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Do the Chinese believe China is a superpower?

BEIJING - Reading the most frequently emailed article list on The New York Times website is instructive these days.

For days, China has ranked in the top three most popularly searched terms on the site.

Last weekend, four of the newspaper’s top ten most emailed articles were about China: the ongoing controversy over extreme Chinese parenting; a U.S. solar company’s decision to shut down its main operations in Massachusetts; an op-ed about the strength of Chinese education and the importance of Confucianism; and the opportunities for American architects to design and build, unfettered, in China.

Other Western media coverage of China has verged on hysteria: ranging from an entire Glenn Beck program last week devoted to the country (“Their kids are passing us!”  “They’re grabbing more and more oil!”) to a bewildering piece in Foreign Policy magazine about not just the rise of China but the rise of the Han Chinese.

No wonder a poll last week found that nearly half of Americans surveyed say China is the world’s top economic power. 

And just what do the Chinese make of all this talk?

"What superpower?"
Well, we know there’s a large population in China that believes their country is a superpower and that, frankly, it’s about time.  These hardcore nationalists can be found in Chinese Internet chat rooms, holding court on the “American conspiracy theory”:

“[Extreme nationalists] hold high the ‘patriotic’ banner, talk about hundreds of years of national humiliation, claim that the U.S.-led Western alliance is still ‘trying to push China to death,’ and regard the exchange rate, foreign debt purchase, trade deficit, climate change, Central Asian anti-terrorism campaigns and the neighboring countries’ worries against China as burdens.  They insist ‘China can say no,’ and that the ‘China model’ will be popular all over the world.”

But speaking to young educated urban Chinese, we found a much more measured and reasoned view as well as a great deal of skepticism about whether China is indeed a superpower.

“China might look like [it’s very powerful] from the outside,” said He Rui, a 24-year-old local government employee in Changchun, Jilin Province.  “However, there are still a lot of serious problems [like] the environment or income inequality.  If [our government] can address these problems and also keep [the country] improving and growing, then maybe it can become a very powerful nation.”

Challenges such as pollution and environmental degradation; managing a population of 1.3 billion – 350 million to 400 million of whom are expected to move to cities within 20 years; widespread political corruption; a yawning gap between the haves and have-nots; a rapidly ageing population; a vociferous need for energy to keep the economy going – all these and more tend to offset any inclination for self-congratulation.


Chinese and U.S. flags are displayed on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., ahead of the arrival of President Hu Jintao.

In fact, only 12 percent of Chinese surveyed last month in an annual poll believe their country is a “superpower.”  And that was a drop from the year before.

“I think when we look at our own country, we can be more critical and see the flaws or weaknesses,” said Mandy Wu, a 22-year-old resident of Beijing who is preparing to sit for a graduate school exam to study history or politics.  “Maybe Americans look at certain areas where they think they are weak and then compare it to China, where those areas are strengths for China.”

The appeal of the American dream
Despite reading reports of American malaise or the viability of the American dream, some Chinese students said day-to-day life in their country is still very hard.

“I don’t know how many Americans feel frustrated or how many still hold their beliefs.  But in China I think there are many people who believe that they should be better off or have a dream,” said Li Kaiyuan who is from Jiangsu Province but is studying acoustics at Beijing’s Academy of Science.  “They spend the day in a very large machine.  They do not have a dream.”

“Many people are unsatisfied with their current livelihood,” echoed Lu Jie from Shanghai Normal University. “I do not think a country with numerous domestic problems can be called a superpower.”

While everyone we interviewed acknowledged China’s economic might, some questioned its sustainability. “The economy is export-oriented, which is built on cheap labor,” said Wu Mian, a sophomore from Yunnan Province who is studying at Hong Kong’s Baptist University. “Now even that labor advantage is disappearing.”

And everyone believed their nation is still lagging in all other areas. For instance, the U.S. is still seen as the leading producer of innovative ideas and cutting edge technology across all industries. 

“I don’t want to have my PhD education in China.  I have a dream to go to America,” said Li, the acoustics student. “America is still the scientific center of the world.”

It’s not just science and technology.

“I do believe Chinese people or at least the majority of Chinese people are enjoying a higher standard of living,” said Wu Mian. “We consume more.  We have more money in our pockets to buy more products from other countries.  But I still think we are learning from other countries and the lifestyle we are imitating now is from other countries.”

The limits of soft power
Chinese values might also be too esoteric for the country to have the kind of cultural influence exhibited by the U.S.  Liu Zhuo-yu, a native of Chongqing studying at Hunan’s Central South University, characterized the current national values system as having two defining features: an inferiority complex that China fell behind the West in the 19th and 20th centuries and paradoxically a deep pride in its ancient history and culture.

“There is always a gap between China and the West in this field. That is why we cannot communicate with [the West] very well,” she added. 

Limits on “soft power,” an essential ingredient to achieving superpower status, might also be due to censorship in China, others noted.  “People do not have the complete freedom of speech,” said Wu Mian. “In this case, it’s too early to say whether the country’s culture is influential or not.”

“The Chinese model is not perfect, much less perfect than western countries,” said Wu Hao, a graduate student of journalism at Renmin University.

Underlying the criticism, however, was a sense of earnestness.

“I think it’s important for America to improve, because it will help China grow, too,” said He Rui. “Because then we have somewhere to turn to for direction and for learning. Of course, we have our own direction, but we want to grow with the U.S.”

“I don’t care whether China or the U.S. is a superpower,” said Wu Hao. “I just want the world to be better.”

And, of course, there was a sense of anticipation, too.

“I think I can see [China becoming a superpower],” said Mandy Wu. “In my lifetime, I have seen the country become this strong.” 

“But even if it rises, it doesn’t mean it’s dangerous country,” she added.

With assistance from He Xin and Zhu Tong.