Has China developed into a ‘hybrid superpower?’

The status of the world’s second-largest economy has long been disputed by Beijing and Washington 

Whether China is a developing or developed nation has long been a source of debate. It has been widely discussed by academics since the country became the world’s second-largest economy and a global manufacturing powerhouse.

At the BRICS summit, of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, in Johannesburg last week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said:

China has been and will always remain a member of [the] developing countries.

Yet in Washington, lawmakers in the US Congress have introduced legislation requiring the American administration to use its influence in international organizations to strip China of its status as a developing nation.

The debate may sound academic, but it has real-world implications. 

The benefits that come with the developing nation label include preferential tariff treatment from developed countries, making their exports more competitive in international markets. 

Development status

China also uses its developing status to justify subsidies to industries such as fishing and tech, even when many are effectively state-owned and have a global impact.

The development status of a nation is determined in different ways by different international organizations. The World Trade Organization, for example, allows countries to self-identify as “developing” or “developed.”

Other international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund employ a variety of metrics to measure a country’s standard of living.

They use indicators such as average national income per person, gross national income or GNI per capita, life expectancy, and education measures.

China has become a rich nation. Photo: Shutterstock

Weifeng Zhong, a senior research fellow at George Mason’s Mercatus Institute, told Voice of America that those are different ways of trying to measure the same thing. He said:

I think it comes down to, on a per capita level – meaning per person – how high the income is, so when the national income per person in a country is high enough, we think of them as [a] developed country rather than [a] developing country.

Beijing classifies itself as a “developing” country in the WTO. Still, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program classify China as an “upper middle income” country, while the IMF calls it an “emerging and developing economy.

Analysts say China is unique in ways that make it defy easy classification.

“You have a country that has many of the traits of a developing nation and has historically qualified as one and technically in many ways still qualifies as one,” Philippe Benoit, a director of research at Global Infrastructure Analytics and Sustainability 2050, told VOA.

Energy demand

“But it has also many of the attributes of a rich advanced economy and in some ways a massive rich advanced economy,” he said.

China also defies classification on another commonly used indicator – energy consumption. 

“For structural reasons, energy demand, energy use in China is going to increase for a number of years until they achieve a level of development, a level of income per capita that allows them to flatten that,” Benoit said.

China’s burgeoning energy needs have spurred the state to seek resources in poorer developing countries.

But it often behaves like a developed nation internationally, some analysts say. Many developing nations, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia, rely on China for development assistance and infrastructure funding.

China is still battling an internal war against poverty. Photo: File

Benoit has called China a “hybrid superpower.” 

He said its projection approximates that of a traditional superpower and it displays developed country traits such as its major investments in tech and high-speed rail. It also has highly developed cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

But he also added that China has developing country traits, such as the persistence of poverty in many areas of the country. 

In 2019, the International Energy Agency or IEA found more than 35% of the population in China still lacked clean cooking technology and relied on highly polluting fuels such as coal. Benoit explained:

What we mean when we say developing is a country that faces significant poverty issues – where there’s inadequate access to water, sanitation, transport, [and] education – countries where the standards of living are basically, as a general proposition, unacceptably low.

Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and associate at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told VOA the developing nation classification no longer matches economic realities.

Unfair advantages

He pointed to China’s reduction of extreme poverty and its status as the second-largest economy and the world’s largest manufacturer.

“Many Chinese people acknowledge ‘it makes no sense to treat us as a developing country,’ and they will acknowledge that it undermines both the interests of the developing world and gives them unfair advantages in the American domestic economy,” Ross said.

The question of China’s development status has added to Washington and Beijing’s strained relationship. 

In March, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill called the PRC Is Not a Developing Country Act. On June 8, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee also approved the bill, now retitled the Ending China’s Developing Nation Status Act

China and the US are locked in a tech showdown. Photo: Social media / File

It calls on the State Department to “take actions to stop China from being classified as a developing nation by international organizations.” 

No date has been set for the full Senate to vote on the bill.

In response to the Foreign Relations Committee’s approval of the act, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused the US of attempting to sabotage the country’s development. He said:

China’s status as the world’s largest developing country is rooted in facts and international law. It’s not something that can easily be wiped away by a US Congressional bill.

“It’s not up to the US to decide whether China is a developing country,” Wang said at a June 9 press conference.

Trade war

Academic Ross believes China’s development status “is not a very important question,” but rather a political issue between two competing superpowers.

“China is resisting American efforts to improve American competitiveness against China, and so with that, the United States has a trade war and a tech war to undermine China’s economic development and its technological development,” he said.

“For China’s part, it’s going to use every instrument available to improve its own position,” Ross added.

With many developing nations benefiting from Chinese investments and trade, Ross said these countries are unlikely to endorse efforts by Washington to change China’s development status, especially since they see this issue as a political war of words between the two superpowers.

Graham Kanwit is a correspondent for Voice of America based in Taiwan.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.