We are living in the Chinese century. This is what economic forecasters would have you believe. With economic pre-eminence often comes cultural hegemony, evidenced by the overpowering Americanisation of global society. Jeans, burgers, hip hop – America is everywhere. Conservative forecasters estimate that the Chinese Economy will pass that of the US by 1930 – suggesting that the coming decades could see a penetration of Chinese influence around the world, akin to that enjoyed by the States in the years subsequent to the Second World War. Despite the historical isolationism prevalent in Chinese culture, evidence of such an emergence is already apparent. Originally manifest in Han encroachment into traditional Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongol lands within the boundary of what we would now define as China, Beijing’s reach is now going global.
One area in which Chinese influence is flexing is in the vast and sparsely populated lands which lay to the north in Siberia. The Asian part of Russia accounts for three quarters of the country’s land mass, yet is home to just 40 million people. The Chinese, who number some 90 million in the borderlands, have a long association with the area, which the Russians captured from them in 1860 during their ‘century of humiliation’. Importation of raw materials from Siberia-based Russian companies has formed a significant portion of Chinese manufacturing sector in recent decades. More recently however these have been supplanted by Siberia-based Chinese companies, harnessing these materials from their source and churning out finished products within Russian territory. With this has come a steady flow of ethnic Han workers, and with them Chinese-oriented facilities.
While the traditionally Russian ethnic groups of Siberia are declining in population size, the Chinese are steadily increasing their presence. Aside from the stronghold in Vladivostok, Moscow’s influence east of the Urals is waning, something which some might expect would endear a response from the usually hard-line Vladimir Putin. Such a response has however not been made by the Kremlin, and instead efforts have been made to facilitate the Chinese population. The most striking testament to this is the development of multiple casinos in the area, all heavily targeted at Chinese clientele. Such a facilitation suggests that Moscow is willing to accommodate the slowly increasing Chinese foothold in Siberia, possibly in order to coerce the soon-to-be economically dominant Beijing into a closer trading partnership. It may also be the case that the Chinese reclamation of Siberia is considered an inevitability, and Moscow considers it best to accommodate a friendly Beijing to its east while focusing on the steadily increasing NATO presence to its west.
As Beijing’s influence is spreading to the north, a similar affect is occurring to the south. Across the all but subdued Tibetan Plateau – remember those guys? – China is heavily investing in Pakistan. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, the project focuses heavily on the modernisation of Pakistani transport links in a deal valued at 62 billion dollars. While revolutionising the Pakistani economy, the deal also facilitates Chinese trade by substantially shortening cargo ship routes in and out of Europe and Africa. To this end, plans for a Chinese naval base in the Pakistani port of Balochistan have been announced. The announcement of such a deal demonstrates Beijing’s independence in international and military affairs, particularly when given the recent anti-Pakistan stance employed by Donald Trump’s US administration. The strengthening ties between China and Pakistan will also serve to frustrate Pakistan’s eternal enemy, India. While any strengthening of its north-western neighbour, with whom they have been in repeated conflict with since British partition in 1947, Beijing’s presence in Lahore will get alarm bells ringing in Delhi. Territorial disputes in Askai Chin and Doklam have left Sino-Indian relations frosty. Moreover, the growing Chinese presence in Myanmar and Bangladesh also leaves India at risk of being isolated within its own backyard. It remains to be seen whether these two ever-expanding economic powerhouses can facilitate each other in the same neighbourhood. The ancient division provided by the mighty Himalayan mountains grows smaller every day.
Beyond its territorial borders, Beijing is also leading development projects in Africa and Indian Ocean nations. Through carefully planned ‘special economic zones’, which establish China-friendly financial stipulations unrepresentative of that of the host nation, Chinese business is thriving in nations like Kenya, Mauritius and Madagascar. Such nations governments are more than willing to do business with China, having grown weary and suspicious of western governments following centuries of colonial exploitation. In Kenya, the steady increasing in Chinese businesses in sectors such as infrastructure and mineral extraction has seen an explosion in Nairobi’s Chinese population. With this has come restaurants, hotels and casinos advertising exclusively in Mandarin and tailored specifically for Chinese personnel. This has proven controversial, particularly during a scandal during which black African patrons were turned away from a Chinese restaurant. Anti-Chinese protests have also gathered strength in Madagascar, where demonstrations have taken place against gold-mining companies as a result of their encroachment into traditionally rural communities. Nonetheless, Chinese investment is the backbone of many African economies. This is no more visible than in Mauritius, where many China-led development projects have emerged, including renovation of the island nations airport terminal. Such projects have led to the emergence of Chinese enclaves on the island, with Chinese-oriented facilities emerging akin to those now found in Nairobi. Such a growth of influence in a continent with which the Chinese have such little historical ties to beyond the voyages of Zheng He demonstrates that as the Chinese economy grows so does its international influence.
Beijing’s growth is not only being felt within ‘developing’ nations or sparsely populated lands, but also within advanced western nations. Take Britain for example, who as they turn away from the EU are beginning to court the soon-to-be largest world economy as a future trading partner. The foundations of the modern UK-China relationship were laid as the Union Jack lowered for the final time in Hong Kong, signalling London’s acceptance that China’s will could no longer be ignored and should be adhered to in the national interest. Before the EU referendum, Chinese investment in the UK had been heavily focused on during Xi Jinping’s 2015 British state visit, during which the President dined with the Queen, as well as David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. The visit resulted in business agreements worth 40 billion pounds and an extension of Chinese visitor visas from six months to two years. Post-Brexit, it is likely that China will be seen as an avenue for British trade, as well as a source for the international students upon which its Universities so heavily depend. The impact the increased Chinese presence within Britain will have both economically and socially remains to be seen.
The rise of China and its increasing economic footprint worldwide bears a striking resemblance to that of the post-WWII rise of the United States. Such a rise to economic hegemony often leads to an increased military presence to defend those interests, and this has already manifest itself with the construction of Chinese Naval Bases in Djibouti and Pakistan. The third wave of hegemony usually comes in the form of social exportation. The seeming inevitability of such a development may seem intimidating, however is such a universal dominance detrimental to world society? Many nations have benefited from the US-led new world order, particularly those in Eastern Europe, in economic, military and social terms. People broadly like burgers, or rather their accessibility to US-style fast food, they like jeans, they like hip-hop. This would evidently be contested in other areas of the world, something which would likely be reflected with regards to an equally encompassing Chinese hegemon. China is already preparing itself for dominance of the international order, facilitated by a westernisation of its own culture. Chinese youth are learning English, studying abroad, and travelling the world. Football, the world’s game, is seeing heavy Chinese investment, with the Chinese Super League signing some of the biggest names in the sport. Shanghai recently saw the opening of a Disney Park. As the world opens itself up to China economically, the Chinese are opening themselves up to the world socially, facilitating the steady incorporation of a dominant Beijing into international society as the soon-to-be hegemon of the twenty-first century.
J G Middleton