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China is on the rise – but could it be a 21st Century empire?

Author and journalist Toh Han Shih talked about whether China can be an empire in the 21st Century

Author and journalist Toh Han Shih talked about whether China can be an empire in the 21st Century

China’s rise as a world leader in the 21st Century has mirrored that of the British imperialists in the 19th Century – but whether it can become an empire itself is still open to question, according to the author of a book on the subject.

Writer and journalist Toh Han Shih, guest speaker at the January 16 club lunch, drew comparisons with Britain as he posed the question of whether China, through its large and growing investment and trade with the rest of the world, can emerge as an empire in the 21st Century.

With industrialisation at its core, the former SCMP journalist said China’s march toward domination of the infrastructures of some of the world’s richest – and poorest – countries was unquestionable, but conceded that it could only take America’s position as superpower after the U.S. itself redraws the framework.

Quoting from his book, Is China An Empire?, Toh Han Shih mapped the way in which China had poured billions of dollars into overseas investments by building railways, buying up property, the high spending of its wealthy tourists, investment in financial institutions, and the placing of its companies at the centre of the world’s leading industries. It has now overtaken the U.S. as the biggest buyer of assets in the world.

“Chinese companies are well-placed to invest in the U.S. infrastructure,” he said, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would inject $1 trillion into the country’s infrastructure over a 10-year period.

China denies it intends to become an empire, and according to Toh Han Shih, although there is no cohesive policy behind its rise, its ‘ultimate ulterior motive is to keep the 1 billion Chinese people stable’. Yet it pledges to stand at the forefront of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, he said, which would benefit everyone in the country, down to farmers in rural China.

He pointed out that the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – the Chinese-led global financial institution of which 100 countries are now members – had attracted the United Kingdom as one of its first members, a feat that had left the U.S. appearing weak.

Toh Han Shih also drew parallels with Vladimir Lenin’s 1916 book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin summised that new imperialism was an economic phenomenon and to define it one needed to accept five essential features including monopolisation, the merging of banking and industry, and the export of capital. Toh Han Shih said China was already meeting the criteria.