China’s rapid growth since reform and opening-up in 1978 has drawn worldwide attention, yet predictions about the country’s future vary greatly

While some observers predicted that China would follow the former Soviet Union’s path in five years, optimists have spoken louder and clearer.

In his recent work,China’s Megatrends: the Eight Pillars of a New Society, well-known US futurist John Naisbit predicted that the country would evolve into the world’s center by 2050 and challenge Western democracy with its development mode. British scholar Martin Jacques has gone a step further in his book When China Rules the World. He declares the inevitability of China’s ascendancy and the West’s simultaneous decline, thus announcing a nascent superpower in the making.

While I agrees with Mr. Jacques on many points but denies his exaggerations. China is indeed rising, but it is not blooming into a superpower that will rule the world.

Although China skyrocketed into the world’s second largest economy in the second quarter of 2010, overtaking Britain, Germany and Japan – ahead of schedule, will China replace the United States, as well? It’s not likely in the foreseeable future.

First, relying on a linear curve of development to forecast the future is unreliable.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics knows that a straight line cannot remain so forever. The further the line extends to the right, the more uncertain the result. Take Japan for example. Before the bubble burst in the early 1990s, the Japanese economy was extraordinarily robust. It was the vogue for international observers to predict when Japan would overtake America as the world’s number one economy. Then in the beginning of 1990, severe depression hit the country. The US subprime debt crisis tells the same story. It is inherently risky, therefore, to bet on long-term future.

A second point at issue is the missing link of per capita GDP when measuring Chinese national strength. It’s ridiculous to judge whether the world’s most populous country qualifies as a developed economy by looking solely at total GDP rather than evaluating per capita figures, economic structure and results of industrial performance. Total volume of GDP is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to join the ranks of great powers.

The Chinese leadership is keenly aware of this harsh reality. Premier Wen Jiabao has stressed time and again that no matter how impressive China’s economic indicators may appear, divided by 1.3 billion,the meager result reveals the true story. Ma Jiangtang, Director of the National Statistics Bureau, told the press early this year that despite its high economic ranking in the world, China is still a developing nation, lagging behind a hundred countries in per capita GDP, with the daily income of 150 million people below the UN poverty line.

In fact, the absolute value of a country’s military budget would be a better criterion than GDP for measuring national strength. Here, China pales into insignificance beside the United States. In an interview last March, Major General Luo Yuan from the Academy of Military Science pointed out that “America has all along been accusing China of excessive rapid increase of military spending, but its own military budget for the 2012 fiscal year hits $708 billion, ten times China’s figure, which stands at $70 billion.” China can only be considered a comparatively backward country in terms of per capita GDP, not a great power or even a medium developed nation, and certainly nowhere near a superpower.

What’s more, China’s rapid development over the past three decades has come largely at the expense of natural resources, a course which is simply unsustainable.

Chinese officials have admitted that alarming destruction of the eco-system caused the severe mud slide in Zhouqu county, in Northwest China’s Qinghai province in August, 2009. From 1952 to 1990, the county lost 100 thousand square meters of forest annually through deforestation. Indeed, Zhouqu epitomizes the whole country with its overgrazing and excessive mining. Moreover, China has derived international competitiveness from cheap labor of rural migrants, another unsustainable situation.

Finally, apart from evaluating hard indicators like GDP to qualify as a rising power, we need to look at soft indicators, as well.

While living standards have risen remarkably since the reform in 1978, parallel enhancement of values and social morals has stalled. If anything, there is degeneration. Money worship prevails, fuelled by insufficient education. Nepotism is rampant, with a weak legal consciousness among the public. Social security is weakening and integrity is severely in short supply. Can a country with an impressive GDP that is devoid of soft power be called a superpower?

As a Chinese citizen, I naturally feels proud of China’s remarkable achievements and the sharp rise in comprehensive national strength and living standards over the past three decades. But we should not be carried away by self-complacency and view things with the distorted mindset of an upstart. Keeping a low profile – the guiding sprit put forward by Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s reform and opening-up policy – should be our guiding principle now and for many decades to come.

This is an abridged version of the original article, which was first published in the academic journalContemporary International Relations (Volume 21 Number 1 Jan./Feb. 2011). The author is an editor of the journal.

– Liu Liping