What Kind of Superpower Will China Be?

The Chinese also understood the link between culture and power. Other peoples naturally looked to China, the most advanced society in East Asia, when building their own kingdoms, and they liberally borrowed legal codes and governing institutions, artistic and literary styles, and, most famously, Chinese written characters. This common cultural bond sustained Chinese influence in the region even when the country itself was politically weakened.

Xi knows this full well, and he intends to build up China’s soft power by pushing Chinese values, both old and new. “Facts prove that our path and system … are successful,” he once said. “We should popularize our cultural spirit across countries as well as across time and space, with contemporary values and the eternal charm of Chinese culture.” This is the purpose of Confucius Institutes, a state-run program aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture. In the wake of Beijing’s (supposedly) superior coronavirus-busting effort, Chinese officials and state media outlets have been relentlessly marketing their (authoritarian) governance system as superior, while denigrating the (democratic) U.S. by mocking its pandemic response.

The implication of this is that modern China will prefer other countries to be more like them, not unlike the emperors of old. In imperial times, China’s rulers tended to favor foreigners who were “more Chinese.” In the first century A.D., the Chinese historian Ban Gu developed the concept of an “inner” world—comprised of societies touched by Chinese civilization—and an “outer,” of incorrigible barbarians who remained blind to China’s light. The inner crowd was treated more benignly and participated more closely in Chinese affairs. This suggests that ultimately China will support like-minded (read: authoritarian) regimes. Indeed, it already does: It befriends illiberal governments shunned by most other countries, such as North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and Venezuela.

China only tolerates relationships it can dominate

Even in deep antiquity, the Chinese considered themselves better than other peoples because they believed that their civilization was civilization. This formed the basis of a worldview in which the Chinese sat atop the hierarchy. They did not believe in equal relationships, at least in official or ideological terms. Their world order, with its rules and norms, was based on the principle of Chinese superiority, and the acceptance of that superiority by all others. Traditionally, when the Chinese were forced into a subordinate or even an equal position with another power, usually due to military weakness, they resented it and tried to reassert their usual dominance when they were strong enough to turn the tables.

And it is happening again today. Seething at what they consider humiliations inflicted by Western powers—from the Opium War to what the Chinese call “unequal” treaties that sapped their sovereignty—China is on a mission to regain the upper hand. As Xi put it, the country “will never again tolerate being bullied by any nation.” That’s the goal behind much of his current policies, from a significant buildup of military capabilities to state-funded programs aimed at helping China overtake the West in technology. More and more, China’s diplomacy turns threatening when faced with challenges from other countries, whether the U.S., India, or Australia.

What becomes clear from an examination of China’s history is that the Chinese don’t just want to be a great power—they believe they deserve to be. In centuries past, the Chinese thought their sovereign had a right to rule “all under Heaven.” Due to the realities of technology and distance, China’s reach usually remained regional. But now, in the age of globalization, Beijing’s influence may achieve that lofty goal.

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Michael Schuman is the author of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World and The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth.

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