The recent stock market crash in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has had global repercussions. The complex interdependence of the international system of states, combined with the interconnectedness of financial markets, has resulted in some national, or even local, events having a significant impact across the globe. China, which has been emerging as a great power for the past decades, has strong influence both throughout the region and across the planet. Its rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have seen a huge rise in living standards and poverty alleviation (with China being named among Citigroup’s 3G countries, what Citigroup calls “global generators of growth for the future”) – a rise scarcely matched by any other example of economic development. It has also become the United States’ main contender for global supremacy, although the extent to which this may be the case is controversial. Kupchan in The Atlantic argues that:
Although the United States will be number two in 2050, its economy will be much smaller than China’s. Goldman Sachs projects that China’s GDP should match America’s by 2027, and then steadily pull ahead.
Therefore, the rise of China, be it a ‘Peaceful Rise’ or an antagonistic one, can be viewed as a prelude to a ‘succession of hegemonies’ – with the PRC becoming the global superpower and hegemon. Or, alternatively, others see it as preceding a change in the global distribution of power and the beginning of a multipolar system within which China would, among others, wield considerable influence as a great power.
The economic liberalization of China has also seen a huge increase in wealth and income inequality, with the Gini coefficient for family net wealth, according to The Guardian, rising from 0.45% to 0.73% between 1992 and 2012. As a result, a new class of billionaires and oligarchs has developed– a bourgeois elite within a nominally communist state. Despite antagonisms between China and the United States prior to 1972, their relations have softened in recent decades since (in a classic example of Cold War realpolitik) Richard Nixon visited Beijing that year with hopes of balancing against the Soviet Union by splitting the Communist Bloc. Later, China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, being integrated within the Washington Consensus and neoliberal order. The outsourcing of production by Western businesses to China and other emerging economies, in the pursuit of cheap labor markets, is a consequence. This is part of a ‘catch-up’ process during which, under the auspices of globalization, emerging economies are “converging” with the economies of the developed world. With a largely mixed economy, movement of capital is still very controlled and cronyism is rife between the nation’s economic and political elites. The neoliberal reforms have also seen the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for experimentation in free markets.
In its international relations, there are significant disputes between the PRC and many of its neighbors. Taiwan, for one, still considers itself to be the legitimate government for the whole of China. Consequently, there have been crises over the Taiwan Straits since the Communist Revolution in 1949. Since the Chinese intervention during the Korean War in 1950, the dynastic and autarkic despotism of North Korea – another nuclear state – has been one of its closest allies. The expansion of the PRC into Tibet in 1951 is a long-standing international dispute. The People’s Liberation Army also employs over two million members and the nation has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, giving it a large sphere of influence and a significant amount of power and leverage throughout the region. There is also a dispute between China and various neighbors over the status of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Globally, China has also left a footprint in various African states including Sudan, where its role in the Darfur genocide has been particularly nefarious.
Let us now turn to domestic issues. China’s political system is not considered to be democratic, being a one-party state under the rule of the Communist Party. The massacre of thousands of students during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is a reminder that the nation’s political system, unreformed since this event, still leaves much to be desired. Political reform is necessary if China’s political system is to serve as an exceptional example for other nations to emulate in a way similar to the spread of Western democracy. Without offering a real alternative to Western democracy, China cannot expect to wield as great a degree of political, economic or cultural influence as American unipolarity has seen. Specific issues also include the illiberal One Child Policy, which was previously enforced, and a two-child policy now currently enforced, by Chinese leaders as a result of fears over possible Malthusian disaster i.e. an inadequate quantity of resources to sustain a rapidly growing population. The great firewall of China has seen highly restrictive state control and monitoring of telecommunications and internet access. Ethnic relations in the country are also notoriously fragile, with, for instance, the Uigher population of the Xingjiang province having been subjected to many repressive policies by the Chinese state.
Despite this narrative, the supremacy of the United States in global politics is far from being succeeded. China’s rapid growth, both politically and economically, may indeed not result in anything like hegemonic domination. From issues of development to diplomacy and military power, the nation’s rise is certainly an important event in the recent history of international relations, and will continue to be over the coming decades. How this emergence will influence the rest of the globe/world is subject to question.
Tom McLachlan is a recent MSc Global Politics graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science’s (LSE) School of Government, having also acquired an undergraduate MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St Andrews. He has a background in think tanks and the UK Parliament. His main interests include U.S. foreign policy (being the subject matter of his undergraduate dissertation on the Bush administration), the politics of the Middle East, ethnic cleansing and genocide, self-determination, and international terrorism.
Cover image: Wolfgang Staudt under a CC-BY NC 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license