China’s last year? Peter Zeihan suggests it is


Peter Zeihan, whom we’ve met in these pages on several occasions, is a geopolitical and demographic analyst who has controversial but well-supported views on the current and future state of the world.

Earlier this month Mr. Zeihan gave a two-and-a-half-hour presentation at the Naval Postgraduate School titled “Energy at the End of the World“.  The whole thing is very interesting, and I highly recommend that you watch it if you can make the time.  Be warned, however:  it’s packed with solid information, and will require careful attention and analysis if you want to get the most out of it.

Here’s a twelve-minute segment from that presentation, dealing with the situation in China.  Mr. Zeihan makes several radical and controversial proposals, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • “I don’t see how China survives as a single political entity, much less a globally significant one. I don’t see how it survives this decade with these numbers, because this suggests that the Chinese population peaked back in 2003, and that Chinese economic efficiency probably peaked around the same time.”
  • “There is not an industrial process that is done in China that can’t be done in North America at a lower cost, because our labor is so much more productive, our energy is so much cheaper, our supply lines are so much shorter and you can produce stuff where people actually live.”
  • “Russia has many flaws, but they’re a massive producer of food and energy products. If you put the sanctions that we have put against Russia onto China, oh my. China imports 85% of their energy, 85% of that from the Persian Gulf, and they import 85% of inputs that are necessary to grow their food. So you would have an industrial collapse, a civilizational breakdown, and mass famine within six months, and then you would probably lose a half a billion Chinese over the course of the next year to famine.”

I’m not entirely in agreement with Mr. Zeihan on this, even though I cheerfully acknowledge that his command of the data, facts and figures on this subject is vastly superior to mine.  I think he discounts the human element in favor of the statistical evidence.  I’ve seen (too often for comfort) how an individual or group can be so determined to accomplish something, even though the odds are against them and it might actually be deleterious to their situation, that they do it anyway, regardless of the facts on the ground.  I suspect that’s what’s driving the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will probably drive Chinese actions concerning Taiwan.  As for China’s future, there are a whole lot of different factors intertwining right now.  Which will emerge as dominant?  I don’t know that anyone can say for sure as of right now.

Suffice it to say that the short video above is intensely interesting, and worth watching.  I hope it whets your appetite to make time for the whole two-and-a-half-hour presentation linked above.  Highly recommended viewing.



  1. When the West bans Russian grain, China and India simply import more. Food stockpiles are good. The USA used to keep a three year supply. (BJ Clinton sold it.)

  2. I wonder how many we would lose to China's Nuclear weapons?

    Like Japan WWII, push them into a corner with energy sanctions and they will attack pre-emptively.

  3. Mr. Zeihan seem to have gathered a vast amount of relevant information and his analysis based on statistics are interesting but he does not take into account some equally relevant factors which makes his analysis somehow less credible. For example he makes the argument of retiring baby boomers and a vastly reduced active population having a crushing impact on the employment market, while I think that the increasing drive of companies toward automation of a lot of processes already significantly reduces this problem. Another point is the value of Taiwan's nuclear capabilities as a deterrent for a Chinese invasion, which assumes that the Party leaders really care about casualties, which is definitely not the case – disregarding the communist China's perennial disregard for human life, one of the cultural tenets fundamentally different in China vs. western culture is the way they routinely sacrifice the individual for the well-being of the family/clan, while in the western culture an individual may chose to sacrifice himself for the group, but it's by no means a natural occurrence.
    So, in my opinion while interesting and obviously informative, Mr. Zeihan's presentation is a overly optimistic analysis.

  4. @Unknown,

    "Attacking pre-emptively" gets them…what, exactly?
    Please show all work.

    Then understand they would be nuking most of their market, their dollar holdings would become worthless, and the return salvo would wipe out 50-80% of their population (and military), which is concentrated nearer the coast.

    So they'd do that, WHY, exactly?
    Because they're idiots?

    The Chinese threw their Taiwan option into low gear because in a matter of months, it's going to become clearer than Russia is playing Jenga from the inside, using telephone poles, and they've perhaps pushed out too many logs to sustain the pile overhead.

    "Start A War" is nearly always a stupid idea, as nation after nation has found, to their own regret. But human stupidity is a constant, and the world population is increasing.

  5. The demographics are the key. The one child policy combined with traditional care of parents and no retirement programs dooms the elderly and the median age is currently over 50.
    Over the centuries, China has had adventures out in the world, but always collapses back into itself because to them China is the only real land and the Han Chinese are the only real people

  6. The problem with people who say China, or Russia, would never use nukes on the US is that they assume that the leaders of other countries share the same values and beliefs as the US. I can assure you that they most likely do not. There are those who would be content to rule over an ash heap, just so long as they are the ruler. I am not saying Xi or Putin are those type of individuals, but it cannot be ruled out. And as for losing a large percentage of their population, China has demonstrated that they don't necessarily care about their citizens' well being or lives.
    Besides, China or Russia only needs to detonate a nuke in the atmosphere over the US in order to cause an EMP event, and then wait a few months for the majority of the population to die. Then, China need not worry about losing their market, because it will be able to more easily get the real prize it seeks, which is the productive farmlands, oil fields, coal mines, and other natural resources. Of course, if an EMP is the course of action, don't look for China to launch the nuke itself, it will likely use a proxy like North Korea to do it for them.

  7. Aesop@301: "So they'd do that, WHY, exactly? Because they're idiots?"
    I'll take "Irrational Decisions" for $100, Alex.

