The Big Question: How should we deal with the emergence of China as a superpower?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

This week, China executed a 53-year-old Briton, Akmal Shaikh, for bringing four kilos of heroin into the country in 2007. His family and supporters say he was mentally ill, suffering from bipolar disorder, and duped into carrying the drugs by the mafia in Tajikistan. Gordon Brown's Government called in Chinese ambassador Fu Ying, who many see as a future foreign minister for a "full and frank discussion", which is diplomats' speak for reading the riot act. The Prime Minister said he was appalled by the decision to execute Mr Shaikh without a medical test.

The Chinese said he received a fair trial and that there was no evidence pointing to his mental instability, and basically Beijing told the British Government to back off. Beijing's decision to brush off calls for clemency is the latest sign of China flexing its new diplomatic and political muscle, after the jailing for 11 years of top dissident Liu Xiaobo on Christmas Day and by its tough line on negotiations at the Copenhagen climate change talks, which some critics say had blocked a deal bringing deeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing is still furious about climate secretary Ed Miliband's accusations post-Copenhagen that China tried to hijack the UN climate summit and "hold the world to ransom" to prevent a deal.

So, what's new about Beijing's reaction?

China's decision to fly in the face of British, but more broadly, Western opinion, and to brush off Britain's appeals at a highest level for mercy for one of its subjects about to be executed is being seen as a sign of growing Chinese confidence in its international standing. The tough language from both sides suggests that this could be the first stage in a bitter diplomatic row and the case is unlikely to help China's image in Britain, but China seems quite happy to handle the fallout. The global financial crisis has been less keenly felt in China, where people have high savings rates and did not get wiped out by the credit crunch, the banking crisis and the property bubble that hit the rest of the world. The economy continues to expand by around eight per cent a year. China is now viewed as a kind of saviour for the global financial system, a major responsibility that it is keen to match with greater influence on the international stage.

How did China suddenly become a superpower?

In the last two months, President Barack Obama and various EU leaders have come to China and gone away with empty hands after calling on China to stop manipulating its currency and to give ground on trade issues. After years of talking about China's emerging status as a global player, the world's most populous nation has taken its place at the top table.

China's injection of four trillion yuan (£370 billion) into the domestic economy is a powerful argument for staying on its good side. The stimulus plan has kept its economic boom simmering, and helped to shore up the losses that countries in the West, including Britain, were facing because of the credit crunch. According to some reports, data early in 2010 will show that China has replaced Germany as the world's largest exporter and also usurped Japan as the world's second-largest economy during 2009.

The country's exports were the bedrock of China's massive growth, and although full-year exports fell 16.5 per cent year-on-year, the pace of decline in exports is slower than in other big exporting nations, which means China has a bigger slice of the global pie. It accounts for around nine per cent of all world exports. This year China also replaced the United States as the world's biggest car market. And commentators agree that this is only the beginning.

What do the Chinese think of their emergence?

In China, the outrage about the country's role in Copenhagen, plus British ire at the execution of a drug smuggler, could also cause further resentment against the West in China, where many people resent what they see as interference into its business, and extreme nationalists have latched on to the case as a way of showing China is becoming a strong international player that will be dictated to by no one.

Chinese people are hugely proud of their country's emergence from being an economic and political backwater into a powerful country with considerable economic influence. This was obvious in the response to Gordon Brown's angry condemnation of Mr Shaikh's execution.

"Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty. We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations," was how foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu put it.

Any historical parallels?

Chinese people are constantly reminded of past injustices against the country during the Qing dynasty. People on the street and on the websites made frequent reference to the two Opium Wars of the 19th century, where Britain forced China to accept both the opium trade and a number of territorial concessions, including ceding Hong Kong to Britain, which remain a source of humiliation in China today.

On the streets of Beijing, people were fully supportive of the execution. "Foreigners in China have enjoyed special treatment in various ways. If we offered him a special punishment or treatment, it would be unfair to our Chinese citizens, since if a Chinese did such thing, he or she would be sentenced to death without doubt. I hope Britain respects Chinese justice," said Apple Ye, 26, who works for a state-owned enterprise and preferred to use her English name. For Ms Ye, this was a simple criminal case and justice had been served. A Beijing netizen named Priest said that Mr Shaikh deserved to die. "Who asked him to bring drugs into China. We must set an example! China's century of humiliation began from drugs. Anyone bringing drugs to China apparently shows that he or she does not want to live. So we should let them accomplish their will!"

What line has Britain taken with China in recent years?

Britain is China's third-largest trade partner in Europe, with total trade of £28bn in 2008, and the Government has taken a generally conciliatory approach in its dealings with China – not overstating its anger on civil rights issues and even conceding important ground on issues such as Tibet – in November 2008, Britain shifted from recognising Chinese suzerainty over Tibet to recognising Chinese sovereignty. However, the Shaikh case seems to indicate that the payback appears to have been minimal.

Are we right to fear China's new-found global status?


* Not giving Britain any "face", an important principle in Asia, on Mr Shaikh's execution, is worrying

* There is a rising tide of nationalism in China, which bodes ill given that it is not a democracy

* China's military budget and trading influence is rising; other regional powers, such as Japan, are flagging


* The boom of the last 10 years is owed to Chinese workers and we need China's industrial strength

* China is a powerful representative for the developing world, and a counterweight to American hegemony

* Chinese people kept their money safe rather than blow it on property. Although a bit of a bubble is looming