People’s Palace, Beijing, 12th December 2018, past 16:00, the Emperor of XXI Century China makes his entrance to meet a group of former Heads of State from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
We stood on prearranged spots for the official photo after which we proceeded to an adjacent room for the meeting. We had been asked pls do not take photos during the meeting, a very reasonable request. Would elderly leaders behave like tourists click their digital devices in a solemn setting? Much to my surprise I counted three former Presidents who didn’t resist the temptation to pull their cell phones and began filming.
I use the expression “Emperor Xi Jinping” without for a moment meaning it to be pejorative. The Chinese President is certainly not elected via way of an American style election campaign, but he is carefully scrutinised, selected and accountable to his peers in the Communist Party Central Committee.
With calm and charm President Xi talked from prepared notes, ad libbing time to time, and making eye contact with his attentive audience. He elaborated on the 40 years of progress since Den Xiaoping opened up the country and freed the people from an inefficient State-controlled economy, and on the new Silk Road and the International Bank of Infrastructure, two very ambitious initiatives aiming at connecting Asia and Europe using the old land Silk Road and new maritime Silk Road. One has to admit, this requires vision, audacity, political courage and iron will.
Displaying diplomatic finesse of a true Statesman, President Xi did not once criticise or even mention the US by name while emphasising China’s strong adherence to international cooperation and multilateralism, adding with apparent genuine modesty that China is still a developing country even though it is the second world’s economy. Xi Jinping exudes self-confidence, is very measured and refined in gestures and words.
President Trump blusters and bluffs, talks obscenities, insults other world leaders, allies and neighbours, reneges international treaties, launches punitive trade wars against historical partners like Canada, France, Germany, UK, Japan, etc., undermines traditional US alliances, NATO and the EU, adds fuel to the firestorms of European nationalism.
Xi Jinping governs over 1,400,000,000 people and manages the second world’s largest economy that dwarfs the combined economies of Chinas past invaders, colonisers and looters, the Western democracies that today preach China about democracy and human rights.
In a not too distant past, notices of “No dogs and Chinese allowed” were plastered by the British on fancy restaurants, clubs and many other public places across China.
In response to China’s refusal to buy opium produced in India by the British, Britain unleashed the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and of 1839-1832. Studies by reputable economists show that in 1820 China’s economy was the largest in the world and in this was the case for centuries up to the second Opium War causing Chinese share of the global GDP to drop by half.
Tens of millions of extremely poor Chinese migrated and built railways and roads, toiling in slave-like conditions building Western empires. But Chinese did not suffer only in the hands of Westerners. As recently as 90’s Chinese were murdered with impunity in Indonesia, display of Chinese characters on front shops were not allowed and Chinese New Year celebrations were banned. All this changed. In any given day legions of Chinese tourists recycle millions of US dollars in hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and duty free stores across the world.
Xi Jinping does preside over the oldest world’s continuous territorial domain, home of a 5,000 year old civilisation. The majestic Great Wall and the very recent landing on the unseen side of the Moon, two facts and worlds apart in time and space, dramatically illustrate the great man-made achievements of an extraordinary people.
Millions of factory workers churn out cheap products flooding markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They know there are several billion people earning between $1 and $5 a day, who cannot afford to buy expensive shoes, clothing, backpacks, pencils, bicycles for their children. Even lesser affluent Americans and Europeans buy cheap Chinese goods or fake brands.
The Cold War concocted by the USA and the USSR was fought on the ground via their respective proxies. Fools in the Third World took sides, some opting to be US vassals while others sealed their fate with the Soviets, having chosen the idiocy of a workers paradise that never was. In the process millions of innocent people were killed in prisons, labor camps and wars in Congo, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, etc.
When in 1990 the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, many a naive people believed that a new Age of Principles would be ushered in and all would live for ever after in peace and harmony. Nuclear arsenals would be dismantled, arms industries become obsolete, merchants of death cease their immoral transactions. American capitalism and Western liberalism having triumphed over communist dogmas and gulags, human rights would be respected the world over and a wave of democracy would swept away tyrants, of left and right.
The euphoria was short lived. The two main nuclear powers continued rivals and enemies as ever. The American liberal President Obama, sudden winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for crafting eloquent speeches and promises, actually launched a sweeping modernisation of US nuclear forces. Obama promised much to the Palestinians, raised their expectations, and delivered ZERO in eight years. Israel continues to dictate US Middle East policies. Arabs found common cause with Israel and Donald Trump against Iran, presumably the greatest menace to the world. Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause continues to be a mere lip service.
China and Russia never pretended to adhere to the principles and values of human rights, at least as articulated by the liberal West that focusses almost exclusively on civil and political rights while consigning economic and social rights to a mere footnote.
Though Russia is today far better for many Russians it has not been able to transform an economy overly dependent on energy commodities like oil and gas into manufacturer and exporter of high quality goods.
China did experience a brief contagion of the freedoms sweeping Eastern Europe in the 90’s. It maintained the one party system, recovered Macao and HongKong, and launched an ambitious modernisation program that catapulted China from impoverished Third World status to second largest economy of the world.
I visited China for the first time more than 40 years ago. Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) was barely alive, and died that year on 9th September. Premier Zhou En Lay, Mao’s loyal right hand, died in January 1976.
A month earlier in December 1975 I had landed for the first time in the fabled New York City to plead the cause of Timor-Leste to the UN Security Council. I was 26 years old, had never being to a major city and had never seen snow before. I didn’t like the cold and detested the snow as I had to struggle not to fall whenever I walked the few hundred meters from then cheap decaying Tudor Hotel, to the UN.
