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The superpower that is China

I grew up with America as the dream. However, in the past two decades, China has become the second world superpower, whether the Americans like it or not. This is not me having a love thing for China. It’s just a fact.

The Americans don’t like it. Google China as a superpower and most US media write along the lines of “China lacks the political, economic and civil freedoms to become a world leader”. Hmmm. In fact, I remember presenting at an American banking conference in 2006, saying that all the biggest banks of the world will soon be Chinese. The audience gave me massively negative ratings but, ten years later, I’m right. The U.S. markets just don’t want to admit when they’re being beaten.

Read a more neutral discussion, such as the Indian magazine Swarajya , and you get a very different view:

America is still the world’s biggest economic and military superpower by far, but its geographic isolation means this power cannot rise any more. Its power will last if the Chinese still think the American market is important for its own growth – and that could last for another decade or so. Once its new Belt and Road Initiative starts taking off, the economic centre of the world will even more decisively turn towards Asia.

Perhaps the most neutral observation came from The Atlantic, after the recent G20 meetings:

Remarkably—and, unthinkably, as recently as one year ago—today China seems to be the world’s most likeable superpower. Compare Donald Trump’s recent visit to Europe with that of Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-in-command. Li, who landed in Berlin on Wednesday, hoped to use his three-day trip, with stops in Germany and Belgium, to “voice support for an open economy, free trade and investment [and] global regional peace and stability,” according to China’s state news wire Xinhua. Trump, on the other hand, failed to support NATO, decried Germany as “very bad” for its trade policies, and even seemingly pushed aside Montenegro’s prime minister to barrel his way to the front of a group photo. On Thursday, Li reaffirmed China’s support for the Paris Agreement, stating that there is an “international responsibility” to fight climate change. Later on Thursday, Trump announced the United States would exit the landmark climate-change treaty. In that speech, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to his “America First,” policy, while Li, in his meetings and speeches in Europe, successfully painted China as a liberal, responsible, globalist power.

What seems obvious to me is that some of us have a distrust of China, and other nations, due to historical stereotyping. We think Chinese are communists, who abuse basic human rights. So, some media would have you believe, but I’ve been intrigued over the past decade specifically, to see the rise of a nation through technology that is becoming more equitable. Maybe I’m naïve but feel that, if current trends continue, we will all be viewing China, Chinese culture and Chinese business as the dream in ten to twenty years, replacing the American dream with the Chinese one.

Blasphemy, some may say, but you have to only look to history to see how China’s grip on the planet’s culture has risen and fallen and is now on the rise again.

Growing up, for example, I was educated with strong knowledge about Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations. I was taught nothing of one of the oldest cultures in the world where paper, writing, the compass, alcohol, silk, porcelain and more were all invented by the Chinese.

Why? Because of our Western bias. In fact, it’s been interesting to see a variety of discussions over the past months of the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. If you’re not familiar:

The initiative was officially launched in September 2013 when President Xi used a speech at a university in Kazakhstan to call for the creation of a “Silk Road Economic Belt”. The project was later expanded and re-branded with its current name …

The Belt and Road initiative is an immensely ambitious development campaign through which China wants to boost trade and stimulate economic growth across Asia and beyond. It hopes to do so by building massive amounts of infrastructure connecting it to countries around the globe. By some estimates, China plans to pump $150bn into such projects each year. In a report released at the start of this year, ratings agency Fitch said an extraordinary $900bn in projects were planned or underway. 

There are plans for pipelines and a port in Pakistan, bridges in Bangladesh and railways to Russia – all with the aim of creating what China calls a “modern Silk Road” trading route that Beijing believes will kick start “a new era of globalisation”.

Phenomenal.

Whilst America is rejecting globalisation and creating friction with Russia, continuing the enforcement of sanctions much to Putin’s annoyance, and China, who Trump tweets aren’t helping to stop that irritating little country called North Korea from testing bombs that could reach the USA … China is going the opposite direction and courting Europe, Africa, Russia and other nations to co-operate in building the next unique future world.

Meantime, as many of you know, Ant Financial and Alibaba are a poster child of Chinese entrepreneurialism and are leading the way in building global partnerships for trade. Between Alipay and WeChat Pay, China will be one of the first and largest nations to be cashless. Estimates are that China’s first tier cities will be fully cashless by 2022, whilst the rest of the country will follow within around ten years. Already, WeChat and Alipay users are transacting trillions of dollars through their mobile wallets – USD$5.5 trillion in 2016 to be exact – which makes America’s paltry USD$112 billion in mobile payments look archaic.

A cashless China will be an amazing achievement for a nation with near 1.4 billion people. It is also phenomenal as China was the first nation to use cash – they invented it – and now it is one of the first nations to get rid of cash. Paper notes as payment have been used in China since the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century A.D., and has been a consistent form of payment ever since. By comparison, the first paper notes as a value store used elsewhere in the world didn’t appear until the 1600s, almost a thousand years after China.

All in all, China’s transformation from a nation that demanded bank tellers take a proficiency test in using an Abacus twenty years ago to the cashless nation we see today is a phenomenon, and I firmly believe that the leadership economically and commercially will impact all of us in our day-to-day dealings within another decade.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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