I would like to think I am well travelled. Yet, I had never been to China, until a recent 10-day visit to participate in a conference at Peking University and to give some lectures in Shanghai.
Well travelled will also often mean weary - a weariness reinforced by the 13-hour flight to get there, the ensuing jet lag and the challenges faced by foreign visitors in a place where even most of the staff in five-star hotels do not speak English, and where taxi drivers, even after being handed a map with directions in Chinese, have difficulties in finding their way, generating no small measure of anxiety in the hapless passenger.
Nonetheless, 'the Middle Kingdom' left me with an excitement and sense of wonder I have rarely felt. To take a Saturday stroll on Shanghai's Nanjing Street, the main shopping area, with its enormous skyscrapers, faux mini-trains ferreting people around, and thousands of people from all over the world enjoying the autumn sun, getting to People's Square and then on to the Public Gardens, is to absorb an electricity and a level of energy that is both contagious and a bit overwhelming.
Freshly spruced up
If the world has become a village, Main Street is probably in Shanghai, perhaps on the Bund, which used to be known as 'Asia's Wall Street'. Beijing, on the other hand, an old imperial capital, freshly spruced up after the Olympics, with its refurbished palaces and shining high-rises, gleaming stadia and three million cars (few bicycles are seen) exudes confidence and progress.
In my talks at think tanks and universities, as well as with diplomats and colleagues, the Wall Street meltdown came up. I expected a sense of vindication and Schaden-freude on the part of my Chinese hosts, of exclamations of 'We told you so', and 'this is what happens with unbridled capitalism'. In fact, it was during my stay that it was announced that this year's growth in China will drop to nine per cent, the lowest in five years, partly as a result of the international crisis.
However, far from enjoying the fall from grace of United States (US) go-go capitalism, many academics and analysts in China seemed quite concerned. China is ready to step up to the plate and help stabilise the situation, although the precise measures to be taken remain to be defined. But, it was obvious that China, the one country many observers consider has the potential to challenge US hegemony and its condition as sole superpower in the course of this century, is neither ready nor eager to do so now.
In fact, for a country that has grown for 30 years at an average annual rate of 10 per cent, the Chinese are remarkably modest, even shy, in terms of their place in the world. Though they do consider themselves to be at the centre of things (hence 'the Middle Kingdom'), they voice no aspirations to any hegemonic role in world affairs. They still consider China to be a developing country, with a long way to go, and whose main concern for the next two decades is to sustain its economic growth and enhance its standard of living. Although defence spending is increasing, it is still only a fraction from that of the US, and will continue to be so for a long time.
The internal debate on how to characterise China's emergence is a good example. In 2003, the term "peaceful rise" was coined to describe it, a term that seems anodyne enough not to threaten anyone. Yet, a number of objections were voiced, from the fact that a 'rise' must necessarily imply a subsequent 'fall', to the constraining and self-limiting use of 'peaceful'. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the term to be used was 'peaceful development path', a term so bland as to mean little.
Perhaps most striking was to listen to the views of some Chinese colleagues on the thorny issue of international financial regulation, at the core of the summit meeting convened by a number of G-7 member countries for November to address the fallout of the crisis, ways to cope with it and the avoidance of its recurrence. One of them argued that it would be a mistake to add further regulation to the financial sector, since reputation and the banks' need for it was more than enough to perform the function of regulations - that would only stand in the way of initiative and entrepreneurship - not necessarily the sort of argument one would expect in Beijing.
China's embracing of market reforms and its emergence as one of the world's leading economies have restored the country's pride, severely hurt since the mid-19th century in the course of the many humiliations at Western and Japanese hands. At the same time, the Chinese, with their innate sense of history, are only too aware of how quickly the mighty fall. They studied the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, revisionist powers who took on the dominant international system and ended up paying a high price for it. Determined not to repeat those tragic experiences, they are ready to work within the parameters of the established international system, unwilling to antagonise the United States. More and more, they are taking on the duties of international citizenship and working with other powers in a variety of ways that would have been unimaginable 30 or even 20 years ago.
By its very existence and remarkable transformation over the past decades, China is changing the world we live in. With the wisdom that comes from a 5000-year-old civilisation, however, the last thing they want is to throw a monkey wrench into the present international framework, deficient though it might be. At this critical juncture, Courtney Rattray, Jamaica's newly appointed ambassador to the People's Republic of China, has his work cut out for him.