Visiting China as an official guest I was installed at Beijing Hotel. From my window I would look down at the street below and saw tens of thousands of people moving on bicycles or on foot, men and women wearing the dull Mao uniform. I counted the number of the national black sedans of senior party officials, literally the only vehicles moving in Beijing. At age 26, I was a novice on China and on world issues, but I could feel in January 1976 that a chapter of post 1949 China was coming to an end.
The “Great Leap Forward”, an ill-conceived rapid industrialisation launched by Mao (1957-1960) coupled with unfavourable weather, resulted in the death of millions of rural peoples. This was followed by “The Cultural Revolution” madness (1966-1976) that victimised countless innocent people and tore apart families. Among the victims were important Chinese leaders like Den Xiaoping. The reversal of fortunes could not have been more dramatic - from the Chinese gulag emerged the great reformer, father of modern China, Deng Xiaoping who took over the top leadership of the State in 1978-1989.
Deng Xiaoping’s genius was his decisive break with Mao era economic orthodoxies and the bold decision to open up the country to foreign investment. The China of 1976 that I knew was catapulted from abject poverty to world power status in four decades. Den Xiaoping coined a phrase that still defines Chinese economic system - Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Whatever the correct academic label attached to the experiment, the facts are: 700 million Chinese were freed from extreme poverty and 400 million now belong to the middle income group. Officially there are still 30 million poor Chinese; 10 million will graduate this year from extreme poverty.
In any given day millions of Chinese are recycling the US dollar in hotels, bars, restaurants, duty free shops across the globe. They are buying passports or permanent residence in Europe and Australia and purchasing land, farms, factories, ports, high tech industries.
No one asks this question...if China is a malignant dictatorship, if millions of Chinese tourists freely travel around the world, tens of thousands of Chinese students who are enrolled and bring in millions of dollars to starving Western universities, why we don’t see stampedes seeking asylum in the West? They all the return home. The temptation of the West is no greater than attachment to their own country and the relative freedom and prosperity they are enjoying now.
China does face complex challenges, residues of American and British imperialism and the Cold War. Besides the issue of North Korea and its nuclear ambitions at China’s doorsteps, there are the issues of Taiwan and South China Sea and sensitive relations with other claiming States.
China is obviously as interested in a denuclearised North Korea as the US or Japan and knows how to deal with the North Koreans better than anyone and are doing it their way with economic inducements, investments, trade and multibillion cash payouts, vital to the regime and its immense standing army. If North Korea ever denuclearises it will be primarily thanks to China and to President Moon of South Korea.
President Trump may enjoy photo opportunities with Kim Jong Un but the North Korean regime and its vast powerful military are more trustful of, and dependent on, China than on any US President. North Koreans and Chinese know that President Trump is as unpredictable as unreliable and will be consumed by multiple legal and political problems in the next two years. It is very unlikely that we will see a denuclearised North Korea during Trump’s presidency.
One issue that unifies all Chinese is Taiwan, a residue of the Chinese civil war that ended in 1949 with the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) forces who fled to the island, and from there claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China. Taiwan is no more entitled to independence from mainland China than Hawaii or Alaska are entitled to separation from the US. Chinese sovereignty on Taiwan is indisputable and enjoys universal recognition. But Beijing knows that there is no discernible alternative to a protracted process of peaceful reunification. The US could help in this reunification process if it were to refrain from selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan.
The same time, Chinese conduct in HongKong influences perceptions and attitudes amongst Taiwanese in regards reunification. So it is in China’s interest to carefully manage developments in HK, avoiding making every dissident or every lonely pro-independence dreamer a martyr. The vast majority of HK Chinese are not in favour of independence and all know too well how the territory’s financial wealth is at the whim of Beijing, as long ad Beijing tolerates.
On South China Sea I do not see how China could successfully argue its claims under International Law. Other claimants do not appear ready either to compromise on their sovereign entitlement.
In the meantime, the US, UK and Australia should refrain from introducing naval and aerial elements that have zero deterrence value and will only surely escalate tensions and risk conflict. It is laughable that the UK (the Chinese remember the British Opium Wars) paralysed by Brexit demagogues and liars would send a warship to South China Sea as a presumed “deterrence”. Of course Australia had to show its provincial minded loyalty to the Crown and sent off a vessel or two to join the British little flotilla. By staying out of the area, the US and its allies might have a better chance to play a facilitation role encouraging claimant States to work towards a temporary, long term regional regime governing the area without prejudicing their respective sovereign claims.
The Chinese leadership with a long historical memory is not oblivious to the challenges and strategic fragilities they face on multiple fronts, a rising India with a young population being one such challenge. Will China and India be able to forge a balanced strategic partnership or will they remain, as it has been the case for decades, mutually suspicious and rivals? Neither can afford, nor can Asia and the world afford to have China and India as strategic rivals and enemies. Leaders of the two Asian giants owe it to their own peoples and to the world that they forge a partnership that ensures peace and prosperity for all.
The US should seek stable relationships as equals with both China and India, abandon the discredited “containment” strategy of the past, a mere fancy wishful thinking.
In 1976 I saw an impoverished China, a profoundly traumatised people. What a difference 40 years have made for China, for the the world. Desirous to win friends and allies in Asia, China is investing real effort, good will and dollars in this endeavour. But to succeed it cannot be the elephant in a china shop and the way it conducts itself in South China Sea is a major test.
The bi-polar world of the Cold War period centred on two asymmetric powers, the USA, economic and nuclear superpower, and Russia, whose super power status was based solely on the number of its nuclear warheads, not on economic and financial strength. Today’s bi-polar world clearly oscillates between two economic superpowers, the US and the world’s new economic superpower, China. But there is another global power lurking nearby. In three decades from now we might have a tri-polar world oscillating between Washington, Beijing and Delhi.