Column: Fragile (emerging superpower inside)

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.

* * *

And yet, by the standard definition of a superpower, China isn’t one yet. It is not yet capable of the forceful projection of military power abroad. (Its capacity to deploy what is called a blue-water navy, that is, an ocean-going fleet, remains to be proven.) It is not yet capable of fully propping up allied regimes abroad; the issue of China’s influence over North Korea or Burma or Sudan is a question of degree, not kind. It is not yet capable of meeting its interests in the community of nations through the action of proxies. And so on and so forth, down a long list of not-yets.

Dobson may have been exaggerating, or straining after effect, when he said, last January, that “China has Singapore dreams but Soviet Union fears.” He certainly got the first half of his formula right: the defining ethos of China today is undoubtedly economic. The Paramount Leader was right. “To get rich is glorious.”

* * *

But there is something to the other half, too, although its roots must lie in sources deeper than the Soviet Union’s collapse. A sense of vulnerability is a persistent presence in Chinese history, almost like a sixth element.

The Great Wall, for instance, is truly one of the world’s great wonders. The fort at Juyong Guan, some 40 minutes outside this city, is newly, impressively restored. The warren of walls that protect the pass is a stirring sight. And yet I came away with the sense, not only of the overwhelming weight of history, but of the isolation and paranoia of the Middle Kingdom. (The Great Wall failed to keep invaders out, too.)

Same thing with the massive palace known as the Forbidden City, right in the heart of the imperial capital. A visitor standing in front of the Meridian Gate feels small, insignificant; the imposing City was designed to intimidate. And yet the story of the dynasties that made the Forbidden City their home is a saga of intrigue, uncertainty, changing fortunes. (The Last Emperor, for instance, was kicked out of the palace by a Christian warlord.)

The Great Wall and the Forbidden City are breathtaking heritage sites that belong to the world at large; they are part of our collective patrimony. But they are also national monuments, that speak of China’s glorious past and give fair warning about its future.

* * *

Perhaps, in destiny’s coin, this sense of vulnerability is the obverse of the “mandate of heaven.”
The many challenges facing China today may well be unique in history: how to be a great power, right now, when it is both a rich country and a poor one. (Poor not only in some of the rural areas but in the language of participation; many ordinary people still talk of themselves as “commoners,” not citizens.)
It must be exhilarating to live in China today, as it struggles to invent a more open society and negotiates its way through a true, an extraordinary, age of transition.

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