According to the U.S.-based Global Language Monitor, which tracks the top 50,000 print and electronic media sites throughout the world, the “rise of China” was the most read-about media theme of the past decade, surpassing even the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War. One reason for this, we may presume, is that the ubiquitous subtext to “China’s rise” is America’s decline. We know a good deal less than we should about what attentive and educated Chinese read in a land where the press is not free, but we do know something about how the Chinese elite sees the world—and while the subject matter overlaps a good deal, the substance is not what many attentive and educated Americans suppose.
Debate among the Chinese elite today is framed around whether the international structure of power will soon change from “one superpower, many great powers” (yi chao duo qiang) toward a state of genuine multipolarity (duojihua), or not. For example, in February 2009, Li Hongmei, the editor of People’s Daily online, confidently predicted “an unambiguous end to the U.S. unipolar system”, arguing that America was “pushed to the brink of collapse as a result of its inherent structural contradictions and unbridled capitalist structure”, and that the international order was thus shifting toward genuine multipolarity.1 Unofficial but apparently authentic transcripts and exchanges from the Eleventh National People’s Congress (NPC), held in March 2009, reveal that officials spent much of their time discussing how best to continue “China’s peaceful rise” and manage “America’s peaceful decline.” Indeed, Chinese confidence in a rapidly emerging multipolar world reached feverish levels in the spring of 2009 as American stock markets and other economic indicators continued their freefall.
But despite an especially difficult past decade for America, no enduring sense of triumphalism has emerged in Beijing. Having poured over more than a hundred major articles and memos written during the past decade in both Mandarin and English, about a third of which were published since the onset of the global financial crisis, I have found a literature obsessed with all things American. These writers—the most influential Chinese scholars and Communist Party officials on international relations theory, global and regional outlook and foreign policy strategy—are focused not just on U.S. hard power but also the nature of American leadership, values and society. At least four out of five articles aim to understand the sources of American strength so that China might counter them. Serious people in China do not count America out. Indeed, knowing something about China’s own vulnerabilities, the feeling that comes through more clearly is not hubris but fear.
This judgment is supported by the December 2009 edition of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’...