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Is China the World’s Next “Superpower?”

Is China going to be the world’s next superpower?

The way that this question is framed, in my opinion, fits neatly into the typical American conceptualization of what global influence and hegemony entails, and accordingly reflects the American fear of the “fall of the West.” The term “superpower” is generally reserved for the United States in its period of post-Cold War, unipolar hegemony; as such, for China to become the world’s “next superpower,” it will need to displace the United States as the unrivaled global hegemon. While China is undoubtedly the most rapidly rising power in the world today, and indeed may soon come to pose a distinct challenge to American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, it is far from becoming the world’s next “superpower” as defined by the American construction of the term. Far from the “fall of the West” that American policymakers so fear, China’s rise is rather indicative of the phenomena of the “rise of the rest,” in which the United States’ waning global hegemony is gradually replaced by a multi-polar environment of competing regional powers. At the forefront of these powers will, of course, be China, which has, in a number of metrics, surpassed the rate of rise of other emerging states. Yet, at the same time, a number of factors constrain, contain, and curtail the Chinese rise to unrivaled hegemony and “superpower.” The metrics which indicate China’s rapid rise, along with those factors which contain it, will be explored in this essay

Seen through a number of measurements and lenses, the People’s Republic of China is quickly emerging as one of the world’s top powers. Buoyed by remarkable rates of growth, the Chinese economy has recently surpassed the United States’ to become the most powerful in the world. Millions of Chinese are moving into urban areas, an indicator of development, and the quality of life for the average Chinese citizen continues to improve markedly. Increased levels of Chinese investment and economic development in foreign countries are posing China to become one of, if not the, key players in the 21st century economy. As indicated by an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and prestigious demonstrations on the global stage, such as the near-flawless 2008 Beijing Olympics, China is beginning to assert itself more readily and more forcefully in the international arena. Increasing military budgets and a major military modernization campaign is transforming the Chinese military into a first-rate, formidable 21st century force. China’s longstanding nuclear arsenal and UN Security Council seat already places it into the club of top powers, while China’s increasingly sophisticated space program, which is only the 3rd to place humans into Earth orbit, places it alongside history’s most recent “superpowers,” the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Additionally, China’s involvement and leadership in international and intergovernmental organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, demonstrates that China wishes to legitimize itself as a capable, responsible international leader. Outside of these tangible measurements of “power” and “hegemony,” the Chinese themselves are seeing China as an emerging top power. Again, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and China’s rhetorical foreign policy position of non-interference and peaceful cooperation, which seeks to redefine the norms for and codes of conduct of the international community, are indicators of the Chinese not only seeking to play a crucial and defining role in the 21st international community, but believing that they can.

Yet while these metrics might point to a meteoric rise to global eminence for China, a number of internal factors present distinct challenges to China’s future stability, and thereby curtail China’s ability to sustain its ascent. Though China’s economy has experienced unprecedented rates of growth over the last decade, this growth cannot continue indefinitely, and is already beginning to show signs of waning. Not only does this present a political issue to the Chinese Communist Party, which has premised much of its legitimacy upon producing economic results, but could also forestall the internal and external development which powers China’s rise. There was, to draw a parallel, much talk of Japan becoming the world’s next “superpower” during its period of intense economic growth, talk which promptly ended once Japan’s economy began to stabilize. China today also faces issues of political instability and uncertainty, as demonstrated by the growth of rural protest and opposition movements and the recent Hong Kong protests. While these movements are today largely contained and undermined by China’s continued economic prosperity, they represent a distinct future challenge to the Communist Party should things go unchanged. Dealing with political reforms, or facing the consequences emergent from a lack of reforms, will present the Communist Party with a challenge the significance of which it has perhaps not faced before, and the manner by which the Chinese government handles future political issues could significantly hamper China’s position and prestige on the global stage.

