Myth of China as a Superpower

Many people in the West believe that China is already a superpower, or will quickly replace the United States to become a superpower. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that 44 percent of Americans believe that China is the top global economic power, while in reality, China’s economy is barely one-third the size of the U. S. economy. This kind of misconception has engendered many unrealistic fears about China.

The truth is that China is not a superpower, and I doubt it will ever become one.

Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and Washington Post columnist, defined in his bestselling book The Post-American World that a superpower is a country that achieves dominance in ideas or ideology, an economic system, and military power.

In terms of ideas or ideology, the Chinese are probably more confused than anyone else in the world. During the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese traditions, including Confucianism, were destroyed. Communism has proved to be disastrous, and no one believes in it anymore. In today’s China where money is king, people have become disillusioned with any notion of ideals. There has been serious moral decay in society.

In recent years, the Chinese government has called for building “a harmonious society.” Harmony is a virtuous concept deeply rooted in Chinese culture and the Confucian tradition. It could become a new ideology for China. However, it has been overly used in propaganda and has become a cliché rather than a meaningful ideal.

The United States remains the country standing for the universal ideals that people around the world aspire to – liberty and democracy. Unlike Americans who have a clear message for the world, the Chinese do not have a vision for themselves, let alone to influence the world. I have talked to Chinese officials, scholars, business people and students. None of them see China as a superpower. In contrast, many of them look up to the United States as a model and admire the “American way of life.”

Economically, China’s achievements are indeed impressive. In the past 30 years, China has sustained nearly double-digit growth. However, we need to keep in mind that China started from a very low level of GDP. Much of its growth comes from heavy investment in infrastructure. In 2009, China’s per capita GDP was only about $3,600, compared with $46,000 in the United States. Among the world’s top-10 largest companies, the United States claims five, and China has none.

With all the troubles on Wall Street, it is easy to forget that China’s economic success is actually a triumph of capitalism. In recent decades, China has been learning from the West and now primarily practices capitalism. Although China is searching for a recipe that suits the country’s unique situation, namely a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics,” it has been a trial-and-error exercise. China has not yet established an economic model that has proven it can withstand long-term tests.

Some people believe that China will eventually surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy. Others argue that the line between the U. S. and China may never cross. I believe that China’s economy will continue to grow rapidly over the next 10 to 15 years. After that, it will slow down when its per capita income approaches $10,000. That will make China’s economy close to the size of the U. S. economy.

Militarily, China’s military spending is only a fraction of what the U. S. spends. A 2009 Pentagon report estimated China’s total military spending at between $105 and $150 billion, compared to $719 billion by the United States. Until recently, China did not have a foreign policy or a global strategy. Even its current foreign policies are almost exclusively commercially-focused.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye has a more detailed analysis about whether China will become a contender with the United States. As he pointed out, “The fact that China is not likely to become a peer competitor to the US on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the US in Asia, and the dangers of conflict can never be ruled out.”

I think China’s influence in Asia will be limited. Who is China’s ally? Singapore? North Korea? India will be more likely allied with the U. S. than with China, and we know Japan’s position. As much as I love China, I have to agree with Singaporean scholar Simon Tay’s comment, “no one in Asia wants to live in a Chinese-dominated world. There is no Chinese dream to which people aspire.”

By all measures, China is not a superpower. With other major economies such as India and Russia on the rise, it is hard to see China ever becoming a superpower.

Despite all the problems the U. S. faces, I still believe that the United States has stronger long-term political and economic fundamentals than China. Many vital functions of Chinese society, including its education and healthcare systems, are far from sophisticated. China is not yet a country of the rule of law. The government still arbitrarily detains dissidents and censors the Internet. Corruption and nepotism are rampant. Chinese culture tends to reward the mediocre rather than the extraordinary. There are many uncertainties in China’s future including the ramifications of environmental degradation, an aging population, political instability, social strife and ethnic conflicts.

However, China will be a major economic power. It will probably be the second most important country in the world after the United States on many critical international issues. China’s presence as a major economic power will be good for the world as well as for the U. S., because no one wants to live in an American-dominated world either. China’s strength is that it can be assertive without being confrontational. It is crucial that the United States makes China a partner, not an enemy, because the future of the world’s prosperity and stability depends on it.

