Monday, 13 August 2012

Isn't China a superpower already?

So the London Olympics have finally closed down after 17 days of what I hope you will forgive me for saying, has been a rare, fantastic time to be British. Whilst the closing ceremony was exactly the trashy Eurovision-esque event that Danny Boyle's marvellous opening ceremony so delightfully turned out not to be, this was not even a smudge on the general feel-good of the performance of all the atheletes and volunteers which I enjoyed in the past two weeks, if only at a distance from my couch here in Poland.

It's also worth recognising how different the two positive aspects of these Olympics which depended least on the performance of the athletes would have been had it not been for the ground broken by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Volunteers have always been part of the Olympics, and the Olympic games has featured an expansive opening ceremony since the Moscow games in 1980, yet it was Beijing that set the bar to be met in both the enthusiasm and number of the volunteers supporting the games, and in the size and nature of the opening ceremony as a way of attempting to present a certain idea of the culture of the host city and country.

Pace Cohen, China may have problems developing "soft power", and a good part of this may be due to the government, but this does not mean that it does not have any. Sporting power is a form of soft power, and the Chinese athletes have shown in these Olympics, again, and this time without the home advantage, that, despite all the disadvantages facing athletes coming up in a huge and still largely poor country, they can be world-beating.

All of which makes me think that it is time to re-visit the ways in which China is often described: "the future superpower", "the rising superpower". It strikes me that these descriptions may have already had their day. China may still be rising, but it is very easy to argue that superpower status has been acheived.

Comparing the PRC to the US to decide whether it is a superpower is setting the standard too high. Whilst the US has been, or as we probably should start saying, was the sole superpower for quite some time, the USSR was also undoubtedly a superpower, yet the PRC has surpassed it in most metrics of 'power'.

In the field of soft power, government-friendly artists like Zhang Yimou and Lang Lang have a greater appeal world-wide than any Soviet government-sponsored artists that managed to stay in favour (Eisenstein? Shostakovich? Both paid the price for minor works of dissent). We need not compare Chinese films to those produced by Hollywood to see that it has already outstripped a super power in this field.

Economically speaking, the PRC surpassed even the most generous inflation-adjusted estimate for the USSR's final nominal GDP in approximately 2008. The maximum estimate of the USSR's per capita income in the final full year of its existence, roughly 15 thousand US dollars at 2010 prices - an estimate that may well be as much as double the real figure, will, at current growth rates, be exceeded by the PRC within the next 10-15 years. The PRC already has a larger economy than the country which, at least in the past, was often referred to as an economic super-power: Japan.

Militarily, the People's Republic does not yet approach the strength of the Soviet Union, with even its current, rapidly growing military spending still lagging behind the final official military budget of the USSR (222 billion US dollars at 2010 prices). Against this we must also place the fact that the USSR's military strength was paradoxically a weakness in that it was paid for through crippling high levels of spending, and the fact that China could afford these levels of expenditure now if she wanted. Just as importantly, China will almost certainly reach this level of spending within the next five years or so. China can already sustain a super-power military, and possesses nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers only to the extent that they are sources of power and not beyond that.

It is in the field of political power that China lags behind the furthest in the power stakes. Whilst we might expect the PRC's growing military might to attract allies, especially amongst former (present?) co-ideologists in Vietnam, the exact opposite has by-and-large been true. Little has been heard of recently about the formerly much-touted Shanghai Cooperation Organisation grouping of central Asian states of which both China and Russia are members. The history of the region is littered with international bodies which became little more than talking shops (SEATO, ASEAN, etc.) and it is tempting to think that the same has happened to the SCO. None of the myriad insurgencies being fought world-wide right now are trying to re-create the present Chinese system in their own country.

As I wrote a while back, China's socio-political model is not likely to ever be attractive to  people outside of China because it was essentially arrived through a series of disasters which no country would or could replicate. If China does have influence in the outside world it is usually as one of the few powerful countries willing to lend support to certain unpopular states (North Korea, Zimbabwe, Iran etc.) or as a country whose government is willing to exert influence to cancel orders if it is displeased by developments in a certain country. It is therefore in the political field that China is weakest, the only one in which it is still yet to achieve super-power status and, given the limitations of its present government, may never surpass even the USSR (whose system at least some in the outside world took seriously) whilst the CCP remains in power.

But whilst the political model of China does not threaten those of democratic countries, the opposite is not true. Democracy is still very attractive to the average Chinese person, not least for the very clear advantages it gives citizens who want to vote corrupt politicians out of power. It is this that explains the need the authorities to try to inoculate the population against the idea of democratic reform by spreading the twin myths that democracy is somehow un-Chinese or unsuited to China, and that those who do advocate democracy are traitors working against their country's interests.

It was with this dynamic in mind, the dynamic of a reasonably friendly competition between two superpowers, one of which is rather less endowed with confidence than the other, that I've been following the race for the top spot in the medal rankings between the US and China. Whilst the real answer for why the Americans in the end pulled ahead after days of see-sawing between themselves and the Chinese is the relative weakness of the Chinese team in the track-and-field events, the narrative grasped on by commentators in some corners is one of essentially racist bias against China.  In reality, of course, there is no evidence that Chinese athletes were the target of particularly bad decisions - in every incident listed except the gymnastics (where the decision, which appears to have been a bit unfair, meant Brazil receiving one of only three gold medals won during the tournament), other athletes went out in the same competitions for the same infractions. That this kind of complaining is actually likely to be interpreted by neutral observers as betraying a very un-super-power-like lack of confidence does not seem to occur to these commentators.

