After becoming Chinese leader at the end of 2012, Xi Jinping announced his new ‘Chinese dream… the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ (1). After being ‘re-elected’ this week for another five years with new and increased powers likened to the reign of Mao-Tse-Tung, Xi again made a speech (3 ½ hours this time) about the China dream now being close to reality (2) . This is at a time most other countries in the world are giving up on or going beyond parochial nationalism to focus on the global predicaments of humanity. In the last couple of years he has been able to not only consolidate his national power base and a shared vision of national prosperity in the near future, but also his ‘economic belt and 21st-century maritime Silk Roads’ vision of how China wants to and can become a future global superpower that might also benefit other countries around the world as it also benefits the China dream at home (3).
What worries the world is whether or to what extent China is really genuine in its long repeated claim that it is not interested in ‘hegemony’ or control over other countries? This is especially in light of its other more provocative policies such as its South China Sea re-reading of history to justify making artificial islands and military bases on remote outcrops such as Fiery Cross Reef on the Spratly Islands near the Philippines (4). In his book Hundred Years Marathon, Michael Pillsbury discusses how China has long had a far-off future plan to lead (dominate?) the world partly grounded as revenge on the memory of distant past humiliations by the West such as the Opium wars, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, and related ‘unfair’ concessions in recent history. Can Xi Jinping’s new version of the China Dream escape this negative motivation to achieve sustainable development that is also a constructive global agenda as well?
Before giving our own take on this, we want to focus on new versions of ‘the China dream’ by foreigners continuing to follow in the tradition of how greed, trade and profit motivated the British to inflict the Opium trade on China. Even or especially in recent decades, endless businesses, corporations and foreign governments continue to generate and hold new dreams of tapping into and exploiting the great potential of massive Chinese markets – so often to end up frustrated, blocked and even deceived (5) . A family member has recently been part of the same old disillusionment of typical ‘promising’ ventures into China to set up partnerships, local factories and apparent new opportunities to harness the great potential of brilliant new technological innovation for the building industry. I was reminded of the time about 15 years ago when I used to live in Hong Kong and travel across the border to inspect the latest new pirated products for sale in Shenzhen (As I recall, there used to be five grades of pirated golf clubs available at Lo Wu, etc.– as well as many other kinds of products – ranging from ‘cheap and nasty’ through to first grade quality that ‘fell off the back of a truck’). In this case the Aussie company leadership were seduced by opportunities and ignored warnings – believing that there were particular ‘arrangements’ with local Chinese partners which would ensure ‘things will be different this time’ (famous last words). You can try to warn such people. But when you see the dollar signs in their far-away glistening eyes, you have a fair idea how it is likely to end up for them.
After ongoing problems with local partners which could have been possible sabotage, reinforced by never-ending new obstacles presented by bureaucrats at every level of governance from local to national, it appears that the final straw for this promising Australian company may have been the often selective closures of even non-polluting foreign factories (as well as polluting local firms) around the Bejing-Tianjin areas as part of the recent new ‘green campaign’ (6) & (7). Although the government has a genuine commitment to this in the face of terrible air and water pollution as well as desertification problems, ironically this campaign appears to have been set in motion months ago just to ensure the air was clean for the crucial Communist Party Congress in Bejing last week. And guess what, despite all ‘temporary’ closures of businesses to clear the air for Xi Jinping, it was all to no avail – as the smog was apparently out just as much as usual when he made his speech (8).
From our own examination of Xi’s Belt and Road policy initiative, we have no doubt that there are genuine elements of commitment to new principles of both trade and sustainable development which really can benefit the world as well as China. It does represent a possible remedy in part at least to how programs of international aid and modernisation (e.g. the World Bank) have typically done more damage than good for a very long time, as Joseph Stiglitz and others have pointed out (e.g. 9). However, as illustrated by the blind top-down investment a few years ago in many “ghost cities” in isolated parts of China (10), the Chinese government have still not ever shown great evidence that they can consistently distinguish between sustainable and non-sustainable or even destructive policy approaches when they undertake particular projects. As Clissold has usefully pointed out in his book Chinese Rules, although Chinese approaches to policy and problem-solving is a welcome alternative to the ultimately ineffective western methods of addressing conflicts, “China’s concepts of conflicts are the polar opposite; they rely not on overwhelming firepower but on silence, stealth, surprise, manipulation, and deceit” (11). Likewise, Pastreich’s useful insight into changing China Dreams (12) recognises that despite the anti-western take of Chinese governments, the people and younger generation in particular have generally been seduced by the modern consumerist (e.g. waste) imperative from the West. Thus, in another useful recent study The China Fantasy, James Mann points out how the Chinese model of capitalism has no room for political reform, change or liberalisations of any kind.
And this ultimately becomes a problem for Xi Jinping in his ambitious and in many ways impressive related future agenda of proposed sustainable development for both China and the World. His speech last week followed up on recent related proclamations of a selective promise to increasingly bring to China ‘rule of law’ practices applicable to business as well as society (e.g. 13 & 14). This has been a notable aspiration in relation to his agenda to bring government officials in reach of the legal system and to try and get rid of rampant corruption. However, as in other countries, ultimately such a perspective needs to come from ‘within’ individuals and organisations and not just be imposed by ‘force’. At some stage Xi and the Chinese government of the near future will need to grapple with this basic contradiction and related ‘balancing act’. It will be the true test of whether the Belt and Road initiative can be really successful, and whether China can carry out its promise to support sustainable development at home in alignment with the related global challenge. And then just maybe good people and businesses going to China might get a fair deal – whilst the mere profiteers and opportunists continue to get done like a hot dinner.
- CKR 21/10/2017
See also our related paper: Richards, C. (2013). What can China and the West still learn from the other in new times?, Zhang, J. Yang Y., Lui, L. & Zhou, M. (eds), Towards social harmony: A new mission of Asian Social Psychology, Educational Science Publishing House.
- e.g. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/chinese-rules-by-tim-clissold-book-review-words-of-wisdom-on-business-in-beijing-9861648.html