74 thoughts on “Myth of China as a Superpower

  1. I see no reason to believe that China’s economic growth must stop when they reach a per capita of $10k. It is true their rule of law and contract law leaves a bit to be desired. However, they are learning and implementing these things over time. They are slowly ascending the technology/quality ladder just like their East Asian cousins (Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan) did before them. Also, China has several factors in their favor. They have a semi-homogeneous population of mean IQ 105 people with sufficient executive function. This population also has significant future time orientation. This is in contrast to a growing percentage of the U.S. population. The quality of human capital favors China over the U.S. in the long term future.

  2. In response to Kurt9’s quote: “They have a semi-homogeneous population of mean IQ 105 people with sufficient executive function.” Wow! I would like to know where you got that statistic from? Surely you can’t believe that refuse spewing forth from your keys? Also, what in the heck does “This population also has significant future time orientation. This is in contrast to a growing percentage of the U.S. population. The quality of human capital favors China over the U.S. in the long term future” even mean? I reason that you must be the CHINESE THOUGHT POLICE! 1984 1984 1984 1984 1984

  3. I don’t think China will be the 2nd most important country. I think that position will go India, if, of course, that position isn’t occupied by the U.S.

    The problem with China’s growth is that, like the real estate bubble, it won’t go on forever. Corruption, environmental degradation, and other inefficiencies aside, I can’t believe that its current method of growth is sustainable. I’m continually impressed when I drive past the ubiquitous pharaonic construction projects, but worried how they’re financed:

    Municipalities are throwing around money in the billions of dollars. Except that they’re not allowed to issue municipal bonds, like American cities. There’s no property taxes, nor is the tax base significant enough to pay for all of these works. Furthermore, companies routinely receive tax breaks for their initial productions, and most are cheat on their earnings after their grace period is over. Nor is there’s any money coming from the central gov’t.

    What happens is they “buy” rural land from farmers at below-market prices, resell it as urban at market rates. But since there’s a reason why prices in Manhattan real estate are more sought after than Antarctica’s, they create a development zone to attract industry, which provide some revenue, but really they’re just bait to hook in investors, who’ll buy up the surrounding land and develop it. As an added benefit, those farmers then become migrants who provide cheap labor for the nascent industry. Sounds great, except in order for cities to stay solvent (according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, (coastal?) cities receive half of their fiscal revenue from real estate sales), cities must continually expand. In order to build infrastructure, the local party has to take out ever larger loans from state banks. This works fine, as long as there’s a continual source of investors, and the rest of the world is willing to buy their exports to pay for the factories. Or the domestic economy steps up to the plate. As anyone can see, there is inherent risk in such a system (China is full of ghost-cities where investors never came, loans collapsed, and the whole bubble burst; see ). Of course, to give them their due, the CCP realizes this and is trying to slow growth, but since the CCP’s foremost goal is staying in power and growth is the only thing justifying their rule, and since so many Oh fuck it. Who cares?

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  10. @hondacivic I completely agree with everything you said. People are seriously deluded if they think China will gain any type of power considering the population is being controlled by the government, there is barely a middle class to practice sovereignty and financial independence, and all new infrastructure is built on sketchy unreported debt. Even the United States no longer live by the original ideals even though we’re still being brainwashed to believe so.

    The corporate technocrats are about to collapse the global economy (because there is no sovereign economies anymore) starting possibly with the EU, and when the dollar collapses (and it is mathematically inevitable) it will be the single greatest human event and the largest transfer to wealth from the entire world to the globalists and bankers. We are in a world of trouble and this issue of “the next superpower” is completely irrelevant at this point.

  11. 1. Highly populated nations like China or India can never achieved the per capita of smaller nation e.g. Singapore has a higher per capita than USA.

    2. Depending on what you really mean by SUPERPOWER which is military or Economic, one thing is certain nowadays – The slow turtle is almost abreast with the lazy hare. I would not be surprised if China economy becomes 2X or 3X of USA in the future but China will still have a lesser per capita than USA. But don’t be deceived, if I take a plane and land in Shanghai or New York, I think Shanghai is ahead.

    3. The myths of FREEDOM in democratic nations. How I wish USA would allow 500 million Helen Wang to migrate there? In a level field like this, maybe we see a differ in opinion then or even a new round of McCarthyism in USA. Since 911, USA has become more despotic and maybe we should compare it this way. Is USA FREER today than says 30 years ago? Or conversely is Chinese in the mainland FREER today than says 30 years ago? Chinese are definitely more FREE today but as for Americans, let them be honest with themselves.

