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    Greater China
     Jul 14, 2009
COMMENT
The great invisible wall in China
By David Gosset

Most of the media reports will not present a thorough and balanced analysis of the situation in China's Xinjiang region, a vast area where stability and development are not only strategic for the People's Republic of China but are also key elements of Central Asia's fragile equilibrium.

Therefore, 16 months after the violence in Tibet, Urumqi's tragic clashes will affect China's image in the West. On the backdrop of a global financial and economic crisis, the understanding gap between Beijing and the West is widening. It is urgent to reverse this trend.

On the road toward comprehension and cooperation stands a serious obstacle; an invisible wall of mistrust, ignorance and fear is separating the West and China. Without any objective physical

 

location, less spectacular than the Iron Curtain or the Berlin Wall and more difficult to define, it is an intangible construct of the individual and collective psyche which has to be torn down.

For a long period of time, China's Great Wall has been the symbol of an isolated and declining empire with its elites incapable of adjusting to change. Today, the Great Invisible Wall could refer to the West's inability to fully appreciate the extent of China's transformation and how it is redistributing world power in the 21st century. For the analyst, the discrepancy between the paucity of Western responsiveness to the new historical conditions and the magnitude of the shift induced by China's return to centrality, is a source of perplexity.

In one generation, 500 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty and by 2020, xiaokang, or "moderate prosperity", will characterize a more harmonious (hexie) Chinese society. Despite China's social, economic, political and geopolitical challenges proportionate to its size and diversity, one can not deny the overall progress accomplished by a fifth of mankind over three decades.

After 30 years of revolution under Mao Zedong, and 30 years of evolution, reform and "opening-up" inspired by Deng Xiaoping, it has become impossible to conceive a world order without Beijing as a stakeholder or as a co-architect. By leaving Italy earlier than scheduled to coordinate the central government's response to Xinjiang's tensions, the Chinese president Hu Jintao downgraded the Group of Eight summit, although technically China is not a member of the group. To a certain extent, China's difficulties are world's problems and vice versa.

Objectively, one should acknowledge Beijing's achievements, welcome a reliable partner and rejoice to expect a promising future. However, one often suspects China's intentions, succumbs to sarcastic China-bashing and some even conceive maneuvers to contain China's re-emergence.

Some data indicate that China's image in the West is deteriorating. In a 2006 survey realized by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 34% of Americans considered China as a minor threat and 47% as a major threat. In the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 72% of the French and 68% of the Germans had an unfavorable opinion about China. Just before the Beijing Olympics, the same institute asked Chinese people whether they were satisfied with their country's evolution: 86% of the Chinese said yes, up from 48% in 2002. The contrast between the two dynamics is striking.

Confronting the West's incapacity to give China well deserved credit and, in some instances, its hostile behaviors, some segments of the Chinese society are developing anti-Western sentiment. The fenqing, or angry youth, denounce various forms of Western Sinophobia and formulate, for example in the book Unhappy China (March 2009), an extreme and dangerous nationalism.

If nothing is done, there is the risk of entering a vicious circle of incomprehension and mutual exclusion. It is by fighting prejudices, by looking at the facts, by intensifying communication and, above all, by tirelessly nourishing the vision of a concrete universalism that one can hope to gradually bridge the gap and defeat the invisible wall. The French statesman Leon Blum rightly said in his essay "For All Mankind", "When a man gets perplexed and discouraged, he has just to think about Humanity".

Common Western prejudices about China are relatively well identified. In "The Blue Lotus" (1936), the famous comic strip character Tintin saves the life of Zhang Chongren. Zhang was in real life a good friend of Herge, Tintin's creator, and he introduced Chinese culture to the Belgium artist. After Zhang's rescue, a short but interesting dialogue takes place between the young European and the young Chinese. Tintin tells Zhang that "many Europeans imagine that Chinese people are deceitful and cruel".

Such a representation of deceitfulness and cruelty explains many biased comments and attitudes toward China. Demonizing by depriving the other of its human characters is, unfortunately, not a rare phenomenon, and has been one of the constant features of Western imaginary reconstruction of China. Since contacts and exchanges can easily overcome these absurd prejudices, they have to be encouraged and supported massively by the various governments. Moreover, Western schools' curricula have to introduce the depth, beauty and significance of the Chinese civilization just as the Chinese education system has to offer a window on Western culture.

Lack of knowledge contributes also to the divide. If the "Bamboo Curtain" came down with French president Charles de Gaulle's recognition of the People's Republic of China in 1964, and Nixon's trip to Beijing in 1972, many still view the Chinese communist party as a monolithic entity which shows no respect for China's citizens and whose only goal and obsession is to protect the interests of its members. Ideology is a component of the invisible wall. In fact, China's economic re-emergence, political transformation and growing social pluralism are deeply interrelated and, with the reinterpretation of China's intellectual tradition, define the Chinese renaissance.

The China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP), the new Chinese communist party school in Shanghai, helps to have a more accurate picture of China's political changes. In this 21st century party school under the authority of Li Yuanchao, the head of the party's organization department, there is no more ideology. Instead, students reflect upon management, governance and the world's best practices which can be used in a Chinese context to improve the life of the Chinese people. Problem solving skills and case studies have eclipsed theoretical speculation and doctrinal disputes.

To appreciate the degree of China's openness, one can also observe the dynamics within the China-European Union School of Law (CESL) at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In this new institution, inaugurated by the vice-premier Li Keqiang who himself studied law in the prestigious Beijing University, many are educated who will contribute to perfect China's judicial system and to consolidate its rule of law.

The effort to de-ideologize, which began under Deng Xiaoping and which is deepening, and the increasing role of the rule of law (fazhi) in a context where the rule of man (renzhi) has been predominant, are two evidences of China's political modernization. China's elites are receptive to the world's advancements and Western leaders, if unable to recognize how the Chinese civilization can take the world to another level, should, at least, be aware of this unprecedented receptiveness.

China's communication with the rest of the world is also a factor which can bridge the understanding gap. On the long term, transparency and access (including in Tibet or in Xinjiang) will help Western public opinions to become more familiar with the Chinese world and the real intentions of its leadership. Press conferences, public fora, international events, the participation of Chinese intellectuals in the debates over global policies, the development of sophisticated media coexisting worldwide with Western news networks will expose the myth of an impenetrable and secretive China.

Generally speaking, mutual empathy is essential to prevent the vicious circle of incomprehension and exclusion. While Chinese intellectuals have to accept that the West's opening-up and adjustment to the Chinese renaissance will be a long process, Western elites have to conceive that economic development and socio-political modernization require time.

Fundamentally, both sides, whatever the difficulties, have to cultivate the highest sense of responsibility and approach the issues from a global perspective. By the Great Invisible Wall of mistrust, ignorance and fear which stands on the way toward a world civilization, the Chinese leaders could proudly declare today in Paris or in Washington: "I am a citizen of the world", while in Beijing, Western leaders could state: Wo shi yi ge shijie gongmin.
Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, explained one year before his death in 1925: "Europeans can not yet discern our ancient civilization, but China has thought of a political world civilization, and cosmopolitanism was talked of 2,000 years ago in China."

If adequately understood and combined, Western universalism and Chinese cosmopolitanism (datong) are powerful enough to free ourselves from any visible or invisible barrier, to enlarge our political horizons and to take us at another level of awareness.

David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.

(Copyright 2009 David Gosset.)


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