Half a Superpower: China Still Punches below Its Weight on the International Stage, but It Is the Only Country That Could One Day Challenge American Supremacy

By Gittings, John | New Statesman (1996), January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Half a Superpower: China Still Punches below Its Weight on the International Stage, but It Is the Only Country That Could One Day Challenge American Supremacy


Gittings, John, New Statesman (1996)


Three years ago, China "entered the world" (ru shi), the phrase coined by Beijing to describe joining the World Trade Organisation. Chinese politicians and economists celebrated, saying it was like "winning the economic Olympics". It seemed that the long march from the socialist self-reliance of the Mao Zedong era to fully signed-up membership of the global economy was complete.

China, once so hard to reach physically as well as ideologically (apart from Aeroflot and Air France there was only the bridge from Hong Kong, or the trans-Siberian railway), is now amazingly accessible. International airlines fly direct to most provinces and foreign visitors are waved through without so much as a currency declaration.

Western investors are urged not to "miss the boat to China". It is forecast that China's economy will become the largest in the world by 2040; it already accounts for 12 per cent of the world's energy consumption. No one talks about "communist China" any longer: even the Communist Party of China prefers to describe itself as the "ruling party". For those who have been watching the country since the years when Mao was alive, it is hard to exaggerate the extent to which China has changed.

Yet though it has now entered the world--or, more accurately, been allowed to continue to enter it since Richard Nixon reversed America's isolation of China, by visiting Beijing in 1972-the past cannot be so easily put aside. The last two legacies of the cold war--the division of Korea and the separation of Taiwan from the mainland--are still perilously unsolved. The love-hate relationship between Washington and Beijing has become even more complicated now that the United States is the world's only superpower and China the only power that might one day challenge it. Old stereotypes of an expansionist "yellow peril" often lurk behind western admiration for China's headlong GDP growth.

Mao himself identified the US-China relationship as crucial when America moved into east Asia after the defeat of Japan in 1945. He proposed to fly secretly to Washington to urge President Franklin Roosevelt to remain neutral in the civil war that was again gathering force between Mao's communist forces and the Chinese nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Mao's proposal, spiked by a pro-Chiang American general, raises one of the most fascinating "what if?" questions in modern history.

Relations with America have always been at the top of Beijing's foreign policy agenda and remain so today. As soon as Deng Xiaoping had won control after Mao's death in 1976, he flew to Washington and gained tacit US approval for his 1979 war against Vietnam. The shock of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when several thousand young Chinese demonstrators were killed in the centre of Beijing, forced the US administration at least to profess concern about China's human-rights abuses.

Once this had faded, however, Deng's own successor as leader, Jiang Zemin, flew to Washington in 1997 to meet President Bill Clinton and set out China's aspirations for partnership. "The US is the most developed country and China the largest developing country ..." Jiang told students at Harvard. "China and the US share broad common interests and shoulder common responsibility" for such huge questions as maintaining world peace and protecting the environment, he said. With both leaders courting the media, the Bill-Zemin double act reached its climax the following summer when Clinton paid a return visit to Beijing and declared that China had "the right leadership at the right time".

Yet within a year everything had changed. The United States had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Jiang suppressed dissidents who had been briefly heartened by Clinton's call for democracy. While Clinton had called for "strategic co-operation" with China, the incoming George W Bush spoke of "strategic competition". Three months into his new administration, an American spy plane had tipped an intrusive Chinese fighter into the ocean, and then crash-landed on Hainan Island. …

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