Externally, as well, China faces a number of containing factors in its rise to “superpower” status. For one, the world’s current “superpower,” the United States, is far from waning in hegemony to such a degree that it will be “replaced” by China; through decades of eminence and leadership in international political, economic, and military organizations, the United States has entrenched itself as a global power and hegemon for at least decades to come. Even if the United States continues its “decline,” the predictions of which I myself take issue with, it will still be among the world’s top powers, and will still exert considerable enough influence in the Asia-Pacific to challenge China in its own region. Indeed, not only does China face challenges and unfavorable balances of power globally, it must contend with states balancing against it in its own “backyard.” Outside of the American alliance system, which incorporates Australia, South Korea, and Japan and which seeks to balance against and contain Chinese regional assertiveness, a number of states in the Asia-Pacific are “hedging” against China, in that they are seeking to develop a diversity of security and economic arrangements that limit the overall influence China has on their strategic and foreign policy calculations. As such, in order to rise to global hegemony, China will not only have to develop a favorable balance of power, but will first come to dominate a region in which it is already being balanced against. Coming up against the American Asia-Pacific alliance system and other states’ “hedging” behaviors, China is likely still decades away, if not longer, from dominating its own region, let alone the international environment.

Thus, though China’s rise is undeniable, and while that rise continues strong for the time being, there are a number of future and contemporary factors which are bound to limit the ultimate extent to which China becomes a global hegemon. Rather than becoming the next “superpower,” China is most likely to become the most significant state actor in the Asia-Pacific, and, to an extent, will likely represent the most significant balance of power challenge to the United States and other emerging regional powers in the coming multi-polar environment. It is difficult in our current context to envision China’s role and position in an international environment outside of the present unipolar one; such is why, I am sure, the question is framed in such a way as to suggest that China could supplant the United States as the world’s next “superpower.” Yet, as political scientists and policymakers, I think it is important for us to see China’s rise not as an indicator of declining American hegemony, but as a manifestation of a fundamentally changing international environment. Only through that lens can foreign policy be made that would preserve America’s global influence through engagement with rising powers, while limiting the consequences of competition, conflict, and war which dramatic changes to the global balance of power often bring.

China, An Urban or Rural Society?

Is China a rural or urban society? Is this likely to change over the next decade?

The answer to the question of to what extent China is a “rural” versus “urban” society depends largely on how one chooses to quantify and qualify “rural” and “urban.” This choice is particularly complex and complicated for the case of China; as a result of China’s enormous territorial and demographic size, massive populations live in both “rural” and “urban” areas, making it difficult to come to a single, general conclusion about the overall character of Chinese society. Furthermore, various factors blend the distinctions between “rural” and “urban.” The difficulties which arise in answering the question because of these factors will be discussed later in this response. However, to provide a simple response to the question, and using population statistics as a measure to quantify the “rural” and “urban” nature of Chinese society, I would conclude that China is now an “urban” society. Over half of China’s population lived in urban areas by the end of 2013. In addition, migration into urban areas is likely going to only increase over the next decade, as both governmental forces, such as plans to move millions of people into developing cities, and nongovernmental forces, such as work-related migration, drive continued urbanization. Indeed, official predictions for 2020 state that at least 60 percent of the population will live in urbanized areas.[1] As such, China is slated to become even more of an urban society in the coming years.

Approaching the question through the lenses of structural and elite analysis also brings about the conclusion that China is arguably more “urban” than “rural.” Various structural and organizational features of the Chinese political system give more importance to urban areas than to rural areas. For one, China’s cities and other major urban areas are more directly connected to the state and party apparatus than its rural areas. Individual cities exist at the same level in the regional organization of China’s government as large rural areas, and a particular few of China’s largest cities exist at the same level of government as entire regions. Accordingly, China’s urban areas are more directly governed by, influenced by, and in turn more directly influence, the higher levels of the Chinese Communist Party than China’s rural areas, which often operate with a degree of independence and autonomy. In a country where party and state are so intricately linked, these connections serve as important measures of the significance of urban versus rural areas in Chinese society. Furthermore, the prominent road to higher power for aspiring members of the Chinese Communist Party is to administer major urban areas. For the political elite, urban areas represent career advancement and a chance to make a name for themselves far more readily than rural areas, thereby reinforcing the importance of urban China over rural China in Chinese political culture.

