Looking to China's past to better understand its future
Note: The following is an edited translation of an article from the Chinese-language "Commentaries on International Affairs."
One of the biggest confusions that people from China encounter when they embark on international exchanges is that the outside world tends not to know all that much about China, which can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. At the same time, many people outside China, especially in the Western world, are curious about China's development and policies, but find the country's overall approach difficult to grasp. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, China's Vice President Wang Qishan said that the key to understanding China comes from understanding its historical, cultural, and philosophical perspectives.
Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday, January 23, 2019. [Photo: IC]
China's former leader Deng Xiaoping once said "only development counts", which is a message echoed by President Xi Jinping when he said "development is the eternal theme of human society" and "development is the foundation and key to solving all problems in China." These messages reflect the pragmatic and flexible economic and social policies introduced over the past four decades that have aimed to improve the people's livelihood.
In 1978, China's GDP was less than 0.15 trillion U.S. dollars; last year, it was 13.6 trillion U.S. dollars. Many factors have played a role in this extraordinary change, but perhaps the most important was the fundamental belief that it's only when the people lead a good life that the country can thrive. This belief goes a long way towards explaining why so much weight has been given to poverty alleviation programs. They are one of the reasons why nearly 800 million people in China have been lifted out of poverty. The success of these programs, and the country's growing prosperity more broadly, help to explain why 86 percent of people in China trust their government, according to the latest Trust Barometer survey by the American public relations and marketing firm Edelman.
In its dealings with other countries, China has sought to develop relationships based firmly on the core concepts of mutual cooperation and win-win outcomes, and the rejection of confrontational zero-sum game positions. This approach naturally evolved from the traditional Chinese ideal that a man of virtue should help others to succeed as he pursues successes of his own and the moral requirement to refrain from pursuing goals purely for personal gain. As the great Chinese philosopher Mencius advocated 2,300 years ago, "Life is what I desire, and so is righteousness. If I cannot have them both, I would let life go, and choose righteousness."
China's advocacy of cooperation today reflects this cultural spirit, which is evident in China's Belt and Road Initiative that has been building over the past five years. Critics have argued that it is China's challenge to the Western-led international order, but this is a narrow-minded view. Poverty is one of the greatest enemies of mankind, and China is playing the role commensurate with that of the world's largest developing country and its second-largest economy when it applies its development experience, accumulated economic strength, and scientific and technological progress to help other countries to develop.
According to a recent projection by the international trade credit insurance company Euler Hermes, the trade in goods between China and the countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative is predicted to grow by 117 billion U.S. dollars this year. The report estimates that this will add 0.3 percent to global trade and 0.1 percent to global growth. This contribution is especially welcome against the backdrop of the global economic slowdown.
In his speech at Davos, Vice President Wang Qishan said that China has embarked on a path toward development that is in line with the country's national conditions, as well as the broader global trends. Sometimes the best way to know where someone is heading is to look at where they've come from. This is why the Vice President reminded his audience that history, the present, and the future are closely related. And it's why knowledge about China's history is the key to understanding its future.