The Communist Party of China (CPC) commemorated its 100-year anniversary on July 1, 2021, a day that was met with celebratory Chinese introspection and no small amount of criticism from China’s detractors. I had the privilege of being invited to speak at two international conferences to mark the celebration, one of which was attended by President Xi Jinping. This article summarizes the points I made in both talks.
During this 100-year period, the world has advanced beyond recognition and China in particular has faced the greatest transformation of any civilization across the 20th and 21st centuries: it has lifted 850 million people out of poverty and is rapidly becoming the greatest economic and technological power of our time. But now that it has reached this milestone, it will face new challenges and must ask itself, what comes next?
The answer: arguably its most important years facing the outside world, as it moves into a position of greater global responsibility and leadership than ever before whilst being challenged by established powers that see the need to constrain its rise.
China’s rise has without a doubt impacted the entire world, and the different lenses applied to its ascendance dictate how those impacts are felt and interpreted. Universally, albeit for different reasons, no country wants to see China abuse its position of power or behave erratically. After all, the pattern of large powers abusing their influence over others is no secret and history is replete with too many instances of Western colonial powers subjugating other civilizations in blatant exploitation.
Thus, as China looks to the immediate future following the centenary, it needs to be very aware that other countries look to China with questions. Therefore, how should China navigate 21st century complexity for itself – given its commitment to a peaceful rise – and for the good of the world? There are three main areas.
This first is its role as a leader in the post-Western world. Global trends, including responses to the pandemic, point towards the emergence of a new world order, one not incumbent on Western rules of engagement – and China has perhaps the most important role to play of any country in moulding the framework for this post-Western world. China’s rise has allowed other counties to believe that they too can create a prosperous future not reliant on subservience to current Western orthodoxies.
However, this will not be easy. The transition to a post-Western world will likely be the defining struggle at a geopolitical and international business level for the next 50 years. So even though China has done an unparalleled job in achieving positive change inside its borders, the greater challenge is how to ensure the world (particularly the West) embraces China in its position as a global leader, fit to guide the post-Western framework in the international arena, and to make sure its detractors don’t have the ammunition by which to demonize it
Currently, however, dialogue between Western media and Chinese media is almost Cold War-esque, fraught to the point of being termed an ideological war, and one that is not going to cease any time soon. We have already seen the complexity of the transition, with Hong Kong being cast as an orphan child, birthed from the movement into the post-Western world.
China therefore has a need to engage in the international PR game as it enters a new global leadership role – to campaign for a “softer approach” as President Xi has encouraged, with smart storytelling and not overt propaganda. The global Western media spotlight is fixed on its actions, meaning it cannot afford to slip up. In particular, it needs to be careful how it interacts with smaller countries in Asia and Africa (the Belt and Road Initiative, for example), because these actions will be scrutinized critically by the Western media with their usual fault-finding mindset when it comes to China.
The second area China needs to focus on as it looks to the future is on becoming a champion to face existential threats. By this, I mean the combined dangers of climate change, resource constraints, over-pollution, inequities, serious demographic issues and even future global health shocks.
Although China is often described in the Western world as being a large-scale polluter, it has also taken the greatest strides of any nation in working towards a more sustainable society. It must go even further. The G7 may criticize China, but it has a low carbon dioxide emission per capita, at 7.05 tons, which is significantly below that of the United States (16.56), Canada (15.32), or even Australia (16.92). Furthermore, China is the world leader in producing solar energy — at 205,000 megawatts in 2019, which is over three times as much as the US, in second place with 62,000 megawatts.
Thus, China will need to play a leading role in tackling climate change, creating policies, technologies, and systems that can be adopted around the world, rooted in the realities of each country’s context. In fact, it must do so in partnership with other countries – and integrate this into its Belt and Road Initiative.
For example, take China’s urban planning. The nation’s aim to become an “eco-civilization” has already seen entire cities adopt electric public transport (like Shenzhen with 16,000 electric buses, and 22,000 electric taxis), and be designed with minimal resource use and waste management in mind, while it has connected its peripheries with the largest high-speed rail network in the world, which has significantly lower CO2 outputs than traditional rail or domestic vehicle use.
Another key existential issue is the war for resources: because China’s population and economy are both so large, it naturally extracts and consumes a huge number of resources locally and globally. It therefore needs to show the world that it is a responsible steward of its resources and will not perpetuate damaging behaviors within its own borders or, more importantly, in other nations as its economy and global relationships expand.
This means using its prudent – yet powerful – policymaking instruments to create and follow through with change. For example, China’s sea fisheries are the largest in the world, and like almost all countries’ fisheries, are only loosely regulated, contributing substantially to the depopulation of fish stock globally and the ecosystem collapse that many experts fear is imminent. The last thing China needs is to be seen as depleting global common goods or encroaching on other nations’ resources in pursuit of more consumption or economic progress.
Fortunately, China is becoming more aware of these issues, and has begun to act internally. Staying on the topic of fisheries, on Jan 1, 2020, China enacted an historic policy: a 10-year commercial fishing ban for China’s largest river, the Yangtze. Putting the wellbeing of the environment and community before commercial interest is no mean feat. China should now find intelligent ways of implementing these visionary guidelines, starting with setting good examples with its own massive deep sea fishing fleets, demonstrating to the world its respect for sustainable resource extraction in the long-term interest of humankind. This should be the central tenet in its interaction with other nations especially the smaller ones.
This leads onto the final point, which is that China can actualize a vision of shared prosperity among many nations through the Belt and Road Initiative. It is the prime opportunity for China to put its money where its mouth is: to demonstrate it interacts with countries in Asia and Africa in a manner befitting of a leader of the post-Western world who practices sustainable development in win-win arrangements with local partners. Otherwise, it leaves itself open to criticism and misunderstanding.
For example, in dialogues of development economics, there exists a concern that China is pushing ahead unconcerned. While many of these concerns may be exaggerated in the media, China needs to demonstrate care, nonetheless.
Sustainability-wise, this means that China needs to ensure the speed of its massive infrastructure projects in other countries do not compromise on longevity, ethics, or appropriate resource use. Similarly, it must tackle fears that increasing connectivity is just a pretext for uncontrolled over extraction of local resources to sustain China’s rapid economic growth and large population – essentially, that China is positioning itself to become a neo-imperialist power.
In fact, China can turn this challenge into an opportunity. Handled with diplomatic finesse, the Belt and Road Initiative can potentially uplift economies and alleviate poverty in partner countries in mutually beneficial ways. This also serves as a statement to the world that multinational development and growth does not need to rely on Western modes of top-down development (and neo-imperialism), as with World Bank FDI deals in many African nations. This is why many African nations prefer partnering with China, rather than with the West.
Of course, there are nonetheless Chinese commercial and private interests going around the world and unwittingly damaging the reputation of China with poor behaviors and malpractices with local actors. Solving this will require a policy- and culture-based mindset shift, so that companies which go abroad are very conscious of what the CPC’s line is on how to behave, and what would happen if they cross said lines.
If China can address these issues, it will reassure many smaller nations in Africa and Asia that China is intent on spreading its influence in equitable ways, different from the rise of Western nations. Its challenge will be to rise to be the largest economy in the world, but at the same time, guide smaller and weaker nations onto a path of prosperity that is sustainable in our constrained 21st century.
Indeed, the next 100 years could see China become the leading global power, and it has an opportunity to differentiate itself from the West, by prioritizing sustainable development and equitable partnership with the rest of the world.
This article has been republished from China Daily.