Last week, the United Nations World Population Project announced a major change in the way the world looks.
Next year, India, not China, will be the most populous country in the world. Currently, China has 1.43 billion people compared to India’s 1.41 billion, but by mid-century there will be over 1.6 billion Indians compared to about 1 .3 billion Chinese.
At one level, this development should delight Beijing, which has forced its population to a “one-child” policy for forty years.
Still, there may be some sorry faces in Beijing. The idea that China is the most populous society in the world has long been linked to the rise of the country.
Officially, China rejects any idea that being at the top of the world rankings matters: in January this year, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said that China had no interest in becoming the biggest economy or superpower. of the world and that she would instead work to improve the lives of her people. at home.
Yet for years, Chinese social media has been overflowing with dissenting voices demanding the country be “No. 1”. The drop to No. 2 in the world’s population is likely to cause some soul-searching in this quest for the other world’s top spot.
Despite these denials from its leaders, there is no doubt that China is aiming to become the largest economy in the world, and by some measures such as purchasing power parity, it already is. In terms of nominal GDP, it’s still No. 2 in the United States, but many economists suggest it’s likely to peak by the end of the 2020s (although unexpected factors such as the economic effects of quarantines of Covid could get in the way).
The quest for GDP growth is part of a larger project to take the lead in a range of areas. During the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese policymakers responded to challenges from Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping to build a model that followed a concept they called “overall national power” (zonghe guoli). Much of the assessment began within the military, with armament and training assessments, but attention soon turned to economic factors.
Deng’s analysts categorized existing resources such as labor and material and mineral resources, as well as projecting future capacity in areas such as new technologies.
During the 1990s, scholars debated China’s rise in world rankings. However, in the 2000s, ambitions changed: instead of “overall national power”, Chinese analysts began to speak of an increase in China’s “soft power” – the ability of states to rule other states. by persuasion rather than coercion.
For much of the period since 1945, the United States has been the undisputed number 1 in this field. Despite numerous geopolitical disasters (Vietnam, Iraq) and national injustices (racial politics), the ability of the United States to project a sense of itself to the world has been and remains immensely strong. There’s a reason Xi Jinping was just one of many Chinese parents who sent his daughter to study in the United States.
China has deployed immense resources in an attempt to transform itself into a soft power superpower over the past two decades. The effort has had some success, particularly in the Global South: the idea of China as an awe-inspiring technological innovator has taken hold in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where the efficient and cheap delivery of 5G has taken precedence over fears about security. Multi-part Chinese dramas and soap operas have become popular across Southeast Asia and have started to develop an audience in some African countries: Last year, social media users in Kenya became big fans of the great Chinese fantasy television series. The Untamed. TikTok, a product of Chinese company ByteDance, has been a cultural game-changer, though part of its success stems from downplaying its ties to its home country.
Even India, a country generally suspicious of China’s geopolitical intentions, regularly sees anguished debates over why it cannot match China’s GDP and poverty reduction record. Nor can it match the audience China has for its story of its rise to global power.
Yet overall, China’s desire to become the top producer of soft energy has stalled, with the country still ranking far behind the United States. One reason is the top-down control that shapes Chinese policy in the country.
The strongest soft power generators in the Chinese neighborhood, such as Japanese manga and South Korean pop, emerged when their countries liberalized and developed a civil society.
China has moved in exactly the opposite direction in recent years; for example, restrictions imposed on Hong Kong under China’s 2020 national security law have increased censorship of films, along with warnings that museums in the city should avoid works of art that could harm to a vaguely defined national security.
This restrictive mindset at home is a self-imposed obstacle to China’s desire to project its cultural power into the liberal world.
Moreover, China also sends confusing vibes about the actual accessibility of its own culture and society.
His government argues that foreigners cannot criticize his policies because he operates under a unique system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that would not suit any other state, but also projects the idea of ”wisdom China” which can act as a resource for the world.
The soft power of the United States stems from the idea that anyone, in theory, can become an American by adhering to its culture and its values.
China struggled to make a similar, consistent claim and hampered its own narrative as a result. Despite spending hundreds of millions to boost its position in the global soft power rankings, China hovers between 8 and 10.
It’s still unclear what it means for China to be No. 1: GDP alone doesn’t reflect the sense of aspiration behind the idea. But as it slips into No. 2 in terms of population size, there is no doubt that its leaders will devote even more attention to achieving this elusive and ill-defined goal in the areas they still feel they can control.
– Rana Mitter is Professor of Modern Chinese History and Politics at Oxford University.