Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
The skyline of Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai. This year China is expected to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy, and Germany as the world's biggest exporter.
The skyline of Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai. This year China is expected to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy, and Germany as the world's biggest exporter. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
This year China is expected to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy, and Germany as the world's biggest exporter. For some foreigners, it may be tempting to think that China is no longer a developing nation, or has even become a superpower.
The impression is reinforced by frequent reports of foreign emissaries traveling to Beijing to seek cooperation on global issues like climate change, the economy and counterterrorism.
Tsinghua University economist Hu Angang says that on an issue like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as China goes, so goes the world.
"China will be at the core of the global trend of emissions reductions," Hu reckons. "China already accounts for a fifth of humanity. And in the future, China will account for 40 to 50 percent of the increase in new emissions. This is why the whole world is so concerned about when China's emissions will peak."
In other words, because of its sheer size, China's importance in world affairs has outstripped its level of development or its capabilities. It has become a key global player without either the wealth or military muscle of a superpower.
Beijing's response to foreign concerns has been to emphasize that it is still a developing country with limited means.
In a recent interview with state media, Premier Wen Jiabao explained why development would remain China's priority.
"A huge population, big regional differences in development and widespread poverty — this is still China's basic situation," Wen said.
Many ordinary Chinese agree with this view and see superpower status as a distant prospect. A telephone survey of 1,400 urban residents conducted last month by the Global Times newspaper found that only 15.5 percent of respondents saw their country as a "global power."
Tsinghua's Hu says that economic disparities among China's regions are so great that it is impossible to generalize about the country's level of development as a whole. China's per capita economic output, for example, isn't even among the top 100 nations.
But, Hu says, it's a different picture if you factor in health, education and the purchasing power of the local currency.
"In 1982, most Chinese were living in Third or Fourth World conditions," he says. "By 2006, a third of Chinese were living at First World standards. Two-thirds were at Second World standards, and only Tibet was in the Third World," he says.
Hu predicts that by these broader measurements, which economists call the Human Development Index, two-thirds of Chinese will be living at developed world levels in a decade.
Analysts believe this is likely because China is in an economic growth spurt that could last for years. Part of this developmental phase is a ravenous appetite for energy, resources and consumer goods.
Pan Jiahua, a climate expert at China's Academy of Social Sciences, says that as a latecomer to energy markets, China feels it is attracting an unfair share of scrutiny.
"When China goes somewhere to obtain oil or natural resources, it draws a lot of international attention," he comments. "This doesn't happen to U.S. or European countries. What we're doing is normal, but some people in those countries feel that we're stealing their resources."
China's leaders realize that the current phase of development carries big risks of social inequality and unrest. Many scholars say that lowering these risks requires political reform. But China's leaders have a less-than-robust desire to pursue such changes, critics say.