Historically, too, the heightened political importance of China’s urban areas over its rural areas is apparent. The countryside has long been neglected by the party elite, who have, through policies and patterns of investment which have benefited urban areas, created a significant discrepancy between high urban and low rural levels of development. Even during the Maoist years, which gave rhetorical and theoretical importance to the rural peasant and rural society, were China’s rural areas given secondary importance behind the urban areas; such can be seen as an explanation for why the famines and poverty of the Great Leap Forward struck China’s rural population hardest. Not only have such patterns of inequality in Communist Party policy persisted into the Reform Era, but the party’s ideological stance has grown to incorporate and highlight the importance of distinctly urban populations. Jiang Zemin’s idea of the “Three Represents,” which highlighted “high culture” and served in part as an ideological justification for allowing private entrepreneurs to be members of the Communist Party, is representative of the growing political importance placed on these developing urban trends and groups.

Yet these answers fall short of truly addressing the question, again perhaps because it is difficult to distinguish China as either an urban and rural society. While some states with small populations and territories can be clearly defined as “urban” or “rural,” China, with its massive population divided between intensely urbanized areas and deeply rural areas, is perhaps best defined as “both.” Defining China’s society with a broadly general term overlooks the complexity of and divisions in China’s population, with the lives and livelihoods of China’s rural and urban populations often being very dissimilar, and ignores the separate and often very different issues that China’s government faces when dealing with and administering urban and rural areas. In the particular case of China, there are also issues with the method by which “urban” and “rural” is usually quantified and qualified. Much of China’s “urban” population is actually comprised of “rural” migrants who have moved into the cities for work, and who often then return to the countryside. Accordingly, the distinctions between urban and rural populations are often blended, complicating the task of clearly defining who is an urban versus a rural resident. Furthermore, rural and urban areas are often mixed together in China’s administrative system; the administrative areas of some cities extend over both urban and rural zones. The fact that there are people living rural lifestyles in urban areas in China further complicates the answer to this question.

China is thus perhaps most appropriately defined as both an urban and a rural society. It is otherwise too difficult, and perhaps poor political science, to broadly generalize and define Chinese society. While a number of lenses of analysis and units of measurement would point to China being more of an urban than rural society or would indicate that China’s urban areas are more important than its rural areas, the fact nonetheless remains: more Chinese than the total populations of many of the world’s countries live in China’s rural areas and live rural lifestyles, and, despite increasing urbanization, the issues and characteristics which define and make distinct rural China are likely around to stay for a long time.

[1] “China’s urbanization level to reach 60 pct by 2020,” Xinhau Net, accessed March 15, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-03/16/c_133190605.htm

The Importance of Understanding China’s Imperial Heritage

Is knowledge about China’s imperial heritage important for understanding Chinese government and society today?

Not only would I argue that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is important for understanding Chinese government and society today, I would say that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is necessary for doing so. As an aside, I believe that this question touches upon a broader characteristic of political science, in which no country’s political system, political culture, or geopolitical role can be properly understood outside of that country’s historical context. If the field of history describes what major political decisions have been made, the field of political science describes how and why those political decisions came to be; underlying these two fields is the fact that events in the past come to intimately shape and define the characteristics of a country’s contemporary policy-making and political systems. It is thus impossible for the political scientist to adequately understand a country without first grounding themselves in the major characteristics of that country’s past. Nonetheless, in the specific case of China, a number of specific features and characteristics of China’s past and the legacy of its imperial heritage have shaped, and continue to define, contemporary Chinese government and society. Among them are the legacy of Imperial hegemony and China’s “national humiliation,” which drives contemporary Chinese nationalism and assertive foreign policy, the legacy of the “peasant rebellion,” which underlies the agrarian, peasant-based foundation of Maoist theory and China’s Communist Revolution, and the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian traditions, which continue to lend cultural legitimacy to China’s bureaucratic, authoritarian, single-party political system.

