In 20 Years, China Will Be on Mars — and the U.S. Will Be an Island

Photo: New York Magazine

Imagine a world in which “a bridge crossing the Caspian Sea has made road transport between Europe and China fast and easy, changing old mental maps separating continents. Nuclear-powered spacecrafts have been used for the first manned Chinese Martian mission. There is a new global political and economic order. And China is at the center.” That’s the prediction of Bruno Maçães, author of The Dawn of Eurasia and this week’s guest on 2038.


A weekly podcast from Intelligencer about the near weird future, hosted by Max Read and David Wallace-Wells.

Maçães joined hosts Max Read and David Wallace-Wells for a conversation about China’s ambitious plan to remake the world in its image.

What is the Belt and Road initiative, and what was it conceived to achieve?
The Belt and Road is essentially a master plan — a big geopolitical and geo-economic plan to transform the world political and economic order, to give it a new content, give it new values, give it new principles, give it new rules, but also, of course, to place China at the center. If you want to look for an equivalent, I think the idea of “the West” is the best equivalent to the Belt and Road. It’s a metaphor, but it’s meant to represent a certain political order, where the United States is at the center. The Belt and Road is a direct rival to the West.

It’s not just a matter of China seizing the sort of top position. They also want to change the way that business and politics is done in the world.
So, I think the form, the basic structure, is not that different from, let’s say, the American Empire of the last 100 years. But the content, the values that are central to the initiative and to the plan, are very different. I’ve thought about this and I’ve come up with this expression: “The Belt and Road will be a world of soothsayers, saints, and spooks.” Let me take them very quickly by turn. I think it will be a world turned to the future, with people trying to guess what the future will be like, people trying to transform the future, technologists of all kinds. That’s what I see in China right now. It will be a world where moral relations will be more important than they are now, where China will feel that it deserves gratitude from other countries, that other countries have to respect the power that China has. It will be very moralized. And finally, it will be very opaque. The ideas of the alignment of transparency, of public reason, public accountability — those won’t be central anymore. This will be a world very similar to the security-clearance levels of the Department of Defense in the United States. Some people will know everything that is happening; others will know only a bit; others will know nothing. It will not be talked about openly in the newspapers. That’s already true, by the way: Someone researching and writing on the Belt and Road has a hard time getting the information we need, and it will only get worse from that point of view.

What other projects, ideas, or moves that China might make can we expect to come over the next 20 years?
Another way to put it would be: How do we track what’s happening, and what would be the important developments that would allow us to say it’s working, or not working? And I think different kinds of things. If one country started to show signs of economic growth and development, and it was very clear that this was due to the Belt and Road — one could think of Pakistan, for example, or Kazakhstan — that would be a turning point where one could could say it’s working. If China has a breakthrough moment in some important technology — a “Sputnik moment” of some kind — then one could say the strategy of moving to the top of the value chain, of the global value chain, is also working. If there is a major infrastructure project that really captures the imagination of people worldwide — there’s now this bridge linking Macau and Hong Kong, but something even at a higher level. I think all of these things would be important milestones and we still don’t have one that has been able to capture people’s imagination in this way.

Can I ask you to speculate a little bit about what a Sputnik moment might be for China?
I’ve been spending a lot of time visiting companies in artificial intelligence and I see some very interesting things happening here on the side of innovation and research, but also on the side of just getting those ideas very quickly into the street and into people’s habits. This is already very visible in any major Chinese city. If we have a really significant development in artificial intelligence, or in bioengineering, with really significant augmentation for human capacities, I think in one of these two areas we are going to see something within the next five or ten years that is going to make front pages everywhere.

And scare Americans.
Just as it happened with Sputnik, I think, in that sense. I expect history to repeat itself, and then we’re going to see a spur of activity from the United States.

So you don’t imagine that the U.S. will respond to the ascent of China the way that Britain responded to the ascent of the U.S., and just sort of step aside? You think that there will be a period of intense rivalry.
Yeah, it looks more like intense rivalry. That’s what I would have guessed, and the last year has shown this. I see that kind of accommodation and resignation a lot in Russia. Russia has sort of accepted that China knows how to do economic growth and Russia doesn’t. It’s quite remarkable. Two years ago, they were still saying in Moscow, “We are going to follow China’s example.” Now they’ve sort of given up. “China has the economic might we don’t,” they say in Moscow. So we see that example in the case of Russia. In the case of the U.S.? No, we will not see it. There’s much more of a sense that here we have two completely opposite models and only one of them can survive.

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