I wrote this column, in its entirety, on my phone, inside a chartered bus, en route from Shanghai to the lake town of Hangzhou. Naturally enough, I ended up with a terrible headache. (Talk about a sense of vulnerability.)
Published on April 8, 2008
BEIJING—Is China already a superpower? At a forum in Bangkok early this year, William Dobson of the influential Foreign Policy magazine fielded the question with flair. The question gave him an idea, he replied. Perhaps his magazine can devote a cover story to the subject—and be the first to give China the coveted, contentious label.
In fact, others had beaten him to it. Newsweek published a special issue on China late last year, with Fareed Zakaria’s introductory essay describing the world’s fastest-growing economy as a “fierce but fragile superpower.” The piece was based in part on Susan Shirk’s pioneering book, “China: Fragile Superpower.”
Many signs point to China’s looming preeminence. Only last week, it was reported (by the state-owned China Daily) that the country had overtaken the United States in number of Internet users. (I haven’t had a chance to verify this piece of news, but surely it is only a matter of time, perhaps only of months, before the assertion becomes undisputed fact.)
The construction of the Olympic complex here is on an unparalleled scale; the main site is essentially a new city, rising to the northeast of the Forbidden City. The complex is the express undertaking of a great power taking its rightful place on the world stage. It brings to mind not the declaration of successful nationhood of the Seoul (1988) and Tokyo (1964) Olympics, but the revelation of a new national epic, like Berlin in 1936. To be sure, everyone you talk to says no state funds were used in the project, but it is difficult to overstate the patriotic pride many of the Chinese have invested in the Games.
In purchasing power parity, China already ranks third in the world. In part, this is a direct consequence of the greatest improvement ever engineered in the quality of life of a people: by most accounts, some 500 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty in the last 30 years.