China Overtakes Germany as the worlds greatest exporter, but China is not a superpower and won't be anytime soon.
January 10, 2010 12:19 PM   Subscribe

China's Not a Superpower, and won't be anytime soon. Or is it closer to that status than ever, having just overtaken Germany as the world's number one exporter?

With the United States apparently in terminal decline as the world’s sole superpower, the fashionable question to ask is which country will be the new superpower? The near-unanimous answer, it seems, is China. Poised to overtake Japan as the world’s 2nd largest economy in 2010, the Middle Kingdom has all the requisite elements of power–an extensive industrial base, a strong state, a nuclear-armed military, a continental-sized territory, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a large population base–to be considered as Uncle Sam’s most eligible and logical equal. Indeed, the perception that China has already become the world’s second superpower has grown so strong that some in the West have proposed a G2–the United States and China–as a new partnership to address the world’s most pressing problems.

Meanwhile, China is set to overtake Germany as the world's leading exporting nation, trade figures indicate.

Numbers released Sunday by China's General Administration of Customs showed the country would post exports worth $1.2 trillion for 2009, while Germany is expected to register a figure of $1.18 trillion, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
posted by VikingSword (36 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
A little of column A, a little of column B.
posted by furtive at 12:21 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


我欢迎我们的中国统治者
posted by birdherder at 12:27 PM on January 10, 2010 [7 favorites]


A little of column A, a little of column B.

Is that like being a little pregnant? Seriously though, there are no 100% clear criteria for the term "superpower" so it would be boring to make this all about semantics. I thought the article was interesting in that it highlighted other aspects of China which occasionally get lost in the whole OMG CHINA!!UNO!! cries.
posted by VikingSword at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2010


I thought superpower usually referred to military strength. As in when the Soviet Union wasn't one anymore.
posted by etaoin at 12:35 PM on January 10, 2010


I agree with Pei. Having friends in China who've seen local government firsthand, there isn't really a consistent ideological message on offer that really contends with the US. I think China is simply becoming a Rorschach Blot of American fears: Witness Red Dawn.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:42 PM on January 10, 2010


Seems to me that, assuming no worldwide catastrophe, we're headed towards something more along the lines of the tribe-like social groupings in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. In fact, a worldwide catastrophe that didn't otherwise hamper digital information exchange may push us towards that result sooner rather than later.
posted by odinsdream at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2010


The real question is who will become the first superduperpower.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2010 [5 favorites]


That would suck for all the smartpowers our there.
posted by kylej at 1:14 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can't we just have a war and be done with it. If only to have Thomas Friedman and co writing endless articles going "OMG CHINESE PEOPLE CAN DO YOUR JOB. YOU ARE DOOMED TO POVERTY"
posted by Damienmce at 1:15 PM on January 10, 2010


Offshoring punditry, now there's an idea.
posted by Damienmce at 1:17 PM on January 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


"You know that Soviet thing, the one with the military power to pretty much end civilization? The one everyone called a superpower for forty years? Because it could, well, end civilization? Guess what-- it wasn't one after all."

This is an essay studded with weird contentions:
1) "Superpower" doesn't mean what everyone thought it meant for fifty years.
2) Because the US outlasted the USSR, only the US was ever really a superpower.
3) Only the US can ever be a superpower.
4) Despite the the ever-increasing integration of the world economy, China can never be sufficiently internally integrated to dominate it.

Look, obviously, China is riven with internal problems, including horrid pollution, massive local corruption, great poverty outside the cities, and the timebomb of lots-of-old-folks-and-very-few-women.

But to extrapolate from these problems, which, to be sure, haven't really fully expressed themselves yet, into some hard and definitive limit on China's ultimate shape and success, seems truly sloppy.

(On another note, it's likely that China won't enjoy a straight trend line to global dominance; there'll probably be a major domestic political crisis at some point in the next ten or fifteen years, and political reorganization will follow. And it's almost certainly true that China won't ever have the kind of raw power the US had in the Fifties and Sixties, or the kind of all-pervasive influence it had in the Nineties. But the point is that power is relative, and the US won't have that power either-- the US won't be able to maintain the degree of dominance it's had for so long, and with global economic integration, the financial part of the long-reach the US has had so uniquely is now available to any nation-state with enough money.)
posted by darth_tedious at 1:25 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


James Fallows has spent a lot of time studying and living in China, and writes well on this very topic.

