Did China win?

Image: David Yu


Thoughts on the Book of Kishore Mahbubani

Kishore Mahbubani gives a positive answer to the question posed in the title of his book, Did China win? The Chinese Challenge to American Supremacy. Written, in 2019, published, in English, the following year, under the Donald Trump administration, it was presented, in Portuguese, only in 2021, already under the Democratic government of Joe Biden. The successes of the last two years, some unacknowledged predictions by events and the author's hasty response to the question he asks do not detract from the value of his interpretation of the US-China confrontation. Kishore Mahbubani, 74 years old, Singaporean of Indian descent, analyzes the successes in question from a privileged position: for many years he was his country's ambassador to the UN, president, university professor and is a renowned essayist and lecturer.

Did China win?, with 269 pages of text and the appendix “The myth of American exceptionalism”, by Stephen M. Walt, is an easy and pleasant book to read, without simplification of content, perhaps aimed mainly at the American readership. Its reading is valued for its oriental look on the burning confrontation, without animosity towards the United States, even though the work shows a clear sympathy for China. Even when carrying out assessments, which are often devastating, the author takes his time advising the necessary reorientations of course, so that the USA can overcome the impasse and the tendency of decay in which it finds itself.


Everything is solved with a good discussion

Kishore Mahbubani internalized his more than thirty years as a career diplomat, representative of the city-state of Singapore, a rich and important international tax haven, in the strategic homonymous strait. He understands world confrontations as solvable through negotiations, undertaken rationally by their leaders. He does not find an insurmountable obstacle for a peaceful, albeit tense, agreement, coexistence and accommodation between the two great nations in confrontation, while the United States slips into the inevitable second position that he proposes it will assume in a few years. He sees the end of the second "American Century" as inscribed in the stars.

For K. Mahbubani, there is no such thing as the unavoidable struggle to the death between the great imperialist nations for supremacy, which characterized the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries and is projected into the current century. He proposes, simply, that a “war” between the US and China is “unthinkable”, as it would lead to the destruction of both nations. That is, it would be anti-rational. It does not realize the multiple nuances that this clash can assume, in the form of indirect confrontations, as occurred in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, between the USSR and the USA, and which can now erupt in Ukraine, Taiwan, in the South China Sea , above all. Conflicts that can always spread out, assuming dimensions that are difficult to predict.

China will certainly win, as the author believes, if the USA and its succuba imperialist nations do not defeat it, in the battle of sickle and machete, in which they fought, especially in the last five years. And so strong is the tendency towards confrontation that his prediction that Russia would approach the USA and Europe is completely contradicted. Just three years after the work was written, that country is increasingly showing solidarity with China, united both against their now irreducible common enemy.


Birds of a feather

The ex-diplomat's interpretation stems from understanding the USA and China as nations without any essential contradictions, since both participate prominently in the international division of capitalist production. There would not be a visceral opposition, like that of the times of essential antagonism between the US, capitalist, and the USSR, socialist. For K. Mahbubani, it is rational decisions, taken by ruling elites, that advance nations. Therefore, to put an end to current disagreements, it would be enough for Chinese and US leaders to overcome cultural prejudices and misunderstandings, thus contributing to the good of their nations, populations and the general happiness of peoples. For him, the popular masses do not advance history and are practically not part of it.

Therefore, it would be essential to understand the origins of the misunderstandings between China and the United States in order to propose relevant solutions. K. Mahbubani remembers that China, feared when communist and revolutionary, started to be welcomed by the (capitalist) nations of the region and the world, after Nixon's visit, in 1972, promoted by Mao Zedong, and the official conversion to capitalism, in 1978, advanced by Deng Xiaoping. Metamorphosis sponsored by the USA, which then surpassed the former “Middle Empire”, by far, in all domains — diplomatic, financial, economic, military, social, technological, etc. He points out and details “China's biggest strategic mistake” (chapter 2) and those of the “USA” (chapter 3) that led to the breaking of dishes of a couple who had lived a happy romance.

There are basically two major mistakes made by China: China's distancing from US businessmen with investments in China, mainly due to technology transfer requirements, which the author recognizes as a right of every nation that opens its borders to foreign companies. And the arrogance of Chinese leaders and businessmen, after the 2008-9 crisis, born of the fragility of the USA at that juncture. The proposed solution is simple: open the country more to western investments and make concessions to businessmen, especially Americans, established in China. In other words, China must stop being so greedy!


