Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers in Science Fiction

Originally Published in THE FIX, January 1, 2008

One of the most popular games in international relations has always been "Guess the Next Global Hegemon." Naturally, the game seems to become most popular in the superpower of the day when a higher than average proportion of its people become convinced that there will be a Next Hegemon, after them – which is to say, when they wax anxious over national decline.

Science fiction traditionally reflected those anxieties. In the post-World War I period, Olaf Stapledon and Aldous Huxley imagined that the future would be American - correctly as it turned out. American writers, in their turn, expressed the same worries when American supremacy appeared in danger. James Blish's Cities in Flight cycle, the four novels in which were written between 1955 and 1962, posited the triumph of a dynamic Soviet Union over a West in the throes of a Spenglerian decline. In the 1980s cyberpunk writers often presented the future as Japanese.

During the 1990s New Economy hype banished such concerns for a while, creating a confidence - at any rate, in the U.S. - that the twenty-first century, too, would be an American century. (The attitude may have been exemplified by Arthur Herman's 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History, in which, with limitless smugness, he dismisses such anxieties as nothing more than the neurosis of pathetic failures.)

Of course, the 1990s did not last, and neither did such certainties. For the United States this is another moment of anxiety, and while there are those who look across the Atlantic at the European Union as a contender, most look across the Pacific instead to China. Reading short fiction for Tangent and The Fix this last year, tales of taikonauts leading the way to the moon and beyond seemed to be a dime a dozen.

Indeed, it seems to strike a great many people as extraordinary that this hasn't been the case all along, that the past hasn't been more Chinese than it was actually (certainly more than saw Japan or the Soviet Union as "natural" world leaders). Some of these go so far as to see the recent centuries of Western dominion as a blip on the historical radar screen. Back in 1998 the noted historian and social scientist Andre Gunder Frank published REORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, which makes exactly this case. Not surprisingly, such thinking has been reflected in recent alternate history, in which a small alteration to the timeline eliminated that blip. (The November-December 2007 issue of Interzone for instance, contained two pieces exploring exactly this theme, Chris Roberson's Metal Dragon Year, and Aliette De Bodard's "The Lost Xuyan Bride.")

To be fair, this isn't completely new. Many Westerners over the last two centuries appreciated that China at least had the makings of a great power, Napoleon, for instance, famously remarking that the country was a sleeping giant. However, it was not quite a contender in the game, at least for the time being, by practical decision-makers, and again the case of Britain circa 1900 is exemplary. British strategists, aware their country was being overshadowed by bigger, more modern powers, worried that the Germans would find their "place in the sun," that the next century would be an American century. To a lesser extent, they also worried about the Russians, the French and the Japanese, at least in certain neighborhoods. China, however, was something to be fought over by the other great powers that had colonized it, like all the others on this list.

The idea of China as a great power therefore appeared most often in the abstract, especially manifesting itself in science fiction. In the invasion stories that were the Victorian and Edwardian era's predecessor to today's Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller, the Chinese were routinely aggressors. M.P. Shiel famously produced The Yellow Danger, and Sax Rohmer, stories about the villainous Fu Manchu. Buck Rogers fought the Han, while Flash Gordon battled a fairly obvious caricature in Ming of Mongo.

Later writers treated the theme somewhat more seriously. In his novel First and Last Men (a book which is, ironically, constantly slammed for poor futurism), Stapledon pictured global dominion coming down to a contest between the United States and China - an idea today extremely commonplace. The theme appeared in Robert Heinlein's novels as well, the final act before the rise of the Federation in Starship Troopers being the war against the Chinese Hegemony by a triple alliance of the United States, Britain and Russia, which happened in the late 1980s.

Still, all this is a long way from our present moment, in which so many take the idea so seriously, and not without reason. The United States is not coping particularly well with an enormous trade deficit (much of it with China), exceptional oil dependence and decrepit infrastructure, among other problems. At the same time there is China with its billion-plus population and marathon economic growth rate during the last three decades, reflected in just about everything you own having a MADE IN CHINA label on it.

The numbers crunched by the economists seem to bear this out. By the more generous measures, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is three-quarters as large as that of the United States. By contrast, the Soviet economy had attained perhaps sixty percent the U.S. level at its nearest point, and Japan's was about the same. Additionally, where both those economies stagnated after hitting that level, China's double-digit growth rate shows little sign of such a dramatic slowdown, so that the gap seems likely to continue to close, with a rough parity appearing perhaps by the 2020s. Such wealth equals power, especially when there is a willingness to translate that wealth into military might - something that nuclear-armed China seems far more likely to do than the European Union, for instance.

