China wants to be the world's next superpower. True or false?

Only 14 percent of ordinary Chinese and 1 percent of military respondents hope their country will become the single world leader, according to a study released today.

Reuters/China Daily
Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy recruits chant slogans during a parade to mark the end of a semester at a military base of the North Sea Fleet, in Qingdao, Shandong Province Dec. 5, 2013.

Testing assumptions behind the headlines

Are the Chinese bent on world domination?

Not according to a groundbreaking new study of opinions among Chinese elites and the Chinese public. Chinese ambitions actually seem to be both realistic and modest.

Asked what global role their country should play, only 14 percent of ordinary Chinese replied “single world leader,” 45 percent wanted a “shared leadership role,” while 19 percent wanted no leadership role at all for Beijing.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Chinese military are even more cautious, according to the joint study, released today by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Chinese think tank led by a hawkish retired general. It is among the first surveys to test Chinese military thinking, although only military scholars were allowed to be polled. 

Only 1 percent of Chinese military respondents hoped their country would become the sole superpower, while 84 percent looked forward to sharing power with the United States. But even so, 12 percent want no global role for China.

That may be because almost nobody in China thinks the world would be more stable if Beijing succeeded Washington as the leading superpower: the numbers range from just 3 percent of Chinese military men to 12 percent of government officials. 

Not that Americans seem enamored of the idea of running the world either. Large majorities of both ordinary Americans and government, media, military, business, and academic types want to share power with others. 

Interestingly, the Carnegie Endowment’s findings are consonant with the conclusion that a leading American China watcher, David Shambaugh, reached in his book, published earlier this year, “China Goes Global.” He reckons that “China has a very long way before it becomes – if it ever becomes – a true global power. And it will never ‘rule the world.’ ”

Chinese policymakers and the public appear to share that opinion.

Not that this makes them trust America. The study found that only 12 percent of Chinese thought America could be trusted “a great deal or a fair amount,” (against 26 percent of Americans who said the same thing of China.) Elites put scarcely more faith in America: less than one-third of them said Washington could be trusted.

On the bright side, very few ordinary Chinese citizens or elites think of the US as an enemy. Instead, a plurality of the Chinese public (45 percent) and clear majorities of the elites see America as a competitor. Most Americans see China the same way. That, says the report, “should encourage policymakers to enhance bilateral cooperation.” 

Polling was conducted by the Pew Research Center in the US and the Research Center for Contemporary China (RCCC) at Peking University in Beijing. Pew surveyed 1,004 US adults and 358 elites between March and May 2012 and RCCC surveyed 2,597 Chinese adults in urban areas and 358 elites between May and July 2012.

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