Little bone for a big dog

K. Mahbubani identifies the grievances against China, not just from US business people, and the time when they arose. However, he does not understand the profound reasons for the change in mood of Chinese businessmen, administrators and political leaders. It does not follow China's transition from a nation exporting low-value-added products and a consumer market for globalized technological goods, to a producer and exporter of high-value-added products and services and, what was new, capital. An inevitable change of mood, when China and its interests went from the reserved hunting ground of global and imperialist capital to the relentless hunter in the hunting reserves of the former masters. Now, there were two big dogs fighting in the kennel over the juicy bone, that is, the world market.

The radiography of the USA is a high moment of Did China win? The Chinese Challenge to American Supremacy. Without mincing words, the former ambassador addresses the country's industrial decline, the more than ten-year setback in the conditions of existence of its working, middle and marginalized classes. He describes a nation that spends more than the taxes it collects, imports more than it exports, lives off the world hegemony of the dollar, currency of refuge and international exchange. And he recalls that the reign of the dollar could end, even more so under arbitrary US action. He refers to the aggressive Yankee international arrogance, imposing sanctions and extra-territorial prohibitions, left and right.

The recommendations it puts forward for the United States to return to the right road are naive. Above all, spending less on weapons, reducing military bases abroad, no longer engaging in wars that he defines as random and as reasons for Yankee decline. Which would allow them to spend more on technology, on research, on education, on infrastructure, on the means of life of the impoverished segments. Thus, at least it would lessen the decadence it is experiencing in multiple and decisive domains, above all in relation to China.

K. Mahbubani does not understand that incessant warmongering is a necessary condition for maintaining his own financial hegemony, which strongly sustains a nation that he classifies as in the process of bankruptcy. He does not see that even random military spending and endless wars express the needs of the accumulation and reproduction cycles of big capital in permanent crisis, which determine national political actions, generally in an anti-national sense.


wonder china

In Chapter 4, the author launches into full praise, deserved and undeserved, of the Chinese capitalist economy. It rests on a proposed innate non-imperialism of the Chinese people, made up mainly of peasants — however, the peasants of Lazio were the expanding force of the Republic and the Roman Empire! He finds in the millennial past of imperial China the explanation of the current Chinese nation-state, which he correctly describes as the construction of the Chinese Communist Party, completed in 1949, by winning the Civil War. He obliterates the differences in quality between the distant past and the Chinese present, a usual procedure in so many other authors. Something like explaining present-day Italy from the Roman Empire.

K. Mahbubani gets confused when trying to explain Chinese dominance over Tibet, Xinjiang and the current fixation of the CCP on the reconquest of Taiwan. He proposes that pacifism would be in the Chinese DNA, unlike the US, which is totally warmongering. The first statement is debatable, as the modern Chinese nation was built through the struggle against the “warlords”, the Japanese and the Chinese bourgeoisie supported by US imperialism. Victories commanded by the PCC, which, shortly after coming to power, threw itself into the bloody war in Korea. The second statement is absolutely correct, as the USA was born and developed by warring, invading, destroying everything near and far.

In Chapter 5, K. Mahbubani addresses the need for the US to correct course, thus mitigating its inexorable decline. However, despite not verbalizing it, he believes that it is very difficult for the great nation to reinvent itself. He sees great qualities in the USA: its open and free society and economy; the ability to welcome and employ the best brains in the world; the magnificent and unbeatable American universities; its powerful and free means of communication. He specifies that China lacks many of these powerful instruments of progress.

He points out that the US has, by far, the “largest strategic thinking industry in the world”. Which, in his assessment, paradoxically, have been of little use to them. It is regrettable that, regarding China – and also Russia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, we would say – this “collective thought” only reproduces and enhances, without any dissent, the Manichaean views of the USA about those nations , societies, cultures, etc. They are unanimously presented as evil kingdoms, to be fought, to return to the domain of truth and American salvation, even if for that they need to be totally destroyed, as in the paradigmatic case of Libya. In the infinity of analysis centers, think tanks, etc., not even one would raise an audible word proposing the productive application of the immense public funds invested in weapons, ships, military bases scattered throughout the world and in wars that ruin the nation. Military resources that he defines as terribly misused, since they are subject to the most varied pressures from the arms industry. The great American press would suffer from the same selective blindness, which he defines as free and magnificent.


Going up the elevator, going down the stairs

In Chapters 6 and 7, he tackles the question of the proposed lack of Western-type democracy in China, the great ideological battering ram of the US offensive and its associates against the, in the past, “Celestial Empire”. It undertakes an interesting comparison between the Chinese and American political regimes, always from the point of view of an unyielding pro-capitalist intellectual, formerly a prominent official in Singapore, a city-state literally built by world finance and governed by democratic institutions, in an authoritarian flavor .

For K. Mahbubani, “to each his own”. The Chinese population would always have loved order and abhorred disorder, privileging community over individualism. And the Chinese Communist Party, in recent decades, would have given him all that and above all upward progression, with a social cost that he does not mention. Today, China would have the largest middle class in the world and would be the real “land of opportunity”, unlike the USA, where, increasingly, rich or poor, people are born and die.