In short, size, combined with momentum and will, seem to make this a no-brainer. But is it really? As I said before, the high estimate of the size of the Chinese economy is the one provided by the most generous measures - and that different indexes provide a much different picture.

The key issue at the moment is a device used by economists called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), an idea that may seem esoteric, but which is actually quite important, and not all that hard to understand. It is a method for calculating the correct value of a nation's currency, as opposed to its market value, so that you can compare the economies of two different countries using two different currencies. (Put another way, what is the real difference in value between the American dollar and the Chinese yuan? In PPP, you establish this by figuring out how much of each currency you need to buy the same basket of goods or services.)

Measured without PPP, using just the market exchange rates of American dollars and Chinese yuan, China's GDP is about $2.5 trillion, just a quarter as large as in the other figure. However, when PPP is used (in other words, the fact that a U.S. dollar goes further in China than the exchange rates suggest), you can get a Chinese GDP of over $10 trillion, roughly equal to three-quarters the size of the economy of the U.S.

This makes the calculation of PPP crucial, and the particularly large gap between the nominal and PPP-adjusted figures in China's case (a factor of four) has always made me wonder, so much so that I usually qualify my statements when discussing China's economy more than I would in statements about the economies of other countries (as in the press release mentioned above).

As it turns out, I was right to be suspicious. Recently, the Asian Development Bank has released data indicating that the PPP used to calculate the size of China's economy has long been overestimated by a substantial margin, the nation's GDP forty percent smaller than the high figure indicates. Instead of a GDP of $10 trillion, it would be in the neighborhood of $5 trillion. This still qualifies it for the Number Two spot, but a much more distant one.

It also indicates that China's growth rate has been slower than advertised for many years, meaning that as a challenger, China has a much, much longer way to go before it becomes Number One. This is all the more problematic when one consider that this GDP is divided up among over four times as many people as the United States, and in a noticeably less egalitarian fashion.

Even assuming this not to be the case, China has its own problems, some of them actually the same problems. The United States may run a trade deficit with China, while China runs a trade surplus, which is in China's benefit - but only up to a point. China's rise to the status of "sweatshop of the world" depends on the capacity of foreign markets to absorb its deluge of low-priced manufactures. Should those trade deficits force other countries to cut back, China's growth will suffer, barring the unlikely event of more egalitarian policies which foster the nation's internal market.

It should also be remembered that China is a voracious oil consumer, and that should the world be in for an oil shock, which many believe to be plausible in the next decade, China will be extremely hard hit. (I myself argued this in the U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters, and do so again in my upcoming article in the journal Survival, "The Impending Oil Shock.") Nor is this the end of China's ecological problems, China's willingness to exploit its workers matched only by its willingness to befoul its environment and poison its population, with disastrous consequences. This includes the killing of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, the rendering of the air toxic with the burning of dirty coal, and desertification on a vast scale, now said to be adversely affecting some 200 million people - a population the size of Britain, France and Germany combined - and given its effects on agriculture in the world's most populous country, global consequences. Once again, the kinds of policies that would be needed to seriously address the situation do not seem to be forthcoming.

I could go on, but the point is that the story is at the very least more complicated than the hype suggests, and at worst, that (barring a change in course) China's story in the twenty-first century might be marked not by a rise to global preponderance, but turmoil of a sort too familiar from the nation's long history. Where science fiction is concerned, this might make the fashionable tales of a Chinese future seem awfully dated in a few years, the stories assuming another, increasingly familiar form - ecologically ruined dystopia, of the kind that make nineteenth century-style realpolitik count for a whole lot less.

What goes for China goes to a greater or lesser degree for every other major power, and most of the little ones, too, which are on the whole aging, debt-ridden, ecologically strained, economically weaker than they look and prone to caution over boldness because of that frailty. There is simply no present-day analog to the dynamism of the British Empire's ascent from Cromwell to Victoria, of Prussia as it united Germany in the nineteenth century, of the expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea, which may be just as well. We live in a changed world, where developments ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change make the risks of old-fashioned power politics greater than ever before, and the rewards more meager, for all concerned. Any plausible vision of the future can not but reflect that.

NOTE: The downward revision in the then-prevailing estimates of China's GDP was widely accepted, and more recent figures have reflected the adjustment. According to the CIA World Factbook, China's GDP was in the $11 trillion range in 2011, about 75 percent of the figure given for the U.S. (slightly over $15 trillion).

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