The new superpower: how will the rise of China change the world?
October marks the seventieth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, when Mao Zedong ended the civil war and declared a republic. Since Mao’s death in 1975, after many years of political turmoil and tragedy, China has moved from backward peasant economy to modern capitalist power, and more recently to global superpower.
According to the World Bank, China is now the second-largest economy in the world, and, since 2013, the world’s largest trading nation. As well as its high-growth domestic economy and vast associated programme of city-building, it’s also backed economic expansion with geo-strategic moves. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and ‘String of Pearls’ network of ports, China is either planning or has already developed infrastructure across Eurasia and Africa. President Xi Jinping insists these moves will help promote business opportunities for every country signing up to them.
In military terms, China is constantly increasing its reach. It is attempting to militarise reefs in the South China Sea, has rapidly expanded submarine, aircraft carrier and missile capability and, by 2020, its army will be second only to the US in terms of military efficiency. Yet it has also ridden waves of protest over the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to gain a seat on the UN’s human rights council and transformed itself from a Communist pariah to a capitalist power-broker at the World Economic Forum in Davos. To many commentators, it seems power and influence is shifting from West to East.
But it’s not all plain sailing. China’s debt has grown, sales of cars have plummeted and amid the Trump administration’s allegations that China has stolen US technology, the recent controversy over Huawei raises questions over how much access Western states will give to Chinese businesses. Importantly, since 2006, China has been the world’s largest emitter of CO2, being responsible for around 25 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions – compared to around 10 per cent in the whole EU. With China reputedly planning to open as many as 500 new coal-powered electricity-generation plants by 2030 and concerns over the broader environmental effects of methane gas, waste, overfishing and air pollution, is China destined to remain an environmental pariah?
In addition, China is increasingly under the microscope for its record on human rights. Partly this reflects how it deals with the Uyghur in Xinjiang, where large numbers of Muslims have been interned. But months of protest in Hong Kong, initially as a response to China’s demand for an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China, has seemingly upped the stakes. Some reports say the target is now China itself and what started as a protest for legal autonomy has escalated into a national independence struggle. Others say many protesters are actually pro-Beijing, and others are worried about the economic repercussions of the protests on a country already hit hard by the US-China trade dispute. On the Chinese mainland, the authorities have called the actions of protesters ‘intolerable’ and yet have continued to tolerate it.
There are many complex and often seemingly contradictory trends related to China’s internal development and to its international and diplomatic relations. How should we understand China’s development and what impact is its rise likely to have on the world?