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China Is Officially a Superpower, or Not

Are you a superpower when Timothy Garton Ash says so? The award-winning writer has a grand piece in the Guardian today in which he states:

Today - 2 April 2009 - may yet be marked as the day on which, through the catalysis of a global economic crisis, China definitively emerged as a 21st-century world power.

Not so fast.

Garton Ash poses what to him is "the Chinese question of questions." That is, "can you continue to combine command politics with market economics?" For the sake of argument, he says, let's assume that China solves this riddle, then what?

My reaction to the piece is similar to my reaction to a lot of Western journalism about China. The questions that burn for us actually might not be the ones that burn the Chinese.

Garton Ash assumes that China is going to be able to fit the square peg of its authoritarian political system into the round hole of its free-wheeling economic system. As a result, he says, China becomes No. 1.

But what if he's asked the wrong question? What if the burning question for China is, for example, demographics? It's the fastest aging society in the world. It will indeed grow old before it gets rich. Or what if the question is environmental? I don't need to go into details here, you know how bad it is. Or social? China's crime problem is serious and getting worse. There's a nationwide shortage of trust. Or health-related? AIDS continues to grow; there's avian flu. Or economic? Yes, China has done miraculously so far. But exports are down significantly. Can they weather this Western-induced crisis?

There is a triumphalism coming from Beijing that Garton Ash's piece notes. The recent attack on the dollar; the obnoxious musings of Vice President and Anointed Successor Xi Jinping (Misspelled initially. Thanks to reader P. Gardes for pointing out the mistake!) while he was in Mexico. Some of the bluster is justified. But some of it also masks a deep insecurity about what's next for China. We need to remember that what we often think are the big questions for that great country aren't the right ones at all.

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Comments (30)

wuheyu Author Profile Page:

as a chinese,the only thing I angry about our government is that why we have to loan so much money to US ????? I don't think we can get our money back anymore....

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:


US is a Superpower, even now. Superpower is not a bad name, it is same as Samson or Goliath, but remember these two were all with great strength, Superpower, only one fought for good and another fought to enslave others.

Americans embrace Liberty and democracy, people who work and adore goodness, I think world is blessed by American people; but we have to understand that not often many decisions are made by American people, but by a few bad nuts in the house and congress.

Secondly, China is not superpower, our nation is not rich and with strength. Second, superpower must be a nation that their people and culture others look up to.

Maybe one day, China is democratic and our people's culture restored by living some peaceful period, then they may be able to lead.

Zhuang Zi said:
A dog barks loud, may not be a good dog.
A man speaks sweet, may not be a good man.
A person is rich, does that mean he is good?

The world need s superpower, but a good one.
Right now compare all the nations, US is the best to lead.

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:


I have same feeling about our people, Chinese.

And most of my Chinese friends also disrespect our people, and ourselves too. Even my grandma, when she was alive she foretold that Chinese culture was declining. The surrounding changed Chinese culture after Qing Dynasty fell, people have to fight to earn their living, not only against foreigners, but also against each other.

Even now, people all can see that, Chinese are most uneducated people, rude and selfish among all. there is very famous author wrote a book titled 'The Ugly Chinese' a few years ago, but think about this since Qing Dynasty Chinese never lived in peace, eventually Japenese army left, Commies and KMT were fight against each other, one was gangster leading peasants, another was corrupted regime that backed by US, and Mao being another side slept with Russia for his own belief sake, and when somehow mainland secured by commies, then Chinese walked right into the battle of the great, cold war; nation abandoned the old teaching of Confucian and Lao Zi, for generations people were not educated as Chinese, but revolutionists, for they were afraid that if the people learn Confucius they were weak and could not use pratice to ritual to compete with foreigners who had history of colonizing China, so all Chinese were trained as commies wolves, good old scholars were all sent to prison and most of them died. We are never the people that great Russian poet praised that 'as polite as Chinese'.

It is tragic.

But our students now can only do good academically in school, but they never learn how to be a human, as Chinese, as how our ancestors trained thu rich culture.

