China is the next superpower in the world

Superpowers - Afraid of China?

President and party leader Xi Jinping wants to lead China to the top of the world: not only in business and technology, but also politically, culturally and - by the middle of the century - also militarily.

The sleeping lion wakes up

What does this mean for the international order? Will China soon be number one? Has the US lost its leading position? What role does Russia play? The three-part documentary series by ZDF's Zeitgeschichte editorial team focuses on the changed constellation of "superpowers", but also shows the milestones that lead from the past into the present, asks about the historical roots of great power politics today.

China will play such a big role in the world as we can not even imagine now.
Frank Sieren, China expert and journalist

Napoleon is said to have said: "China is a sleeping lion, let him sleep! When he wakes up, he will shake the world." The huge empire has been in upheaval for decades: a breathtaking upswing, booming megacities, record investments and a considerable increase in prosperity. China is the world champion in exports, the world's second largest economy, is rapidly catching up with future technologies. Development projects like the "New Silk Road" create international influence and secure resources.

The look into history as an incentive

But where are the limits to growth and who pays the price? Beijing rejects the Western model of democracy, the opposition continues to be suppressed, and state control powers are significantly expanded with the help of electronic surveillance. The gap between rich and poor is still wide and the environmental damage is devastating in many regions.

Historical memories should spur the upswing. For many centuries China was a culturally and economically leading great power. In the colonial age, the Middle Kingdom was exploited and humiliated by the West. Now a look at history is an incentive: to build on earlier glorious times and to trump the western world.

Whether this will turn into a competition based on cooperation or confrontation and what challenges will arise, especially for Europe, is the subject of controversial debates, which are also reflected in the film about China's "superpower".

  • By Stefan Brauburger, head of the ZDF editorial team for contemporary history and co-author of the films

    The world order seems out of joint. The constellation of the great powers can hardly be calculated any more. The most important "players" in international architecture are redefining their position and thus their global influence. The three-part documentary series by the ZDF editorial team Zeitgeschichte tries to determine the current position, but also looks back into history, into the past of striving for international recognition.

    The authors focus on China, the USA and Russia and make comparisons: What is decisive in the ranking? Are they classic measures such as military superiority, economic strength, large population and technical advantage? Or are other factors becoming more important such as internal and external leadership, innovative strength, role model function, formation of global alliances, securing resources, high investment rates? And what about the motivation, the will to be a world power?

    The films also focus on Europe. Because it is affected by the power play of the powers, for example when EU and NATO members can only partially rely on security promises by the USA, when transatlantic positions on important issues such as climate, trade and security policy drift further apart.

    The Europeans are also challenged when China, as the leading major power in Asia, declares that it wants to get to the top of the world economically, technically and militarily, and at a pace that, in addition to all the opportunities for cooperation, is fierce predatory competition for resources and world market shares lets fear.

    And what does it mean when the Russian president presents gigantic nuclear missiles at a weapons show, claims the post-Soviet space as a zone of influence and also declares that where Russians live, Russia also has interests - like in Crimea?

    Some things may seem like threatening gestures or full-bodied propaganda, but strong words are getting louder again in the politics of the great powers. When US President Trump claims that our world is "not a global community, but an arena," then he is advocating an international order that differs significantly from what his predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama aspired to and the USA after had been instrumental in driving the devastating world wars forward: competition, but as peaceful as possible and according to generally accepted rules. That seems to be over under Trump. So will it no longer be about international cooperation in the future, but above all about the right of the strong?

    The central concern of our series is to explore the often confusing play of forces of the "superpowers" with a view to the past, present and future. Russia, the USA and China stand for past, present and future "superpowers". We have not dedicated a film of our own to the European Union - economically at least a great power - but its role is reflected in each of the three documentaries. It becomes clear which challenges the union of Europeans has to face in the new constellation of powers. For example in defense and security policy. It was not entirely surprising that the USA's apparently unconditional protection promise could at some point be restricted. From Washington's point of view, the burden-sharing of Western defense policy has long been in an imbalance. More military and foreign policy independence of the Europeans - that should now be made up for. First steps by the EU states to form a defense union to complement NATO and plans for the joint procurement of armaments have been initiated. Above all, Berlin and Paris determine the pace.

