China: The Next Superpower?

China: The Next Superpower?

Is China the next global Superpower? This seems to be the question that occupies the minds of organizations, governments and ordinary global citizens. A general feeling around the world that China will be the next global superpower is supported by books, documentaries, and the media. Many view the economic crisis, from which many Western economies suffer, as an indication to what could be the demise of the “Western rule” and the beginning of a new world order in which Asia, and specifically China, leads the way

A surprising approach about China as a superpower is suggested in a new book titled “Why China Will Never Rule the World” by Troy Parfitt, an English teacher and the author of “Notes from the Other China”. Mr. Parfitt is uncertain whether China wants to rule the world (although he feels that China definitely wishes to increase its global influence), and he does not see how China is able to overcome the many problems with which it currently faces, such as pollution, corruption and dishonesty within the Chinese society.

In a rare, exclusive interview for Laowaiblog, Mr. Parfitt explains why China will never become the next global superpower.

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The book’s title, Why China Will Never Rule the World, implies that China might want to rule the world someday. Does China really want to rule the world? What makes people think it does?

I suppose book titles can imply many things. People tend to think the book’s subtitle, Travels in the Two Chinas, implies an analysis of “rich China” versus “poor China,” but that’s not what it refers to at all. Actually, “Why China Will Never Rule the World” speaks to the media-and-Sinophile driven refrain that China is going to rule the world, and that it’s going to do so soon. It’s the heading I’ve chosen for a refutation of the China-set-to-shake-the-world argument, an illustration of why that argument is misleading because it is irrelevant. I say ‘irrelevant’ because it’s the wrong lens through which to view China. The question shouldn’t be: when and how will China rule the world? but rather: what is China’s true nature? Only when we understand what China is, and how it got that way, can we gauge something about its future.

As for the question: does China really want to rule the world? it depends on who you ask. When I lived in Taiwan, it was “common knowledge” that the twenty-first century was going to be China’s. My students told me that on a regular basis. There are allusions to it in popular culture and the media – both in Taiwan and China. It’s certainly something many Chinese believe, and have for some time. Chinese writer and social critic Bo Yang makes reference to it in his “The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture”, published in 1985. I think China certainly wants a greater stake in the world, and more influence. I think its bid to host the Olympics and its soft-power initiatives, as evidenced by the establishment of its Confucius Institutes, about 320 presently according to The Economist, are indicators of that.

As to: what makes people think China will rule the world? again, it depends on who you talk to. If you’re from China, I suppose, it’s a comforting thought to latch on to. China has been so poor and so troubled for so long that it’s nice to think it’s earned its place in the sun. It also fits in with the non-linear view Chinese people take toward their history: China was once great and therefore will be again. People tend to view things, too, purely in economic terms, but I think that’s an exercise in monocausalism. Westerners are guilty of this as well. And of course there are Westerners who have a deep affinity for China, a small but vocal group whose members often live in China for long spells, if not for life. I could theorize as to why these people believe in China the way they do, but that would be speculative and probably counterproductive.

In a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project report, the global balance of opinion is that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower. This view is prominent in 15 of 22 nations and is especially widespread in Western Europe, where at least six in ten in France (72 percent), Spain (67 percent), Britain (65 percent), and Germany (61 percent) see China overtaking the US. How do you respond to such data? Is everyone off-track with these estimates?

It ought to go without saying that all because the majority believes something, it doesn’t necessarily make it so. People believe all kinds of things. I believe the Montreal Canadiens are the greatest hockey club in the world, even though they were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs this year by the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. A comprehensive study in China, as reported by the BBC, found that two thirds of Chinese smokers don’t believe smoking is bad for their health, and a recent poll in the United States showed around 20 percent of Americans believe Barack Obama is Muslim. If you look at the Pew Global Attitudes Project report, you’ll find many in Western Europe – France: 23 percent, Spain: 14 percent, Britain: 11 percent, and Germany: 11 percent – think China has already replaced the US as world superpower, which isn’t true. And, interestingly, of the 22 countries surveyed, the lowest number in terms of those who believe China has already surpassed the US comes from China itself, with just 6 percent.

As for everyone being off track, certainly respondents in the Has-already-replaced-the-US category are, whereas those who believe China will eventually replace the US are, perhaps, uninformed. What are respondents basing their evaluation on? Statistics? Personal observations? Feelings? If you’re going to ask people what they believe, you may as well ask them why they believe it, but that wasn’t done here. It is my opinion that, generally speaking, the media has done an extraordinarily poor job when characterizing China and its emergence from relative obscurity, and is no doubt at least partly responsible for the myth that five centuries of Western influence is about to be reversed. Not that I’m saying America will always be the world’s sole superpower. My thesis is not some kind of endorsement for US hegemony. I am simply pointing out that China’s ruling the world – literally or figuratively – is an impossibility because, besides business, China has nothing to offer the world. Even if you overlook for a moment that Confucian values are antithetical to Enlightenment values, China doesn’t meet the definition of a developed nation. In 2010, the UN listed it as being in 92nd spot on its Human Development Index, and China is listed in 94th spot in terms of GDP per capita by the IMF. China’s GDP per capita is a scant $7,519. China doesn’t even have anything to offer Taiwan, a country with which it shares a culture, a language, and historical overlap. China has over a thousand missiles in Fujian ready to roll out and point at the “renegade province” if it doesn’t comply with its wishes. Not surprisingly, 89 percent of Taiwanese citizens don’t want anything to do with China. And why would they? Taiwan is democratic, much wealthier – 20th in terms of GDP per capita at $35, 227 – and so much more progressive. If that’s how China treats its “family,” how is it going to treat its “friends?”

