This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 12th, 2012.
China’s growing importance on the world stage means that the West needs to start speaking its language, says economist Martin Jacques.
My son has been learning Mandarin Chinese since he was five; he is now just 14.
It has not been easy. Learning Chinese has required a deep pocket and the determination of an Olympic athlete.
For nine years, he fed on the scraps of a veritable army of part-time tutors, each one lasting a year or so if we were lucky. The reason? Until 12 months ago it wasn’t possible for him to learn it at school – French, Spanish German, Latin, even Ancient Greek, no problem. But not Chinese.
Even now, alas, it is very much a second-class subject. His lessons take place during the school lunch break.
The reluctance of the educational system – public and private – to grasp the Chinese nettle is a metaphor for a much wider problem: our ignorance about China and our failure to appreciate just how much it will change the world and transform our lives. With unerring regularity, our predictions about China have proved mistaken. Take its economy. In 1980 it was one-20th of the size of the US, today it is half the size and closing rapidly. Throughout that period, the doubting Thomases were always in a large majority. It would not last, sooner or later it would all end in tears.
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There has been virtually no discussion or coverage of China’s intellectual debates in this country. Perhaps the assumption is that there isn’t one; or if there is, then it is of little consequence. This is wrong on both counts. There is an extremely vibrant intellectual debate in China on many questions. This belies the widely-held view in the west that because China is not a western-style democracy, serious argument and debate must be largely absent. In fact, the contrary is true. The arguments among Chinese intellectuals are, I would suggest, more interesting and more novel than is the case in Britain, or even the United States.
The reason for this is twofold. First, China is changing so quickly that it constantly throws up new challenges and problems that require response and solution. In contrast, an economy growing at 2 percent – or these days, of course, barely at all – poses new kinds of problems only occasionally. Second, not only is China changing with extraordinary rapidity, but since the turn of the century it has also been transforming the world with great speed (even if this remains barely recognised in Britain’s insular and blinkered public discourse). Chinese intellectuals are no longer confronted simply with how to handle the country’s domestic development but also with what kind of global power China should become. Far from China’s foreign policy debate being of interest only or mainly to the Chinese, it has enormous import for the rest of the world. If we want to understand what the world will be like as China steadily usurps the US as the dominant global power, then the starting place must be the debate within China about the country’s future foreign policy.
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The financial crisis has seen the global economy turned on its head. And it is China, rather than America, that is set to dominate through both soft and hard power
The 2008 financial crisis marked a fundamental shift in the relationship between China and the United States. Nothing could or would be quite the same again. The management of the US economy was revealed to have been fatally flawed, a lightly regulated financial sector almost allowed to shipwreck the entire economy. In a few short months, the crisis served to undermine a near-universal assumption of American, and western, economic competence; in contrast, China’s economic credentials have been considerably burnished. The crisis at the same time exposed the huge levels of indebtedness that have sustained the American economy, accentuated since by the financial rescue package, while underlining the financial strength of the Chinese economy, now the world’s largest net creditor with its massive foreign exchange reserves. Although hardly new, the crisis finally woke Americans up to the fact that China had become their banker, with all this meant in terms of the shifting balance of power.
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China confronts Europe with an enormous problem: we do not understand it
China confronts Europe with an enormous problem: we do not understand it. Worse, we are not even conscious of the fact. We insist on seeing the world through our Western prism. No other tradition or history or culture can compare. Ours is superior to all and others, in deviating from ours, are diminished as a consequence. This speaks not of our wisdom but our ignorance, an expression not of our cosmopolitanism but our insularity and provincialism. It is a consequence of being in the ascendant for at least two centuries, if not rather longer. Eurocentrism – or perhaps we should say western-centrism – has become our universal yardstick against which, in varying degrees, all others fail.
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Once people risked all to get in – now they are queueing up to escape. Hard times in Hong Kong have made China the new Mecca
For days and days it had rained, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the millions of Hong Kongers, and hundreds of thousands of tourists, who came to witness the handover of Hong Kong to China. It was June 30, 1997, and the British laid on a firework display to remember as Chris Patten, the last governor, boarded the royal yacht Britannia and made his exit. The next night the Chinese staged an even more stunning display across the water that divides Hong Kong island from the Kowloon side. Hong Kong was engulfed in optimism – on June 30 about the past, and on July 1 about its future. The only doubt that lingered, along with the whiff of gunpowder, was what the Chinese might do with their new possession.
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