I have nothing against American, actually I love American, good people, but some of government official and senators are really bad that they set fire everywhere in the world for American people and other poor nations.

I really admire Liberty and Democracy, and I do believe that, and really hope my country and people one day obtain liberty and democracy.

sqrl Author Profile Page:

As an South American student in Hong Kong I'm really perplexed by the constantly attention Westerners dwell on the notion of China and superpower status. I travel to mainland China all the time and when we talk about world politics there's rarely any discussion of China being/becoming a superpower except for nationalists. Most people adopt an extremely cautious attitude towards China's future because we on the ground can see all the hurdles that face China which results in a pragmatic attitude towards the future. Therefore I have to appalud Mr. Pomfret for illuminating what I see as a critical misconceptopn by many westerners, that what you may perceive as an important issue/question doesn't necessarily mean others will too.

Furthermore, some food for thought. The definition of a superpower is vague and elusive but many here agree military power projection is an important part of defining a superpower, however a la Khruschev's "We will bury you!" China is singing "We will buy you", things change fast.

RPW3 Author Profile Page:

Super "Power" is nothing more than the exclusive right to subterfuge. The only one that has this sole right is the one that can do it and get away with it -- the one that is immune to being subverted itself.

TSLee Author Profile Page:

No, not yet. Still a long long way to go.


wert56 Author Profile Page:

"But what if he's asked the wrong question? What if the burning question for China is, for example, demographics? It's the fastest aging society in the world. It will indeed grow old before it gets rich. Or what if the question is environmental? I don't need to go into details here, you know how bad it is. Or social? China's crime problem is serious and getting worse. There's a nationwide shortage of trust. Or health-related? AIDS continues to grow; there's avian flu. Or economic? Yes, China has done miraculously so far. But exports are down significantly. Can they weather this Western-induced crisis?"

China has a myriad of problems and its by no means destined to become the biggest power but a lot of the problems you cite aren't even problems.

Give me a break. If you've only been to Seoul or Tokyo then sure the crime in China is high. But from a global developed world perspective, Chinese cities are not dangerous. Violent crime is rare.

The infection rate stands at .1%. High compared to somewhere like Japan but at the same level as Northern Europe. AIDS is not a problem in that region of the world and not in China.

They are a homogeneous and industrious people. All the ingredients needed. As their quality of life increase so will their social relations.

China's male to female inbalance is scary but I don't put much stock in your aging concern.

The fertility rate is 1.7. This is below replacement (2.1) but will not be a future demographic crash. This is not Japan. There will be replacement workers following the retirement of older workers. The Chinese government will eventually lift child restrictions and fertility will rise. The aging situation is manageable and healthy. China's population needs to reduce. The population density is too high and drags down quality of life.

Please cover the gender imbalance, the most serious social issue especially in rural areas where its downright destructive.

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:

Enjoyed reading your post, lartfromabove. Would have even

blasmaic Author Profile Page:

So far, so good, and actually better than anyone inside or out of China believed.

Why though would China want to be a Superpower like America?

Instead of China becoming more like America, I believe America's GDP growth rate should become more like China's!

uvarichmond Author Profile Page:

Totally agree. The Chinese right now are great at copying things, let's see if they can create things. The new 'battery powered' car they are working on will test true innovation. I believe, for that, you need a free democratic society that promotes free ideas.

lartfromabove Author Profile Page:

The term "superpower" indicates a willingness to project military and economic force to any corner of the world, to consider all regions as part of its strategic map.

It's not a useful paradigm. Like the "great power" concept that slid Europe into the First World War or "manifest destiny" that led America to ethnic cleansing against its indigenous population, these megalomaniac epithets do not contribute anything useful to strategic analysis.

The fact is that China has a population of 1.3 billion and that free market economics will find a way to help people prosper in spite of any authoritarian regime. China already dominates the manufacturing sector of the global economy. It is also a poor country with a tremendous social overhead, which limits the resources it has to project its power abroad. But that is a very dynamically changing situation.

