WASHINGTON Nikita Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would bury us, but these days, everybody seems to think that China is the one wielding the shovel. The People's Republic is on the march economically, militarily, even ideologically. Economists expect its GDP to surpass America's by 2025; its submarine fleet is reportedly growing five times faster than Washington's; even its capitalist authoritarianism is called a real alternative to the West's liberal democracy. China, the drumbeat goes, is ready to dominate the 21st century the way the United States dominated the 20th.
Except that it's not.
Ever since I returned to the United States in 2004 from my last posting to China, as The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, I've been struck by the breathless way we talk about that country. So often, our perceptions of the place have more to do with how we look at ourselves than with what's actually happening over there. Worried about the U.S. education system? China's becomes a model. Fretting about our military readiness? China's missiles pose a threat. Concerned about slipping U.S. global influence? China seems ready to take our place.
But will China really be another superpower? I doubt it.
I'm not a China-basher. I first went to China in 1980 as a student, and I've followed its remarkable transformation over the past 28 years. I met my wife there and call it a second home. I'm hardly expecting China to implode. But its dream of dominating the century won't be a reality any time soon.
Too many constraints are built into the country's social, economic and political systems. For four big reasons dire demographics, an overrated economy, an environment under siege and an ideology that doesn't travel well China is more likely to remain the muscle-bound adolescent of the international system than to become the master of the world.
In the West, China is known as "the factory to the world," the land of unlimited labor where millions are eager to leave the hardscrabble countryside for a chance to tighten screws in microwaves. If the country is going to rise to superpowerdom, says conventional wisdom, it will do so on the back of its massive work force.
But China's demographics stink. No country is aging faster than the People's Republic, which is on track to become the first nation in the world to get old before it gets rich. Because of the Communist Party's notorious one-child-per-family policy, the average number of children born to a Chinese woman has dropped from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today below the rate of 2.1 that would keep the population stable. Meanwhile, life expectancy has shot up, from just 35 in 1949 to more than 73 today. Economists worry that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise, significantly eroding one of China's key competitive advantages.
Worse, Chinese demographers such as Li Jianmin of Nankai University now predict a crisis with China's elderly, a group that will balloon from 100 million people older than 60 today to 334 million by 2050, including a staggering 100 million age 80 or older. How will China care for them? With pensions? Fewer than 30 percent of urban dwellers have them, and none of the 700 million farmers do. And China's state-funded pension system makes Social Security look like Fort Knox. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, calls China's demographic time bomb "a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy in the making."
Not a month goes by without some Washington think tank crowing that China's economy is overtaking America's. But there are two problems with their predictions. First, in the universe where these reports are generated, China's graphs always go up, never down. Second, while the documents may include some nuance, it vanishes when the studies are reported to the rest of us.
One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China's population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn't a dragon; it's a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, between Swaziland and Morocco. China's economy is large, but its average living standard is low and will remain so for a very long time.
The big number wheeled out to prove that China is eating our economic lunch is the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year hit $256 billion. But nearly 60 percent of China's total exports are churned out by companies not owned by Chinese. When it comes to high-tech exports such as computers and electronic goods, 89 percent come from non-Chinese-owned companies. China is part of the global system, but it's still the low-cost assembly and manufacturing part and foreign, not Chinese, firms are reaping the lion's share of the profits.
In 2004, when my family and I moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States, my son's frequent asthma attacks and chronic chest infections stopped. When people asked why we'd moved to L.A., I started joking, "For the air."
China's environmental woes are no joke. This year, China will surpass the United States as the world's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. China is the largest depleter of the ozone layer and the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China; 70 percent of its lakes and rivers are polluted and half its population lacks clean drinking water. By 2030, the nation will face a water shortage equal to the amount it consumes today; factories in the northwest have already been forced out of business because there just isn't any water. Even Chinese government economists estimate that environmental troubles shave 10 percent off the country's gross domestic product annually.
And then there's "Kung Fu Panda," which embodies the final reason why China won't be a superpower: Beijing's animating ideas just aren't that animating.
The recent Hollywood smash, about the high-kicking panda who uses ancient Chinese teachings to turn himself into a kung fu warrior, broke Chinese box-office records and caused hand-wringing among the country's glitterati. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure, and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, told the official New China News Agency.
The movie's content may be Chinese, but its irreverence and creativity are 100 percent American. China remains an authoritarian state run by a party that limits the free flow of information, stifles ingenuity and doesn't understand how to self-correct. Blockbusters don't grow out of the barrel of a gun. Neither do superpowers in the age of globalization.
Yet we seem to revel in overestimating China. Recently I was at a party where a senior aide to a Democratic senator was discussing the business deal earlier this year in which a Chinese state-owned investment company had bought a big chunk of the Blackstone Group, a U.S. investment firm. The Chinese company has lost more than $1 billion, but the aide wouldn't believe that it was just a bum investment. "It's got to be part of a broader plan," she insisted. "It's China."
John Pomfret is editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section. He is a former Beijing bureau chief for The Post and the author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."