At the end of the 1970s, China was a scarcely industrialised country devastated by the Cultural Revolution, whose contribution to world GDP was less than 2%. In 1979, under the firm and skilful leadership of Deng Xiaoping, a process of reform began that allowed the country to open up and liberalise its economy, while at the same time consolidating the power of the Chinese Communist Party after the death of Mao Zedong – a process of internal transformation that involved leaving behind a centralised and planned economy to become a market economy that opened up to the world. At the same time, the so-called Middle Kingdom underwent a process of demographic transition: from a rural society to an urban society, albeit under the strong tutelage of a one-party regime. Four decades later, China accounts for almost 20% of the global GDP, with growth averaging almost 10% a year, in what is regarded as the fastest continuous growth by a main economy in history, according to the World Bank.

This relentless economic development became consolidated at the turn of the millennium within the framework of the opening up of world trade imposed by neoliberal globalisation, which China, paradoxically or not, has ended up leading. China’s economic might has grown along with its influence and power, until it has become the superpower it is today. Its gradual rise in the international scene has been in step with its opening up from the bloc-division dynamics of the Cold War and autarkic isolation, to a pragmatic and cautious participation in the multilateral system that has unfolded as it has acquired broader commitments with the international community. In recent years, and even faster in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has definitively become a power with an unabashed ambition to seek a new global status commensurate with its economic weight. An economic and geopolitical power that places it at the forefront of the competition for global leadership, which in recent decades had already been shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A new hegemony that has emerged in the wake of the decline of the US and its policy of gradual withdrawal from the international scene in recent years, which has particularly characterised President Trump’s term in office.

The leading international research and analysis institutions and journals are currently focusing their studies on China’s growing prominence in all fields, so what are we trying to accomplish by dedicating a special thematic issue of IDEES Magazine to this topic in 2021?

The answer is obvious: the ability to understand today’s world inevitably involves interpreting and foreseeing what will happen in China, not only in the field of international relations, but in all dimensions of analysis. Understanding what is happening in China and what impact its power will have at the global level is, therefore, a key issue for Catalonia as well. The underlying hypothesis, which runs through some of the contents of this special issue, is that China, as a new superpower, may be in the process of building the foundations for consolidating a new international dynamic in line with its hegemonic power. This idea differs from other readings and analyses, which would posit Chinese leadership in the framework of a multipolar world in which cooperation between different centres of power would prevail. The question, then, is whether China’s goal is to transform and shape the global order in order to end up controlling international relations in the service of its interests.

China: a hegemonic superpower?

This is surely one of the most relevant unknowns when analysing the geopolitics of the coming years. Many of the current analyses often respond from their own biases, in defence of certain interests and worldviews, and not so much from more objective analyses of plausible future scenarios. However, those who predict an expansionist China highlight the signs of its voracity in the political decisions and strategies promoted by Beijing in this latest stage. Thus, many Western observers foresee a new Cold War with China at its focus, repeating the patterns of the 20th century, but with other actors, and which might turn the world into a more unstable and insecure place with multilateral instruments of containment weakened by one bloc or the other. Some authors go further and venture to predict the role that China might adopt in the not too distant future, based on certain patterns identified throughout the periods in which China was a major global power. Thus, some historicist accounts reflect on the importance of stability for ancient Chinese emperors and their general disposition to avoid the use of force. According to Michael Schuman, however, this peaceful image contrasts with the fact that Chinese dynasties were constantly at war and were ready to use force or coercion when anyone challenged Chinese order and power. However, the enormous economic growth of recent decades is surely the best indicator of what role China wants to play in the future. If we trace the thread of history, it is confirmed that for many centuries and until the first Industrial Revolution, China was one of the richest countries in the world. As Angus Maddison, has studied, at the beginning of the 19th century, and before it missed the boat of this revolution, China accounted for nearly 30% of the world GDP, surpassing the contribution of Europe and the US combined. This is surely one of the foreseeable milestones to be reached for the Chinese economy and one that might define the strategy to be followed by the Chinese Communist Party.

