Does China have what it to become a superpower? It’s a reasonable question considering the way Beijing has been behaving with its big tech companies and others that are successful enough to be world players.
There is also China’s new data-security law, completed in June, which gives the government greater power to force private companies to share users’ data, which means curtains for any Chinese tech firm to argue to foreign customers that it’s not subject to government pressures.
Some weeks ago, three Chinese education companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange shed more than half their value after a leaked memo suggested Beijing might force them and others like them to register for non-profit status.
Jack Ma has long fallen from grace — into obscurity —and the Ant Group IPO was cancelled. Earlier this month, Chinese regulators announced an investigation into data security concerns at DiDi Global Inc., a ride-hailing group, just two days after its initial public offering. It was the biggest Chinese IPO in the US since Alibaba’s in 2014. The Chinese internet regulator also said it was investigating other US-listed Chinese companies, triggering a selloff in Chinese tech stocks and leading several Chinese tech companies to abandon their plans to go West.
Clearly, China didn’t want Ant to become the world’s “Amazon with Chinese characteristics”. It doesn’t want its companies to dominate the world in the way of American firms. They are part of a broader effort by the Chinese government to decouple China from the United States but there’s a bit more here too.
As a prominent academic who studies these things recently noted, the Chinese “Communist Party’s top priority is domestic: specifically, the preservation of its own power” and it does not want — or care — much about whether or not its companies take over the world.
Corporate behemoths are one aspect of being a superpower. The second is the military arena and as the Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman has noted, superpower status “involves costs, risks and burdens”. When nine Chinese nationals were killed in a terrorist attack in Pakistan earlier in July, it was reminiscent of the sort of danger posed to US citizens in disparate parts of the world.
And despite China appearing more militaristic, Mr Rachman quotes senior US officials’ doubts that China can or wants to take on the burdens of being a US-style global military power. After all, it has not fought a war since it clashed with Vietnam in 1979 and China boasts of its “peaceful rise”. It doesn’t militarily interfere when its friends are in trouble.
This suggests that Chinese-developed civilian port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan or Hambantota, Sri Lanka may never come with US-style security guarantees.
In a sense that is good because it means China is less keen to go to war than the Americans. But it does raise the question: Does China have the stomach for superpower status both in corporate and military terms?