China: Awakening Dragon or Paper Tiger?

Sean Rego ’26

Staff Writer

Image courtesy of Sean Rego
“Let China sleep. For when she wakes, the world will tremble.”

Throughout the 21st Century, there’s stood a tacit idea that China’s the rising global force and soon to be superpower that will overthrow Pax Americana. Even in my own schooling, I remember learning of this inevitability– a prophecy, almost– that China would dominate over the nations. More than ever I question this prediction. In many areas, China continues to face seemingly insurmountable problems. Ultimately, will this grand nation, with so much history and potential, live up to our long held narrative?

By many metrics, China has indeed risen. Between 1839 and 1949, known widely as the Century of Humiliation, China was dominated by powers like the British, Russian and Japanese Empires. The Qing Dynasty stood little chance against the invaders, and was crippled to the point of dissolution. The period of warlords and occupation left painful reminders that China wasn’t the center of the world anymore. Nevertheless, from this desolate state, China was united under Mao Zedong’s CCP. Although impoverished, famine-stricken and woefully isolated, China recovered from humiliations of prior decades.  

From the 1980s until now, China has undergone miraculous growth. Roughly one billion people were lifted from poverty. Fundamentally, China became a crucial part of the developed world. The economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping converted China to a more profitable market economy. Additionally, Sino-American relations drastically improved, opening the CCP to détente with their capitalist rivals. By 1990, with the Soviet bear on the brink of death, China was becoming the new face of the East. 

But where’s China now? Do we see a rising dragon, ready to overtake American influence? By many aspects, no. China nowadays is plagued by protests, housing crises, totalitarianism and a looming demographic catastrophe. Zero-Covid Policy– a last ditch attempt to halt the precipitous infection of Chinese citizens– blew up in the CCP’s face. It mercilessly smashed any traces of the coronavirus and left millions in China’s economic centers trapped within their own home, lest they defy government curfews. This subsequently stunted China’s already waning economic growth, simultaneously fueling unrest within the nation. The protests harken to Tiananmen Square, while the ongoing economic slump parallels that of Japan in the 1990s (which I am shocked isn’t noticed more often). 

Accordingly, China has taken the path of totalitarianism, likening her to the days of Chairman Mao. President Xi Jinping recently secured an unprecedented third term in power, solidifying his vision of an orderly, strong and victorious China. He relates to Mao in the sense that he wants to save China from foreign embarrassments and reinvigorate the nation using authoritarian power. Among his top goals: the reintegration of the rebellious province of Taiwan. 

Five more years of President Xi probably won’t change the Uyghur policy. I’ll be honest, if even a fraction of what we’re hearing from Xinjiang is true, then the West should be appalled. Multiple governments have called this a genocide, and yet, no comment from Chinese counterparts. This is overly reminiscent of the horrors of the 20th Century. 

I’d say though, that the biggest problem by far China faces is its demographics. It’s predicted that by the 22nd Century, China will lose half of its population. The rapid population decline we’ll see over the next decades will single handedly vanquish China’s hegemonic dreams. And ever since the enactment of the one child policy, the CCP has taken the dangerous path of destroying its youthfulness, so there aren’t enough young people to maintain her economic might. The percentage of young people has declined dramatically. Who’s going to replace the elderly? Furthermore, men woefully outnumber women, which in itself could fundamentally break China’s society. These three factors, already in motion, will carve out the future of China. India just recently surpassed China in population. Desperately, the CCP repealed the one and two child policies just a few years ago, but this won’t be enough to save the nation from the coming disaster.

“Paper tiger” might seem like strong words to use for a nation that has historically dominated the globe, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting one. Aside from the internal factors, China’s military also leaves much to be desired. Yes, it’s improving, but their navy can’t even hold the title of blue-water, like the US, Royal and French navies. Their military bases and assets across the globe, while impressive, can easily be cut off and made void by aforementioned naval forces. Their allies are few, with none but doddering Russia able to project sustainable forces. They are ringed by a line of Western allies: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. And of course, recent advances in the AUKUS agreements have reinforced the cage around the communist state. China, paper tiger or not, is completely surrounded. 

So what is the fate of China? Can or will they ever rise to prophesied heights? I’m not going to pretend that I know, but that said, I think in the long run China is going to see a major regime shift. It wouldn’t be unusual, considering that China’s history is a glorious competition between dynasties vying for administrative power. 

Even so, it isn’t likely that the CCP will disappear so easily, and in the short term, they will do whatever they can to maintain power, perhaps through conflict. As the world grows more dangerous, President Xi may see war as China’s best hope for glory. Ukraine may have put a sour taste in the East’s mouths, but it hasn’t stopped Russia and China from cooperating. Furthermore, the shocking news of Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian relations have given some backing to the idea that China can assemble an unholy alliance against the West. We cannot overestimate China, just as we must not underestimate her. China has many problems with few solutions. I do think China will always hold global importance, as it is quite hard for such a prominent civilization not to, but I simply don’t see her dominating the globe anytime soon. Truly though, it is not fair to rule out any plausibility, because a cornered beast may very well fight to the death. Even a perceived paper tiger. Let’s just pray it’ll never come to that.

Categories: Opinions

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