How China can overtake the United States

Andrei Lungu | 7 October 2021

As China continues its economic, technological and geopolitical rise, its leadership’s unstated goal seems to be overtaking the United States as the world’s leading great power. But if China really wants to overtake the US, the best thing it can do is learn from America’s example and become a magnet for people around the globe, alluring them to become Chinese.

The US might have the world’s largest economy and military, but its real strength is that, for almost two centuries, it has been a magnet for people all over the world. Thanks not just to its living standards, but to its democratic values, open society and world-class education and research, it has attracted millions of immigrants, who started calling America home. Among them were some of the world’s brightest minds, from Einstein to Tesla, who made America’s technological development possible. Almost a third of all US Nobel laureates in Physics, Chemistry or Medicine were born overseas. 

But the benefits of immigration go beyond technology or even economics. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright or Samantha Power are some of the immigrants who ended up guiding America’s foreign policy. By attracting people from any nation, who use their diverse backgrounds, knowledge of foreign countries, language and cultural skills as diplomats and officials, the US has an unmatched advantage in foreign policy.

The benefits of immigration go even deeper – the US gains not just a new citizen, but a family. Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, who reached the apex of power in America, are the children of immigrants. Their contributions to the US, like those of Steve Jobs or Walt Disney, could not have been possible without America’s status as a beacon for immigrants anywhere on Earth.

China, on the other hand, does very poorly at attracting immigrants, who rarely and only with difficulty can become Chinese citizens. The government does have numerous programs to bring foreign students and researchers to China, but almost all the focus is on short-term gains: so that students can go back home with a good image of China or foreign experts can help build Chinese industry and expertise. But there’s no intention of convincing them to call China home. The gains are only temporary, instead of long-term.

The United States is the global leader because it has access to a worldwide pool of talent. Its workers, scientists, professors, doctors, entrepreneurs and even politicians come not just from among its 330 million citizens, but from all of humanity’s 8 billion people. Anybody anywhere in the world could one day be American. This offers the US an unrivaled pool of human resources.

Today, there are Chinese-Americans, born in China, who work for the US government, helping shape its strategy against China. More Chinese-Americans who left China have won Nobel Prizes in sciences than citizens of the People’s Republic of China. There are over 300.000 Chinese students in the US, many of which will settle down and become American citizens, but only 20.000 American students in China, few of which will spend their life there. With every such person who immigrates from China to the US, there is a transfer of power, however small, between the two countries, as workforce and brainpower move across the Pacific. But the flux is almost unidirectional.

It’s possible to imagine an immigrant reaching the highest levels of the US government or the child of an immigrant becoming President of the US. But it’s impossible to imagine the same thing happening in China – a non-Han born overseas shaping China’s foreign policy, for example. China draws its elites from the country’s 1.4 billion citizens. But while this pool is larger than almost any other country’s, it is smaller than American’s global reach. An African, Asian or European citizen with a special skill or talent is likely to move to the US, not to China. 

America’s intellectual and human power is always expanding, drawing talent from all over the world, while China’s remains fixed or, because of its population control policies, even decreasing. On the long term, the falling birth rate and aging population mean that China will either suffer harsh economic consequences or will have to start importing human resources on a massive scale, on the order of millions every year. Instead of waiting, Beijing should be already preparing for that moment by transforming China into a magnet of immigration.

To achieve such a transformation, China will need an ambitious vision. The problem goes beyond mere bureaucracy and simplifying the naturalization process, important issues themselves. Most foreigners do not want to live in a country where access to the outside world is limited and global communication platforms used to stay in touch with family and friends are banned. Many also do not want to leave an open, democratic society for an authoritarian one, whose image in foreign countries has deteriorated and where foreigners fear being arrested as bargaining chips in geopolitical disputes beyond their control. Such a transformation will require a profound change of policies and mindset, but the benefits for China would be immense. One day, instead of seeing some of its best and most hardworking citizens leave for the US, China might see the best of America move to its shores and work for its development. That would mean overtaking the US.

With such a long and difficult road ahead, unfortunately, this vision is unlikely to come to life. But Chinese leaders can do something very simple that would still be transformative. Chinese women are still kept away from real power: in 70 years, no woman has ever become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, unlike 56 men, making it clear that being a man, not being competent, is the key requirement to reach China’s highest level of power. During the Reform and Opening-up era, the 25-member Politburo barely had even one woman every term (or miraculously, on occasion, two women). According to Fortune, just 2 out of 135 Chinese companies on its 2021 Fortune Global 500 list have women CEOs.

Against the odds, a young girl in China can dream of one day becoming a CEO, mayor, provincial governor or maybe even a full member of the Central Committee, of which women represent just 5%. But she could never dream of becoming the leader of China, because there has been no such model in its recent history. When it comes to choosing its ruling elite, China doesn’t use its entire pool of 1.4 billion people, with different skills and experiences – it only taps a smaller segment of a few hundred million men, while holding back its women, regardless of how competent they are.

Only a few get to be born in America, but anybody could one day become American. This is one of the greatest strengths of the United States, which allowed it to become the world’s superpower. If China wants to overtake the US, it will have to change, so that people from all over the world would want and could end up calling China home. In the meantime, there’s something easier Beijing can do to accelerate China’s development: use all its human resources of 1.4 billion people, instead of sticking to the current rule that only men can have real power, regardless of who’s more competent.


A shorter version of this article has been published in the South China Morning Post. You can read that version on the SCMP website.

Photo Credits:  China and the US Flags (Flickr/, Nanjing Road in Shanghai (Flickr/ Slices of Light)


Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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