Surpassing America

The further downward spiral in US-China relations since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has laid bare how central the rivalry with the US is to much nationalist sentiment in China. Many Chinese see the US as the only thing preventing the realization of their long-cherished dream of bringing Taiwan under mainland control. But this is a problem that time will solve: once China is big enough and strong enough, it will not have to defer to the US any longer, and can finally exercise its will. One of the most direct expressions of this way of thinking came from prominent Renmin University professor Wang Wen (quoted in a useful summary by Tuvia Gering):

The crux is that China needs to outperform the US in terms of economic power, attain financial and military strength comparable to that of the US, and develop an overwhelming capacity to counter international sanctions. By doing this, the US will no longer be able to form an external force to interfere in our affairs after the reunification and in the long run.

The idea that it is necessary for China to overtake the US as the world’s leading economic and military power has a long history. Perhaps the earliest and most forceful expression came in a speech by Mao Zedong on August 30, 1956, entitled “Strengthen Party Unity and Carry Forward Party Traditions.” In that speech Mao called for China to overtake the US, specifically in steel production, but also in more general terms:

Once built up, China will be a great socialist country and will radically transform the situation in which for over a century it was backward, despised and wretched. Moreover, it will be able to catch up with the most powerful capitalist country in the world, the United States. The United States has a population of only 170 million, and as we have a population several times larger, are similarly rich in resources and are favoured with more or less the same kind of climate, it is possible for us to catch up with the United States. Oughtn’t we catch up? Definitely yes. …

Given fifty or sixty years, we certainly ought to overtake the United States. This is an obligation. You have such a big population, such a vast territory and such rich resources, and what is more, you are said to be building socialism, which is supposed to be superior; if after working at it for fifty or sixty years you are still unable to overtake the United States, what a sorry figure you will cut! You should be read off the face of the earth. Therefore, to overtake the United States is not only possible, but absolutely necessary and obligatory. If we don’t, the Chinese nation will be letting the nations of the world down and we will not be making much of a contribution to mankind.

As William Callahan explains in his short intellectual history of Mao’s speech–“Surpass“, a chapter in the 2019 anthology Afterlives of Chinese Communism–Mao was here making an early expression of the radical ideas that would in 1958 become the Great Leap Forward. Although more cautious planners in the party criticized Mao for promoting a “rash advance” that ignored social and economic realities, Mao would ultimately be able to prevail and implement his vision of rapid development through mass political campaigns, with disastrous results.

What’s interesting is that the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward and the mass famine that followed did not completely discredit Mao’s vision of surpassing the US. According to Callahan, the 1956 speech was left alone for decades, but enjoyed something of a revival among nationalist intellectuals in the 2000s. China’s rapid economic growth had made it seem plausible that it would eventually become a larger economy than the US, and some thinkers appreciated that Mao had early on “dared to dream” of China as the world’s top power. Here are a couple of examples:

Mao is heroic for [military intellectual Colonel] Liu [Mingfu] because he dared to craft a grand plan to surpass America, stating again that beating the US would be China’s great contribution to humanity. Liu is fascinated by the Great Leap Forward, seeing the outrageous ambition of this Maoist mass movement as the key to China’s success in the twenty-first century. …

[Economist] Hu Angang also quotes the “Strengthen Party Unity” speech at length to argue that Mao and the speech are important because they created “the strategic concept of catching up to, and then surpassing the US.” He elaborates on Mao’s materialist quantitative way of measuring power and status, quoting him to explain that because of its large territory, large population, and superior socialist system, China is the only country in the world that is capable of catching up to and surpassing the US.

The ideas of such strong-state nationalists have been quite influential over the past decade or so (see my earlier post on Who won the battle of ideas in China?), and Xi Jinping himself is reportedly quite focused on the economic competition with the US. What is interesting is that the government, for all its anti-American rhetoric, consistently denies that it cares about overtaking the US. Here, for instance, is foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying from May 2021:

China’s strategic intent has been open and transparent. We never aim to overtake the US. Instead, our goal is to constantly improve and go beyond ourselves, make sure that Chinese people can live a better life, and that China will contribute more to world peace and development through its own development.

A more recent example came from deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng in a speech on China’s diplomacy in January 2022 (given at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, the think tank run by Wang Wen, the professor quoted above). While overall rather aggressive in tone, he reserved his strongest criticism for US rhetoric about “extreme competition” with China. And in other comments at the event, he disavowed any interest in surpassing the US economically:

Exceeding the US in GDP–we are not interested in it, and this is not what we are going after. To meet the people’s desire for a better life, this is what the Communist Party of China aims for.

These kind of statements remind me of the old journalistic adage to “believe nothing until it has been officially denied.” Of course the Chinese government is eagerly looking forward to becoming the world’s largest economy, and it’s clear that lots of people in the vast quasi-official apparatus surrounding the government think and talk about this eventuality all the time.

But someone has clearly decided that it is best not to say these things too directly. Part of the reason may have to do with the checkered intellectual history of the “surpassing America” meme and its association with Maoist radicalism, which has never been widely popular domestically. And part of the reason is probably that some Chinese politicians have realized it does not actually display great self-confidence to obsess about your country’s standing relative to other countries.

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