"Is" or "is not" a superpower is a meaningless binary question to analyze a complex society. Even dictatorships have an internal political dynamic that requires some method of gaining support from the population. In the short to medium term, China can't project its power everywhere, like the Americans can (at tremendous and wasteful cost). But they can probably focus their attention anywhere they wish. The useful purpose of analysis is to try to understand what options countries have, and China has a lot of options at its disposal, especially on any issue where they could mobilize popular support.

alex65 Author Profile Page:

China, a super power at this stage? Unless I am on drugs I would not believe anything remotely related to this judgement.

China is a vast country with a huge population. The nice pictures of the coastal chinese cities aside the vast majority of Chinese people are still poor when compared to people in the developed world.

Let us get real...China is NOT a super power.

jsindc Author Profile Page:

First, China is not a super power. China has land and people but lacks influence around the world. The majority of Chinese people are still living in third world country standard.

Second, China does not want to be a super power. Just look at their history, they built walls instead of conquering foreign land. Chinese ships went to Africa, America earlier than the Europeans' exploration, and setting up colonies never came to their minds.

thmak Author Profile Page:

To Rheanellday: If USA doesn't want to be the superpower, why does USA is the only country in the world to set up military Command in every corners of the world and in space, maintain the only strongest militaty establishment making sure no other can surpass her might, embrace pre-emptive strike posture, impose economic and politcal measures to force others to adhere to USA political, economic and social values, invade insubordinating countries under false pretense, etc? These are all signs of a superpower. I hope you understand.

rheanellday Author Profile Page:

To generalyuefei: You state that the U. S. Government wants to be a the "super power." In fact we do not!! We know how the world feels about us including the Chinese!! I have many Chinese friends who are not fighting to leave this country, many become citizens. The truth is other countries want us to fight their internal battles with our defense weapons, they don't care if the the blood of young Americans is shed, just make sure their corrupt governments stays in power!! We don't want to "occupy" their countries, we have enough of our own problems at home. If you don't know or realize sir, Americans are from countries all over the globe who work hard for a decent and peaceful life. China is definately a rotting barn!! Chinese are rude, have no compassion, and are generally just as corrupt as the rest of the world. It is to bad we owe that country so much money, but most Americans are hopeful we can come out of this global mess. Donald2 is correct, Chinese are hard working people, but I have to disagree that Chinese students have a hard time getting into universities, they are bright and intellingent and in most cases have very high scores.

Davidlaoshi Author Profile Page:

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld: you could also read the Dao De Jing as a very eloquent defense of democracy, if you look at it in the right way. There's always a tension between the freedom of a democracy and the things you need to do to maintain it.

I basically agree with Gordon Ask, China's currency proposal is China's first real baby-step in the direction of global governance. The concerns Pomfret mentions are important, but they still don't negate the main point. Ordinary Americans had similar sorts of concerns at the same time America was becoming a superpower.

onestring Author Profile Page:

China is going to find out one day that you can put a nice coat of paint on a rotting barn - but the barn will still fall down.

In a way they are experiencing this now and the people aren't happy. Bribe-taking officials throughout China caused the deaths of thousands of innocent school children by looking the other way as substandard construction swept the school construction boom.

They found out that all the chinese propaganda about honesty and integrity is a lot of rot when Sanlu imploded under the weight of all the poison it sold in milk.

I'm not worried about a nation taking over that can't even write and enforce building codes.

I AM worried about them destroying the environment with coal fired power plants, lead in every productthey ship overseas, poison dumped raw into rivers and streams, and a zillion low-tech freon leaking refrigerators designed in the 1970s but built in china today.

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:

The Superpower obsession is an American idiosyncrasy. Its only virtue is to lead, invariably, to recurrent absurd discussions.

