China is striving for global leadership and has the economic clout to realize its vision. From policing the internet to reordering global trade to cracking down in Hong Kong, Beijing is promoting a worldview that increasingly pits it against the US. We’re watching for small changes in China that will have outsize effects elsewhere.
Art: Quartz. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Rawlins
The big idea
We are no longer waiting for China to reach some sort of future destination as a world power. Already, through ways big and small (but mostly big), China’s government and people are reshaping the globe. Impacts include everything from Beijing’s intensifying rivalry with the US, to its crackdown on Hong Kong, and its commitments on climate change. Its factories churn out so much of what people buy globally and its sensitivities shape how they can (or can’t) talk about China, even beyond its borders. It’s taken a pandemic for many countries to wake up to just how powerful China is—and how far its decisions can shape our world.
Charting China sentiment
Measured by GDP, China isn’t the world’s largest economy. That crown still belongs to the US. Nevertheless, people around the world increasingly see China as the dominant global economic superpower.
In an August 2020 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, a median of 48% of people in 14 countries identified China as the world’s leading economic power, outstripping the US. Among the eight European countries surveyed, and Britain, more than half considered China to be the world’s most powerful economy, highlighting the growing importance of EU-China economic relations even as the bloc grapples with how to bat for liberal democratic values while dealing with Beijing.
Person of interest
For those who track China’s climate policy space, Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy, has arguably played an outsize role in shifting China toward adopting binding emissions reductions commitments.
Described as frank and “a believer” in the climate mission, Xie experienced China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution in his teens, before studying engineering physics, and work in environment protection roles since the 1980s to eventually become China’s voice at global climate summits. He worked with US counterparts—Xie has a long working relationship with John Kerry, now the US’s first presidential climate envoy—to negotiate a US-China climate pact that paved the way for the landmark Paris climate agreement in 2015.
What to watch
As countries gather in Glasgow for the next round of UN climate talks between Oct. 31 and Nov. 12, all eyes will be on China for details about its existing commitments and any signs it plans to deepen its emissions reductions (given that’s in the middle of an energy crisis, that may be unlikely). Here’s what China has promised to do since last year:
- To have its emissions peak around 2030 and then decline after that
- To achieve carbon neutrality—also known as “net-zero” emissions—by 2060
- To stop funding coal plants overseas
- To improve its nascent (and right now ineffective) carbon trading mechanism
One big number
300 million: China expects the number of senior citizens it has to cross that number by 2025.
Nearly 20% of China’s population already, the share of people aged 60 and over is rapidly growing, making aging one of the biggest challenges Beijing faces. More seniors means a shrinking labor force. It also means fewer people contributing to the pension system while more draw from it, and increasing pressure on China’s medical system and soaring healthcare costs. Despite Beijing’s efforts to counter the trend, including ending the one-child policy and programs designed to help singletons find partners, it’s hard to put the brakes on China’s graying.
Commonly held question
Is Hong Kong part of China?
For 23 years, Hong Kong was a curious anomaly—a place of democratic values, where freedom of the press and the right to protest were fiercely exercised, carried on a riptide of history out of imperial Britain and into authoritarian China. When Nobel Prize winning dissident Liu Xiaobo died in custody, Hong Kong was the one place that could publicly mourn him. Since Beijing’s crackdown on the obstreperous territory with a draconian National Security Law in 2020, Hong Kong seems more firmly part of—and like—China than it has ever been since the handover in 1997.
Technically, China’s civil war never ended. Communist troops beat Nationalists into a retreat to the island of Taiwan in 1949, and while fighting largely ceased, no peace treaty was ever signed and Beijing continues to claim Taiwan as its own.
For decades, China has called for a “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, though it never ruled out a forceful takeover. In May 2020, Chinese premier Li Keqiang pointedly omitted the word “peaceful” in his remarks on reuniting with the island. Since then, Chinese forces have increased the number of flyovers in Taiwan’s skies, while Beijing has continued its campaign of diplomatic isolation against Taiwan.
English-language academic research is dominated by databases like JSTOR and Google Scholar. But to dive into the vast body of Chinese-language academia, you’ll have to turn to China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI). If you want to go beyond browsing abstracts, you’ll have to register for an account. And if you aren’t logged in via an educational institution with access to CNKI, you’ll need to top up your account with money in order to download full papers. Check out this handy guide from the Chinese Journal Review newsletter on how to find your way around CNKI.