China's Rise: An Unlikely Pillar of US Hegemony

By Wang, Yiwei | Harvard International Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

China's Rise: An Unlikely Pillar of US Hegemony


Wang, Yiwei, Harvard International Review


The rise of China is perhaps one of the most discussed topics in current scholarship on international politics. In many ways, it is actually an over-analyzed concept. Within Chinese political dialogue, China's return to eminence is often bandied about as a goal of national development and is expressed frequently in the speeches of Chinese leaders and documents such as CCP National Congress Reports and Government Work Reports. In addition, foreigners often worry that China's rapid economic development will present a threat to the stability of the current world order.

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Because of this, other countries, especially a United States increasingly anxious about losing its preeminence, are often even more outspoken than Chinese pundits in proclaiming the imminent rise of a Chinese pole on the global power-map. According to the 2006 report of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 61 percent of US citizens believe that within the next 20 years, Chinese GDP will surpass US GDP. Yet interestingly, only 30 percent of Chinese citizens hold this view. The "China threat theory" has proliferated across the globe, while Chinese people remain bewildered as to why their country is suddenly the cause for so much international concern.

Thus while Chinese citizens may revel in the glories of China's rise, from the 2008 Olympics to Shanghai's nosebleed skyscrapers, they are also seeing its side effects. Externally, they confront an increasingly hostile international community that has become critical of everything from China's development strategies to its political policies. Domestically, they confront the usual bedbugs of globalization and rapid development: rapidly increasing housing prices, traffic, pollution, and problems with product safety. Not least are the social consequences of development: people are working harder and longer, and there is a frenetic pace to urban life in China that has only arisen in the past few years. Thus, Chinese citizens have complex attitudes toward development and the rise of China. Domestically, the benefits of development are bittersweet, and criticism from the international community has led to a good deal of domestic discomfort with China's apparent rise.

Rethinking the Implications of China's Rise

There are two common views regarding Chinese development: first, that it will result in the revitalization of the Chinese nation, and second, that it is a consequence of globalization. The former is often called nationalism by Western alarmists, and has been called so since the imperial powers applied this moniker to China following the Opium War of the 1840s. The latter holds that China correctly implemented liberalization and reform policies and embraced globalization and market liberalization. One could say that Chinese development is a result of successful US policies to bring China into the world market. Regardless of whether the main catalyst was Franklin D. Roosevelt's construction of an international order based on a police force of "the Big Four" or Nixon's conception of an order based on a balance between the five great powers, the fact is that today the United States is China's principal trading partner and investor, and more importantly, Chinese reform and liberalization was conducted in an international system supported by US hegemony. Objectively, then, the United States is aiding Chinese development and helping China achieve a new position of significant power.

But how should we measure this power? Economically, GDP is not useful as a measure of overall Chinese economic strength. This is not only because Chinese per capita GDP is ranked 110th in the world, but also because there is little Chinese investment abroad and a great deal of foreign investment in China. Thus, in comparison with other developed countries, there is a large amount of "hidden wealth" in China that skews the GDP calculation. China's foreign currency reserves are huge because foreign investment in China must be made in RMB.

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