Does China Want to Rule the World? It's Not That Simple | Opinion

What was the Chinese leadership thinking in flying an easy-to-spot low-tech balloon over U.S. nuclear installations? Did they want to get caught? Was one branch of a fragmented autocracy trying to embarrass another?

Maybe the CIA or NSA or another agency knows the answer. But whatever IT MAY BE, it's not addressing the right question. What we should be asking is what does China want?

It's widely assumed that China seeks global primacy sometime soon, perhaps by the middle of the 21st century (by the Gregorian calendar, to be clear). But do they?

Chinese Nationalism Is Powerful
Chinese parade participants wearing Communist-style costumes take part in a parade to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, at Tiananmen Square. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This is more than a vulgar game of nations grasping for advantage in material resources and a near monopoly on violence, this is an ideological clash. Our era is one of fevered competition between liberal democracy and authoritarianism (whether it pretends to be democratic, the way Turkey and even Russia and Iran feebly do, or not).

Liberal democracy went through a spasm of arrogance around the time of the West's victory over the Soviet Union. Three decades later it's clear what we got wrong: it was a victory over communism (an economic system that is antithetical to human nature), but not over authoritarianism (a political system that, alas, is not).

Today liberal democracy is even attacking itself from within. In the United States, the Trump administration represented an assault on the system that appears to have infected the Republican Party as a whole; in Europe, Poland and Hungary have installed authoritarian regimes democratically, each for its own reasons; Israel now may follow in their footsteps, at great peril to itself.

All over the world, the political divide has shifted from one based on socioeconomic class to one based on education. While there is a correlation, they are very different. By attaching even somewhat to intelligence—the thing that humans see as rendering them unique among the creatures of the earth—it becomes radioactive. A pincer movement has emerged: many among the working class never really signed on to the finer points of liberal democracy, like minority rights, while many so-called elites are concluding that democracy doesn't work, because mobility is low and the less educated have more kids.

With that as a background, arrogance about democracy's superiority is misplaced. It is best left to glad-handing politicians and other liars. The developing world is watching, and many there see democracy as under evident duress.

The fact that even some democratic countries are leaning toward elements of autocracy gives the Chinese Communist Party something of a leg to stand on when it argues that its system is better. That in some way, despite the cruelty and the lack freedom, it is not a brutish tyranny but one that's strangely meritocratic.

The theory is that the party, at 96 million members, is huge enough to represent the people, accounting for about 10 percent of the adult population. And that advancement through its ranks is not just a function of mindless servility but also a reflection of genuine merit that yields a competent ruling class.

Do Western democracies yield a competent ruling class? I'm not sure we can handle the truth on that one.

I have argued in these pages that there is nothing antithetical in Chinese culture to democracy—as evidenced in the robust democracy that thrives among the almost 25 million people of Taiwan. That said, though, there is no evidence that the CCP is about to fall anytime soon. They would have to upset the average person on the street more than they are doing at present for a revolution to succeed.

What has enabled the party to pacify the people of mainland China—along with a monopoly on violence—has been the very strong economic growth it posted over the past four decades, averaging 9.5 percent annually, more than triple that of the West. It is the very same thing that keeps China's ambitions of global primacy from being absurd: based on economic growth alone, it seems potentially within reach.

How soon? Well, because of the low baseline after the crushing ordeal of Mao's communism, phenomenal growth has only brought China to a level at which it accounts for the same proportion of the global economy as of the global population—just over a sixth.

The US, with a paltry 4 percent of the world population, accounts for twice as much of the global output as China does. Might it eventually be outstripped? That depends on whether China's growth (which has slowed in recent years but remains far higher than the West's) can continue.

Which brings us, like most narratives these days, to one Vladimir Putin. I have credited him with helping the world understand – through his epic blunder in invading Ukraine—that authoritarianism is a dangerous avenue to idiocy unchecked. But Putin has done more: he has also proven useful to those who want to arrest the rise of China.

China's growth has been fueled by infrastructure investment and urbanization, but mainly by its status as the factory of choice for the West. Because of China's cheap labor costs, the European Union's trade with it approaches $1 trillion annually; the U.S. imports more than a half trillion dollars' worth—more than from any other country and fourfold the imports from any country outside of North America.

Putin's war laid bare Europe's energy dependence on Russia (whose natural gas accounted for 40 percent of the EU's pre-war usage). This dependence exposed Europe to energy blackmail and weakened its position in trying to defend Ukraine. Russia was also able to cause food shortages and supply chain problems all over the world.

This realization has dealt a huge blow to globalization. Instead of free trade bringing the world together and encouraging an exporting of the West's political model (as the U.S. and especially Germany had long assumed), we got dependence on bad-faith players which could either produce cheap goods (in some cases in sweatshops or through versions of slave labor) or just were lucky enough to ride a commodity boom.

The mood in the West is now one of suspicion toward globalization. The U.S., through the CHIPS act, is busily trying to achieve semiconductor independence. But that will take some time, and in the meantime the world will be very wary of China achieving control of the world-beating microchip industry in Taiwan. This, more than fealty to the democracy on the archipelago, may be driving U.S. policy there.

That policy appears to essentially amount to preserving the current limbo of a status quo, no more. That's because U.S. understands that no Chinese government can brook Taiwan's formal independence—since the temporary loss of Taiwan to Japan is a symbol of the Asian giant's "century of humiliation." And moreover, it is far from clear whether the U.S. has the firepower needed to genuinely project power in the South China Sea. There is certainly no yearning for a fight.

Of course, even if China's growth somehow motors on, and its economy surpasses America's or Europe's, that alone will not mean it calls the shots.

A mark of a true superpower is to boast technological innovation, not just industry, espionage, and replication. That, from China, is yet to be seen. And the ultimate mark of a superpower is soft power, which requires a global cultural affinity that has neither been China's forte nor its evident desire.

That seems to be the question: does China want maximal economic advantage, or maximal geopolitical influence? Understanding that and responding wisely may be the key to global peace.

Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.