On this basis, the analyses of the main American think tanks have for some time now pointed to China as the US’s great systemic rival, insisting in a binary logic that simplifies and reduces global complexity to threats to US hegemony. In this sense, US security and defence policy has been reoriented and sees China as the enemy to beat, and much of US economic and trade policy is focused on competition with the Asian giant. At the same time, however, the political coalition that propelled Joe Biden to victory in last November’s elections remains divided over what strategy to implement and how to respond to the threat posed by China to US interests. Some Democratic analysts oppose the idea of a ‘total confrontation’ and rule out the economic disengagement with China advocated by the Trump administration, in the expectation of finding spaces for cooperation.

The underlying hypothesis is that China, as a new superpower, may be in the process of building the foundations for consolidating a new international dynamic in line with its hegemonic power

To a certain extent, doubts are also reproduced in the case of European strategy and its particular relationship with China. The new doctrine approved in October 2020 by the European Council sees China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival at the same time, depending on the area under discussion. A doctrine that some call the “Sinatra doctrine“, which would mean a way of our own, My way, which does not want to be imprisoned in a neo-imperial logic and under the influence of the US or China, but rather to relate to the world from the European vision, values and instruments. In a way, this approach describes very well the difficulty and ambiguity in defining how these relations will evolve in the future, and which will greatly condition transatlantic alliances. If Brussels were to move closer to Beijing, relations with Washington would undoubtedly suffer.

On the other hand, less negative views of China’s rise highlight more complacent aspects of its policy or point to the enormous challenges and limits to transforming the global order, should this be confirmed as the goal of China’s agenda. The New Silk Roads, often presented as a projection of China’s expansionist will, are justified by views that insist on a narrative based on the logic of regional cooperation and an alternative multipolar governance model, with the aim of rebalancing the international order. This perspective explicitly represents a Chinese vision, but at the same time inspired by comparative analysis and Negri and Hardt’s theses on globalisation. Ultimately, the rise of China implies a new approach and the use of alternative conceptual and cognitive frameworks to rethink the world differently. In this context, one would have to interpret Xi Jinping’s official discourse focused on creating a “community of shared future”, committed to sustainable development and peaceful international relations. Even so, since the consolidation of his leadership and the removal of the time constraints on his leadership as President of the People’s Republic and of the Central Military Commission – accumulating unquestionable and unquestioned power – there has been a turning point in the image he projects. In recent years, Chinese diplomacy no longer expresses itself with the prudence and pragmatism that used to define it, nor does it shy away from conflicts, but instead addresses them with an assertive voice and determination. At the same time, it unabashedly displays its growing military power, which has increased considerably over the past decade, according to several sources.

COVID-19’s accelerating effect

On the other hand, the brutal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world has altered economic and geopolitical dynamics and has intensified China’s global presence with the so-called diplomacy of masks and vaccines. At the macro level, China was the only major world economy to record GDP growth in 2020 with 2.3% over the previous year, whereas the US shrank by 3.5% and the Eurozone, by 6.6% —an almost 10-percentage point gap that had not been seen since the worst moments of the 2008 financial crisis. However, the data for the first quarter of 2021 confirm a certain trend towards a global return to growth, with figures of 8.4% for China, 6.4% for the US and 4.4% for the Eurozone. With China on the road to economic and with weaker Western economies, a trade war could be reignited, which this time would have global dimensions. At the same time, this position of economic superiority could mean that the main Chinese companies, which are in a situation of market dominance, could have the capacity to reformulate institutions, rules and trade agreements and also impose their hegemony.

Moreover, if China’s growth continues to outstrip that of Western countries by two or three percentage points per year, Branko Milanovic believes that over the next decade many middle-class Chinese will be richer than their middle-class counterparts in the West, which will mean that for the first time middle-income Westerners will no longer be part of the global elite. A paradigm shift that, according to Marx and Gramsci, should have major consequences in terms of the hegemonic culture and the dominant ideology, This raises the debate about the importance of ideology and values in strategic terms and the effects that their promotion beyond national borders have as an increasingly stronger or stabilising influence. As long as China opts for authoritarianism and the West for liberal democracy, this moral asymmetry could provide an apparent competitive advantage for the West. The differences between, on the one hand, an authoritarian regime that systematically violates human rights, curtails freedom of expression, ruthlessly represses democratic opposition in Hong Kong and persecutes political pluralism, and, on the other hand, systems that uphold democratic values, could be one of the key factors in establishing stronger international alliances. However, the multiple crises of liberal democracies, associated with inequalities, the disaffection and loss of legitimacy of representative systems, the rise of national-populism, etc., and the failure of the multilateral system to resolve major global challenges, also weaken the Western narrative.

