing well for itself and, according to its official media, it is also helping other countries by continuing to reform and opening up its economy.

“China will briskly foster new growth drivers, improve technological innovation [and] push for upgrades of traditional sectors," according to the Central Economic Work Conference held in December.

Among China’s many scientific breakthroughs is the development of a new rice variety that not only tastes good but produces high yields, the China News Agency reported on Jan. 18.

Among the wonders of Chinese inventions is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, which reportedly will be able to scan three-quarters of the sky, including the center of our galaxy.

At the same time, China is helping other countries to achieve their goals, for instance in constructing magnificent engineering projects, including a water recycling plant in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, a centenary railway on the grasslands of East Africa, replacing one laid by the British a century ago that will connect Mombasa and Nairobi, and a skyscraper in Malaysia that will be the highest built by China in a foreign country.

To achieve international goodwill and for propaganda purposes, China attempts to involve other countries in its efforts.

For example, China is planning to launch a relay satellite in the first half of this year and a lunar probe next year, which is expected to make the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon. The Chinese are soliciting 20,000 messages that will be sent into space.

Not surprisingly, China’s image internationally has been improving. According to the 2016-2017 China National Image Global Survey, jointly conducted by the Center for International Communication Studies under the China Foreign Languages Publishing Administration and Kantar Millward Brown and Lightspeed, China ranked second to the United States in terms of influence followed by Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 2011, interviewed people in 22 countries. China scored 6.22 out of 10 for its overall image, maintaining a slight upward curve in recent years.

At every opportunity, China pushes the message that while it is on an uptrend, the US is moving in the opposite direction.

Thus, the official Xinhua News Agency, discussing President Xi Jinping’s “vision for a responsible country”, recalled that he had spoken in 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland about steering the world economy out of difficulty while Trump “has cut Washington loose from one international treaty after another”.

Clearly, this year in particular, American actions have helped to accentuate China’s message.

The results of the Gallup poll certainly puts in stark terms America’s image problems in the world today.

According to Gallup, median approval of US leadership in 2017 was 30 percent, down from 48 percent in 2016, that is, a drop of 18 percentage points from the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency to the first of President Trump’s.

Second, US approval dropped substantially in 65 countries and areas. Third, Germany’s leadership now tops that of the US, China and Russia.

Clearly, this was more a story of American decline than of China’s rise. But, as far as the official China Daily was concerned, the essence of the Gallup message was summed up in this headline: 

“China beats US in global leadership.”

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.