"Do not try to override the world with force of arms
It is in the nature of a military weapon to turn against its wielder

To hold on to weakness is to be strong

There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough
There is no evil like covetousness
Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough

To be over-developed is to hasten decay
This is against Tao
And what is against Tao will soon cease to exist

It is Heaven's Way to conquer without striving
To get responses without speaking
To induce the people to come without summoning
To act to plan without haste

The Wise is self-effacing and scanty of words
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed
All the people say, "We ourselves have achieved it!"" ***

Needless to say, nothing could be less American than the above

Observers of China would be well-advised to remember the above; for in essence, it remains fundamentally Chinese.

*** Laozi (老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ... a.k.a. Lao-Tzu, among other variations)

simplesimon33 Author Profile Page:

Aging population, pollution, crime, falling exports or AIDS may be China’s problems but they have NOT stopped or slowed China’s march to become super power and the world is itching to anoint China such a status. With nuclear weapons, UNSC seat, hefty forex reserves, robust space program, largest population and huge landmass, China has all the ingredients necessary to become a super power in spite of all its problems. The world realizes it and slowly but steadily accepting it. How long it will survive as a super power is a different matter. But its dictatorial form of government with capitalist mask will safeguard it against internal dissension even if it is not acceptable to outgoing super power i.e. US.

confederatedunce Author Profile Page:

"Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever."

Albert Einstein

[Make this symbol horizontal : 8, and add AD.]

confederatedunce Author Profile Page:

To Monsieur Garton Ash, a quote from someone we all hold in high esteem :

'So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.'


confederatedunce Author Profile Page:

To clarify a recent post elsewhere :

THE golden rule in economics is that you cannot fix interest rates and the currency rate, at the same time.

Somebody in Beijing forgot to read the first page of the book . . . call it the Demos Kratos principle, if you like.

[Go ask any financier, or economist, worth their salt.]

shane_beck Author Profile Page:

Yes, China has become an economic superpower of the 21st century. Certainly they have enough nationalism and arrogance to be a superpower. However from a historical perspective they failed in the 14th - 15th centuries to follow up their voyages of exploration. If they had established the trade routes to Europe and colonised Australia and the West coast of America, it would have been a whole new ball game. Mandarin might have been the global language and chinese culture the norm. I doubt that China would want to go imperial since it has just enough problems keeping control over its western provinces but you never know- a war is good to distract the population and rally around the government. Also we are seeing a backlash against China especially in places like the United States and Australia. A lot of talk about undue chinese influence on governmental processes.

Aprogressiveindependent Author Profile Page:

China is quite unlikely to seek the status of a global superpower on the level of the United States since 1945 or, to a lesser extent the previous Soviet Union. China, unlike the United States and some European nations, has never tried during its history to become a dominant power outside of its native continent. China often sought regional dominance in East Asia and many emperors from different dynasties supported expansionism, somewhat similar to Russia's steady expansion over about four centuries and the United States, especially during the era of "manifest destiny."

China is and probably will become more so in the future, one of the leading economic powers in the world. The nation is likely to be one of the dominant powers in Asia, in its political influence. However, there is very little possibility China, Russia, India or any other nation will try to emulate the United States in its efforts at global hegemony, including military interventions in nearly every continent over about fifty years.

horsham Author Profile Page:

This talk about superpower status is totally silly to most Chinese people. They know how much money they make and how much the average Westerners make. They have never asked for a superpower status, and they probably have no use for it either.

They know their country has a lots of problems. The government is hopelessly corrupt and backward, they will loss much of the country's hard-earned currency reserve that has been built on the shoulders of teenage factory girls, because their government have no clue how to play with international money sharks (see today's Krugman column in NYT).

They know their country is not a superpower because their government does not give them welfare or bail them out when the factories close. Twenty million of them just packed their belongs in plastic bags and moved from the coast back to inland hometowns when tens of thousand factory closed recently. They know they would have been put in a paid "job bank" if they had been citizens of a superpower country.

Yes, DONALD2 is right, if China was a superpower, American students of Chinese heritage won't be kept out by colleges because of a different admission standard.