Here's an excerpt from his Dec 9 blog post:

Almost no one in the United States is a peasant farmer. Most people in China are. Nearly everyone in America has indoor plumbing. Most people in China don't. Japan has one-tenth as many people as China, yet its economy is larger -- the second largest in the world. America's is of course largest of all, three times larger than Japan's and about four times larger than China's. Name 20 large American corporations that do business worldwide. Without trying, you can probably name 50. Try to name even 10 from China. Name the most recent winner of a Nobel prize in science from a Chinese university or research institution. (Hint: this is a trick question.)

He followed up on this specific topic on Dec 14 and has many interesting posts since, including role China played in the Copenhagen climate summit.
posted by borborygmi at 1:36 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


Of course, we all realise this is semantic trivia, don’t we? China will be exactly what it will be in the 21st century, which is to say very important indeed. Power, superpower, hyperpower, these words mean not so very much at all.
posted by wilful at 2:30 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's OK USA, you're special. No-one's as special as you. There there.
posted by pompomtom at 2:32 PM on January 10, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'd also imagine cultural imperialism is kind of hard with a tonal language and awkward writing system.
posted by dibblda at 3:21 PM on January 10, 2010


Right now China has immense potential power. It has a mighty conventional military with no means, but also no need, to project it. But mostly it has a former superpower addicted to it's economic potential. So. Yes. I guess that would mean China is a sort of Superpower. But superpower doesn't mean what it used to. Frankly the concept is silly and gelded anyway. The sooner we in the US give up the entire notion of being a god damned Superpower the better off we'll be.
posted by tkchrist at 3:29 PM on January 10, 2010


Right now China has immense potential power.

It also faces immense internal risks. This is a country whose history has been dominated by angry uprisings of peasant farmers against the urban elite. The population currently includes about 750 million peasant farmers. It is, in large part, a pre-industrial society that has yet to see the benefits (and chaos) of an industrial revolution.

And don't even get me started on the upcoming demographic crisis that the 1-child policy has spawned. There are going to be a hell of a lot of pensioners to support with a relatively tiny workforce...
posted by mr_roboto at 3:54 PM on January 10, 2010


Living and working in China is still a long way from Western standards.
posted by kozad at 4:36 PM on January 10, 2010


From my perspective in Hong Kong it seems China is going out of its way to convince everyone it is "just as good" as other countries such as the US (but not only the US).

It does so by focusing on 'prestige' projects like putting a man in space to demonstrate that it can eat at the grownups' table.

There's no denying China's long history and wonderful contributions to the world, but lately it just seems like an awkward teenager who desperately wants to look cool.
posted by bwg at 5:20 PM on January 10, 2010


I think the U.S. has a lot more to fear from a weak China than a strong one. Blind nationalism is the only ideology that is keeping the CCP in power, and if there is a crisis I would not be surprised if that morphed into militarism. I also wonder when the Al Queda of the future will notice that China has been shitting on its Muslim citizens for the past 50 years. I bet China would follow the U.S.'s lead and use terrorism as an excuse to start a few "preventative" wars of their own.

In other news, India will be the largest economy in the world in 100 years.
posted by afu at 6:31 PM on January 10, 2010


Some think that China is so structurally unsound that it's worth shorting the entire kit-and-kaboodle
posted by Vibrissae at 6:48 PM on January 10, 2010


Look, obviously, China is riven with internal problems, including horrid pollution, massive local corruption, great poverty outside the cities, and the timebomb of lots-of-old-folks-and-very-few-women.

What is this "very few women" stuff? The sex ratios (at birth) are a little out of whack, about 1.11% (according to wikipedia) but there are a lot of women. 640 million. It's a better problem then having 2.4 billion people or whatever they would have without promoting birth control.

What a lot of people are saying is that China isn't worried about being a super power and basically doesn't give a crap about the rest of the world. Sure it could project power and act all neo-imperialist, but it's looking at the U.S where we spent half our budget on the military and get tangled up in pointless wars and is it any wonder why they wouldn't be interested in that?

The real question is, why are we still trying to be a "superpower"? What good does it do us? Americans lives would be a lot better if we stopped spending $600 billion a year on the military.

