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The Moral of the China Story

With Chinese leaders busy fighting financial fires and broader economic malaise, nobody talks about other developing countries learning from China anymore. But the world’s second-largest economy still has valuable insights to offer to those equipped with the appropriate historical perspective.

WASHINGTON, DC – Only a few years ago, at the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th National Congress in 2017, President Xi Jinping declared that “socialism with Chinese characteristics … [is] blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization.” At the time, many countries across the Global South seemed eager to learn China’s formula for success, but the United States saw such emulation as a threat to the democratic West’s soft power. Six years later, the eastward shift in geopolitical power seems to have reversed. 

In early 2023, after three years of smothering lockdowns, China reopened its doors to the world. “China is back,” many declared. But by the second quarter, the country’s economic outlook was becoming gloomier by the week. Western commentators duly swerved. After warning that China was overtaking the West, they now argued that it had peaked and would threaten global stability by dint of its decline. (In these narratives, China always constitutes a threat, regardless of whether it is rising or falling.)

With Chinese leaders busy fighting fires at home, nobody talks about learning from China anymore. If Xi’s 2017 speech marked China’s “coming out” as a superpower – one ready to offer not only cash but also enlightenment – it may have been the shortest-lived geopolitical triumph in modern history. Yet even though China is no longer “winning,” it would be short-sighted to dismiss its recent experience as irrelevant. In fact, China’s combination of accomplishments and stumbles, from the “reform and opening” of the 1980s through the present day, makes it an even more instructive case than if it were only a miracle.