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
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.