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Is Pax Sinica Possible?

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to want to build a Pax Sinica, which would compete with – and even replace – the Pax Americana that has prevailed since the end of World War II. But realizing this vision will require China to overcome some daunting internal and external challenges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to want to build a Pax Sinica, which would compete with – and even replace – the Pax Americana that has prevailed since the end of World War II. But realizing this vision will require China to overcome some daunting internal and external challenges.

For nearly a decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been promising to deliver “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This promise – which he dubbed the China Dream – took a clearer form with the introduction of the two centenary goals: building a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 (the centennial of the founding of the Communist Party of China, CPC) and becoming a “modern socialist country” by 2049 (100 years after the founding of the People’s Republic). Now, China is one centennial down – and, according to Xi, it has achieved its first goal. Is the China Dream within reach?

While the second centenary goal specifies goals like strength, prosperity, democracy, harmony, and cultural advancement, it also represents a vision of China as a global economic and political power. Ultimately, Xi seems to want to build a Pax Sinica, which would compete with – and even replace – the Pax Americana that has prevailed since the end of World War II.

These are ambitious goals. But China is no stranger to ambition – or achievement. While the CPC made serious mistakes during the People’s Republic’s early years, it has since led the country in a remarkable economic and social transformation. For more than three decades, China achieved double-digit annual GDP growth. Hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty.

This transformation was made possible by “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” – a system that has proved far more effective and durable than many expected. The Chinese state played a central role in mobilizing resources, building national infrastructure, supporting export firms, and facilitating inflows of foreign capital and technology.

China’s record proves that an authoritarian political system does not preclude development and in fact can drive rapid progress. In fact, on the question of which political system – dictatorship or democracy – is better suited to economic development, the evidence is ambiguous.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson have made the case that “extractive political institutions,” in which political power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, lead to “extractive economic institutions,” in which the ruling class exploits the majority. The result, they argue, is weaker incentives for most economic agents to engage in productive economic activities.

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