Thoughts on China in 2017

by Jonathan Brun

The most desired thing in the world is respect. Everyone wants to be respected and to be proud of who they are and what they have done. This is what drives us to spend most of our money on a variety of goods we do not really need, it is what pushes some to spend great sums on weddings and it is what leads countries to war. Respect and the desire for it are a principal driving force at all levels of society. As Aretha Franklin said, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, it’s what I want!”

I lived in Beijing in 2006 and returned in 2010 and now 2017, the changes are staggering. I write this post from a bullet train travelling at 303 km/h on a high speed rail network that is larger than the rest of the world’s combined. There was no high speed train in China in 2006. When I left Beijing, there were three subway lines, there are now 18. Shanghai moves 3 Billion people a year on its subway system. China has built a giant canal from the south to the north to bring fresh water, it has built thousands of kilometres of the most advanced rail system in the world and it is installing more solar panels every year than all other nations combined! China has achieved change on a scale few could have imagined. Alain Peyfritte, the French Sinologist wrote a book in 1973 titled “Quand la Chine s’éveillera, le monde tremblera” – translated to “When China wakes up, the world will shake”. The world is shaking.

On my most recent trip I met with lawyers, bankers, entrepreneurs, environmental and safety consultants, business owners and ordinary folks on trains. Many voiced criticisms of China and showed a real frustration with corruption in government and a lack of individual freedom, yet the general mood is extremely optimistic. Nearly everyone felt that China would continue to develop and it would turn a corner on environmental issues and transition to a consumer economy. They felt that the ship had so much momentum and the leaders, though not perfect, had a genuine and indomitable desire to make China a world power – that nearly nothing could stop China ascendancy.

Air quality in the major cities is a big problem. While I was in Beijing, the Communist Party had its annual gathering and magically, the air cleared up thanks to the shutdown of certain coal fired power plants and other factories.

The good news is that Beijing continued to operate and the economy was not harmed despite the plant shutdowns – meaning that China could likely safely shutdown many of its coal power plants and continue to operate. In fact, China plans to reduce its coal consumption by 800 million tonnes by 2020 (from about 3.4 billion) and install 103 GW of new solar power capacity (they currently have 74 GW). In 2017, Beijing announced that all city taxis that are bought or changed must now be electric, Shanghai has offered free licence plates for electric cars, and during the annual Communist Party meeting this weekend, Chinese leaders declared war on air pollution and promised a blue sky for all Chinese. China also introduced a much improved environmental law in 2015 that is progressively starting to take effect. China is poised to shift into a new greener gear that will firmly place it as a world leader. Already, five of the world’s six largest solar panel producers are Chinese.

Poverty remains very real in China, but we can find poverty everywhere and any visit to parts of the US will remind you that you can be both a Global Superpower and have tremendous poverty and exclusion. China may only have one aircraft carrier (a Russian one at that), but it is building up its military and the announcement by Trump that the US is scaling up their military does not sound good. Let’s be frank, China and the US are unlikely to go to war – at least not directly and if they did both parties would have major casualties. However, a critical part of establishing a sustainable world order that is beneficial to most people must include a newfound respect by the West for China. During the first League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, the Japanese delegation and Asian people were not accorded the same rights as people of the western nations. This lack of respect for Japan and the Japanese led to a shift towards militarism and isolationism that contributed to the second world war.

The West is used to being in charge. This is despite the fact that China was the most advanced nation for most of human history. We will need to learn to live with a powerful China and to respect it or we will be doomed to conflict. This transition will be very difficult. It is one thing to tolerate a person or a nation, it is entirely different to treat them as an equal. Can the United States treat China as an equal? Or, is their pride and self confidence so high that they cannot consider China to be a true partner?

If you read western media, especially US, about China, there is often a very condescending tone. This is also true of coverage of countries such as France, the US is always better and the other countries are either too lazy, too corrupt, or cheating in some way. I recall reading an article a few years ago about how GE had re-engineered a water heater they made and was going to onshore production back to the US. The article implied that the Chinese did not understand great engineering and that these brilliant US engineers were able to outsmart the Chinese, simplify production and bring it back to America! There are great American engineers of course, but there are equally great Chinese engineers. To say otherwise comes close to racism. Regardless, GE sold its household appliance division to Chinese firm Haeir in 2016 for 5.4 Billion. Thinking you can outsmart China is a very dangerous position to have.

On the military front, the US actions in the South China Sea seem excessively arrogant and dangerous. The US has claimed certain islands to not be Chinese territory and they regularly navigate war vessels near Chinese territory, this cannot continue. Imagine if China had war ships, destroyers and aircraft carriers a couple hundred miles off the California Coast or near New York City, would the US tolerate that? As the golden rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This is especially true when the person you are treating is growing in power and strength. Who wants China to come back in 25 years and say, “remember how you treated us in 2017, now it is our turn”. If the US and the west cannot implement the golden rule with China, we will be in for a big, complicated and unpleasant situation.

The West often criticizes China for human rights abuses and indeed there is much room for improvement. However, we should not forget that over 2.2 million people are in jail in the US, much of western wealth was built on extreme violence, expropriation of ressources and slavery, and the second world war led to the mass extermination of 6 million innocent jews, communists and other dissidents. So human rights is something the West has had to invent and adapt to over the course of the past 60 years or so – not exactly ancient history. The West does have a right to criticize China for human rights abuses, but we should perhaps look at the situation in a broader context. China’s priority is peace, stability and prosperity. This unfortunately probably requires some forms of coercion that are not ideal. To grow the economy in China, avoid mass uprisings, maintain some form of environmental progress, somewhat control corruption and keep the various political and financial interests satisfied is a task with a complexity that is hard to measure.

Where will the world go from here? With Trump in the US, Brexit in Europe, Xi Jiping in China and general economic stagnation in the West it is very hard to say. One thing is certain, if the West does not begin to treat China as an equal and with the same respect they offer other western countries, we will have a problem. China may indeed want to dominate their sphere of influence in Asia, but that is no different from the Monroe doctrine the the US domination of the Americas for most of the 20th century. Frankly, China has been far less active at organizing coups and propping up dictators than the US – yet. As a Canadian, I think there is an important potential role for Canada to play a peacemaking, educational and conciliatory role between China and the United States. This must be done if we are to avoid the words outcomes of a growing power that hits a wall set by the established power structure. We all want respect, China, Canada, the US included – if we can offer genuine respect for each other there is hope for a strong and prosperous future. Without respect, we are lost.