In August 1784, when the American merchant vessel Empress of China finally docked in Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) after six months at sea, Captain John Green of Philadelphia and his crew found a civilization at its height. The Qianlong emperor ruled 10 percent of the world’s land mass and 30 percent of its population. He controlled one-third of the global economy. He could look out on an empire of extraordinary political and cultural achievement, a civilization that had endured more than three millennia. The name China, Zhōngguó, means “Middle Kingdom”—the kingdom at the center of the cosmos, the kingdom at the heart of heaven and Earth—and he had no reason to doubt it.
In 2013, when Xi Jinping took power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he embarked China on a mission of “national rejuvenation” (guojia fuxing). Six years later, China is poised to become, once again, the largest economy in the world, overtaking the United States. China is home to six of the world’s 10 busiest shipping-container ports (seven, if you include Hong Kong), contributing to its increased control of global maritime trade routes. According to the World Bank, China is on pace to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of next year, completing a stunning process through which 850 million people have emerged from poverty since the early 1980s—the largest and fastest poverty reduction in human history, to accompany the largest and fastest economic expansion ever recorded. Meanwhile, Chinese political, economic, and military investments across the world intend to roll back American power, replacing a Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica (though it is not clear whether China intends to preserve the Pax part).