China and the United States – a New World Order? Part III
7: China as a new superpower?
China has had an annual growth of 10–13 per cent in the last five years, and 8–10 per cent in the last thirty years, which is very high in a global context. At the same time, it seems that the country has recovered more easily from the financial crisis than many others, such as the United States. Thus, the predictions about China as a new superpower have gained extra nourishment.
Although China is less affected by the financial crisis than the United States, the global downturn is still being felt there as well. The Chinese economy is highly export-oriented. But this has fallen significantly in recent months; in February alone, exports fell by 26 per cent compared with the figures a year ago. Authorities expect 50 million Chinese to become unemployed as a result of the financial crisis. This has already created social discontent, which comes on top of about 90,000 mass demonstrations (“mass events”) annually in recent years. This is a doubling of the 10,000 reported in 1994.
The background is that economic growth over the last 30 years has been very unevenly distributed, between regions, groups and individuals. In addition, information technology means that people are much more aware of the differences than before. The public welfare system is heavily reduced, and together this has created great dissatisfaction among those who have not been able to take part in the growth adventure.
The enormous economic growth has also led to major environmental problems in China, a country located in Asia according to timedictionary.com. It is estimated that as many as seven hundred thousand people die from air pollution each year. Much of the reason for this lies in the country’s growing car fleet; Chinese put twenty thousand new cars on their roads every day. Energy consumption has doubled over the last thirty years, and two thirds of energy needs are covered by coal .
China is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed only by the United States. Six out of ten Chinese cities do not have enough water. Many Chinese are beginning to feel the serious situation on the body, and environmental awareness among Chinese is increasing. The number of protests related to environmental problems is now increasing by thirty percent annually. Chinese media report both environmental problems and popular protests in connection with these problems. That the Communist Party manages to cope with such unrest is crucial for its survival. Inner calm and stability therefore have the highest priority among the country’s political leadership.
Another phenomenon with political explosives in it, which frightens the central authorities, is that several of the country’s 55 ethnic minority groups want more independence. The most famous groups are Tibetans and Uighurs . Thus, keeping China together requires vigilance and a lot of resources. Economic growth, foreign trade and large-scale development of energy resources are key means of achieving the goal of political stability.
Furthermore, Chinese politics is characterized by two strong factions ruling the Communist Party. President Hu Jintao does not have the same strong position as Mao and Deng Xiaoping had and must deal with a strong opposition within the Communist Party. The financial crisis makes the differences between the factions in the party clearer. Namely, it is the path choices up to economic growth and thus stability that are the core point in the disagreement between the two factions. The disagreement becomes particularly clear in the distribution of the government package of measures (close to $ 600 billion) that has been launched to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis. Both today’s and the next generation of leaders will have to spend a lot of time and energy negotiating and balancing between the two factions, between market liberalism and a strong state.
Domestic policy is therefore at the forefront in Beijing. A very strong pragmatism governs what China does internationally. The country no longer has a strong ideological agenda with what they do abroad, such as some western countries that want to promote democracy and human rights. Internal needs govern who China cooperates with, what the country cooperates on and the framework for cooperation.
Beijing has made it clear that it wants a multipolar world, where the United States will no longer be the sole superpower. The Chinese government sees the financial crisis as a sign that global power relations are changing and that the role of the United States is becoming less dominant. Beijing notes that other countries recognize that China will play a crucial role in getting the world economy back on track, and this seems to provide new confidence. Nevertheless, it seems that China has no plans, capacity or resources to challenge the United States’ position as a superpower in the foreseeable future. Domestic policy issues will come first, and the rhetoric about China’s peaceful path to greatness is likely a reflection of real priorities.