The new configuration brought about by the “great changes unseen in a century” is expressed on two levels, which are linked by an unprecedented historical connection. As the world changes, China also changes. The intensity of China’s yearning for change was at its height during the forty years of Reform and Opening. The greatest transformation we have passed through was Reform and Opening. However, China’s Reform and Opening was a step-by-step, top-down process.4 Today, it is possible that China has started to enter a bottom-up process of transformation, which we can treat as an object of academic research. China’s transformation is, as Trump called it, a two-way process.5
I summarize the changes in the world into four categories.
The first is the structure of power and wealth, in which an unprecedented balance between East and West has emerged.
The second are alternatives to traditional political paths, such as so-called “universal values,” European Populism, the rise of right-wing forces, and so forth.
The third is the question of identity. We talk about the unprecedented fragmentation of globalization, worldviews, and ideologies. So what is the fundamental reason for the crisis of identity? It is an extremely simple and fundamental social phenomenon. On a certain level, societies adapt to certain concepts, certain organizational systems, and certain structures, but after a period of time develop internal tensions and contradictions and must undertake a new [round of] adjustment. Therefore, [this observation] offers a very simple perspective on our understanding of international relations: that it is a type of social organism, including all of the characteristics of a social organism.6
The fourth is the crisis of governance mechanisms. No matter whether [we look at] global governance, regional governance, or national governance, all are facing unprecedented challenges. In this context, the new trends, characteristics, and trajectory of the future—to return to research on international relations—are the consequence of the cyclical laws that govern all change and development in international relations. Now is the start of a new cycle. This new cycle has three very important characteristics that are worth noting.
The first is re-globalization. The very same favorable and affirming factors on which globalization originally depended are at the present moment being gravely challenged and repudiated. I remember going to Europe and the U.S. before 2008 – particularly in Europe [this phenomenon] was very typical – and the post-industrialism they spoke of in Europe had become post-modernism, and there was another concept called post-urbanism. Europeans thought that a way of life [defined by] this type of supra-democracy would persist; today, it looks like it is unable to persist.
Another issue is the American dollar. We know that America is an exponent of financial capitalism, and the financial services industry makes up 80%.7 In the past 30 years, two countries have been the most successful: one is China and the other is America. In the past 30 years, the U.S. doubled its GDP and its real economy has not only not declined, but rather has continued to grow. But the U.S. has structural problems, including a clear division of labor between different social strata, and so populism is on the rise.
The second is the re-configuration of ideology. Traditional liberal internationalism, the United States’ most fundamental hegemonic value system, is at present encountering unprecedented challenges. Liberal internationalism is undergoing a major adjustment and the U.S. is again changing its strategic thinking in relation to its responsibilities and duties [on the one hand], and its balance of interests [on the other]. The United States is returning to the very simple grand strategy of Americentrism and the so-called “ethno-state.”8 This is not just happening in the economic realm, but is [happening] to an even greater extent in the security realm. This perspective is therefore the second characteristic of the new cycle. Indeed, the world’s mainstream ideology has already exhibited unprecedented diversification:
One variety [of this diversification] is that the U.S. has moved towards an unusual alternative ideology. Americans themselves all feel that things are not the same as they were before. As the American media says, the question of whether Trump is the mouthpiece for Russian interests is no longer simply an issue confined to the election or even to the political and economic career of Trump himself.
The second variety [of this diversification] is the centrality of new powers, represented by China and Russia; we [Russia and China] both hold this particular banner high. Liberalism has been weakened in Europe, which today is a major problem. “Brexit” is Britain’s ideological choice, and also a choice based on Britain’s interests. It is another novel political and social viewpoint of the present day.
The third variety is [seen in] the diversity of ideology in developing countries: the 92 year-old Mahathir won the election in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia is undertaking secular reforms, Venezuela’s socialist revolution has become a joke. The ideology in developing countries is unprecedentedly diverse. Vietnam is currently attempting democratic-socialist development.
