The general characteristic of the current international situation is uncertainty. Since 2016, the international situation has entered a relatively long period of uncertainty, starting from Brexit in the UK and the election of [Donald] Trump in the US. During this period of uncertainty, a few things are relatively certain:
First, trade protectionism. After Trump’s departure, the US will continue to engage in trade protectionism.
Second, populism. There is populism on both the Left and the Right. There is also identity politics, which has led to sharp contradictions domestically within Western countries.
Third, strongman politics will be the trend moving forward. This was previously seen in Russia. The problem is that now the US is also marching towards strongman politics. Trump is obsessed with his power, so is [Emmanuel] Macron, as are many Eastern European countries. Strongman politics is the new normal.
Fourth, the great power game has once again become the theme of international politics.
The world has entered a relatively long period of uncertainty. What does the path forward look like? It is still unclear. The path I hold in highest regard is a concert of major powers, modeled after the Concert of Europe in the early 19th century. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the Europeans held a conference in Vienna. [Klemens von] Metternich, then prime minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, proposed a coordination mechanism among five countries including Britain, Tsarist Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Prussia. This structure, known as the Concert of Europe, helped Europe maintain a hundred years of rough stability until the outbreak of the First World War.⁴ Can China take the initiative to suggest [something similar]? It would have benefits for world stability. It would be a shortcut. If it is possible, this would be the best path. If it is not possible, well, then nothing can be done about it.
There are a few reasons that the world has entered a period of uncertainty:
First, globalization during the last three decades or so has an ideology: neoliberalism. This wave of globalization was started by the Thatcher Revolution in 1979 and the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Domestically, these two revolutions were referred to as conservative revolutions. But in fact, academic discussions now call it “neoliberalism”—i.e., a revival of the liberalism that prevailed in the UK and the US in the 19th century. Neoliberalism has positive effects. It promotes competition and privatization. More efficiency leads to the growth of wealth and expansion of trade. But it also has problems. Because neoliberalism is market-oriented—its market orientation is very obvious—the winner-takes-all principle inevitably leads to a widening wealth gap. In fact, the gap has grown more severe in all countries over the past 30 years. It is bound to result in widespread discontent among the middle and lower classes, and this discontent is bound to fuel the rise of populist politics on the Left and Right. Populist politics are then bound to be exploited by strongmen, bringing [the country in question] into strongman politics. This outcome is inevitable.
Second, the West’s internal problems are acute, and its predominance over the world abroad is in decline. The first problem in the West is an aging population: in Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Europe, the population has categorically grown older, and is declining. The U.S. population [size] is still fine, but problems have arisen with its internal demographics: the percentage of whites has decreased dramatically. Additionally, the relatively high welfare burden of the West affects its economic efficiency and investment. European countries are barely investing in the digital economy; instead, government coffers are eaten up (some people on the internet say that China’s taxes are too high. In fact, China’s tax burden is only of the middle rank. And half of Chinese fiscal expenditure is spent on projects related to the economy—building development zones and roads, both of which are appreciating in value.) Thus, it [Europe] has too much welfare, causing its efficiency and competitiveness to decline. There is also the problem of fragmentation in internal politics, which affects the efficiency of state governance. In short, the West’s internal conflicts inevitably lead to a decline in its predominance abroad.
Third, emerging countries, represented by China, are on the rise. While China’s economic growth rate is lower than before, dropping from 10% to 6%, it is still relatively fast.⁵ Aside from China, emerging countries such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam also have good prospects.
Fourth, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway. There will be opportunities for both Western and emerging countries. The productive base of the West’s global predominance can no longer be assured. This might be fundamental evidence for President Xi’s statement that the world is facing “great changes unseen in a century.”
Some people believe that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has already arrived, and that “5G + Internet of Things” is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. At the Summer Davos in Tianjin last summer, Professor [Klaus] Schwab, the founder of the forum, felt that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is 5G technology-based IoT.⁶ Because China’s Huawei has the best 5G technology, China’s three major telecommunication operators have the most investments in 5G, and China has huge IoT investments, if “5G + IoT” really is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, China is already ahead.
