This is an excerpt of an article published in Noema magazine.
In November 2006, the Chinese public was held rapt by a 12-part documentary series titled “The Rise of the Great Powers.” Curated by a team of respected Chinese historians, each episode revealed the pathways major empires took to reach the zenith of their global influence, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia and the United States. At the time, China was viewed – both at home and abroad – as Asia’s central force and a future superpower, but not the main geopolitical story – especially as the U.S. was in full “hyper-power” mode, deep into its indefinite occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This was all the more reason for the Chinese to sit back and cautiously study how nations could become so powerful as to extend their might all across the planet.
“The Rise of the Great Powers” achieved its central objective: to socialize and legitimize the notion that it was China’s turn to rise into the pantheon of history’s superpowers. And China has clearly followed the documentary’s lessons to a tee: practice import substitution, force technology transfer, amass currency reserves, hoard precious metals, deploy merchant fleets, lend prodigiously, install infrastructure far and wide, build a powerful military, protect your supply chains, buy off elites in colonies and client states, and so forth. If world history were a game of Risk, then every century, the board is reset and another player gets its turn to rule the world. The scale is finally weighted in China’s favor.
Or maybe not. If history really did repeat itself, we’d marvel at our own predictability. But this time could also be very different. We have amassed enough history to preventively alter the course history seems to be taking us on.