The only people worried about China becoming a superpower are people's who's manhood is invested in being America being "a super power" and imagine that everyone else, including those in China feel the same way. They don't.
posted by delmoi at 7:27 PM on January 10, 2010


I agree with Pei.
I posted something by Minxin Pei a couple of years back, but added this somewhat cheeky critique too because, God love the man, he has been harping on his one tune for years now:
Minxin Pei has written the same article over and over again over the last 15 years.

1) Problem X is due to China’s bad Leninist party-state (i.e. BAD) government structure

2) To solve problem X, China has to move to a perfect *GOOD* government.

3) Without solving problem X, China is doomed.

There are problems with this reflex
posted by Abiezer at 7:32 PM on January 10, 2010


And since I'm slagging off the leading lights of the China commentariat, James Fallows is not much cop either, though I must confess I rarely bother reading him any more as he doesn't stand out in the slightest from the long line of instant experts that the unfamiliarity of the West with China creates a market for. Take the opening of your quote: "Almost no one in the United States is a peasant farmer. Most people in China are." That's not been true for some years now - the entire story of recent decades has been China's rapid urbanisation; there's barely a preponderance of people with rural household registrations now IIRC and merely having your hukou say 'rural' doesn't make you a peasant farmer anyway. Fallows' work is full of basic errors like this.
posted by Abiezer at 8:28 PM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd also imagine cultural imperialism is kind of hard with a tonal language and awkward writing system.

Japan has an even more awkward writing system, yet they dominate global pop culture, second only to, of course, the US.

China's influence on global culture is profound. Look at all of the fundamentally anti-democratic features companies like Google, Yahoo and Cisco have integrated into their products in order to conform to Chinese censorship laws. Look at all of the new, repressive technologies those companies have developed in order to meet Chinese demand?

Due to the sheer size and influence of the Chinese market, Enlightenment ideals that have been ingrained in western culture for the past two hundred years are going to be eroded.

On a lighter note, China has had a profound effect global culture already. The Chinese writing system has been adopted by more than a billion people in east Asia (not everyone who lives in China is Han Chinese, and Chinese characters are common in Korea, Japan and even Vietnam), and that country has transmitted Buddhist thought. As the terminus of the Silk Road, China influenced Hellenic and Roman culture as much as those cultures influenced China.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:29 PM on January 10, 2010


Meanwhile, China is set to overtake Germany as the world's leading exporting nation

I was actually more surprised to learn that Germany was the world's leading exporter.

I mean, I already kind-of assumed China was the world's largest.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd also imagine cultural imperialism is kind of hard with a tonal language and awkward writing system.

Most of the countries in the region use tonal languages and a similar writing system. In fact, why would English be any more dominant given our crazy grammatical rules and awkward spelling?
posted by delmoi at 9:34 PM on January 10, 2010


I'd also imagine cultural imperialism is kind of hard with a tonal language and awkward writing system.

I think you'll find that if you're powerful enough foreigners find these difficulties melting away.

I was actually more surprised to learn that Germany was the world's leading exporter.

I mean, I already kind-of assumed China was the world's largest.


Ditto.
posted by rodgerd at 9:52 PM on January 10, 2010


Most of the countries in the region use tonal languages and a similar writing system. In fact, why would English be any more dominant given our crazy grammatical rules and awkward spelling?

Most of those countries learn English as a second language, I think the British and gun boat diplomacy are responsible for that one. The western world where most of the money is is not tonal and uses 26 characters give or take a few.

How many characters do you need to memorize to read a newspaper in chinese? How many english letters? How long does it take a child to learn chinese and english writing systems comparatively? How about an adult?

China's influence on global culture is profound. Look at all of the fundamentally anti-democratic features companies like Google, Yahoo and Cisco have integrated into their products in order to conform to Chinese censorship laws. Look at all of the new, repressive technologies those companies have developed in order to meet Chinese demand?

True....
posted by dibblda at 1:40 AM on January 11, 2010


I think the 'superpower' business comes from the Cold War, when it was felt that lesser powers had to be in the camp of either the US or the USSR (that wasn't really quite true even then, of course). Some people felt that the disappearance of the USSR meant things were simpler; now there's only one superpower and everyone has to be in its camp. So, Eastern European nations are all engrossed into NATO and everyone has to be capitalist except the really perverse diehards in North Korea and Cuba.