    4. As for the talk of China collapsing, that is a badwisher’s dream for the rival. China has triple her economy 3X since 70’s, with 2 million factories there and a growing domestic market, I would seen Americans seeking opportunities there. GM would have gone chapter 11 if not for China operation and today China has 70 million cars (Japan automakers avoid China in 80 because she says Red China will never become an automobile nation) and visionary VW is still the No. 1 there today with their top sellers VW Passat over Japanese model like Lexus, Camry.

    5. China trade with ASEAN, EU, EM is all bigger than USA. US tariff on China cheaper and lower tech but more reliable solar panels only hurt the pockets of US consumers as USA uses a yardstick that compare them with US only higher tech. higher costing but unproven solar panels. The Solar Industry in USA is 2% manufacturing and 98% installation. It means lots of American installers will be closing down due to lower volume and higher cost. That is the reality and so far additional tariff on China tires is at a cost of USD1 million per job created in USA. Politicians says it is worth it but American consumers, the voters disagreed.

    6. Blah… Blah

    Just my 2 cent. I am just a realist and I consider that as my version of an American Dream.

  12. 1. When 500 million Chinese like Helen Wang migrated there, Asian will suddenly become the boogeymen there.
    American will complained that Chinese and Asian are stealing their job, the reason for the increase in social crimes, and the target for all sort of racists comments there.

    2. To be more extreme, if China and USA ever goes to war, Chinese American will be rounded up like cattle and Helen Wang will have to eats her word about her new shattered paradise.

    3. Statistic show Chinese today are saving up to 56% of their incomes, do you want to know why? Because China was engaged in war whether it is civil or aggression by foreign powers for more than 100 years until 1949 and then because of the War in Korea, etc. Chinese in the mainland had to tightened their belt to repay the Soviet for the weapons supplied and hence the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. Today most Chinese people remains cautious about their expenditures and think about the rainy days ahead unlike their FREE SPENDING cricket counterparts in USA and foremost to protect their new found FREEDOM which they have none for thousands of years under feudalism.

    4. For 140 years under British colonialism, Chinese in Hing Kong never enjoyed any political FREEDOM and yet just then years before the handover, British redesign a constitution that gives Hong Kong TOTAL FREEDOM. Such is the IMPUDICITY, HYPOCRISY and DOUBLE STANDARD of the WEST. They expects China to be totally transform OVERNIGHT!
    My take: China will become chaotic and may even collapse due to this. China is not ready for REAL FREEDOM until 99% of her people is FULLY EDUCATED otherwise ELECTION will be RIGGED, and a new despotic dictator may emerged FULLY ELECTED by her people. When China became PRC in 1949, we heard stories about how the local villagers hanged the rich landlords who stay behind? Is this the act of the CCP or the emotional and law ignorant peasants? It is more convenient to blame the CCP but in fact it has to do with EDUCATION.
    Today I still read that Chinese buyers apply MOB RULE when they destroy the premises of DEVELOPERS who lower their selling prices in China. IS China really for TOTAL FREEDOM today? Answer is NO NO!

    Is IRAQ, Libya, Egypt better off today? Sodomizing a half dead dictator and some Americans are sheering and meanwhile condemning lesser behavior! Hard to believe, it is like watching the comment of the disqualified participant of American Idols.

  13. This piece is alittle shortsighted. There is no reason to believe China’s growth will slow down or plateau at all in the future. By 2030-50 China will have surpassed America as most GDP in the world and not slow down. China has control over alot of the worlds rare earth minerals. This being necessary for high technology products like tablet computing and smartphones. And in fact when they curbed export on these rare earths there was a worldwide shortage and America protested.

    China is investing in its naval power and will surpass many neighbouring nations by the mid century. You forget that for every dollar China spends it gets more done because things are cheaper than America. So that comparison on military spending is superfluous it doesn’t account the disparities in cost vs expenditure. It has great aspirations for space travel. That will propel it further and further. This will be the dream that unifies its people. To be space faring sooner than most nations on Earth. And to do it more efficiently and cheaper than the west. When it happens then you can rewrite your piece because by then most westerners will be learning chinese and feel compelled to live in a chinese city than stay in the dropping quality of life that the west will spiral towards.

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