There Is No Consensus on American Decline in Beijing 

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There Is No Consensus on American Decline in Beijing 

It is inaccurate – and dangerous – to assume that Chinese policy elites broadly perceive the U.S. to be in perpetual decline.

There Is No Consensus on American Decline in Beijing 

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.

Credit: Official White House photo

Western writing on China is rife with commentary and analysis suggesting that there is an established consensus among Chinese policy elites and academics that the United States is in a state of perpetual decline. This analysis accurately diagnoses increasing confidence in China about Beijing’s material capabilities and technological prowess, and often passes for conventional wisdom. However, it ignores several recently published Chinese-language articles and commentaries that suggest there is far from a uniform consensus in Beijing about U.S. decline. 

Many prominent Chinese elites have detailed how the United States continues to occupy a leading position in the international system, how its economic capabilities and influence have not waned and remain robust, and how it still holds sizable advantages in areas related to science and technology. An awareness of the diversity of views among those who help shape the discourse in Beijing’s policymaking circles allows for a more accurate appraisal of China’s approach to strategic competition. This in turn can help Washington craft smarter policy towards its principal strategic rival. 

Party rhetoric from Beijing regularly trumpets China’s rise as inevitable and part of “changes not seen for a century.” This triumphalism has been largely coterminous with Xi Jinping’s time in office, though its origins extend back to the global financial crisis of 2008, when many Chinese elites began to express skepticism about U.S. leadership and hegemony. This hubris was then amplified during the Trump administration and into the pandemic, as rifts between the United States and its allies became more apparent and as Washington’s capacity to protect its citizens at home was called into question. 

Prominent Chinese elites have sought more recently to dispel this common narrative. The political scientist Zheng Yongnian emphasized in 2022 that while “China has risen rapidly, the West has not fallen; it has just risen a little slower. Many people have not understood this point.”  Sun Zhe, the director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations and professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University, has similarly warned that “discussion underestimating the U.S. and thinking that the importance of the U.S. has declined has restricted China’s objective judgment of the U.S. and the healthy development of U.S.-China relations.” 

Zhao Kejin, an associate professor of International Studies at Tsinghua University, wrote that “many people think the United States is in decline now, but I personally think the United States has not declined.” He drew attention to issues endemic within U.S. politics, but chalked these up to various kinds of “confusion” in U.S. democracy and did not suggest that these are indicative of decline relative to China. 

Even Jin Canrong, the associate dean of the School of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing whose views on U.S. decline are discussed extensively in Rush Doshi’s book “The Long Game,” stated in 2023 that the balance of power between the United States and China has remained unchanged, let alone the “advantage of power” enjoyed by the U.S. in the international system. 

The notion that the U.S. economy is in decline or that Washington’s economic influence abroad is diminishing has also received pushback. Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, argued in 2022 that he has “doubts about assertions regarding the economic decline of the United States.” He noted that the U.S. economy has consistently accounted for “25-30 percent of world GDP” and that even though it has “occasionally slipped out of this range, it always recovers within a short period of time.” He concluded that “it is illogical to think that the U.S. will decline in the short-term,” pointing to enduring advantages the U.S. possesses in its natural resources, demographic trends, and geography. 

Other experts such as Lu Feng, chair professor of economics at Peking University, have emphasized that the rate of China’s “catch-up” vis-a-vis the United States is “slowing down.” Lu pointed out that between 2011 and 2021, China’s “catch-up rate” vis-a-vis the U.S. slowed by 55 percent. Between 2017 and 2021, China’s GDP only grew an aggregate total of 8.5 percent against the United States while China’s annual “catch-up rate” in that period averaged only 1.7 percent per year. 

The decline of U.S. manufacturing over the past two decades is often taken as an indicator of American decline by observers on both sides of the Pacific. However, Ma Xue, an associate researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a government-connected think tank, has even countered this argument. In 2023, she asserted that the manufacturing industry in the U.S. has never been in “true decline,” and emphasized that the scale of U.S. manufacturing has grown rapidly in the last 40 years in absolute terms and in terms of productivity, maintaining its “competitive edge.” 

Claims that China is ahead in the bilateral competition over high-tech innovation and research have also been met with some skepticism by Chinese elites. Wu Guosheng, professor and chair of the Department of the History of Science at Tsinghua University, has asserted that the “gap between the U.S. and China in science and technology is still relatively large” and that only by “reversing our fundamental views on science, basic research, and innovative culture, can we truly narrow the gap.” Wu lamented what he sees as China’s “rigid, old-fashioned” teachers and a restrictive “scientific culture,” which he believes obstructs efforts to foster a culture of true innovation akin to that of the United States. 

Ren Zhengfei, founder of the telecoms giant Huawei, has expressed a similar sentiment. During a speech delivered at Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2023, he argued that “American politicians may come and go, but the United States’ innovative soil has lasted for hundreds of years and will not degrade because of them.” Ren added that “the soft power of the United States in science and education is something we cannot achieve in a few decades.” 

The scientist Shi Yigong, the former dean of Tsinghua University’s School of Life Sciences, asserted in 2023 that “American science is much more powerful than you can imagine” and emphasized that “it is not only not in decline, but it will also lead world development in coming decades.” He stated that “according to the data, the U.S. has continued nurturing leading talent” and continues to occupy a “leading position in the world in innovation and various lines of scientific research, regardless of whether it is military or aerospace technology or any other area.” 

Wang Wen, the executive dean of the Chaoyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University, echoed Wu, Ren, and Shi, writing around the same time that while China may ultimately surpass the United States, it is necessary for China to “objectively face the basic fact that the U.S. is not declining and will not decline.” He argued that the West still holds “obvious advantages” in that Washington maintains “an absolute leading position in finance, science and technology, military, and education.” 

It is inaccurate and dangerous to assume that Chinese policy elites broadly perceive the U.S. to be in perpetual decline. This is not to ignore the significant contingent of U.S. declinists in academic and policy positions throughout China’s network of universities and think tanks. It may be the case that their views represent the majority of the contemporary Chinese academy. It is a mistake, however, to assume that there is a monolithic view in Beijing on Washington’s stature, position, and influence in the world. Debate in elite Chinese policy circles on the current stature and future of the United States is as contested as its inverse in the West. 

Assuming that there are uniform views of U.S. decline in Beijing contributes to threat inflation, by interpreting China as being convinced that it is on a trajectory, buoyed by a historical narrative, toward a successful power transition. This misperception could also lead to miscalculations on the U.S. side. As certain narratives in Washington’s strategic discourse calcify into conventional wisdom, they can go uninterrogated, and if policymakers stop critically assessing these basic assumptions, they might fail to observe significant shifts in trends that could otherwise be leveraged to deescalate tensions. 

The extent to which discourse has shifted in recent years, from discussion oriented around China’s ascendancy to suggestions now that China is “peaking,” is indicative of how rapidly geopolitical conditions can change. Those changes require an equally flexible ability to reevaluate some conventional views when necessary.



Guest Author

Daniel Fu

Daniel Fu is a research associate at Harvard Business School. He was formerly the editor of the Party Watch Initiative and an open-source analyst at the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR) in Washington D.C.  He received his M.A. in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations from Columbia University and his B.A. in Political Science from Boston College. His research has been published by the Jamestown Foundation, Pacific Forum, and The Diplomat.

Guest Author

Arran Hope

Arran Hope is the editor-in-chief of the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief. He was formerly a business reporter at the China Project in New York. He received his M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and his B.A. in Chinese Studies and Japanese at the University of Cambridge.