Topper2u Author Profile Page:

"Can they weather this Western-induced crisis?" China's enjoyment of double digit growth and superpower facade is entirely "Western-induced".

Having reaped the benefits of capitalism, China now becomes an expert critic of the Western worlds misgivings and capitalism? 25+ years of growth exporting to the Western world and America in particular ... now slam the partners who brought you to the dance?

The downside of free market capitalism is a bitter pill to swallow for a country that, when put into perspective, only yesterday walked on to the world stage as a "player". But true to the arrogant, self-centered mindset ... they are now experts.

I'm appalled at the ignorance of anyone who is shallow enough to believe that a "world power" requires less elements than currently is displayed by "the" superpower and/or those of the ethically and humanly guided nations that make up our global economic sphere. Without out fault? No Fundamental humane differences ... absolutely.

Much in China is facade, maybe more than "much". But the single element that is outstanding but little recognized by the "outside" observer or occasional tourist is the most deplorable trait that Chinese display every single day. The total absence of compassion towards their fellow man.

One only need to try and walk across the city street to recognize this. You DO NOT exist to the motorists. Simply put, consideration for others does not, in general, exist. Anyone who has spent measurable time there will confirm, enlightened Chinese are discovering and/or aware.

You might ask how this type of example can have anything to do with more heady conversations like "world power" status or "world leader" labels? I say without humanity and a fundamental concern for mankind, all efforts to project oneself as a "leader", are a facade.

Building a house on a shoddy foundation always has the same result.

Fundamental issues that will take a measure of evolutionary time to address and sophisticate must be given before China can ever in it's wildest day dream, consider itself and/or become an example of enlightened leadership in the world.

The present danger is to allow this country to export it's callousness.

The new "Nationalism" crusade by a few Chinese "thinkers" is evidence of the arrogance. But ... when challenged, a fall back position as "victim" is presented. Very tired response today.

Spare me the rhetoric about China leading the way, becoming a leader on the world stage. This is a "house of cards", built on a foundation that has not been properly set and is missing fundamental elements necessary to build on.

You can not skip essential chapters in growth and expect to understand what is required so be a "global leader".

jiaming Author Profile Page:

I deeply detest the word "superpower". It naturally means one nation is so strong and so arrogant that he is to suppress the freedom of others, in whatever name, with whatever excuses he wants. Let's hope the era of "superpower" is over for good!

If China is to be a strong and prosperous country, I hope it will be a model nation to be emulated, not feared. Don't make the same mistake that the United States has made. Say NO to "superpower".

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:

we Chinese never want to be Superpower, only US Government wants to be.

We stated so many time in history that we don't want to be superpower.

We just want to live better by making and selling cheap stuff.

Stop framing us to be a No.1
We are still in third world country club, and many of our people want to get more food and live better, That's all.

There is one Superpower, God.

Maybe some US politician should read more Bible before they act like they are pretty religious.

Superpower. No one is superpower in this world.
People and government can't even control their own destiny, why would anyone consider others or himself superpower?

Look at France, England, Germany, Russia, US, and China thru our history? Look at Greece and Roman?

One one is superpower.

Why people can't understand?

de-liberatedmind Author Profile Page:

I can't speak to Garton Ash opinion, but I can express my own that if you [United States] owe me [China] money that I bankrolled you/U.S. in order for you/U.S. to stay afloat...well, I/China would definitely conclude and pronounce that I/China was certainly more powerful than you/U.S. are since you/U.S. wouldn't be able to survive without my/China aide.

Now whether or not I/China am more powerful than some other nation, well that's another issue.

Donald2 Author Profile Page:

Yes, China is moving fast, and China is backward with many problems as correctly pointed in the article. The most important factor for this fast moving economy is the extremely hard working people.

In many ways, this reflects the overseas Chinese too. Most overseas Chinese are hard working. Like Chinese in China, they face many unfair obstacles too. Overseas Chinese are never part of the inner circle of power and young Chinese students have to post higher academic achievement to get into the same universities while others races can get into the same schools with much lower grades.

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