[Video: The beating of drums heralds the opening of the Beijing Olympic games, 2008]


justrecently said...

Your posts lists single fields in which China would count as a superpower. But according to Mark Lenonard ("What does China think"), "compehensive national power" is the thing, scientifically measured as (P=KxHxS) by the Chinese Military Academy, for example. Models like these, according to Leonard, explain why Japan, with a GDP of $1,220 billion, was no superpower, why the USSr, with a GDP of 741.9 billion, was (p. 85). At the same time, Leonard suggests, it has become a "truism" that the Soviet Union spent itself (militarily) "into oblivion". The challenge: how to defeat a technologically superior opponent.

That's the point, I suppose. They are either number one (where they "belong"), or they are noone. And once they are the number one, they'll be unhappy once again, because the world doesn't love them, and is still being impious.

Gilman Grundy said...

@JR - Comprehensive power may be the true measure, but if it is, then China is surely already superpower - exceeding the Soviet Union in its pomp in all but political influence.

But, as I'm beginning to think, acheiving political influence is critical in China becoming a super-power, then will China ever become one? Looking at China's current level of influence over events in, say, Syria, or the South China Sea, it is hard to say how they are much more than they were over events in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the 90's.

Again, though, the USSR's political influence was also a weakness. The political legitimacy of the Soviet system could be directly affected by the collapse of the governments which relied on its support. For the PRC, though, there is no such linkage. The collapse of the Laotian regime and its replacement by a democratic government would cause only the slightest tremor in Beijing.

justrecently said...

China's political system may not be able to touch "the masses" abroad, but it seems to me that they have done a great job in coopting foreign elites. I've heard business executives who gushed about how China creates elites and puts them, rather than the "stupid average citizens" (many different variations of this term), efficiently in charge, and the way former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt talks about China (incredibly "innocent" stuff, and his role in an international "action group for human responsibilities" (something he and his fellows would like to see side by side with the Declaration of Human Rights) points into the same direction.

Schmidt spoke on the "China Cultural Year" in Germany (i. e. early this year), and it was evident that his knowledge about China came from China's past and current leaders, from literature recommended to him either by them, or just as CCP-friendly sinologists, and Kissinger and Heath would be similar points in case.

Elected officials won't admire totalitarianism openly (and among most, I believe, that admiration is either non-existent or guarded), but I'm sure that many of them can see its convenience for a political and leading business class. In those terms, China is much more "attractive" than the USSR ever was.

As far as I can remember, the USSR was a rather friendless state, at least in the (early) 1980s.

Gilman Grundy said...

The admiration you describe might fit within the definition of 'soft power', but does it lead to actual influence? Does it more likely that the PRC will attract allies? I have trouble believing this.

The USSR's allies were, with a few exceptions, all countries which relied on the guarantee of violent Soviet intervention if overhtorwn in a revolution to keep them in power. The exceptions are Cuba, Nicaragua, and (possibly) North Korea, which relied on the Soviets to defend them against foreign powers.

None of these countries lended even token support to, say, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Support from the Warsaw Pact powers for Operation Danube, which was supposed to be a peaceful operation, came with the tacit threat that non-cooperation would mean that they would be next on the list - the exception was Ceaușescu who was otherwise the most reliable of the Soviet allies. Only the Soviets and their local allies took part in the crushing of the Hungarian uprising.

Yet their domination of Central and Eastern Europe did guarantee a ready chorus of national leaders willing to give lip-service to whatever it was that the Soviet Union happened to want that particular day. It also guaranteed the loyalty of co-ideologists who hoped for their countries to enter into a similar relationship with the USSR.

Compare to the PRC today: how many people graduating from Cambridge or Harvard this year would gladly spy for free for the PRC the way Blunt, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and X spied for the USSR? How many national leaders would gladly give a speech supporting, say, the PRC's position on the South China Sea dispute, or some other issue in which they had no interest? With the possible exception of North Korea, how many national leaders will sleep safely in their beds tonight in the knowledge that they are an ally of the PRC? And if these things do not happen now, when will they happen?

justrecently said...

I think it isn't only soft power. It's also influence via business. Very few people who invested in China will publicly criticize the party, or the state. And many will actually defend both.

MAC mentioned Thomas Friedman over there - and he mentioned that "the poor guy" (MK, the author of the linked article) "felt too invested to get out sooner".

That's MAC's interpretation, and it isn't necessarily the case with MK. But I believe that the strongest driver of the CCP's global influence (politically, too) lies in global business.

That's also where the CCP is most different from the CPSU.

On a different note: thanks for your active commenting on my Syria/South-China post. The thread is approaching a record number of comments. However, I can assure you that Enoch will never agree with you - not even if Shen Zhihua, in future, should publicly say something like "let's scrap that 'it's-all-Stalin's-fault. After all, Mao could have said 'No'." Quite probably, Enoch won't even concede that Stalin appeared to have wanted the war. It's all Kim, and the "civl war".

I'm not going to speculate about why this will go on and on, but I can tell you that it will, as long as someone keeps discussing the issue.

Anonymous said...

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