The Chinese political order would be dynamic and not suffer from sclerosis. The American public would be unaware that the current Chinese regime and rulers enjoy broad popular support. The author recalls that, supported by Confucianism, the idea of ​​the divine right of emperors to the government was forged in the past, until they “lost the mandate of heaven”, when they did not satisfy the expectations of their subjects. And he rightly points out that if the CCP does not guarantee the average social advancement of the immense Chinese population, it will lose its “mandate” and its reign will inevitably be questioned. What happened, remember, in the USSR.

The presented reading of the PCC and its metamorphosis is valuable, always carried out within the limits of the author's worldview, where social struggle does not exist. He correctly defines the CCP as a nationalist capitalist party, built for him through the silent transformation of the “ossified communist bureaucracy into a highly adaptive capitalist machine”. Currently recruiting “only the best graduates in the country” (186-188) Ignores the bitter class struggle that followed the 1949 seizure of power in China. And he doesn't even mention the phantasmagorias about a Party keeping communist virginity under lock and key, for a hundred years, while pushing day after day, year after year, the endless turmoil of Chinese capitalism.


You can't save those who don't want to be saved

Mahbubani presents the US political and social order as rotten from the inside, suggesting an inability to regenerate itself. Unlike China, which has advanced like a locomotive in recent decades, making the average living conditions of the population progress, the USA has seen the ultra-rich get rich and the middle, working, and marginalized classes collapse. A Federal Reserve study estimated that 40% of Americans would fumble with an emergency spending of just $400!

He explains this general impoverishment as the product of a super-structural phenomenon with a cultural bias, and arising from profound economic determinations. It would be due to the assault and control of Yankee politics by big capital, transforming the US political regime into a consolidated “plutocracy” – government of the country by the wealthy. And, in a brilliant exposition, he registers that the population, which feels its living conditions are deteriorating, continues to trust blindly in the government of the millionaires. This is because it understands them as a product of an open and free society that rewards individual effort with economic success, an enrichment that would be within reach of their hands. What, for the author, has been, for decades, a simple mythology without support in objective reality.

He defines as the main pillar of American culture the “presumption of virtue” of the American population, which considers the USA as an “empire of freedom”, a “shining city on a hill”, the “last hope of Earth”, the “leader of the free world”, the “indispensable nation”. And, therefore, a people and a country eternally condemned to victory and success, even when everything indicates that they are sliding down the slope. Conceptions born, for the former ambassador, from the loss of content of the institutions and traditions established by the “Founding Fathers of the United States”, who forget that they were, in the great majority, rich and hard slaveholders.

The vision of the intrinsic excellence of a civilization and its citizens and their duty to civilize the barbarians, even with the arguments of violence, is a super-structural phenomenon proper to all dominant and imperialist societies, not just the United States. It was like this in Greece, in Imperial Rome, in Spain and in Portugal of the discoveries; in contemporary imperialist England, France, Japan, and so on.


poisoned democracy

Mahbubani makes it clear that the campaign for the democratic conversion of Chinese institutions by US missionaries – and their minor associates – is only part of the strategy for the disorganization and domination of the great eastern nation. A reality – for him – widely understood by Chinese leaders and intellectuals who, on the contrary, have no intention of converting the world, interested, now, only in swallowing it economically, we would say.

At the conclusion of his informative work, K. Mahbubani returns to the proposition that the US-China conflict is “inevitable and avoidable”. For him, American strategists, politicians, administrators and far-sighted intellectuals must correct the Yankee warlike aggressiveness and organize, as painlessly as possible, the arrival of the moment when their “powerful country becomes number two” “in the world”. In other words, it augurs that the ex-lord will bestow the best place at the table, the most lucrative deals, that the superb eagle will literally deliver the lion's share of the already meager meal to the hungry Dragon.

No one gives way without a fight. The big capitals in confrontation use all the weapons they have to maintain or achieve the persecuted supremacy. German and Japanese imperialism faced a general confrontation that they could not win, throwing their nations and the world into the terror of the Second World War, trying to break the world domination of the hegemonic nations and capitals. In addition to pacifist utopias, only the extinction of capital and the social and rational reorganization of society through the world of work will guarantee the fate of humanity, today more and more threatened.

* Mario Maestri is a historian. Author, among other books, of Awakening the Dragon: Birth and Consolidation of Chinese Imperialism. 1949-2021.



Kishore Mahbubani. Did China win? o Chinese challenge to American supremacy. Translation: Bruno Casotti. Rio de Janeiro, Intrinsic, 2021, 368 pages.


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