A Vision So Noble


China: O brave new hegemon!

Daniel Ford, Short Essay, Fall 2007

In my [online] presentation I argued, without great conviction, that China’s sky was falling. As the debate progressed, I managed to persuade myself at least, and ended the discussion more pessimistic than when I began.

            To explain why capitalism survived in the face of a nobler economic system, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci concluded that the villain was the ideological hegemony enforced by the capitalists: ‘Through its exploitation of religion, education and elements of popular national culture[,] a ruling class can impose its world-view and have it come to have it accepted as common sense’.[1] Alas for Marxism, the Soviet Union was a failure at hegemony, to the point where in 1991 it quit not only the competition but the family of nations.

The most likely new hegemon is China, an examplar of what Azar Gat calls authoritarian capitalism—in Gramsci’s day, a contender to the democratic capitalism that had fallen on hard times in the developed world. Its most significant proponents went down in flames in 1945, and afterward were remodeled by US  pressure. Now, though, authoritarian capitalism is getting a second chance—not only in China but in Russia as well.[2]

            China’s economic success dwarfs that of the United States at a comparable stage of development. By some accounts, its GDP increases at 10 percent a year—doubling the economy every seven or eight years—and it has done so for more than two decades. ‘Almost overnight China has turned itself from a regional power into a global one’.[3] Since 1989, China has moved from pariah status to membership in the World Trade Organisation and trading partner of such importance that Nail Ferguson urges us to think of the US and China ‘not as two countries, but one: Chimerica’, accounting for a quarter of the world’s population, a third of its economic output, and 60 percent of its five-year economic growth.[4] China now enjoys good relations ‘with the United States, all the regional great powers and all its neighbors[5], many of whom trust Beijing more than they do Washington. China coopted the US-sponsored Association of Southeast Asian Nations by expanding it to ASEAN Plus Three, and formed the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation to cement relations with (and access to fossil fuels in) the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

            Meanwhile, China for eight years has increased military spending at double-digit rates, to $49.5 billion USD in 2006, making it the biggest military spender in Asia and by some measures the third largest in the world.[6] China’s goal, as expressed in a defence white paper: its ‘navy should possess reach outside of China’s nearest coastal waters; nuclear and conventional rocket forces [should] expand their range and sophistication; the air force should effect a shift from a defence role to combining offensive and defensive elements’.[7] As a dramatic illustration of its new capabilities, the People’s Liberation Army in January 2007 shot down a low-orbit satellite, a signal that it can threaten American communications satellites. From Russia, China bought two guided-missile destroyers and two stealthy Kilo-class attack submarines to add to the six it already owned—acquisitions that seem targeted to offset American strengths in the region. The Pentagon frets that ‘China may be contemplating adjustments to nuclear doctrine … to strengthen deterrence through doctrinal ambiguity and flexibility as well as more survivable capabilities that provide greater second-strike credibility’.[8]

            Nor does China play by the rules accepted in the west. Its ‘drive for economic advantage—including rampant intellectual property theft, currency manipulation and subsidies for manufacture and export—raise serious concerns’, in the words of a US Senator.[9]

Still, though China is most certainly a regional power and an emerging force on the world scene, it is hard to see how it can be regarded as hegemonic in an Asia that also makes room for the unmatched military of the United States, the stagnant but still mighty economy of Japan, a populous and likewise growing India, and an oil-rich and newly belligerent Russia. Furthermore, it is always a mistake to project the present into the future. Only 20 years ago, savants predicted that Japan’s economy was about to eclipse that of the US, only to have it flatline for a decade. China’s growth cannot continue indefinitely; far more likely is an explosive dislocation of that sort now troubling western real estate and the banking industry.

More ominously, the Chinese Communist Party is in the position of a church that has disavowed the afterlife: without Marx, what legitimacy does a communist party have? Susan Shirk makes a persuasive case that the CCP is hostage not only to the country’s unsustainable rate of growth, but also to a military that must be appeased with those double-digit increases in defence spending and to a propaganda apparatus that has convinced the people that Taiwan is an integral part of the homeland and must soon be rejoined to it.[10]

            Still, the sky may not fall in the near future. Shirk quotes the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, as saying, 'I believe the Chinese leadership have learnt: If you compete with American in armaments, you will … bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years'.[11] If we are permitted to revisit the question at mid-century, what more can we reasonably ask of fate?

[1] Spencer n.d.

[2] Gat 2007

[3] Shirk 2007, p. 136. Segal 1999 cautions that ‘Few economists trust modern Chinese economic data’, but the US Central Intelligence Agency is a believer, estimating that China’s GDP was second in the world last year on a purchasing-power parity measure. (CIA 2008)

[4] Ferguson 2007

[5] Yahuda 2004, p. 281 (my italics)

[6] SIPRI 2007. Other sources however give dramatically different figures

[7]Asia’ 2007, p. 293

[8]Asia’ 2007, p. 295

[9] Bayh 2008

[10] Shirk 2007, passim

[11] Shirk 2007, p. 247


'Asia' (2007), Strategic Survey, Vol. 107, No. 1, pp. 283-396 (Milton Park: Routledge | International Institute for Strategic Studies)

Bayh, Evan (2008), ‘Time for Sovereign Wealth Rules’, Wall Street Journal, 13.2.08

Central Intelligence Agency (2008), ‘The World Factbook: China’ [online; accessed 17.2.2008]

Ferguson, Naill (2007), ‘Not two countries, but one: Chimerica’, Sunday Telegraph 4.3.2007

Gat, Azar (2007), ‘The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 4, pp. 59-70

Segal, Gerald (1999), ‘Does China Matter?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 24-36

Shirk, Susan (2007), China: Fragile Superpower (New York: Oxford University Press)

SIPRI (2007), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Military Expenditures Database [online; accessed 20.1.08]

Spencer, Lloyd (no date), ‘ Antonio Gramsci, 1891-1927’ [online; accessed 21.1.08; the file is no longer at Leeds Trinity, but as of 25.11.08 it was posted on Rudi Stettner's blog]

Yahuda, Michael (2004), The International Politics of the Asia-Pacific, 2nd edition (London: RoutledgeCurzon)