In 1958, Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched an attempt at the instant industrialization of an agricultural society, including the creation of little backyard steel furnaces in its rural countryside. That vast convulsion went by the optimistic name of the Great Leap Forward. It ended up disrupting the country’s agricultural system and causing a disastrous famine in which millions died. If, at that nadir moment in China’s modern history, 1960, I had told you that the country would indeed have a successful Great Leap Forward in the years to come, would, in fact, pass Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and be slated to pass the United States to become number one by 2030, I’m sure you would have considered it an absurd real-world version of a fairy tale. And yet in the years between 1960 and 2018, that’s exactly what happened. China industrialized in a staggering way, became a planetary leader in technology, and is now returning to the sort of imperial preeminence that it hasn’t known since the Qing dynasty began to buckle under the pressure of the West and the opium wars back in the early nineteenth century.
Think of China’s development in the last few decades as the planet’s true Great Leap Forward. After all, in my lifetime, that country journeyed from a third world nation to, as historian Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, suggests today, a potential global hegemon. Of course, all of this is happening on a Trumpian planet in which the very meaning of hegemony, as McCoy suggests today, may be up for grabs.