    The series also shows how the EU is being forced to act when it comes to trade policy, above all to pool its economic power in a common stance while showing determination towards the USA and China. The EU's aim is to make Washington realize that a trade war in the form of punitive tariffs cannot be won and that the spiral of protectionism will only have losers in the end. The question is which instruments the European union of states can and wants to mobilize for this. Brussels is demanding equal rights and conditions in trade relations with China. The fact that Chinese corporations controlled or supported by the state can buy up important companies in Europe and, conversely, can only do so to a limited extent, is encountering increasing resistance. Now there are also stricter rules up for debate, which are supposed to protect high technology in European countries from outside access.

    In the constellation of powers, however, a new systemic contrast can also be felt, albeit differently than in the Cold War. At that time the world was divided into a free-democratic and a socialist-centralist block. The "free world" always felt superior. The collapse of the Soviet Union made them victorious. Today, Western democracy is challenged primarily by authoritarian regimes; Russia drove a wedge through Europe with the annexation of Crimea. Beijing wants to show that liberal democracy is not a role model for China. The rapid economic and technical upswing in the Middle Kingdom is intended to demonstrate that the centrally directed "socialist market economy" can be the more efficient, more sustainable and more determined way into the future.

    According to leading experts who have their say in our films, it is inevitable that the West will have to face this new system competition. They emphasize that it is not a good advertisement for the western liberal system when EU states blocked each other, delayed crises, brought about something like a Brexit, made populist governments possible, and the US had an unpredictable Donald Trump as US president .

    "We have to think about how democracy can get better," says Frank Sieren, who is familiar with China. "If it is no longer clear what a Western democracy stands for and what it can achieve, then the 21st century is really the century of China," says Harvard professor Cathryn Clüver. A liberal Europe would have to redefine itself in the spirit of its principles and prove to be an actor capable of acting, otherwise there would be a risk that those forces would emerge who see salvation for the international future in an authoritarian rather than a liberal order.

  • Prof. Kai Vogelsang, historian, Asia-Africa Institute, Hamburg
    Xi Jinping is everywhere. You see his pictures, you see posters with his face, you see him on banners, you see him on TV and when you open the newspaper. If there are three pictures on one page, then he is at least on two. So it is ubiquitous.

    China was far superior to the rest of the world in the late Imperial Era, that is, from around the 11th to 12th centuries. China had megacities at a time when the largest cities in Europe had 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. China knew letterpress printing centuries before Europe and had paper money when there was still no talk of it in Europe for a long time. China knew the compass, had gunpowder.

    There are textbooks and film material there about the fall of the Soviet Union, which are intended to serve as illustrative material for how it should not be done. Illustrative material for the fact that one must not loosen the grip on society, that perhaps one must not switch to collective leadership, but needs a leader. Above all, it is artists and intellectuals who therefore have to struggle with considerable repression.

    Frank Sieren, China expert and journalist, has been in Beijing for almost 25 years
    China will play such a big role in the world as we can not even imagine now. And when it comes to defining common global rules of the game, we have to think carefully about what we have to do in order not to fall behind.

    It's not about having to say yes and amen to everything the Chinese are up to, but we may have to learn a little more to say goodbye to this post-colonial phase and to really see the Chinese as partners who have their own ideas and who of course want to help shape the world order.

    It is customary for the Chinese to think in lengthy periods and not to make short-winded decisions. And there, I think, they have a great advantage over us. Which doesn't mean that I think an authoritarian system is better than a democracy, but it does mean that we should think about the weaknesses of our democracy and how we can improve our democracy.

