Letter from Asia: ‘China first’ approach: A missed opportunity

Howard W. French- The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, AUGUST 19, 2005
SHANGHAI What sort of power does China aspire to be? With that very question in mind, the outside world watches this country with amazement, and often enough, too, with twinges of discomfort.
Those who fret most about China’s rise, though, seem to ignore some very basic, and as yet unanswered, questions. No matter how fast its economy grows, can a country make a successful transition to great-power status without real friendships, without associating itself meaningfully with any global ideal, or without bearing a more generous share of humanity’s burdens?
Outside observers who fail to take such questions into account are not alone. At least since Deng Xiaoping declared China should “lay low at a time of adversity,” the country’s leaders have seemed seduced by the anachronistic notion that their country, which boasts one of the world’s most vigorously globalizing economies, can best advance by keeping its head down and simply worrying about its own internal development.
This kind of thinking is a 180-degree reversal of the approach taken by Mao Zedong during the early decades of Communist rule. But though it is presented as modern and most of all pragmatic by a party nowadays run by colorless engineers, the “China first” ethos is actually a throwback to the blinkered, inward-looking style of the more distant past, one whose smug insularity squandered China’s economic and technological lead over the West.
Today, no nation of any import seems likely to copy China’s model of government, nor even, despite its many successes, China’s supposed economic miracle. But that doesn’t mean that any bid by Beijing for a larger mission in the world is a waste of time, much less that it is doomed to failure.
At its most influential, China has always represented an alternative to the West. Under Mao, many poor nations eagerly drew inspiration from this country, sometimes based on a naïve appreciation of Chinese realities, but also because China was perceived as being on their side, from their struggles against colonial rule to their struggles for development in a global economy that appeared meanly skewed against the poor.
Unless one is talking trade, with rare exception, China is absent from the lives of these countries today. The global rush, amid intense press scrutiny, to aid the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami seemed to prod Beijing to action, perhaps not wanting to be absent from the lists of major countries making large donations. But if proof were needed that there has been no change in outlook, no new internationalist reflex formed, China has been largely invisible amid reports of famine that is devastating Niger and threatening several other countries in West Africa.
A few years ago, perhaps, the Chinese could still have claimed convincingly that Africa is so far away that it shouldn’t rank as a serious concern here. Today, however, China’s state companies are scouring the continent for business as they never have before, including Sudan in the midst of a genocide, and if Africa looms large on the map for oil or trading profits, it stands to reason it should also count for something in more human terms.
The failure of China’s vision in such moments doesn’t hurt just Africans, or people in the world’s other weak nations. Ultimately, having such a large free rider weakens the global system, too.
But what is least appreciated here is how much the wasting of opportunities to reach out hurts China itself.
Polling done here recently by the China Youth and Children Research Center shows that most Chinese feel theirs is a country without friends – only enemies, real and potential. Sadly, these same surveys show Chinese attach no importance to international friendships. Whether at the individual level, or for the nation as a whole, getting rich quick, it seems, is all that matters.
“We can’t be a country that just does business,” said Wang Xiaodong, a widely followed writer here on China’s place in the world and who conducted the poll. “We must develop relationships besides economic and trade ties with other countries – including stronger military projection. But for the majority of the people, all they want to do is to develop the economy, and for them, anyone who thinks of anything else is foolish.”
Here again, Africa provides an instructive example. The world’s most effective treatment for malaria, a disease that kills over a million people a year – mostly in Africa – is a derivation of sweet wormwood, an ancient Chinese remedy. Yet today, it is a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, that makes and distributes the drug at cost, after buying the active ingredients from China.
When it is thought of at all, Mao’s engagement with the third world is usually dismissed here nowadays as revolutionary romanticism: a poor China squandering precious resources in a foolish and premature bid for superpower status. But Mao, who sent medical teams and road- and railroad-building brigades to the third world, would certainly have understood the political value in giving a Chinese drug to the world to cure a scourge the West had never been able to master.
Today, China is closer than it has ever been to superpower status, but its leadership, having renounced the past, is reduced to empty-sounding slogans, things like “peaceful rise,” and “harmonious society.” Meanwhile, they are ceding the question of universal values to the West, whose own imperfect record suggests some competition couldn’t hurt.
“If things continue like this into the future, with no change, I don’t think China will be able to become a real power,” said Shi Yinghong, a professor of international relations at People’s University, in Beijing. “Its ideological and moral influence in the world will be quite limited. People will think you have never realized any greater values, things which have relevance not only to China, but also outside of China.”
Copyright The International Herald Tribune

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