With what kind of problems is China dealing and what makes you confident that it will not be able to overcome them?

Pollution is a huge problem. In its mad dash to turn a buck, China has brutalized much of its landscape and jeopardized the health of its citizens. According to Rob Gifford, former China correspondent for Britain’s National Public Radio and author of China Road, 75 percent of China’s river water is unfit for drinking or fishing. The Chinese Communist Party has admitted that something like 10 percent of its arable land has become seriously contaminated. China is now the leading producer of greenhouse gases, and air pollution in that country is astonishing. British author, Simon Winchester, described the pall over Chongqing as being, and I quote: “so dreadful as to be barely credible”, and The New York Times claims that only 1 percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by the European Union. I live in one of Canada’s most industrial cities, and have a lovely view of billowing emissions from Canada’s largest oil refinery. On some mornings, it looks as though the Luftwaffe has just strafed the city’s lower East Side, yet air pollution here doesn’t hold a candle to the stuff I saw in China, where it’s possible to think: “My god. Is there a forest fire?” I sincerely hope China will overcome its pollution problem – cancer is now the leading cause of death there and respiratory disease is a major issue – but I doubt it will in my lifetime. China’s economic baseline is industry, and industry creates pollution. If China can evolve into a more-brains-less-brawn economy, as it were, perhaps the situation might improve. But if such a transition is underway, I’m unaware of it.

In addition to pollution, there’s endemic corruption, and though corruption exists everywhere, in China it’s woven into the very fabric of society. Tim Clissold’s Mr. China is the most enlightening account I’ve read regarding Chinese venality vis-à-vis business, and, of course, any decent history book is bound to swim with instances of sleaze and graft. A history of the Chinese Nationalist Party, for example, could double as a history of sleaze and graft. I don’t know how many Chinese movies I’ve seen with poker scenes where everyone at the table is cheating or someone comes up with five aces, and I’ve taught Taiwanese businessmen who’ve relayed some pretty harrowing accounts of the hazards of setting up shop in Fujian and Guangzhou. Extortion is common; so is kidnapping. It’s nothing new; it’s just how it goes, how it’s always gone.

Corruption is just an offshoot of dishonesty, what might be China’s largest obstacle. Bo Yang lambasted his brethren for fostering what he called a culture of dishonesty, and I would have to concur. Look at the news in China; it’s a parade of propaganda. Seldom is information supplied just for the sake of supplying it; there’s a message with everything. In 2009, the Paris-based watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, rated China 168th out of 175 countries in terms of freedom of the press, hardly encouraging. Again, propaganda exists everywhere. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was naïve to that fact. In my own country, there has been what I would call an alarming rise in pro-military propaganda – a pathetic attempt to encourage national tribalism and lend legitimacy to the debacle that is the War in Afghanistan, which, in Canada, is referred to as the Afghan Mission, by linking it to supposed heroics in WWI. But at least you can find out most of the dirt by reading news magazines, newspapers, and going online. Plus, you’re occasionally peppered with facts and in-depth coverage by the CBC, which does an excellent job at obliterating spin. Not the case in China. In 2008, the Xinhua News Agency reported a successful space launch complete with astronaut discourse – even though the astronauts were still on the ground. Given China’s lack of candidness, shall we say, one wonders how it is going to strike up a sincere partnership with the West and the rest of the world. As for overcoming that, no, I don’t think it will. Playing fast and loose with the truth is a core cultural component, and eradicating it would require much introspection and an admission of wrongdoing, rare in Chinese culture.

How do you respond to people such as Jim Rogers and Martin Jacques, who claim that China is on its way to becoming an economic superpower?

I like Jim Rogers a lot and appreciate his direct, no-nonsense manner of speaking. He dispenses a lot of criticism about how the US runs its economy, and it’s a brave man who can talk about his country like that. He certainly seems to have an international perspective – he lives in Singapore – and I think he’s absolutely right about China becoming an economic superpower. In fact, China already is an economic superpower, and I’m sure Jim Rogers would agree. Far be it from me to argue with him or Goldman Sachs. After all, I’m not an economist. However, there’s much more to leadership than liquidity and production capability. Yes, the United States has gotten itself into deep doo-doo with its national debt and lack of regulation, and look at what happened recently to Iceland and Ireland. But Western economic woes do not equate to or provide for China’s quote unquote ruling the world. To believe that is to believe in simplistic dualism. China has cash. Now what? Lots of countries have cash. Few have the intelligence or imagination to use it in an effective and meaningful way.

