Looking to China's past to better understand its future

China Plus Published: 2019-01-24 20:41:56
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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]

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.

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LU Xiankun Professor LU Xiankun is Managing Director of LEDECO Geneva and Associate Partner of IDEAS Centre Geneva. He is Emeritus Professor of China Institute for WTO Studies of the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) and Wuhan University (WHU) of China and visiting professor or senior research fellow of some other universities and think tanks in China and Europe. He also sits in management of some international business associations and companies, including as Senior Vice President of Shenzhen UEB Technology LTD., a leading e-commerce company of China. Previously, Mr. LU was senior official of Chinese Ministry of Commerce and senior diplomat posted in Europe, including in Geneva as Counsellor and Head of Division of the Permanent Mission of China to the WTO and in Brussels as Commercial Secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the EU. Benjamin Cavender Benjamin Cavender is a Shanghai based consultant with more than 11 years of experience helping companies understand consumer behavior and develop go to market strategies for China. He is a frequent speaker on economic and consumer trends in China and is often featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, and Channel News Asia. Sara Hsu Sara Hsu is an associate professor from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is a regular commentator on Chinese economy. Xu Qinduo Xu Qinduo is CRI's former chief correspondent to Washington DC, the United States. He works as the producer, host and commentator for TODAY, a flagship talk show on current affairs. Mr. Xu contributes regularly to English-language newspapers including Shenzhen Daily and Global Times as well as Chinese-language radio and TV services. Lin Shaowen A radio person, Mr. Lin Shaowen is strongly interested in international relations and Chinese politics. As China is quite often misunderstood in the rest of the world, he feels the need to better present the true picture of the country, the policies and meanings. So he talks a lot and is often seen debating. Then friends find a critical Lin Shaowen criticizing and criticized. George N. Tzogopoulos Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is an expert in media and politics/international relations as well as Chinese affairs. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre International de Européenne (CIFE) and Visiting Lecturer at the European Institute affiliated with it and is teaching international relations at the Department of Law of the Democritus University of Thrace. George is the author of two books: US Foreign Policy in the European Media: Framing the Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism (IB TAURIS) and The Greek Crisis in the Media: Stereotyping in the International Press (Ashgate) as well as the founder of chinaandgreece.com, an institutional partner of CRI Greek. David Morris David Morris is the Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commissioner in China, a former Australian diplomat and senior political adviser. Harvey Dzodin After a distinguished career in the US government and American media Dr. Harvey Dzodin is now a Beijing-based freelance columnist for several media outlets. While living in Beijing, he has published over 200 columns with an emphasis on arts, culture and the Belt & Road initiative. He is also a sought-after speaker and advisor in China and abroad. He currently serves as Nonresident Research Fellow of the think tank Center for China and Globalization and Senior Advisor of Tsinghua University National Image Research Center specializing in city branding. Dr. Dzodin was a political appointee of President Jimmy Carter and served as lawyer to a presidential commission. Upon the nomination of the White House and the US State Department he served at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria. He was Director and Vice President of the ABC Television in New York for more than two decades.