One of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been precisely the dialectical battle around the creation of meta-narratives and the debate on how the different political systems in the world have reacted to such a massive crisis. A discussion about which countries, systems or models have been the most efficient in fighting the virus, reducing the number of , curbing contagion or reactivating the economy. Thus, we have witnessed how the Chinese government has made propagandistic use of its policy against COVID-19, exporting the idea that the virus has been stopped thanks to good management and the authoritarian model led by the Chinese Communist Party. Management based on centralised governance and tight social control, with no possible contestation and immediate results, despite the lack of transparency and the dubious reliability of the data. A narrative that sought to put the finger on Western countries, which were slower to manage states of alarm and exception and with evident contradictions and dilemmas between the values of security and freedom.

Conceiving China’s competition with the West as fundamentally ideological would be a mistake. The threat to Western interests and liberal democratic values is a combination of authoritarian capitalism and digital surveillance, with the power and scale of its economy and demographics

Even so, a study conducted by the Pew Research Institute on China’s image and international public opinion shows that China’s image has worsened over the past year in the wake of the management of the coronavirus epidemic, especially among some countries close to China and also among Western nations. At the same time, its image has improved in some parts of the world, such as Nigeria, where it has invested heavily, a correlation that, according to the study, cannot be extended to all areas where China has increased its presence. For authors such as Robert D. Kaplan, conceiving China’s competition with the West as fundamentally ideological would be a mistake that could be misleading, even if certain Communist Party elites would like to see it that way. It would thus be the fusion of authoritarian capitalism and digital surveillance, combined with the power and scale of its economy and demographics, which could threaten Western interests and liberal democratic values.

Everything seems to indicate that today’s China is, above all, a society strongly dominated by the power structure of the Communist Party, where discipline, social control and loyalty to Xi Jinping’s leadership seem to prevail more than adherence to communist postulates or a supposed ideological purity. The scope of its aspirations rests more on the strength of its economic and industrial dynamism, centralised authoritarianism and artificial intelligence technology than on the role of a normative power and disseminator of political ideas.

Observing China

In 1979, when Jean-François Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, he defined our time as the end of the great legitimacy-giving narratives. In the study of international relations, this could be interpreted as the end of a world dominated by hegemonic poles of power whose economic and political strength is accompanied by the convictions of an ideology. The current dynamics of international relations do not seem to be oriented towards the imposition of consensus on shared grand narratives, but rather towards competition or cooperation between states, on the basis of their national and strategic interests. In this scenario of fragmentation, the authoritarian model that has allowed it to achieve and consolidate its economic and industrial strength, leadership in renewable energies and technological advances in artificial intelligence, offers Xi Jinping the temptation to export his model and narrative, incorporating his concept of truth into the relations he establishes with his partners. In this complex, global and open constellation, China’s future depends on how successfully it can recombine all these aspects of its model. For now, it does not seem to be content with restoring its pre-19th century status as the dominant power in East Asia or even as the leading economic power in a multipolar world. As its hegemony consolidates, it would thus appear that the world is heading towards two normative systems: the liberal, Western order and an authoritarian order with China at the helm.

Are we then witnessing the replacement of the liberal order with a new one led by the Asian giant, or are we heading towards a change in global leadership, with the United States being replaced by China, which will eventually transform and strengthen the liberal order? All these questions play a key role in the complex exercise of understanding China today. They are also part of the motives behind this special issue of IDEES magazine. But do we still have to wait several years, as some hypotheses suggest, to really know what China’s goals are and what it is trying to achieve? Or can we assume that China is already a fully-fledged superpower, that it has clear preferences and that we are in a position to assess what it does and how its actions impact on the world order and contemporary international relations? This issue of IDEES is aligned with the second interpretation and, through the voices of a diverse range of specialists, aims to identify some of the keys to a better understanding of what China is like and how it is changing today and what role it plays. This is why, in addition to taking as a starting point the ideas developed in the preceding paragraphs, the papers focus on two essential questions in order to encourage reflection and criticism from our readers. The first question is not only the multifaceted nature of Chinese reality, but also the multiple Chinese realities that coexist today. Each paper deals with a particular topic, but they all delve into the tensions, contradictions, challenges and potentialities that shape or accompany China’s character and image. The second question has to do with the impact (transformative or not) of the economic and health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on these positions. The academic world is often tempted to announce the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The papers in this special issue avoid this impulse and, while recognising continuities and divergences, approach each of the topics with the aim of better explaining and understanding China’s fascinating complexity.

The choice of authors for this special issue reflects the need to combine different perspectives and focal points. Thus, in addition to seeking a reasonable balance of gender and geographic origins, including a significant percentage of specialists of Chinese origin, this dossier brings together experts from different disciplines and with different visions, ranging from the most complacent to the most critical of China. This diversity is deliberate: if, after reading the papers included in this issue, the reader can draw some valuable lessons and still have some doubts that may lead him or her to further research, we will have fulfilled the objectives we sought with this monograph. To encourage reflection, however, we have chosen to group the papers around six complementary axes or blocks The first block focuses on the political, cultural and socio-economic processes that China is currently undergoing and which are contributing to its redefinition as a modern or “post-modern” state. Xi Jinping’s leadership, the new role of Chinese cities and the reconstruction of a new sense of Chinese national identity play a major role in these processes. The second section analyses the country’s interests, preferences, yearnings and fears in the face of the crisis of the liberal international order and, in particular, with regard to some of its fundamental components such as international law and international organisations. The third section looks at China as an economic superpower, exploring in particular its trade strategies and development aid. This section also includes a necessary reflection on the impact of the Asian giant’s economic growth on the domestic distribution of wealth and the increase in inequalities. The fourth block discusses China’s triple status as an energy, environmental and academic superpower. Although they may seem to move in parallel, the country’s priorities and actions in each of these three dimensions maintain a dialectical relationship with each other, giving rise to interesting tensions and synergies. The fifth axis delves into some of the Chinese superpower’s preferred scenarios, as well as what is considered by many to be its flagship foreign policy strategy: the Belt and Road initiative. These scenarios include the South and North China Seas, the Middle East region and the countries of Latin America. Finally, the sixth section looks at the different visions, priorities and efforts of the main Spanish and European think tanks and research centres, which in the last two decades have not only turned their gaze towards China, but have also made its dynamism and changing international role one of their research priorities.

As usual in IDEES, with this special issue on which we have jointly worked with the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), we offer our readers an in-depth analysis of the Chinese reality from different angles and perspectives. We do not intend to give a univocal or definitive answer to the debates on China’s transformation and consolidation as a superpower and on what its role will be in the major key issues of the global agenda, but the contents of this dossier will surely open windows allowing us to see more clearly the reality of a country that is a present, not a future superpower.


Pere Almeda

Director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies of the Government of Catalonia and IDEES magazine. Jurist and political scientist, MA in Political Science and postgraduate in International Relations and Culture of Peace. He is also an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona. He has collaborate and worked as advisor in different institutions such as the Catalan Parliament, the European Parliament or the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs at the UN Headquarters. Has served as coordinator of the International Project of Sant Pau and Director of the Think Tank Fundació Catalunya Europa leading the project Combating inequalities: the great global challenge.

Pablo Pareja

Pablo Pareja Alcaraz is a Serra Hunter Professor of International Relations at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and Academic Coordinator of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Public Policy at the Institut de Barcelona d'Estudis Internacinonals (IBEI). He holds a PhD in International Relations from UPF, a Master's in European Studies from the London School of Economics and a Master's in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. A member of the UPF Public Law and Public Relations Research Group, his main lines of research include the study of Chinese foreign policy, China's contribution to the construction and transformation of international and regional orders, and Asian international relations.