Thousands of Chinese travellers rush to buy their train tickets at the railway station in Beijing STR/AFP/Getty Images

Will China Really Supplant US Economic Hegemony?

As artificial intelligence reshapes the global economy, economists who once argued that China's massive population would propel it to superpower status should rethink that assumption. In fact, as the global economy reaches higher stages of development, China's labor advantage today could become a handicap tomorrow.

CAMBRIDGE – As China and the United States engage in their latest trade tussle, most economists take it as given that China will achieve global economic supremacy in the long run, no matter what happens now. After all, with four times as many people as the US, and a determined program to catch up after centuries of technological stagnation, isn’t it inevitable that China will decisively take over the mantle of economic hegemon?

I am not so sure. Many economists, including many of the same experts who see China’s huge labor force as a decisive advantage, also worry that robots and artificial intelligence will eventually take away most jobs, leaving most humans to while away their time engaged in leisure activities.

Which is it? Over the next 100 years, who takes over, Chinese workers or the robots? If robots and AI are the dominant drivers of production in the coming century, perhaps having too large a population to care for – especially one that needs to be controlled through limits on Internet and information access – will turn out to be more of a hindrance for China. The rapid aging of China’s population exacerbates the challenge.

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