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In Context

With a booming economy, rising international status and power and one-fifth of the world's population, China is one of the world's major forces.

In the past couple of years, China has surpassed Japan to become the world's third largest economy after the European Union and the United States. It also surpassed Germany and the United States to become the world's second largest exporter, trailing only the European Union. China produces and uses more electricity than any other nation, has spent billions on contracts with U.S. allies, is investing heavily in Africa and now conducts more trade with key U.S. partners Japan and Brazil than the United States does. However, a telephone survey of 1,400 urban Chinese residents conducted in 2010 by the Global Times newspaper found that only 15.5 percent of respondents saw their country as a "global power."

Opposing voices like that of Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a pro-human rights and democracy journal, argue against China's potential "superpower" status and point to the country's uneven standard of living, controversial politics and persistent human-rights violations, as well as the lack of global Chinese brands, as evidence.

China has long been considered a secondary player because it built its wealth not through its own brands but by providing for major companies from the United States, European Union, Japan and elsewhere -- more than three-fifths of China's overall exports and nearly all its high-tech exports are made by foreign companies. Will Hutton, British political analyst and author of The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy, says that China remains, in essence, a subcontractor to the West.

For their part, Chinese business leaders are taking advantage of the global recession and their own cash wealth by expanding internationally and investing in Western concerns. In 2009, the China Market Research Group -- a strategic market intelligence firm headquartered in Shanghai -- interviewed 500 senior executives at 100 Chinese companies in 10 industries. Seventy percent of them said they specifically aimed to tap into the United States and Western Europe during the downturn.

While China has the third largest gross domestic product in the world as a country, its per capita gross domestic product still ranks 126th, at $7,600 annually, according to the CIA. (The United States, at $47,200, ranks 11th.) Much of the country still feels under-developed: Hundreds of millions of rural Chinese lack reliably safe drinking water, corruption is widespread and migrant workers make up one quarter of the workforce. Furthermore, some analysts argue that the national gross domestic product figure may be buoyed by overbuilding of real estate that is unaffordable to most Chinese and that could eventually prompt a massive housing market crash.

Photo caption: The Zhangs are crowded by passengers at Guangzhou Railway Station, heading home for Chinese New Year.
Credit: Weishan Tan

» CIA. "The World Factbook: China."
» Hill, Steven. "The China Superpower Hoax." The Huffington Post, February 10, 2011.
» Kuhn, Anthony. "As China's Stature Grows, Is It Superpower Or Not?" NPR, January 8, 2010.
» Mong, Adrienne. Do the Chinese Believe China Is a Superpower?" MSNBC, January 19, 2011.
» Ramzy, Austin. "Person of the Year 2009, Runners-Up: The Chinese Worker." Time, December 16, 2009.
» Rein, Shaun. "Yes, China Has Fully Arrived As A Superpower." Forbes, December 15, 2009.