Comment: It’s too late to stop China’s rise, so the West must start to question its own assumptions

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield, says the new world order emerging from China’s rise is proof of the folly of Western expectations and understanding China on its own terms is critical.

It's too late to stop China's rise, so the West must start to question its own assumptions

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 19.4.18, published in the South China Morning Post

Accusations levelled against China that its actions could result in a tit-for-tat trade war with the US do not reflect the China I have come to know in my own work with universities and industries there.

One recent article in The Economist mourned that the West had lost the bet on China. Which bet? That once China became more prosperous, its people would inevitably crave democracy. That progress meant the Chinese would adopt our system and, enlightened, they would wish to become like us, of course.

Only, the writer admitted that this assumption was flawed. The West had hoped China could become a commercial partner along Western lines, and that it would give up all that “communism with Chinese characteristics”. After we had seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, China has caught us out. It seems the West had assumed that when walls fall, the natural consequence would be free-market capitalism.

In the main, we take working toilets and productive employment for granted. For us, China is a new force to be reckoned with and most people in Western economies know very little of the purposes behind Chinese politics or the meetings of the legislature in the Great Hall of the People.

Concerned critics of China say that, in spite of all the work of Western companies in this vast and developing economy, there is no free market, only a playing field tilted in favour of Chinese players. The West has lost the bet that China’s opening up would lead to democratic reform at home and the rule of law driving human rights.

How should we understand this new world order emerging in China? Are our old perspectives fit for what is happening now?

The Trump-like protectionists say the solution is simple. We should toughen up and stop the Chinese from having an easy ride with buying our companies and infrastructure. We must hold tight to our intellectual property and our company processes.

This attitude may serve a purpose for now – to defend current knowledge – but I fear they are deluded if they see China as ever dependent on Western innovation. The China I have come to know is investing in research and knowledge as never before. The US National Science Foundation now estimates that China has overtaken the US in the volume of scientific papers produced.

The People’s Republic wants to be a leader environmentally and in advanced manufacturing. Unlike the Germans – who are closing their nuclear plants – China is also building fleets of new-generation nuclear plants to replace the coal-fired stations that add to the smog. And, yes, they do build their nuclear plants on schedule and on budget.

China will not be playing second fiddle to the West on innovations such as electric cars, nuclear energy or Industry 4.0. This is a fundamental economic change; the plates are shifting and the US cannot assume its natural supremacy forever.

Now, consider China’s model of development, which is being watched closely in Africa, the Middle East and the Baltic states. The poor of Africa have had plenty of experience of foreign aid from the West. Now, as they ride on transport infrastructure and work in factories funded by Chinese investment, they are wondering if this may be a model for their own development.

Since 1949, China has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty since initiating market reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank. By 2015, China had attained all of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and it has been the largest contributor to world growth since the global financial crisis of 2008.

We forget that China has taught a billion people to read and write, and built a modern infrastructure of roads and high-speed trains. Its innovation base is now roughly equal to that in the US. It is much too late to stop China’s rise, and the family waiting for clean water and sanitation don’t want us to prevent the progress which is transforming lives across Asia and Africa as China thrives and builds its “belt and road”.

China doesn’t assume that change will come for its people without enormous effort and purpose. Certainly, the challenges ahead are enormous. They are not in some cosy place where they can rest and give over control of the juggernaut they have built.

In China, we are seeing a new empire rising. What we do not yet understand is to what degree the reach of this empire will be a force for prosperity and peace. The ambition is there, but will they succeed? We can only hope that the undoubted influence China will have will be for the good of people far beyond its own lands.

If we are honest, we start to question our own assumptions. Many modern-day economic sages point to the failure of the West to address the growing problems of inequality and the rot of our societies as more get left out. Economic exclusion, from the banlieues of Paris to the high-rises of Hong Kong, beget a generation of youth that sees the West as unjust and uncaring.

The citizens of Beijing want to breathe clean air and receive a fair wage. Like all great powers, China will have choices ahead. It is my sincere hope that it chooses, in the words of President Xi Jinping’s start-of-the-year address, “to always be a builder of world peace”.

As we increasingly hear the thunder of conflicts around the world which risk drawing in many nations, we must ensure we understand the fears and hopes of this rising empire.