With its rich history spanning thousands of years, China has emerged as a global powerhouse in the contemporary world. Its transformation over the past few decades has been nothing short of remarkable, reshaping geopolitics, economics, and culture on a global scale. China’s meteoric economic rise is perhaps the most defining feature of its contemporary influence. Beginning in the late 20th century, China adopted a series of market-oriented reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, known as “Deng’s reforms.” These reforms opened the Chinese economy to foreign investment and global trade, leading to exponential economic growth. As a result, China became the world’s second-largest economy, trailing only the United States. China’s integration into global supply chains has been a game-changer in the contemporary world. Its manufacturing prowess and export-oriented approach have made it the world’s ” factory.” Chinese-made products are ubiquitous, from smartphones to clothing, and are exported to every corner of the globe.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, further extends China’s economic reach. This massive infrastructure project aims to connect China with Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East through a network of roads, railways, and ports. Critics argue that the BRI is a debt trap for participating countries, while proponents see it as a means to boost economic development and trade. China’s technological advancements have also been a key driver of its contemporary economic influence. Companies like Huawei, Alibaba, and Tencent have become global telecommunications, e-commerce, and digital services giants. China has made significant strides in areas like artificial intelligence, 5G technology, and quantum computing. However, concerns about technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and national security have led to tensions between China and the West. The U.S.-China trade war, which began in 2018, exemplifies the complexities of this issue.
Source: Dr Yu Jie, 2021
In addition to its manufacturing and technological prowess, China has become a formidable player in the global financial sector. The internationalization of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RMB or Yuan), has progressed significantly, challenging the dominance of the U.S. dollar. China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), has signed currency swap agreements with numerous countries, promoting using RMB in international trade and finance. Moreover, China’s massive foreign exchange reserves make it a key lender to countries needing financial assistance, strengthening its influence in the global economy. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (BRICS Bank) further illustrates China’s commitment to reshaping the international financial architecture.
While China’s rise has been marked by economic growth, it also faces demographic challenges in the contemporary world. The one-child policy, in place from 1979 to 2015, has led to an aging population and a shrinking workforce. This demographic shift poses challenges for sustaining economic growth, providing healthcare, and supporting a growing elderly population. China has implemented a two-child policy to counteract these challenges and is exploring further measures to encourage population growth.
The long-term effects of decades of population control will continue to shape China’s demographic landscape.
China’s political influence has grown in tandem with its economic power. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China has pursued a more assertive foreign policy and sought to reshape global institutions to better align with its interests. China’s “soft power” strategy includes cultural exports like Confucius Institutes, a worldwide network of educational and cultural centers, and the promotion of Chinese language and culture. The Chinese government also engages in diplomacy through initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Additionally, China’s expanding presence in international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, allows it to influence global policies and decision-making.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have been a major source of tension in the contemporary world. Its construction of artificial islands and military installations in disputed waters has raised concerns among neighboring countries and led to increased U.S. military presence in the region. China’s development and export of digital surveillance technology have raised concerns about privacy and human rights. The widespread use of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, the monitoring of online activities, and the use of social credit systems have led to a high level of government control over citizens’ lives. China’s digital authoritarianism has also influenced other countries, with some adopting similar surveillance technologies and practices, leading to debates about the balance between security and individual freedoms.
The leadership of President Xi Jinping has had a profound impact on China’s domestic and international policies. Xi has consolidated power within the CCP and removed term limits for the presidency, allowing him to potentially remain in power indefinitely. His assertive foreign policy stance, often called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” emphasizes China’s rejuvenation as a global power. Xi’s leadership style and his vision for China’s role in the world continue to shape the country’s trajectory, with implications for global geopolitics. Moreover, China’s stance on Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong has strained its relations with the United States and other Western democracies.
The “One Country, Two Systems” principle, which was supposed to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy after its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, has come under threat, resulting in protests and international condemnation.
Chinese culture has transcended borders in the contemporary world, extending its influence far beyond its geographical boundaries. From cuisine to cinema, China’s cultural exports have left an indelible mark on global culture. With its diverse regional flavors, Chinese cuisine has become a beloved culinary tradition worldwide. Chinese restaurants are found in nearly every major city, and dishes like dumplings, Peking duck, and General Tso’s chicken have become international favorites. Chinese cinema has gained recognition on the global stage, with directors like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou winning international awards. Hollywood studios have also increasingly catered to the Chinese market, including Chinese elements in their films to maximize box office appeal.
Moreover, Chinese entertainment platforms like TikTok and Tencent Music have gained a massive global following, showcasing China’s impact on the digital and entertainment spheres.
The global popularity of the Chinese language, Mandarin, has surged in recent years. Many countries now include Chinese language programs in their educational institutions, recognizing the importance of Chinese proficiency in a globalized world. Chinese students also contribute significantly to international education. Chinese nationals studying abroad, especially in Western countries, have become a vital source of revenue for universities and an avenue for cultural exchange.
Chinese pop culture, including music, television dramas, and celebrity idols, has gained a growing global following. K-pop-style idol groups have emerged in China, and Chinese films and television shows have attracted international audiences through streaming platforms like Netflix. The success of Chinese blockbusters like “Wolf Warrior 2” and “The Wandering Earth” demonstrates China’s ability to produce content with international appeal.
While China’s rise has brought about many opportunities, it also presents various challenges to the contemporary world. These challenges encompass issues related to human rights, environmental impact, and global governance. China’s human rights record has come under scrutiny, particularly concerning issues like freedom of speech, religious freedom, and treatment of ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs.
The international community has condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang, where reports of mass detentions and forced labor have raised alarm.
The 2019 Hong Kong protests and the subsequent imposition of a National Security Law have also drawn criticism for limiting democratic freedoms in the territory. China’s rapid industrialization has had severe environmental consequences, including air and water pollution, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. As the world’s largest carbon emitter, China’s commitment to combatting climate change is crucial to global efforts to address this pressing issue.
China has made strides in renewable energy development, such as solar and wind power, and has set ambitious targets to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. China’s growing influence in international organizations challenges the traditional power dynamics of global governance. Questions arise about how China’s priorities align with those of Western democracies and whether it seeks to reshape global institutions to its advantage. The rivalry between China and the United States in forums like the United Nations Security Council and the World Trade Organization underscores the complexity of this issue. China’s technological advancements have led to competition with the United States and other Western countries. Concerns about the security of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment, such as Huawei’s 5G technology, have prompted governments to make decisions about its inclusion in their networks.
The race for technological dominance in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and space exploration has geopolitical implications and may shape the balance of power in the contemporary world. China’s efforts to build strategic alliances with countries worldwide have led to shifts in global geopolitics. Its deepening relationships with Russia, Iran, and other nations challenge the traditional alliances led by the United States. The rivalry between the United States and China, often called a “new Cold War,” has led to a more multipolar world order, with countries aligning themselves based on their economic and security interests.
As we continue to explore China’s role in the contemporary world, it becomes evident that its influence spans a wide spectrum of economic, political, cultural, and global challenges. China’s economic ascendancy, driven by its manufacturing, technology, and financial power, has reshaped global trade and finance. Its political influence, diplomatic initiatives, and assertive foreign policy have challenged traditional power structures. China’s cultural exports have left an indelible mark on global culture, and its global challenges, including human rights issues and environmental impact, present complex ethical and policy dilemmas. The rivalry between China and the United States, along with China’s efforts to build strategic alliances, has transformed the geopolitical landscape.
Ph.D. completed at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa (SSSUP)