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China as a superpower

By Brian Hennessy - posted Thursday, 3 December 2009


It’s not time to hit the panic button yet. It is time however, to pause and reflect on the values which have made the West strong, and to ask ourselves whether or not these values have currency today in a global economy whose centre of gravity is tilting towards China.

China is a rising power: a fact to which the West is now accommodating itself. President Obama’s recent visit to China has demonstrated the USA’s political acceptance of this reality. This is good news for China, good news for the citizens of the USA, and good news for smaller nations which can never aspire to great-power status. Good news for everybody in fact.

Will China become great power? Time will tell. But there is a difference between big and great however. Although China can claim to have the oldest continuing civilisation in the world, I would argue that this civilisation should have more to show for itself after 5,000 years of nation-building. You can’t blame everything on those foreign powers which humiliated China in the 19th century. China’s own corrupt imperial mandarinate was partly responsible for this debacle.

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In my view, the test of a country’s greatness is how much value it has added to the sum total of human achievement and welfare. For example; it could be argued that England’s greatest contribution to humanity was its system of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Institutions which continue to contribute positively to the lives of people in other societies long after her decline from colonial great power status.

Another example of greatness could be any one of those smaller nations such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which have built successful multicultural societies out of the “tired, poor, and dispossessed” who sought a second chance in a foreign country somewhere across the sea. The children of these immigrant peoples are now integrated into their host nations, and are contributing to the welfare of all members of their new society. Some of them are now leaders of their adopted countries. This could never happen in culturally chauvinistic China.

A more deserving benchmark for success is China’s recent long march from poverty to towards developed nation status. Respect for China’s achievements in this regard is freely given. China is now taking its rightful place as a major economic power, and her influence on global affairs is set to increase in proportion to her growing GDP. Not before time. China’s centralised control of its economic levers has arguably saved a greedy capitalist world from itself. Give credit where it is due.

So China is finally reaching its potential. With 20 per cent of the world’s population, and with considerable intellectual and material resources, it’s about time that she did. Good for it. But what took China so long? That is a question China should answer for itself.

A few more words about greatness: I would argue that although China may become a super-power one day, it is possible that it may not achieve the greatness it aspires to. Greatness being defined here as that quality of national leadership which other nations will want to emulate -for their own good, and for the intellectual, material, and spiritual welfare of their citizens.

So what can China offer the world, apart from materialism, that the rest of the world would want to copy? A social contract between the government and the people which which states:“You (the people) stay out of politics, and we (the government) will stay our of your lives”? That’s not much of a script for greatness is it.

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This is a society in transition from the dead ideology of communism to a more dynamic socialism with Chinese characteristics: a system where the state still controls the means of production one way or another in tandem with market forces. A nice way of saying that the state can manipulate market forces whenever it wants to.

My gut feeling is that although the Beijing government recognises the tide of history and would like to allow more personal freedom, it fears the consequences of doing so. That is, loss of power and control and ultimately, perhaps, legitimacy. A nightmare scenario for the privileged bovver-boys in Beijing.

Conundrum: although China craves the respect of the world, the Beijing power elite will never voluntarily create the conditions which would allow modern China to mature into a truly great power. What a pity - for China.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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