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Why America Is More Powerful Than China--For Now

Two and a quarter centuries ago, China was arguably the most powerful country in the world, while America was a fledgling nation who had barely won independence from Great Britain. Up to now (over almost a century or), America has been the world's most powerful country, while China has been a "developing county. Could these roles flip-flop again, and why might they?

While Washington had much to fear from England's King George III, another leader, China's Qian Long Emperor, feared him (and England) too LITTLE. The British had sent a trade mission under Ambassador George McCartney in 1793 to open trade relations with China, on what would then be equal terms. But after (to his credit) entertaining the British envoys in Beijing and considering their "respectful" requests, Qian Long wrote a letter to King George III that read in part:

"I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures...our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce."

It was this complacency and self-satisfaction that set China on a downward slope for a century and half.

According to McCartney (quoted in Wickipedia):

The Empire of China is an old,crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of  vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past... But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright... but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.]

At the time, China had over 100 million people, America barely three million. Now, China has 1.3 billion people, or about ten times as many, while America has about 100 times more, or 300 million (rather than the 30 million it would have if its population growth had matched China's.

In a previous post, I told about how Bear Stearns fell apart because its CEO was nowhere near the caliber of George Washington.

A similar claim can be made that China declined in power, because its counterpart to Washington, the Qian Long Emperor, was not nearly as good.  And this took place over two CENTURIES ago (both men died the same year, in 1799).

But America today has much the same complacency as Qian Long's China.  If our current leaders are like him while China's leaders are more like Washington, the relative positions of the two countries could flip-flop again. Because China has been rebuilt on a new "bottom" and is rapidly catching up.