Every new year, Dan Wang, a technology analyst with an East Asia-based economics research firm and a gifted observer of contemporary China, writes a long, reflective letter about the year just past, mixing analysis with personal experience. In this year’s letter, the most memorable element is a single piece of Chinese slang: “rùn.”
The term means exactly what it sounds like: “Chinese youths have in recent years appropriated this word in its English meaning to express a desire to flee.” Initially, it could just mean escaping the expectations of parents or the big city grind. But after years of zero-COVID policy, with China’s economy disappointing and its political culture constricting, Wang writes that it’s increasingly “evolved to mean emigrating from China altogether.”
The lucky escapees are the ones who can move legally to Europe or America. The boldest are the ones traveling to Latin America and braving the Darien Gap to reach Mexico and then the United States; the migrant surge at our southern border, Wang notes, now includes thousands of Chinese nationals each month. But mostly, rùn means heading for Singapore, Japan or Thailand — the last of which Wang recently visited to hang out with a mixture of remote workers, spiritual seekers, crypto enthusiasts and drug users.
He came away from the experience feeling a bit more optimistic about China’s uncertain future. “The China of the future will not look like the China ruled by old men today,” he writes, and some of the creative Chinese kids hanging out in Thailand may “do good things for the China they’ll one day inherit.”
But the overall account in which this hopeful thought is embedded doesn’t seem all that positive. Here you have a would-be superpower facing demographic contraction with an existing youthful talent pool that’s trying to escape, with would-be artists and entrepreneurs preferring the highlands of Thailand to Shanghai or Beijing — while sometimes lying to their parents and pretending to be in America, even “drawing curtains to darken the room when they video chat with family” to fake a time-zone difference.
Our peculiar situation
Elsewhere, in the geopolitical portion of his letter, Wang writes that while “50% of China’s economy might be dysfunctional, the 5% that’s going spectacularly well is pretty dangerous to American interests” (meaning everything from its booming automobile exports to its expanding defense industrial base).
Combine that point with the longer-term Sino-pessimism implied by the mentality of rùn, and you have the peculiarity of America’s current situation. If you look at the world in 2024 or on a 10-year time horizon, we look like an empire in decline, tested on every front by revisionist powers, trying to juggle a worldwide array of commitments that we made when our powers seemed unchallenged.
If you look at the long run, though, whose future supremacy seems more plausible than ours? For all its inflationary challenges, our economy has surged since the pandemic, growing rapidly while China and Europe have been stagnant. In the last five years, long-term demographic decline has accelerated in many developed countries, but our own demographic trends, while not ideal, are more stable than those in, say, Scandinavia or South Korea. Our difficult global position reflects the diminishment of our traditional European partners and a need to rebalance our alliances more than our own inherent weakness. And our rivals in China, Russia and Iran all face much more difficult futures when it comes to growth, internal stability and just the desire of their own most talented citizens to stick around and build the future.
Strange but optimistic
Put all of this together, and one can envision a world two generations hence in which the richer parts of Europe and the Pacific Rim are senescent walled cities; instability and authoritarian decay predominate across much of Eurasia; and real dynamism is sustained mostly in the parts of America that are growing and building at the moment — what the X (formerly Twitter) account Empty America calls the “neo-Faustian” civilization of the U.S. South and West, a new America sprawling out from cities in the “narrow band running from Houston to San Francisco.” (Hopefully, my grandchildren can also build an outpost in a depopulated wilderness of 2070s Maine.)
If you want a strange but ultimately optimistic vision for America, that’s the one I have for you today. But it depends on the United States getting through the current era in one piece — which is a good reason to prefer cautious realism to crusading in our foreign policy right now, and to look for ways to restabilize our politics rather than embracing the mutual existential panics of the right and left.
There is a plausible future where I die in my bed, at a ripe old age, in an America that’s still a beacon of dynamism on a decadent planet. Let’s not spend the rest of the 2020s throwing that scenario away.
Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.