    We don't know exactly when it will happen yet, but it is pretty clear that China will overtake America, and that is a very unusual historical situation because for the first time in hundreds of years it is a power that is not from the West comes.

    Cathryn Clüver, political scientist, Harvard Kennedy School, Boston

    When it is no longer clear what a Western democracy stands for and what it can achieve, then the 21st century really is the century of China.

    Klaus Brinkbäumer, editor-in-chief and former US correspondent of "Spiegel"
    China has a real global political strategy that the US does not have at the moment. China knows what it wants and enforces it. It doesn't have to stay that way, but at least it is for the moment.

    Chinese society is built on oppression, on non-democratic values. How long does the system of oppression last? How long does a system that does not respect human rights, that imprison system opponents, also execute? Usually such systems collapse at some point.

    But if you ask me today, 2018, "Which system is the more stable?" At the moment it looks as if Western democracy is suffering because it produces results like Brexit or brings presidents like Donald Trump to power, while China is robust, stable and very powerfully marching in the direction it has once been given.

    What are we facing? I believe that we will see a real change in world politics and that it is not that far away. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that that's already been agreed. The Chinese system can also collapse internally, i.e. implode.

    Prof. Hu Angang, Tsinghua University, Beijing
    It is clear at the moment that China is catching up with the western industrialized nations.

    There is a saying in the West: what is a politician? One for the next choice. And what is a statesman? One for the next generation. But it is different with the Chinese leadership. It stands for the next generations!

    Prof. Qin Xuan, Renmin University, Beijing
    From the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 until the coming year, i.e. over a period of 70 years, China has run from the edge of the world stage towards the center step by step.

    Prof. Wang Yiwei, Renmin University, Beijing
    "Made in China" used to mean cheap labor. We know that technical progress and innovation take time. That is why we acquire western companies. We want to enter their market and this also gives them access to the Chinese market. It's a win-win situation!

    Mikko Huotari, Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin
    Because the domestic market is so large that even massive state funding injections can flow into the industries and, in addition, a large number of cheap labor is available, China can make such progress surprisingly quickly in some areas that we are almost overrun. This is currently the case to some extent with electromobility, with everything that has to do with logistics and transport infrastructure and with e-finance. These are just some of the areas in which China can not only catch up with international competitors, but also overtake them.

    Dr. Sarah Kirchberger, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel
    Chinese companies can sometimes invest considerably more freely in European countries than, conversely, European companies can invest in China. That is a point that is also very strongly criticized by our government.

    Companies that have a technological edge within their industry should be concerned. When a Chinese investor knocks on the door and wants to participate, they should ask themselves what happens if our technology is copied or leaks. How well can we continue to play in the market? An example is the German solar cell industry, which basically had no chance against the competition from the Far East.

    In fact, there are already Chinese investments in EU countries, such as Greece, which are so important for the respective country that the political behavior of the government is influenced by it. If, for example, the EU tries to work out a common position, for example to criticize China for human rights violations, then it happens that countries in which China has invested heavily are not willing to support this common position and the common EU Position therefore fails.

    Basically, China tries to use modern technological means, such as automated face recognition together with artificial intelligence, in order to continuously monitor people in public spaces and to punish "wrongdoing", including political ones, by adding negative points to a point account accumulate. As a result, the person in question can expect disadvantages. Of course, many observers are reminded of the vision of George Orwell's "1984".

    Prof. Anne Applebaum, historian and journalist, Eastern Europe expert, London
    Certainly China is on the verge of becoming the world's largest economy, probably sooner than we think, and certainly China is beginning to see itself in a broader role. Historically, however, the Chinese did not aim to play a role far outside of their sphere of influence. They did not try to influence international politics like the Russians and the Americans in Europe, for example. If China is to become a superpower, it may be of a different kind. This is all about the economy, not about imposing any ideology or way of life on others.

Other films in the series "Superpowers"