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China: Superpower or Developing Country?

This illustration highlights the disparity between China’s per-capita income and its aggregate income in comparison with other countries.

China is not a superpower, said Major General Pan Zhenqiang, deconstructing one of the “myths” about his country. A retired officer from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and deputy chairman of the China Foundation for International Studies, Pan Zhenqiang talked at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich last week. He was also a guest of Vivian Fritschi of ISN Podcasts. In his talk Pan said that China is a poor developing country. Is he right? Or is China a superpower, after all? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask.

Chinese leaders themselves perceive their country as a developing one with a number of paramount domestic challenges. The largest share of China’s population lives in rural, underdeveloped areas and there is a large urban-rural income gap. And although China’s per capita income has been increasing at a remarkable pace – it grew more than threefold over the last decade – it is still comparatively low. To anyone familiar with rural China, it is obvious that this is in fact a developing country. But that’s only one side of the coin: even though China is a poor country in per-capita terms, it is a rich country in aggregate terms, due to its immense population.

From a Western perspective, China’s development is usually seen at the macro level: China is the second largest economy in the world today and might surpass the US within the next decade. China is not only the “factory of the world” but also a vital market for Western investment goods and technology. China has the world’s largest population which, despite strict family planning policies, is still growing. And last but not least, the PLA is the world’s largest military force and is heavily investing in modernization and expansion programs. Undoubtedly, all of this makes China an important economic and political power.

In short, China is a developing country and a rising power at the same time. But does its increasing power pose a threat to the West and the international order? Not necessarily. It should be acknowledged that China’s government today is very much technocratic and non-ideological, and one thing is for sure: stability and good relations with the US and Europe are crucial for China’s development.

China’s leaders should convince the West, as Pan Zhenqiang tried to do in Zurich, that its rise is an opportunity for them and not a threat. To achieve this, China cannot solely rely on its pledges and rhetoric; it has to actively participate in the international community and prove its will for peaceful cooperation, as Pan rightly pointed out in the interview.

Maj Gen Pan Zhenqiang’s interview with ISN Podcasts is part of a series on China that also featured several issues of ISN Insights. Last week The Economist published a special report on China entitled Rising Power, Anxious State“.