The Real China and the Real World

By EO Editorial Board
Published: 2010-10-12

Issue 489, October 10, 2010
Translated by Rose Scobie
Original article:

During the past twenty years, after that well known disturbance, although there have been many twists and turns, China and the world have enjoyed a relatively peaceful twenty year honeymoon period.

As a developing country, China has humbly faced the world while opening up its economy; the world, especially developed nations with advanced economies, looked upon the reemergence of the large nation with pleasant surprise. The US and Europe, and other Asian countries like Japan and Singapore, have all served as economic development models for China. For a long time, foreign businessmen have been wholeheartedly praising China. With China’s successful entrance into the World Trade Organization, foreign business leaders could not ignore the country’s lobbying power.

In the wake of development, this “student” is gradually surpassing its teachers, and it is completely different from them; yet in the eyes of many, China is still a “student” on the world stage. After the US subprime mortgage crisis, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan said to then US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson over the phone: “Henry, our teachers have a problem.”

China has already become the world’s third largest economy, and according to some statistics, China has already surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economic body. China has enjoyed the reputation of the “world’s factory” for some time. Narrowly escaping the economic crisis, China has emerged as a powerful nation.

In light of this, a problem is now being presented: The world has discovered that China is not taking the path of development that optimistic observers had imagined. Simply put, they imagined the path would create a large middle class and a new elite through economic development, and that the political aspirations of the new elite combined with the drive of high level politicians would ultimately bringing about a political system in China similar to the one in the US and Europe.

China has already started on this path, but it seems that it is looking to take a different exit. As a result, people have begun to criticize China. Once its most ardent supporters, the heads of multinational corporations have begun to complain to the media that China is adopting protectionist measures. Some politicians have begun repeating the opinion once expressed to India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: When China becomes powerful, it will inevitably become an imperialist.

Yet China appears clueless when confronting this abrupt transformation of the world into a cold and even hostile place. The world and our role in it have changed, but a new vision and outlook has yet to be found. The time to “lie and wait” has passed. We have said we want a “peaceful rise” and to be a “responsible great power”, but the world still regards us with suspicion: What are China’s characteristics and what will be the outcome of the path China’s taking? What will China bring to the world?

The “path” remains uncertain and our “plan” hesitant. We can only rely upon our ability to react to the things to come. Recently, the hostage crisis in the Philippines and the detainment of the Chinese captain over the Diaoyu Islands incident by Japan which caused an impasse in Sino-Japanese relations in the second half of 2010 have brought out a kind of anxiety and uncertainty.

This is an era of uncertainty-- the current situation is already changing and we have still not determined the shape of our "worldview". How should China engage with the rest of the world? The relationship with China has long been a popular topic for western scholars and observers, and some have drawn conclusions that we would not happily embrace.

It does not take much knowledge of history to know that China cannot go back to being a closed society. What we can do, first, is to present a more positive image of China to the outside world, just as Premier Wen Jiabao said during his September 23 speech at the United Nations, “to know the real China”. Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech is all the more striking because of its honesty; he did not deny that China’s development comes with responsibilities, nor did he evade problems inherent in development. Only a positive, direct explanation of China will allow the world to see and acknowledge the "real China".

China should also readily respond to foreign perspectives about the country and create an image that exceeds the expectations of the outside world. Abating the uncertainty the world feels towards China is the key to maintaining peace and friendship with the outside world. Only in this way can we reduce the apprehension the world, and especially neighboring countries feel about China.

Next, we should exhibit a friendlier and more restrained attitude, but at the same time we also want the world to see China’s confidence, without instilling the perception of arrogance.

We all know and no one can deny that China is still facing many domestic challenges; the public voice generally focuses on these internal problems. But we must not forget to turn our gaze outward towards the rest of the world. After all, openness toward the world has been one of the driving forces of China's progress and prosperity in the past. We need to let the world see the real China, and the real face of China must encounter the real world.

This article was edited by Ruoji Tang