China, the economic superpower of the twenty-first century. For most economists, it is a question of when, not if, China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy. Despite some serious concerns about its housing and commodity sectors, China’s rise continues unrelentingly. What can we expect from a strong and confident China? And is a Sinocentric world really something new, or rather a natural rehabilitation?
One thousand billion US dollars: the amount of funds that Chinese state-run development banks have made available for the construction of all kinds of infrastructure in Western China, Central Asia, East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Referred to as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, this massive investment plan ranges from the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Pakistan to upgrading railway terminals in Kazakhstan. In economic as well as political terms, OBOR can be compared to a Chinese version of the Marshall Plan.
Xi Jinping, China’s president and grand architect of OBOR, has made the reopening of the ancient Silk Road his top priority. International trade and globalisation have, somewhat awkwardly, been incorporated into Chinese communist doctrine. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, it was Xi who stood up and defended the values connected to globalisation. While a nationalist, anti-globalisation rhetoric is aired in many Western nations, China is willing and increasingly able to provide leadership in the globalised world that has been established during the past thirty years.
However, Chinese global leadership is not new at all. From a historical perspective, China has been the dominant player in world affairs for at least three quarters of the last 2000 years. Only since Europe’s overseas conquests (starting from about 1500 AD) has China’s influence decreased sharply. The dominance of Western civilisation is a rather recent phenomenon (as vividly described by Niall Ferguson in Civilisation) and has already started to deteriorate. For China, our Western way of life (individual rights, democratic institutions, etc.) is more like something to deal with and learn from, rather than an undisputed global standard whose features should be adopted.
If we really want to understand China’s rise ‒ or rather, its rehabilitation ‒ we must study and appreciate its history and culture. An easy starting point would be its name: 中国 (zhōng guó) literally translates as “middle kingdom”. The Chinese have always viewed themselves to be the centre of the world—hence, The Middle Kingdom. Although China has experienced numerous blows to its pride and ambitions during the last five centuries, its perception of being the world order has remained intact over the years and is still very much alive today.
In October last year, I attended the International Capital Conference in Beijing. At this two-day event, business leaders, politicians and diplomats from all over the world gathered to discuss China’s increasing role in international trade and politics. The main theme was OBOR, which perfectly captured how China wants to be viewed in relation to the rest of the world: foreigners coming to China to help facilitate its global ambitions. Just like it has done since ancient times, China is eager to be the meeting point of trade, culture and ideas. The only condition is that all who want to join in, have to accept China as their host.
‘Made in China’ has become synonymous with the country’s rise as an economic powerhouse. At the same time, China is claiming a bigger share in world affairs through initiatives such as OBOR. This phenomenon, however, is not as new as we might think. China is not a rising world-power; its world order is simply rehabilitating.