A Champion for Chinese Optimism and Exceptionalism

The following is excerpt is Cheng Li’s introduction to the book 
China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

China perplexes the world. The country’s rapid rise to global economic power poses an important set of questions regarding how one should perceive the transformation of the international system in light of this epochal change:

  • Is China on track to become a new superpower? If so, how will this transform the global economic and political landscape?
  • Will this ongoing power shift be comparable in scale to the rise of Europe in the seventeenth century or the rise of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?
  • Will the world witness increasingly intense competition between the United States, the existing superpower, and China, an emerging superpower? Could it even lead to the outbreak of what international relations scholars call a hegemonic war?
  • Might a new cold war take shape as China, a Leninist one-party state, comes to rival the West in the decades ahead? Will China present a military and ideological challenge to the West, as the Soviet Union did during most of the latter half of the twentieth century?
  • Conversely, should the rise of the world’s most populous country be seen as an auspicious development, able to fuel global economic growth and contribute to a more balanced and stable world order?

At this point there are no definitive answers to these questions, and increasingly sophisticated assessments of China’s quest for superpower status emerge over time. This type of analysis is also difficult, as the real and substantive impact of China’s rise on the international system will depend on many factors. To a large extent, China’s own economic and political trajectories— as well as the country’s popular aspirations and demographic constraints— are the factors that will determine the role that China adopts. The momentous socioeconomic transformation propelling these changes has not occurred in an intellectual vacuum. In fact, over the past decade strategic thinkers and public intellectuals in China have engaged in fervent discussions of the nature of China’s ever-increasing integration into the world and the country’s road ahead.

Unfortunately, English-language studies of present-day China have not adequately informed a Western audience of the dynamism of the debates within China and the diversity of views concerning its own future. In such a rapidly changing and complex world, it would be enormously valuable for the decisionmakers and analysts in the West to broaden their perspective and “see others as they see themselves,” as the distinguished historian Jacques Barzun wisely suggests.4 The international community’s discourse on the implications of a rising China will increase its sophistication if it pays greater heed to how Chinese intellectuals perceive and debate the responsibilities that China may assume in the future. In particular, the American China-watching community would be much better informed if it were more familiar with the contemporary strategic discourse of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

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