By the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049, the country wants to be the leading industrial nation. How far is the road for Beijing? A reality check.
2021 will be one of the most important years of the century for China. These days marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And on the occasion of this anniversary, the political leadership has set itself a “goal of the century”. It foresaw the doubling of the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita compared to 2010. If you look at the numbers, you will see that China’s GDP per capita has actually more than doubled (US $ 10,500) since 2010 (US $ 4,550).
But that is only the first of two Chinese “goals of the century”. The second is to be achieved in 2049, when the founding of the People’s Republic will be 100 years old. Until then, China wants to be a “modern socialist country” and the “leading industrial nation”. In other words: Beijing wants Washington to be dethroned as a superpower by 2049.
How far is China still from the USA? t-online does the reality check in the categories of economy, military, space research, science and technology and soft power.
Business: The USA had a gross domestic product (GDP) of around 20.9 trillion US dollars in 2020. China, on the other hand, achieved a GDP of around 14.7 trillion US dollars – about 70 percent of the US value. In 2018, before Corona, China was only around 67 percent of the US value.
The pandemic has accelerated what was already underway: the economic weights are shifting. China has recovered from the disease faster than most other countries. The People’s Republic was the only major economy that recorded growth in the 2020 pandemic. Corona as a catalyst.
Pandemic accelerates development
It is foreseeable that the People’s Republic will become the largest economy in the world. Here, too, the predictions have shifted since the pandemic. There are now economists who assume that Beijing will overtake the United States in terms of GDP by the end of this decade. Most economists previously agreed that this would happen in the next decade at the earliest. However, it must be remembered that the Chinese population (1.4 billion people) is more than four times the size of the US population (330 million people). Against this background, China’s rise to become the world’s largest economy is less of a milestone – more of a normality.
Many economists therefore prefer to look at GDP per capita, a measure of a country’s material prosperity. This value shows that China has almost forty-fold its GDP per capita since 1980. But in 2020, at $ 10,582, it was still only one-sixth of the US value ($ 63,000). Many economists assume that America’s lead in terms of prosperity will not change in the next 50 years.
Another figure that shows that the US is wealthier than China is the number of billionaires. According to a count by the US magazine “Forbes”, there were 614 billionaires in the US last year. In China – including Hong Kong – there were 455.
Military: According to a current ranking by the data website Global Firepower, the USA is the strongest military power in the world. China comes in third after Russia.
According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute Sipri, the US has the world’s largest military budget. Washington spent 778 billion US dollars on the military in 2020 – an increase of 4.4 percent compared to the previous year, but a decrease of ten percent compared to 2011.
China is therefore the country with the second largest military budget – but it is a little more difficult to estimate the exact size. In 2019, Beijing said it spent around $ 183 billion on the military. Sipri estimates, however, that the military budget is almost 40 percent larger due to the large number of hidden items. For 2019, Sipri puts the Chinese military budget at 240 billion US dollars and for 2020 at 252 billion US dollars.
Disarmament versus armament
Both Washington and Beijing are nuclear powers. However, the forces are very unevenly distributed here. According to Sipri, the US has around 5,550 nuclear warheads, while China only has 350.
Chinese soldiers: while the US is reducing its military budget, China is arming. (Source: imago images)
But the trend is: the US is on the path of disarmament in terms of the military budget and the number of nuclear warheads. This trend becomes particularly clear when one considers that Washington was still in an arms race with the Soviet Union until the 1980s.
China, on the other hand, is on the path of armament. The Chinese military budget has been growing for almost three decades. And only recently, US satellite imagery raised concerns that the Chinese nuclear arsenal could be larger than previously thought.
Space exploration: Only recently did China hit the headlines. In May, the country landed on Mars for the first time in a rover. For a moment it seemed as if the People’s Republic was also rising to become the leading space power. However, a NASA rover only landed on the Red Planet in February. And finally the headlines were dominated by Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – and by the US billionaires’ race into space.
In fact, the weights are shifting in space too. China plans to complete the construction of its CSS space station by the end of next year. If the International Space Station ceases operations around 2024, as currently planned, China could be the only nation which is permanently represented in space. But: this is still hypothetical. It could also turn out differently.
SpaceX could reverse trend
Because the budget of NASA in 2020 was around 22.6 billion US dollars, almost twice as much as that of the Chinese space agency (around 11 billion US dollars). In addition, there is a private player in the USA with the company SpaceX who stirs up the industry. The company founded in 2002 by the South African Elon Musk was initially laughed at. But since 2020 SpaceX has been performing manned space flights for NASA to the ISS. Starting this year, it also wants to send private individuals into space. In short: SpaceX is now one of the best space research organizations in the world.
A SpaceX rocket delivers supplies to the international space station ISS: Elon Musk’s company is now a fixture in space research. (Archive Photo) (Source: Joe Marino)
Science and Technology: Patents are an important driver of scientific and technological progress. And the property rights for inventions are an area in which China is rapidly catching up – and has already trumped the USA. The Middle Kingdom registered more than 68,000 patents in 2020, while the USA only registered a little more than 59,000.
The trend reversal began in 2019, when China overtook the USA as the leading patent power in the ranking of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for the first time. Before that, the US had topped the list without interruption since 1978. But between 1999 and 2019, China increased its patent applications twenty-fold.
Quantity versus quality
However, quantity is not necessarily to be equated with quality. So comes one Study by the Bertelsmann Foundation from 2020 to the conclusion that the US is still the undisputed “patent superpower”. The USA has the most patents in 50 of 58 cutting-edge technologies.
Despite its numerous patents, China only ranks 14th in WIPO’s Global Innovation Index 2020 – behind Israel, but ahead of Ireland. The USA, on the other hand, occupy third place after Switzerland and Sweden.
Another indicator of the state of science and technology, which looks to the past and not to the future, is the number of Nobel Prizes a country has received. There is a class difference here. The US had received 375 Nobel Prizes by 2021, while China had only eight.
Soft power: Ultimately, however, it is not just the economic and military strength of a country that gives it the power to assert itself. Soft power, i.e. cultural attractiveness, can also be used as a means of exercising power. The US political scientist Joseph Nye is considered to be the originator of the term. In 1990 he distinguished soft power from hard power.
All that makes a country attractive in the eyes of other nations can be subsumed under soft power: A free press and cultural landscape, a flourishing film scene, international stars, but also a government policy that is seen as legitimate, fair or even humane.
Study come to different conclusions
Measuring soft power is, of course, not an objective endeavor. Which properties are rated how makes a big difference. The Soft Power 30 ranking, which measures 30 countries according to their soft power, saw the USA as the third strongest soft power nation globally in 2019. China landed behind in 27th place.
The Global Soft Power Index ranking interprets the difference significantly less. In a ranking from 2021, the USA is in sixth place – and China is already in eighth place.
The Walk of Fame in Hollywood: The US is way ahead of China in the entertainment and film industries. (Archive photo) (Source: imago images)
The strength of the USA are internationally known Hollywood films and globally revered music and sports stars. On the other hand, Washington – especially in the Muslim world – is also seen as a military aggressor.
China, on the other hand, has almost no international stars to offer. Another limiting factor for Chinese soft power is that the CCP interferes in all areas of life – including film and music production.