  8. T-Town, several weeks back, the NKs launched a missile that a lot of people thought might be headed for the US, possibly as an EMP event. The missile didn't reach CONUS, but several units went to alert status, and counter missile corridors were very quickly ordered in the event that the US decided that an attack was under way. I've heard that the decision was made in under 5 minutes, and that at least one interceptor site was primed for launch.
    While the pedophile slurps his ice cream, there appear to be at least a few people who know what they are doing at the five sided puzzle palace, and I'm not as worried about an EMP attack as I was back in January or February.
    There is a case to be made that the NK launch was actually good for the US, in that it acted as a real time test of the alert/defensive systems. The results of this will be classified, for good reason, but we can hope that lessons will be learned from this. TBC…

  9. (Cont.) As to the US casualties from a successful EMP attack, they would be substantial, but the US counter strike would be devastating and result in the depopulation of most of China(and Asia itself, with fallout patterns, etc.)
    I would be very surprised if the weapons used in a US counter strike are susceptible to EMP after launch initiation, whether from subs, aircraft or ground based silos in the US. We don't know if they'll work, what with no testing having been done for a long time, but our foes are hopefully rational enough to think the idea through before attacking.
    The Chinese leadership(and to a lesser degree the Russian) want to maintain power over anything else. While they don't mind losing a lot of their population, they are terrified of losing control, and a US counter-strike would undoubtedly send some warheads into control centers. China also has a lot of other vulnerabilities that can be exploited, and not only by the US.
    but by Taiwan, Japan and other Pacific countries. the Three Rivers Gorge dam complex is just one of these.
    I am of the opinion that the Taiwanese leadership has let Xi and Co. know just what would happen if Taiwan starts detecting a Chinese invasion beginning, and I wouldn't be surprised if Japan also has plans in the event.

  10. Unknown, you are assuming that the missiles for an EMP will originate from another country. There are missile systems, like the club-k, that are disguised as shipping containers. These could be launched from a cargo ship just off the coast, and there would be no time to respond. There is also the possibility of satellites already in orbit that might contain a small nuke.
    Then, of course, there is always the possibility that the electric grid can be taken out without an EMP, through hacking of the controls that would cause damage to a large number of the biggest transformers used in the grid. Guess where the transformers are manufactured, and the lead time on just one of them. Come to think of it, now that I have mentioned hacking, I wouldn't be surprised if that isn't China's preferred method. It would be much harder to track it back to them, than a missile or satellite would be.

  11. T Town: "Guess where the transformers are manufactured"
    Waukesha, WI.
    "the lead time on just one of them"
    In-stock. Not all that would be needed, of course, but the EMP threat has, surprisingly, been kinda-sorta addressed by the gov. So, months without nationwide power. Think of it as an apocalyptically exciting time… No, I don't sleep well, thanks.

  12. I think Zeihan makes a lot of good points, but in an analysis of Russia, when said Russia couldn't continue to develop and operate their oil fields without Western help, he lost a lot of credibility with me. I worked in international oil projects for decades, including projects in Russia. They are capable of doing all their own oil field work in house, they just do like most of the majors and partner with others because it is more cost effective and spreads risk. They hire service companies when it is cheaper. Think about it: they have a space program, build jet engines, and build nuclear reactors. Their industrial capability is quite mature. Their oil and gas industry is older than the one in the US. Are they the best at everything? No, but they could certainly get by.

    So having seen him screw that up, I take all his analyses with a large grain of salt.

  13. Sometimes I feel like the discussions about China right now are where the discussions about Japan were in the early 90's – with a stagnating population and economy worsening, has their time peaked?
    Good question, it is certainly possible, but it depends on too many unknowns for me to be certain.
    I am concerned about China starting a war; they have territorial disputes with every one of their neighbors and I could see where some see it as a way out of troubles, but I think that many see the swift response to Russia's war and aren't ready to leave the global system yet.
    Bottom line – I don't think we know enough to predict what will happen next in China. But we should plan for a poor outcome so we can be surprised by a better one!

  14. @Robert,

    Dyeing your hair blue is an irrational decision.
    Launching a worldwide thermonuclear war is suicidal psychotic delusion.
    Postulating that such has a chance relies wholly upon the Underpants Gnome Theory of International Behavior.

    So while you're up, wish up a unicorn for China to ride into town on.

  15. T-Town:
    I agree with you about the other possibilities for a nuclear detonation in the US. There's lots more scenarios floating around, and have been for decades. The 1980 novel The Fifth Horseman by Collins and LaPierre, about a nuke hidden in the US by the late Col. Quadaffi, was required reading in one of my classes, although it is now considered outdated.
    What worries me the most these days with regard to China and the US is the presence of a large number of Chinese nationals living, working, and studying in the US. On my last contract, a transport for an aspect of the GBSD system, we had Chinese engineers and financial types on the project. Think about that, and the fact that a prominent sporting goods chain gun expert told me that they sell a lot of semi-autos to Chinese living in the US, and he was very worried about this, as were other dealers in the chain. Corporate didn't mind, as they were pleased to get the sales of these comparatively high end forearms.
    I tried to alert some acquaintances in the national security establishment about this(circa 2017-18) and was blown off. TBC…

  16. (Cont.)
    The scenario I'm worried about is where Xi decides to go for broke and launches a preemptive strike on Taiwan, with possible attacks on Guam, Japan, and other Pacific assets. Topping it off is a coordinated 5th column attack in the US, with Antifa types teaming up with Chinese "students" to disrupt American society.
    I suggested this scenario to a few people, and the response I got was that this has been wargamed out, and "the results were not good for the United States". One other person said that when he saw the results "I started praying really hard for the first time in decades."
    I used to be a Christian, and hoped for the Rapture that would end all of these problems. Now, at best, I'm a lapsed Christian, and I no longer believe that Jesus is coming back. We are truly on our own…

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