Discuss as:

China grapples with new world role

BEIJING – As President Hu Jintao heads for the G-20 Summit in London to tackle the global financial crisis, Chinese media is abuzz with clashing views about how the Middle Kingdom should manage its increasingly central role in world affairs.

With their economy still expanding and banks still awash with cash – and the government holding $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves, more than half of which is invested in debt that supports the United States – the Chinese are generally taking pride in their unprecedented new clout in world affairs.

Image: The book,
Sarah Jiang / NBC News
The new book stirring up nationalist sentiments in China: "Unhappy China – The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges."

"Superior system advantage" is how Chinese central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan explains China's relative strength. He recently called for an end to the dominance of the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency, prompting concerns about China's assertive economic nationalism.

And nationalism is proving to be the sensitive issue that both Chinese leaders and the public have to grapple with as they try to define the nation's new "great power" status.

'China is unhappy'

The latest salvo on the nationalism debate was fired by a group of scholars who argue in a best-selling new book that the current financial crisis is proof of the corruption of the world capitalist system led by the United States – and that it's time for China to take the lead.

The group put out a collection of essays called "Unhappy China – The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges" in order to "spur, stimulate and wake up" China's intellectuals.

The book declares: "With Chinese national strength growing at an unprecedented rate, China should stop self-debasing and come to recognize that it has the power to lead the world, and the necessity to break away from Western influence. We are most qualified to lead this world; Westerners should be second."

Conceived by the authors last October as the global financial crisis began to sweep America and the world, the book was published in early March and is selling for $4.40 a copy. Its first printing sold out and the second printing of 270,000 is reportedly selling fast as well.

No to 'Chimerica'

According to Huang Jisu, one of the book's authors and a sociologist, the idea is for China to take the lead in reforming the world and not to be the new leader of the old system.

"In that sense, we also reject the idea of 'Chimerica' or  China and America jointly leading the world, if it means China merely sharing in the spoils of the current global system," Huang said, dismissing recent suggestions by analysts that the success of the G-20 Summit will hinge on G2, the partnership between the United States and China.

"We are for changing the world system, not for China becoming the new hegemon or new Big Brother of the world," he said.

The book itself has faced a barrage of criticism from bloggers and academics, who accuse the authors of cashing in on "extreme nationalism" that is embarrassing and unconstructive.

"Actually, much of the criticism is based on misunderstanding," said Huang, citing one survey by Sina.com, a popular Chinese web site, showing that a majority of Chinese support the main points of the book.

While the book's thesis contradicts China's official diplomacy that seeks cooperation and not contention in tackling the global crisis, Huang said they have not encountered any government interference or criticism. "In that sense, we have room for freedom of expression in China," he said.

China 'not ready to lead'

But one critic of the book, Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, called its publication a sign of the "ideological chaos" in China.

"Extreme nationalism is not the answer, and China is not ready to lead," declared Hu, while acknowledging the authors' right to express their opinion.

"As for Chimerica, China cannot possibly exercise leadership shoulder to shoulder with the United States simply because China is not qualified," he said, arguing that China's "soft power" is far from adequate.

"China's value systems – its ideological, political and cultural systems – are not yet part of the global mainstream," he explained.

Hu dismissed China's prosperity as deceptive. "Essentially, we remain as the peasant laborer of the world, relying on cheap labor and cheap products."

He likened the current situation to the 1930's Great Depression when Stalin's Soviet Union seemed to have the upper hand over the ailing Western economies. "I hope China will learn the lesson and not take the road taken by Stalin," he said.

"Only by undertaking political reform and democracy can China qualify to lead the world, and also avert domestic crisis and insure long-term prosperity," he said.