Of course, more people—especially in the scientific community—believe that while we have heard the footfalls of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it has yet to arrive. They attribute 5G-based IoT to the network phase of the computer revolution. The scientific community generally believes that industrial revolutions have occurred three times: first, with the steam engine; second, with electrification; and third, with the computer. We are now at the network phase of the computer revolution: the emergence of computers was the first phase, miniaturization was the second phase, and networks are the third phase. The first three industrial revolutions were all contributions of Great Britain or the United States. The British designed the steam engine, kicking off the First Industrial Revolution. The Americans were responsible for electrification and the invention of computers. Because they brought about all three industrial revolutions they were the predominant powers in international politics and the world economy, setting standards for languages, finance, and various industries.
However, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has yet to fully arrive. Besides IoT, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking place in five areas. The first is new materials. Today all electronic goods use silicon chips, but technology based on silicon wafers has reached its limits—the evidence is that Moore’s law is no longer valid.⁷ The next industrial revolution will rely on a new material, graphene. The second is genetic engineering, the third is artificial intelligence. The fourth is quantum engineering. The fifth is new energy.
In these five areas, the US has a good accumulation of technology and is in the top echelon [of competition]. It is worth noting that China is currently a full participant in all five of these fields, and its standards are not subpar. Objectively speaking, we have, along with Europe and Japan, restructured the second echelon. South Korea, Russia, and India belong to the third echelon—they do not have the ability to participate fully, but only in select areas. Most countries are in the fourth echelon, disqualified from participation.
In the next decade, China will very likely emerge from the second echelon, surpassing Europe and Japan and coming to the forefront. The competition for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be held between China and the US. This is a great change unseen in five centuries. During the past 500 years of industrial revolution only the West was a participant. In this next industrial revolution, both the East and West are participants. For China, this is an opportunity; for America, this is an enormous challenge.
I notice that last year President Xi Jinping made two major diplomatic assertions: One on the “great changes unseen in a century,” and the other on BRICS countries forming an alliance on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.⁸ My understanding is that President Xi probably noticed the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, determined that China has a certain opportunity, and wanted to share this opportunity with emerging countries.
4 Jin Canrong oversaw the translation of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy into Chinese. Kissinger positions Metternich’s role in creating the Concert of Europe as a foundational act of statesmanship that set the benchmark that all crafters of world order should measure themselves against. Jin’s thinking mirrors Kissinger’s ideas, and are likely to have inspired them.
5 This essay was published in the world before COVID: In 2019 China’s official growth rate was 5.9%.
6 Schwab used the 2018 Summer Davos forum for the release ceremony of his book Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Jin accurately describes its thesis in this passage.
7 In 1965 Gordon Moore predicted that roughly every two years the number of transistors on microchips will double, leading to dramatic reductions in microchip price and equally dramatic gains in computational capacity. Moore’s proposition was not intended as a scientific law, but as a rule of thumb for microchip companies seeking to push forward the technological frontier. As of the publication of this translation, industry insiders are divided on whether Moore’s law still describes the rate of innovation in their sector.
See Kif Leswing, “Intel says Moore’s Law is still alive and well. Nvidia says it’s ended,” CNBC, 27 September 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/09/27/intel-says-moores-law-is-still-alive-nvidia-says-its-ended.html.
8 After presenting a historical framework similar to Jin’s, Xi Jinping stated his hope that the 4th industrial revolution might “sustain global growth with new driving forces and address the North-South imbalance and other deep-seated structural problems.” He further promised that “China will host ten human resources development programs during which experts of our five countries will be invited to draw up a blueprint for our cooperation in the new industrial revolution. By so doing, we hope to enhance the competitiveness of not only BRICS countries but also other emerging markets and developing countries.”
Xi Jinping, “Turn Our Vision into a Reality.” July 26, 2018 [available at here]