Engaging China

The Expo in Shanghai is more China looking outwards than showing off to the world.

Listener: June 26, 2010.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Aside from artists, scholars and the peasants, few – Asians or Europeans – come out well in Chinese history. Perhaps %China’s geography does not allow it.

I once wrote a column in which I argued the decision in 1432 to forbid ocean-going shipping meant the Chinese didn’t get to New Zealand until after the Europeans. Trading was not particularly valuable for them, and in any case their constant pre%occupation was the threats from their land borders. Indeed, two of the imperial dynasties were not Chinese: the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1388) was Mongol and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was Manchurian. The Great Wall was no doubt vastly more expensive to build and maintain than a fleet.

So China was ill-equipped to defend itself from an invasion from the seas, which began with the Portuguese in the 16th century. Aside from the Japanese (who might be best thought of as yet more Asian invaders), the Europeans were not particularly interested in conquest so much as trade (although this in no way belittles the infamy of the 19th-century Opium Wars). Europeans wanted porcelain, silk and tea.

The Chinese imperiously said they wanted for nothing (except the silver that the Europeans largely acquired from America, and which eventually ran out). With hindsight, they perhaps regretted they did not ask for the European armaments. In the face of superior %weapons, thousands of years of the Chinese “civilisation-state” collapsed. China’s per-capita GDP is thought to have fallen during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

An exception to the normal leadership was Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), a veteran of the Communists’ Long March of 1934-35 who became the de facto leader shortly after the death of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Deng redirected the economy, modernising it and opening it to the world. The increasing world power of the Chinese economy is more a result of his action’s than anyone else’s.

It is true he presided over (but may not have initiated) the ugly repression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. But he then vanquished the old guard in the leadership and continued on his liberalisation path.

New Zealander David Mahon, one of the few Europeans in the square at the time, says the protesters were not demanding democracy as much as better living conditions. Deng responded with his further economic reforms, which gave greater freedom to pursue market transactions while maintaining strict political control by the Chinese Communist Party.

The answer to why he did is long and complicated, but he spent five years in France from age 16 (and two in Moscow). Sometimes the foreign students we take in learn much, and their home country and the world benefits.

So China became outward looking – formidably so. Shanghai’s Expo 2010 may seem to be China trying to put on a good show for the world; it has.

But most of the crowds – over 100,000 a day – queuing to see the pavilions representing 190 countries are Chinese finding out what’s going on elsewhere. Add to them the service workers supporting foreign tourists, many of whom are learning English (or Chinglish, which can be a bit erratic) and there is a Chinese engagement with the world that was inconceivable in 1976 when Mao died, or at any time in the previous hundreds of years. The same message is told at the Shanghai Art Museum: all three special exhibitions involve an engagement with Europe.

By engagement I mean being confident of one’s country or culture but with a genuine respectful interest in others’. In economic terms, it can involve trade, tourism, investment and technology transfer, but avoids the imperial arrogance of the past (which both China and Europe exhibited).

Historically, our engagement has been with Europe, North America and Australia. Asia was not high on the list, even though half of humankind lived there. In my, and many others’, schooling, it hardly existed. As they engage with us, we need to engage with them.

This column is part of an occasional series that arose out of a trip funded by the NZIER-NBR Economist of the Year Award.