Today, developing countries are the liveliest sites of experimentation with ideology in international relations. They are not simply proceeding according to the Western model and the Eastern model [of ideology] but are seeking models that suit their own situation.
The third is the re-emergence of nationalism. People have observed that [developments in] global governance and regional governance have clearly been deferred. We can see that this is the case in Asia and in the African Union; looking at the European Union, if Germany and Italy also choose to follow [the example of] “Brexit,” then the European Union will face the danger of dissolution. As the transformation of the world commences and a new cycle [in international relations] emerges, all that any country can do is to strengthen its own national power, [then] return to the cult of ethno-nationalism and a reliance on political strongmen. Japan is a textbook case. Abe proposed to pursue a new national strategy. Since the end of World War II, Japan has never advanced a major power strategy, based on the consensus of all Japanese people, as openly as it does today. Turkey is also a textbook case, as Erdogan seems to be [seeking to] restore Turkey to the Great Power status it enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire. And to an even greater extent, India is exhibiting an unprecedented level of self-confidence.
The future of the world is not just a tale of gloom. But exactly what kind of improvements will the characteristics of the new cycle in world politics bring to world politics? On this point, questions remain.
The “great changes unseen in a century” that Chairman Xi Jinping speaks of cohere completely with the [proclamations of] the 19th Party Congress; that is, emphasizing the configuration [created by] China’s unprecedented entry onto the world stage. This is the most important interpretation of the “great changes unseen in a century.” From this perspective, the century’s great changes are the result of China’s unprecedented advance toward the center of the world stage in terms of the allocation of rights, wealth and interests. The problem, however, is that we lack the awareness that our rise as a great power brings with it not only the prospect for glory, but even more so the specter of risk.9 In the present era, this risk is not just a simple question of war and peace.
In the future of this new cycle in the world’s political development, will China be able to further reduce the gap between itself and the United States, or will it, like Japan in the late 1980s, experience a precipitous decline and fall even further behind the United States? From the perspective of the history of international relations, you can count on one hand the number of times a great power has truly succeeded in rising. It is possible that China will face unprecedented strategic setbacks in its rise as a great power once again. This is a potential problem that we must analyze.
4 Though this is a common understanding of Reform and Opening both inside China and outside it, careful scholarship has demonstrated that most of the process of reform was often driven from the bottom up. See, for example, Frank Dikotter, “The silent revolution: Decollectivization from below during the Cultural Revolution,” China Quarterly 277 (2016), 796–811; Ning Wang and Ronald Coase, How China Became Capitalist (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 112-133, 143, 149; Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth ]. Perry, “Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China,” in Mao's Invisible Hand, Heilmann and Perry, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-30.
5 Center for Strategic Translation editors have not been able to locate the source of this quotation in either Chinese or English; it is likely spurious.
6 Rendered literally, the term would be “social life.” The point here is that international relations is a sociological and anthropological discipline: i.e., it is determined by the full set of material and spiritual conditions that influence human social relations. This description links to the anthropological phenomena he discusses throughout, such as identity crises, populism and so forth.
7 The original text does not make clear what the American financial services industry comprises 80% of.
8 This address was given in 2019 and refers to the major changes in American policy and ideology under Trump. In particular, this is a likely reference to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s 4 December 2018 address in Brussels titled “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order.” A key passage in the speech reads:
Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself. The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done. Was that ever really true? The central question that we face is that – is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today, and as the world exists today – does it work? …Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.
This is what President Trump is doing. He is returning the United States to its traditional, central leadership role in the world. He sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. He knows that nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.
9 Since the publication of this piece assessments of risk have become an increasingly important part of the discourse surrounding “great changes unseen in a century.” For examples and analysis on this point, see footnote #2. For a larger review of Party conceptions of risk and their relationship to security, see Jude Blanchette, “The Edge of an Abyss: Xi Jinping’s Overall National Security Outlook,” China Leadership Monitor 73 (Fall 2022); Samantha Hoffman, “Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security,” PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017).