But isn't that a misleading picture? In fact things are actually more complex and multilateral than before, so that instead of thinking in terms of superpowers, we might think in terms of zones devoted to half-a-dozen competing ideological frameworks (unregulated capitalist, directed economy, islamic non-usury, eurobureau, whatever) which exist in complicated and variable states of hostility and interdependence.

In short, we need a new metaphor.
posted by Phanx at 2:10 AM on January 11, 2010


dibblda: The idea that because English is easier to learn then Chinese and therefore China won't become 'dominant' or that they won't become cultural exporters is absurd. First of all, one only has to look at Japan as an example of a even more complicated (but not tonal) language that has had a huge cultural impact.

But nonetheless, let's run down the problems

1) Lots of people learn English as a second language. True. And lots of people learn Chinese as a second language now. It's quite trendy, all over the world.

2) British gun boat diplomacy, blah, blah. Yeah, that certainly happened. But lots of people chose to learn the language because of British, then U.S. economic power. Now that China has economic power, people will want to learn it, and they are.

Focusing on the language itself

1)How many English letters do you need to know to read a paper? Well, that's kind of beside the point. If you don't know what a word means being able to sound it out won't help. The same way that English words are composed of roots and endings that give a hint of the meaning, Chinese characters are composed of radicals that also give hints at the meaning.

2) Tonality. This has got to be the most annoying criticism of Mandarin. The tones are not hard. Speakers in other countries hardly emphasize the tones at all, and honestly you can understand basic (spoken) chinese without knowing which tones go with which words from context. People will say "oh, 'horse', 'marijuana', 'mother' sound the same, you can only tell by the tones!" Well, the fact is that there are probably 10 or 15 Characters that that sound exactly like "Ma" as in mother and even have the same tone! They're called homonyms and every language has them!

In fact, they reformed the language around 1900s to make sure most words were actually composed of two characters. So for "mom" you actually say "Ma Ma" and for 'marijuana' you say "da ma". (turns out horse is still just one character, though. But I digress)

There is just no reason to think that the fact that Chinese is tonal makes it more difficult. It's just not the case at all.

3) The argument that the writing system is "awkward" is ridiculous. It's obviously awkward if you're not used to it. How many Chinese people come over here and have trouble spelling? If you're using a compute, you still use a regular keyboard and enter the characters in roman leters, using pin-yin. It's simple and the spelling is totally standardized so if you hear a word you know exactly how it's spelled.

4) that English is easy. English is (supposedly) a difficult language to learn. Beyond memorizing characters, Chinese would be much easier to learn for someone not familiar with either (assuming they don't speak Dutch or something. Coming from a language based on Latin would probably make English easier). You don't have to worry about verb tenses, and lots of other things that make English tricky for a lot of people. The grammar is quite simple.

---

Not to say China will eclipse the U.S. as a super power, the fact is I don't think they have much interest. Compare The U.K. to Brazil. The U.K's (PPP) GDP is $2.2 Trillion compared to Brazil's $1.98 trillion. But the U.K is a major player on the world stage, and Brazil doesn't have much of an impact outside it's borders.
posted by delmoi at 2:14 AM on January 11, 2010


In short, we need a new metaphor.
Chinese diplomats have promoted multipolarity but the shift recently seems to be talk of multilateralism, though of course there's endless argument about what any of it actually means or whether it's sincere.
posted by Abiezer at 2:50 AM on January 11, 2010


But the U.K is a major player on the world stage, and Brazil doesn't have much of an impact outside it's borders.

This isn't really a bragging point when the role the UK plays on the world stage is that of the fool.
posted by srboisvert at 4:56 AM on January 11, 2010


Well, the fact is that there are probably 10 or 15 Characters that that sound exactly like "Ma" as in mother and even have the same tone!

If you speak Chinese you should ask yourself, "did your mother scold the sick horse?"
posted by Pollomacho at 5:23 AM on January 11, 2010


I had a friend from the office who went to China on a trip subsidized by the Chinese government and his local city government.
He came back telling me how wonderful it was and how China was going to rule the US in less than ten years.
Propaganda much?
posted by Drasher at 6:31 AM on January 11, 2010


Translation (in summary) of a Chinese article that sets out the official view of their global role: The Peaceful Development Path: A Breakthrough in Models
posted by Abiezer at 12:33 AM on January 13, 2010


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