2008: The year a new superpower is born

Here comes the world's newest superpower. The rest of the world is gloomily contemplating economic slowdown and even recession. Not in Beijing. China is set to make 2008 the year it asserts its status as a global colossus by flexing frightening economic muscle on international markets, enjoying unprecedented levels of domestic consumption and showcasing itself to a watching world with a glittering £20bn Olympic Games.

The world's most populous nation will mark the next 12 months with a coming-of-age party that will confirm its transformation in three decades from one of the poorest countries of the 20th century into the globe's third-largest economy, its hungriest (and most polluting) consumer and the engine room of economic growth.

Once regarded at best as a sporting also-ran, China is widely tipped to top the medals table in the Beijing Olympics in August, an event in which the country's leadership is investing huge importance and prestige.

It will be a celebration viewed with consternation by many, as China's authoritarian regime shows little sign of relaxing its grip on power and continues to expand its influence overseas from the oil fields and metal mines of Africa to the City of London. Appropriately, 2008 marks the Year of the Rat, an animal considered in Chinese folklore to be a harbinger and protector of material prosperity.

Britain will feel the full power of the new superpower's confidence. This month, for the first time, China's state-controlled banks will begin spending some of its $1.33trn (£670bn) in foreign currency reserves on London's financial markets. Beijing has ruled that Britain should become only the second destination after Hong Kong to be allowed to receive investors' money via so-called "sovereign funds" the huge state-controlled surpluses built up by cash-rich economies from Qatar to South Korea. Throw in the biggest round of Chinese art exhibitions ever to tour these islands and the oriental bias to 2008 becomes even more pronounced.

The UK has made it clear that Beijing's investment, which could reach as much as £45bn, is welcome and it follows the recent acquisition by Chinese banks of stakes in such blue chip stocks as Barclays and the US private equity firm Blackstone, at a cost of $3bn. The talk in the finance houses is that the label "Made in China" will soon be replaced by one reading "Owned by China". Takeover speculation has provoked concern in some quarters at the wisdom of selling large assets to organs of a democratically unaccountable state where the financial sector remains underdeveloped.

China's trade surplus with the rest of the world will widen from £130bn in 2007 to £145bn this year as it tries to tame its burgeoning economy amid pressure from Washington and Brussels to narrow the trade gap and raise its currency's value.

Stephen Perry, chairman of the 48 Group Club, a Sino-British business network, said: "China has become an international player much more quickly than it would have wanted to do, in part to meet its need for natural resources. But I don't think China has any intention of taking on American power. The West is important to China in this stage of its development as it seeks inward investment. But that is beginning to be much less important and it is looking more to the development of a strong Asia, in which it is one of the strongest players because of its enormous consumer base."

But while some may question Beijing's political motives, there is no doubt that China has arrived as serious power-broker. Last year, it surpassed America as the greatest driver of global economic demand. It is also widely predicted to overtake Germany as the world's third largest economy this year.

While nearly all of its success since Premier Deng Xiaoping began China's economic transformation in 1978 has been driven by producing goods for the outside world, the country has a burgeoning urban middle-class whose insatiable appetite for consumer durables is hoped to put the economy on a more stable footing. One London-based luxury markets analyst said: "The Chinese are waking up to quality brands in a way that is quite exciting. There is a real sense that what the West once kept to itself is now available to them, or at least the urban few who can afford it."

The arrival of conspicuous consumption and entry of Shanghai's sovereign funds into foreign investment markets, with London soon expected to be followed by the US, is symptomatic of a China increasingly willing to assert itself as a political and cultural influence, according to experts.

From global warming to Darfur and North Korea, the views of Beijing and its willingness to act have become prerequisites to any solution to the world's most pressing problems.

The Chinese New Year on 7 February will herald the beginning of the largest-ever festival of China's culture in Britain with an accent on contemporary artists in fields from video art to neon signs. But others warn 2008 has as much potential to be a disaster as a triumph for Beijing's attempts to herald its own arrival on the world stage. The Chinese capital will host 31,000 journalists for the Olympics and any sign of protest or an attempt to quell dissent with violence would be catastrophic.

The drum beat of protectionism is already sounding in America and will only get louder in a presidential election year, putting pressure on both Republican and Democratic candidates to take a "strong" stance on China. In the meantime, Beijing will have to grapple with issues from rising inflation to Taiwan, which holds presidential elections in March, to its status as the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and likely role as the largest consumer of primary energy resources.

Dr Kerry Brown, associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said: "There are good reasons to feel pretty uncomfortable about 2008 for China. The world will be rightly watching China in August for the Olympics. But it will only take one truncheon blow to turn it away from a story about sport to one about repression."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect