China’s dictator XI Jinping already sees his nation as a world power. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this perception is one thing above all: overconfidence. This becomes clear at six points.
American foreign policy and, increasingly, European thinking are creating a new enemy: China. “Birth of a World Power”, headlined the Spiegel on its cover. “The East is rising, the West is falling,” shuddered the FAZ recently. The “future shock”, reports the British Sun: China will soon be the “top superpower of the world”.
I think we should be vigilant but not panic. The alarmism leads to wrong conclusions. The siren makes us deaf, not wise. It activates the instinct to flee, when we could really use a cool head right now.
The fact is: the new China is big, strong, self-confident and sometimes overconfident. But this Communist Party-led nation never will and can never be a world power. But it lacks the five most important prerequisites that constitute a world power status.
1. A world power, by definition, has a cultural reach that extends beyond the gross tonnage of exports. America conquered the world with jeans and Coca Cola, with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe; a glamorous army of Hollywood stars lives in the hearts of billions of people to this day.
Faced with the choice of meeting up for a candlelit dinner with Chinese pop star Kris Wu, or perhaps meeting up with Christina Aguilera, Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio, every teenager from Rio de Janeiro to Wladiwoodstok would know what to do. Or to put it in one sentence: China impresses, but doesn’t rock.
2. A world power must be a magnet for migrants. The visionary characters, but also the desperate and depressed hope for more of everything in the land of their dreams: more opportunities, more prosperity, more justice, more freedom. Without exception, these longing places of mankind are in the democratic states, as can be seen from the immigration statistics and the often desperate goings-on at the external border of the EU and the Mexican-American border.
Conversely, there is no flight or even migration towards Beijing. The Pulitzer Prize awaits those who think differently in the West, and house arrest in China. The American Dream is about Wall Street and Silicon Valley; the Chinese dream tells of the Uyghur penal camps. Or to put it in a nutshell: China does not export longings, only nightmares
3. A world power is always based on the power of new ideas. Victor Hugo once said:
That is why a significant nation is always considered to be the founder of schools of thought in philosophy, management theory and fashion. But modern China doesn’t have much to offer the world. His authoritarian Marxism is an ideological slow-mover. The last intellectual-historical innovation of the Chinese is Confucianism, which, however, was founded towards the end of the 5th century BC and thus 2,500 years before Mao.
4. Economically, a nation has only earned the honorary title of world power if it is an innovation leader. The coal country China – the No. 1 Co-2 emitter in the world – has certainly made enormous progress in the field of biotechnology and also in the digital economy and now has a Chinese variant for almost every American business idea. But just a variant, not an alternative. The American business models are copied but not disrupted. America leads and China is the technological follower.
5. Last but not least: So far, every major power in world history has spread its soldiers and military equipment across the globe. Like the Roman proconsuls of old, the US Army is stationed on five continents with a total of 1.4 million active men and women. This is the military basis for the role of world policeman.
But China has not stationed any significant contingents outside the country, and unlike the Americans, who are welcome guests in Germany, Poland, France and elsewhere, the CP’s Red Army is not an asset even in the South China Sea, but a threat. The only foreign policy partners – Kim Jong-un and Putin – are not friends but employees.
Conclusion: Mao Zedong was wrong: Political power also comes, but not solely, from the barrel of a gun. If China really wants to become a world power, then this country must not only frighten others, but also inspire them. Or to paraphrase Confucius:
Gabor Steingart is one of the best-known journalists in the country. He publishes the newsletter The Pioneer Briefing. The podcast of the same name is Germany’s leading daily podcast for politics and business. Since May 2020, Steingart has been working with his editorial staff on the ship “The Pioneer One”. Before founding Media Pioneer, Steingart was, among other things, CEO of the Handelsblatt Media Group. You can subscribe to his free newsletter here.