Irish Times view on the rise of China as a superpower

Scale, ambition of achievement is astonishing and contest with US will shape global politics

China’s president Xi Jinping’s twin goals are to see national greatness restored and international respect regained. File Photograph: Erik De Castro/Reuters

China’s president Xi Jinping’s twin goals are to see national greatness restored and international respect regained. File Photograph: Erik De Castro/Reuters

 

China’s rise to economic and political superpower status is the most important fact of international politics.

The transformation has brought up to 800 million people out of poverty since the 1980s through policies of industrialisation and urbanisation achieved by mixing state capitalism with foreign investment to generate growth averaging 10 per cent a year.

A huge new middle class of 400 million people has been created, whose consumption now accounts for 60 per cent of China’s output. Xi Jinping’s leadership is secure and legitimate based on this economic record, backed up by ruthless political controls and a determined projection of international power.

As a series of articles in The Irish Times made clear over the past week, the scale and ambition of the achievement is astonishing and its impact on Chinese everyday life profound. Hundreds of large cities have been built, hundreds of millions of industrial and service jobs bolster urban employment and China’s 1,200 million people enjoy social and geographical mobility like never before. It is therefore not surprising to find such widespread admiration for the ruling communist party’s leadership. That is so despite their monopoly of power, crackdown on dissent and growing use of surveillance technology to control society.

Xi Jinping’s twin goals are to see national greatness restored and international respect regained after China’s humiliating encounters with Western imperialism since the nineteenth century. The ruling party maps strategic steps along this way to become a mature industrial and technological state by 2025 and a world power by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of its revolution.

These goals may be more difficult to achieve than they realise. National greatness requires freedom to innovate, disagree and compete on economic and political priorities, and to protect its culture and ecology, putting in question the pronounced moves towards centralised controls. Social turbulence driven by popular dissatisfaction could yet threaten internal stability.

Achieving international respect demands a willingness to work cooperatively with others. China’s Belt and Road Initiative laying out rail, road and seaborne links between Asia and Europe is one of the greatest infrastructural projects ever seen. It affects up to half the world’s population. Unsurprisingly it creates resentment too over unfair contracts and hidden efforts to dominate partners. On balance, however, its positive multilateral features well outweigh these negatives.

Most important of all, China’s looming contest with the US will shape global politics. President Trump puts this question at the centre of his trade and foreign policies. If he tries to contain or reverse China’s rise the world faces a dangerous challenge of leadership, multipolarity and possible war. How both powers manage this transition will be the key test of their international respect.

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