Chinese leaders are making much of the fact that, 200 years ago, China was a mighty empire that generated a third of world GDP and 150 years later that was down to less than five percent. Now, because economic reforms in the 1980s, Chinese GDP is 16 percent of the world total and rising. But 200 years ago China was 35 percent of the world’s population and now is 20 percent. The U.S. has a fifth of GDP on the planet, with only five percent of the population. China expects their GDP to surpass that of the U.S. within 10-20 years and then keep going. This makes many Chinese feel great and more willing to tolerate the police state bureaucrats who run the country.
Yet many Chinese and foreign economists doubt that the growth will go where Chinese officials say it will. That’s because Chinese economic growth has been slowing down and that trend is likely to continue because of numerous problems with the Chinese banking system and industrial policy, as well as unfavorable trends in pollution and labor force growth.
Still, most Chinese are proud of their economic achievements in the last three decades and see this as the return of China to the leading position it has held for thousands of years. The 19th and most of the 20th century were a disaster for China, and a recovery from that is seen by Chinese as long overdue. Foreigners, especially if they aren’t neighbors of China, have a hard time appreciating how important this is in China. But for those who live close to China, these new Chinese attitudes and aggressiveness are regarded with a sense of dread. Traditional China was an arrogant, aggressive, and brutal state. The neighbors all have considerable experience with this and don’t look forward to seeing the bad old days return. China simply sees its new assertiveness as reclaiming what was lost in the many defeats it suffered during the 19th and early 20th century. It’s aggression borne of arrogance, which has been the cause of so many wars in the past.