Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The China Paradox

How should Americans understand a country that presents itself as simultaneously weak and strong?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Until recently, the Chinese paradox that most puzzled Western audiences was how to understand a country that is both communist and hyper-capitalist. But that is hardly the only, or even the most striking, paradox of the modern Middle Kingdom. China is fast on its way to becoming a global superpower, even as it grapples with such enormous domestic challenges as supplying enough energy to keep its cities lit, absorbing millions of rural migrants into cities each year, reining in choking pollution, creating a social safety net, and attempting to lift millions out of poverty. Although China holds $1 trillion in U.S. debt, its per capita GDP is still roughly one-tenth that of the United States. Beijing is subsidizing China's fast-growing clean-tech export industry, even as the skies above the country's largest cities remain a hazy gray. Such seeming contradictions are dazzlingly confusing to outsiders -- and sometimes to China's own leaders.

Until recently, the Chinese paradox that most puzzled Western audiences was how to understand a country that is both communist and hyper-capitalist. But that is hardly the only, or even the most striking, paradox of the modern Middle Kingdom. China is fast on its way to becoming a global superpower, even as it grapples with such enormous domestic challenges as supplying enough energy to keep its cities lit, absorbing millions of rural migrants into cities each year, reining in choking pollution, creating a social safety net, and attempting to lift millions out of poverty. Although China holds $1 trillion in U.S. debt, its per capita GDP is still roughly one-tenth that of the United States. Beijing is subsidizing China’s fast-growing clean-tech export industry, even as the skies above the country’s largest cities remain a hazy gray. Such seeming contradictions are dazzlingly confusing to outsiders — and sometimes to China’s own leaders.

Of course, Beijing is often also able to exploit these seeming incongruities.

China has long been adept at strategically playing the poor-country card. In the lead-up to the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, China’s leaders deflected international pressure to accept greater emissions-reductions commitments in part by reminding the West how vast were the lifestyle differences between cappuccino-sipping New Yorkers and Burberry-wearing Londoners and those of subsistence farmers in China’s western provinces, struggling to eke out meager wheat harvests from a parched and desolate landscape and whose families huddled in one-room homes lit by bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling– in other words, how far much of China still has to go to catch up to the developed world, and how much energy that will take.

Meanwhile, even as China’s $332 billion sovereign wealth fund is investing heavily abroad, Beijing continues to reap generous funding from such multinational organizations and NGOs as the Gates Foundation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As former U.S. ambassador on global HIV/AIDS Jack Chow wrote last year in Foreign Policy, China has been awarded nearly $1 billion in grants from the Global Fund — making it the fourth-largest recipient of funds behind Ethiopia, India, and Tanzania.

At other times, the public face of China couldn’t be more different from that of Ethiopia, India, and Tanzania. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Fair, China invested heavily in putting on a dazzling show. The Olympics cost an estimated $32 billion, including such iconic flourishes as the $400 million Bird’s Nest Stadium’s 42,000 tons of creatively twisted steel; all this was designed to wow both international audiences and domestic viewers. The impression patriotic organizers wanted to send was simple: We have arrived.

In 2009, top Chinese officials chastised the United States for fiscal irresponsibility in the wake of the global financial meltdown, implying that China’s own economic model was superior. Premier Wen Jiabao worried openly about the "safety" of China’s approximately $1 trillion investment in U.S. debt. But in response to news last August that China had overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, state media were quick to issue reports stressing the country’s frailties: "China’s developing-country identity remains unchanged" proclaimed the headline of one Xinhua article. The alternation of such proclamations of strength and weakness on the part of China’s leaders and media may seem vexing. Both aspects of China are true — and the choice of emphasis is usually no accident.

As President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week, it’s worth pausing to reflect on how this somewhat baffling script seems to be shifting. In recent months, Beijing has spent less time reminding the world about the conditions of impoverished farmers and more time trotting out military hardware and simmering with indignation at international criticism — especially at the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s decision to award the 2010 prize to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. Summing up the last two years in U.S.-China relations, Fareed Zakaria in Time characterized Beijing’s behavior as "puzzling," highlighting, among other things, how China "humiliated Obama" at Copenhagen.

Yet, this recent show of confidence is making some in Beijing nervous. Although from a distance China’s Communist government may appear a decision-making monolith, in fact a variety of voices are now arguing about the country’s future direction — and what face to show foreigners — as Council on Foreign Relations scholar Elizabeth Economy documented in her recent Foreign Policy article, "The End of the Peaceful Rise?" While all good mandarins take pride in their country’s growing economic and geopolitical clout, some critics within China worry that inflated pride comes before a fall. Ye Hailin, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for instance, recently pointed out what he sees as flaws in current domestic sensibilities: "Three decades of reform have led to a rapid increase of wealth in China, and this in turn has also made the Chinese people arrogant. …The Chinese people are no longer tolerant of criticisms."

But refusing to accept criticism is not necessarily the same thing as thinking of oneself as a superpower. At least China’s citizenry, for all their surging patriotism, aren’t yet buying that line. One interesting paradox about how Chinese and American people see China was evident in two recent polls. Americans tend to exaggerate China’s economic strength (and presumed threat to U.S. stature), while Chinese tend to downplay news of their rising power. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, nearly half of Americans — 47 percent — named China as the world’s top economic power (though, in fact, China’s economy is about one-third the size of that of the United States). That’s up significantly from early 2008, when 30 percent of Americans made the same claim. Meanwhile, when asked whether China was a "superpower," only 12 percent of Chinese people agreed in a recent poll by state-run Global Times newspaper. It’s a good reminder that not only is China home to vast wealth and poverty, but also home to a range of views, ever-evolving.

As for Hu’s visit with President Barack Obama this week, one thing we know for sure: It’s an occasion already being celebrated in the Chinese media, both at home and abroad. A short video commissioned by China’s State Council Information Office and featuring such smiling Chinese celebrities as Yao Ming and actress Zhang Ziyi is now playing in New York’s Time Square, celebrating the "friendly" U.S.-China relationship. The video, natch, features no struggling peasants. 

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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