The Chinese civilization is among the oldest in the world, having lasted continuously for thousands of years. Throughout the breadth of Imperial history, China had not only been a center of rich artistic, religious, cultural, scientific, and technical advancement, but had also been among the strongest powers in the Asia-Pacific. The strength of Chinese civilization was reflected in the fact that foreign conquerors, rather than imposing their cultural norms and values on the Chinese, instead took Chinese culture as their own. As such, when it comes to their heritage, the Chinese have much to be proud about, and this pride manifests itself in growing contemporary nationalism. Connected intricately to this rich history and the nationalism which it breeds is the period of “national humiliation” China suffered at the hands of Western imperialist powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which China was relegated to a second- or third-tier colonial status and in which Chinese values and culture came under increasing attack by the West. The period of “national humiliation” was a striking blow to the Chinese psyche, and almost all subsequent political events in China can be seen as an attempt to overcome that humiliation; indeed, the Chinese Communist Party, by premising a great deal of its legitimacy on its continued success in bringing economic and geopolitical growth to China, has taken on the role of restoring China to the eminence it once possessed. The increasingly assertive and aggressive foreign policy that characterizes Xi Jinping’s administration, which is driven by and in turn drives Chinese nationalism, is just another manifestation of the Chinese attempt to restore China to its “rightful” position of power and prestige on the regional and global stages.

The tradition of the “peasant rebellion” is a distinct, and perhaps unique, characteristic of Imperial Chinese history. Throughout much of the Imperial period, mass peasant movements, frustrated by the failure of ruling dynasties to uphold the “Mandate of Heaven,” challenged, and occasionally overthrew, the ruling regime. Near the end of Imperial history, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, both mass peasant movements, further challenged the Chinese state. Indeed, the proto-communist elements of the former and the anti-imperialist motivation of the latter were harbingers of the rhetoric which would serve as the basis of China’s Communist Revolution. Mao based the ideological and theoretical premises of his communist movement on the agrarian peasant and mass mobilization, no doubt drawing inspiration from the historical precedent set by past “peasant rebellions.” There are, to be fair, endless criticisms of Mao’s ideological basis, which was arguably less peasant-based than the usual narrative portrays it to be, and, especially since the Reform Era, China’s peasants have played an increasingly less prominent role in the Chinese state. Yet, nonetheless, in order to understand the contemporary Chinese state and Communist Party, one must first understand its origins in the Maoist era, and, in turn, to understand the Maoist Era, one must first be grounded in an understanding of the precedents set by the tradition of the “peasant rebellion.” Also of growing significance in contemporary China is the issue of rural agitation, in which disgruntled peasants are increasingly willing to organize and protest against perceived offenses by the state. These modern day “peasant rebellions,” too, are grounded in and likely influenced by the historical precedent set by those of the past.

There is also the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian heritage, which today influences the character and culture of China’s political system. The Imperial Chinese system was long characterized by a massive, well-trained, and competitive bureaucracy that was ultimately answerable to the ruling Emperor. The contemporary Chinese state, characterized by a well-organized hierarchy of power, a large state sector, and a significant wealth of bureaucratic institutions ultimately answerable to the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, can be seen as a continuation of this organizational tradition from China’s historical heritage. China’s Confucian tradition, which instilled values of deference to authority and respect for elders, is, despite various attempts during the Maoist years to undermine or eliminate it, still a pervasive part of the Chinese political culture. Most of China’s upper leadership, who wield the bulk of power in the Chinese system, are “elderly,” and, though other, modern factors such as improvements in the quality life may keep China’s population politically subdued and apathetic, the underlying Confucian value of deference to authority undoubtedly plays some role in reinforcing authoritarian, one-party rule. After all, cultural norm and values, especially those as long-lasting and deeply entrenched as China’s Confucianism, serve as the foundation by which individuals perceive, interact with, and form expectations of their state and society.

Accordingly, knowledge of China’s Imperial heritage is crucial for an understanding of contemporary Chinese government and society. Many facets of the Imperial era, such as the tradition of the “peasant rebellion,” the bureaucratic and Confucian organization of the Chinese state and society, and the period of “national humiliation” in Chinese history, all directly and indirectly influence and shape the modern day characteristics of China. Of course, China is not a unique when it comes to the necessity for a background understanding of its history; a political scientist studying any country must first ground themselves in the historical context of that country before they can truly “understand” its present day characteristics. After all, political science and history are two deeply intertwined fields, perhaps even more interconnected than political scientists and historians often wish to them credit.

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