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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Who Will Win the Future? The USA vs China.

The USA has been the world’s single superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But will China soon usurp it as the dominant world power? Before I try my hand at answering this crucial question, let me sidetrack a little.

I was leafing through the internet a while back and came across an interesting book titled When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. I haven’t read Martin Jacques' book, but as I scrolled down the page on Amazon, a particular piece of text from the publisher caught my attention. It was this:

According to even the most conservative estimates, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by 2027 and will ascend to the position of world economic leader by 2050.

I am a futurist. More precisely, I write in the field of Critical Futures Studies. Futurists like me question things in depth. We like to probe away, and get into the gaps, identify the assumptions, and ask questions that others may not think to ask.

Firstly, there is an obvious factual error in the statement by the publisher. The future does not proceed in a straight line from the present. Where China will be economically by 2027 remains unknown. In fact, estimates about when China’s economy will become larger than the US vary, and 2027 is actually a very optimistic quote, not a conservative one. Many observers see that happening around the middle of the century.

The quote assumes China’s development will remain in a linear, upward spiral. Yet China in is a state of rapid change. A very important question is: what factors might curtail its rapid growth? There are many uncertainties which might disturb the current trend of around 10% growth per year. Just a few include the availability of fossil fuels, climate change and environmental overload, China’s overall economic performance, its internal cohesion,  labour dosputes, the relationship with Taiwan, and its relationship with other powers like the USA, India and Russia.

Yet questioning the publishers' statement at the level of the empirical data does not qualify one as deep thinker about the future. What is essential is invisible to the eye, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote long ago. Let’s ask some more interesting questions.

Does the world really need another superpower? Where there is domination by one entity or group, oppression of others is often the result.

Is a “superpower” merely an economic and military juggernaut?  Is there "power" beyond money and military? What about moral development, spiritual maturity, human rights, respect for human dignity, for different peoples and cultures?

Why is China’s model of growth copying the essence of the West’s during the age of the industrial revolution? This is creating huge problems, including social upheaval, massive pollution, moral decay, and the devaluing of traditional Chinese culture. Could China remain, in part, a country with a strong rural culture?

Is there room on this planet for the co-existence of so many energy-hungry countries hungry for endless growth? Is GDP really the best way to measure development? We live on a finite planet, yet many economists operate with an implicit assumption that economies can keep growing indefinitely.

I have long argued for the development of futures with depth. Presently, economic pressures are creating cultures and societies which are obsessed with economic performance, getting ahead, material gain and prestige. Psychologist David Loye, in Darwin's Lost Theory, argues that the ideas of survival of the fittest and the selfish gene have come to dominate much of human thinking. However these are a misrepresentation of Darwin's actual understandings of nature. Loye presents evidence that Darwin believed there to be a higher moral order than mere physical survival, and that he actually presaged the humanistic consciousness movements of the twentieth century. Jeremy Rifkin relates the development of human empathy in his book The Empathic Civilisation, and believes that humanity is becoming progressively more compassionate.

A neo-Darwinian culture of hyper-competition is not necessary. We are creating a world of ego-based societies. As a result, we are neglecting the inner dimensions of human consciousness. People are becoming dispirited, quite literally. Whether one is on the subway on the way to another long day at the office in Hong Kong or New York, we see the same tired, haunted faces.

So, returning to the question of who will win the future, we find that the question is loaded. 'Winning' suggests domination of one party over another, and this is leading us in a dangerous direction, one where we will deplete the planet of its resources, and humanity of its spirit. There can be no winner of the global superpower race as it currently stands.

It is time for a shift in consciousness. We need to stop racing, and start living again. And the only way for that to happen is to begin at the bottom: with education.


  1. Great post! Yes, I totally agree. We don't need superpowers - their days of domination are over - we need countries united in preserving what is left of our planet. China should not model itself after the US. The time has come for a new way of thinking, one that is sustainable, and includes all countries, and all peoples.

  2. It's highly likely that China's GDP will at some point be greater than the USA - historically, China has been the world's largest economy for most of the past 2000 years, and the population of China is nearly 5 times that of the USA.

    But as you say, Marcus, the interesting question is what that's going to mean? What kind of country is China going to become; what value-system does it embody? Every country has to ask itself that question, but one that's on such an evidently unsustainable track as China has to do so even more - and one often gets the impression that the debate gets strangled in its cradle by a Party unwilling to see its dominance questioned or challenged in any way.

  3. have a look, Marcus:

  4. Hi Marcus,

    A friend wrote this after I'd recommended your article to him:

    >site blocked in china. possible to send me a pdf/doc/txt file instead? thank you.<

    You are famous :-)

  5. Simon - yes, eventually, all things being equal the GDP of China will pass the US'. The question is, when? I'm not sure about people like Kishore Mahbubani, who says it is natural for Asia to be the centre of world economy because it was that way in the past. That assumes history is linear - other historians see it as cyclical, which is in my opinion, a more accurate model. Civilisations shift upwards and downwards in various ways, from century to century.

  6. Karl, thanks for that youtube link - that's very interesting! And yes, I know this blog is inaccessible via the open net in mainland China - all blog hosting sites that are not under Communist Party control are blocked in China. I also post most of this stuff on (a website for writers), but that is also blocked in China.

    An option for your friend in China is a proxy server, such as


  7. @Marcus

    thanks for the vtunnel info, he's used it already successfully :-)

    until now he's been using