Martin Jacques implies that just as China exports its goods, it will soon be exporting its language, movies, music, education, values, and what have you. But this is where his argument breaks down, which is to say: immediately. In argumentative logic, Mr. Jacques is engaging in the domino fallacy, whereby a particular trend or event is considered one step, usually the first, in a series of steps that will inexorably lead to a specific desired or undesired result. And, of course, with Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, the result is desired. I see his thesis as being more a wish than an objective assessment. It’s his dream that China rises and beats the specious and conceited West at its own game. His book, When China Rules the World, is nicely bound, well written, and full of interesting facts, figures, graphs, and charts. But his conclusions are wrong. He’s also guilty of mythologizing China, something Sinophiles have been doing for centuries. One of Jacques’s chief arguments is that China will dominate because it’s a civilization-state and not a mere nation-state like the other 190-some nation-states in the world. That would be interesting if there were, in fact, any such term as ‘civilization-state.’ It’s not in any dictionary I own, and a Google search shows it’s only connected to Jacques and his book. Why this arcane parlance? China is so mysterious and unquantifiable that the English language is ill-equipped to deal with it? Please. Such terminology is literally meaningless and mythologizing China isn’t going to help people understand it. It needs to be observed objectively, even coldly, not such a complicated matter as China is entirely knowable, not mysterious at all. The shallow assessments and mythomania have gone on long enough. China’s imminent world domination is possibly the greatest myth of our times.

What can the world do to better understand the direction in which China is headed? How can the West be better prepared for a rising China?

As to the first question, I think people ought to read more, especially about China’s past, because China is still, despite all the physical signs of modernity, living in its past and bound to its tenets. Even Martin Jacques says as much, although whereas he sees this as a blessing, or something approaching the spiritual, I see it as a hindrance if not a curse. Now, when you mention China’s past, the instinct is to yawn or perhaps cringe, but, overwhelmingly, I’m not referring to dynastic times. I’m instead talking about modern history, especially that of the last 150 years. That’s the good stuff, and it’s been excellently documented by foreign observers and Chinese observers who relocated to the West. Read Jonathan Spence, Jonathan Fenby, Sterling Seagrave, or Jung Chang. And if that’s too daunting, try Peter Hessler, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, or Ma Jian. If you’ve got a business interest, read Tim Clissold. There are loads of excellent China books out there, and reading them can become addictive. Westerners should know, too, that the China debate is heavy with spin-doctors and factions. There are Sinophiles, Sinophobes, Chinese nationalists, pro-Chinese culture/anti-Communist-Party types, pro-Taiwan/anti-China sorts, and heaps of people who censor themselves due to professional affiliation. It’s important for non-Chinese to be discriminating when consuming information about China, and to make up their own minds about China’s essence and intentions.

As to the second question: how can the West be better prepared for a rising China? that’s a tough one. Again, reading helps, but it’s difficult to know how to deal with China. The Chinese see things in terms of the Confucian hierarchy. Partnerships are tenuous as there just isn’t much trust. China does not like the West, and this is what people need to understand. I don’t mean that everyday Chinese people don’t like Western people or certain aspects of Western culture, although that is sometimes the case; I mean that the Chinese government continually blames the West for many of its problems. Victimization is a major recurring theme in China, and the government insists on telling its people things like the Americans waged bacteriological warfare in China during the 1950s, even though Moscow admitted at the end of the Cold War that that story had been concocted by the Kremlin. At the Museum to Commemorate US Aggression, located in Dandong, on the Yalu River, which helps divide China and North Korea, you can still find germ-warfare exhibits. In fact, quite a few Chinese museums are simply pro-Chinese-government/anti-imperialist propaganda pieces. I’ve seen debates on CCTV 9 where the host derides the United States with such gusto that he looks to be shaking. Some Sinophiles say this is harmless, that it’s just the age old trick of keeping the masses focused on so-called malevolent outsiders and away from, say, corrupt domestic officials. They say China will never actually act on its claims. But I’m not convinced. Revenge is such an incredibly powerful element in the Chinese world and failing to act on one’s words can result in a colossal loss of face. As was noted at the 2008 Reith Lectures, given by Jonathan Spence, China now presents the Opium Wars as the starting point of modern Chinese history. The Chinese government needs to be asked, point blank, why that is.

Also, rather than fretting about China so much, Western countries might want to get their own houses in order. In Canada, poverty is a serious issue, and so is education, not to mention illiteracy and nepotism. Despite its many pretensions, Canada has to be one of the least meritocratic nations on Earth. The government has a mastery of wasteful spending and the health system is in a supremely bad way. Perhaps China’s economic gains will be the impetus needed for the West to shape up, but the realist in me doubts that will happen. Looking at all the problems in the West, it might be tempting to think China is the land of answers, but I see it more as the land of questions – at least for those permitted to ask them.

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About the Author

Lior Paritzky is the Editor in Chief and Manager of Laowaiblog, an internet platform that provides opinion and views about social phenomena in modern China. Look for Lior on Twitter: Liorpari