Is China a Power?
Speech by Ambassador Fu Ying at Oxford Union
Union Officers and Members,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to speak here.
When I was a student of international politics in Kent University many years ago, I took part in a program which included an Oxford Union debate.
I remember we gave the speaker very hard time.
Now it’s my turn to be on the grill. But I do feel duty bound to come back to contribute to the good tradition of academic debating in Oxford.
My topic is about China: “is China a power?”
The splendid fireworks of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 are seen as marking China’s ascendance into world power status.
Chatham House, Wilton Park, the Financial Times and Economist, together with many American publications are all talking about China as a power.
An international consensus is emerging that China is a world power. There is therefore a lot of scrutiny about the rights and wrongs in China and what China should and should not do.
Fred Bergsten, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, first suggested the idea of G2. Brzezinski believed that China is second only to the United States. A survey in Europe at the end of 2007 echoed his view, as 80% of respondents believed China has become the number two world power. Clearly China is moving from the margin to the center of world politics.
There are some loudly expressed concerns about what kind of power China will become. I am often asked during speech occasions: as China grows stronger, would China impose its will on others?
But, is China a power? The response of the Chinese people is very different. Most of them see China still as a developing country. A popular saying in Chinese is “HuYou” 忽悠 (meaning sweeping China off its feet).
Last January, I hosted a debate in my Embassy. The topic was China’s international status. About 140 people came, including embassy diplomats, business people and journalists stationed in London. It was the most heated debate I’ve had with my fellow Chinese.
A young man kicked off the debate by saying that China is a world power second only to the US. He was challenged by almost the whole crowd. People spoke one after another, citing statistics and problems in China to argue that we are just another developing country.
I then asked, who would agree with him? I saw only four hands up. It means only five people, including the gentleman himself, or less than 4% of the participants, shared Brzezinski’s perception.
Then I asked the crowd: which country do you think is the No 2 power in the world? They answered almost without hesitation, “Russia”. “Which is the third?” “Germany.” “The fourth?” “Great Britain.” When it came to the fifth, some said France, some said it could be China.
Though such generalized way of ranking cannot be an accurate reflection of the complex positions and circumstances of different countries, yet this discussion can reflect the general thinking of the Chinese people.
Are we right, and is the world wrong? There are clearly facts to support both arguments.
Many years ago, when Mr. Deng Xiaoping was summarizing about China with an international visitor, he said, China was both “big and small, strong and weak”. This still remains true of today’s China.
People outside China tend to see the big and strong aspects of China, while inside China, we are more aware of its weaknesses and challenges.
Let me compare some statistics about China and UK to illustrate the two dimensions of China.
-- China’s GDP has ascended to the 3rd place in the world in 2008, and is expected to rise to No 2 in the near future. UK’s ranking came down to No 6.
However, in per capita terms, China has only US$3,000, its world ranking is No 104, while UK has about US$46,000, 15 times higher, ranking 20th.
This means, UK citizens have a much higher living standard.
-- In terms of trade, China is the third largest in the world, UK is No 8. However, UK is No 2 in the world in services trade and China is just developing the services sector.
--- By the end of March, China’s foreign exchange reserves are 30 times that of UK. Among the 10 biggest banks in the world, 4 are from China and 1 is from UK. The market value of ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) can buy two HSBCs with a bit of surplus. However, London is a global financial center with about 550 foreign banks and 170 international securities firms. Among the top 500 companies in Europe, 100 set their headquarters in London.
The UK is a post industrial society and urban residents take up 90% of the population. China is in the early phase of industrialization and urbanization. 60% of the population is rural residents. And 135 million people still live under a dollar a day.
The list can go on and on. That is why, as a survey shows, 80% of Chinese disagree that we have achieved the status of a global power.
As an old Chinese saying goes, only the family members can appreciate the complexities and difficulties within the family. The Chinese Premier once remarked: any small problem in China can grow into a huge one if multiplied by 1.3 billion. A big achievement can become too tiny to notice once divided by that number.
Then, what is China’s target? What are we trying to achieve?
It is hard to generalize. To put in a simple term, we are hoping to develop China into a country with prosperity, democracy and rule of law and a country that works for peace and cooperation in the world.
The Chinese pursuit of prosperity is to enable everyone to have a roof over the head, every child in school, the sick having access to medical care and the elderly taken care of. That is now within grasp.
For the first time in history, people are not dying of hunger in China. Even when I was in college, the greeting words for people meeting each other on the street was not: how are you?
But: have you had your meal? Food was the biggest concern of the families and of the government.
Now you ask the young people like my daughter: have you had your meal? They would wonder if you have a problem. I met an American couple from the States who just came back from Shanghai. They think the Shanghai skyline is surreal.
But the most significant changes in China have happened not only in big cities like Shanghai, but in vast rural China. I wonder how many people noticed that in the first day of 2006 China abolished agricultural tax.
For 2600 years the central kingdoms and successive governments mainly depended on taxing the farmers. This move marks the transition of China from an agrarian to industrial society.
In 2007, the program of extending power supply to every village, many people saw electric light for the first time in their lives. About half of the rural population in China never went into the hospital for economic reasons. A cooperative medical care scheme now covered 90% of rural China. Albeit small, 50 yuan per person to start with, it has grown to 100 yuan now, and has enabled many farmers to be cared of in sickness.
Although the prosperity is not evenly shared and there is still poverty in the countryside, we are confident that the trend of prosperity is going to continue and the people will be better off with each passing year.
I can’t talk about China without mentioning the political and democratic development. The world tends to over-estimate the economic progress in China and overlook China’s progress in political reform and socialist democratic development.
Before coming here, I searched through Baidu, a Chinese search engine, “China’s democratic political reform”, I got 1.39 million results in less than a second. There are very different opinions on this subject and some interesting analyses and suggestions.
For me, having seen the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s and having witnessed the progress of the reform, I can see China has come a long way in the development of democratic decision making and the rule of law.
Take the role of the National People’s Congress for example, it has assumed a very important role in China’s political life. Of the 231 pieces of laws in China, 223 were promulgated in the past 30 years. The National People’s Congress is covering huge legislative work that in many countries was done in a span of hundreds of years. The property law took a record 7 years of debating throughout the country. When the labor law was debated, the NPC received 200,000 suggestions. 65% came from the grassroots level.
I remember the first time international journalists appeared during the National People’s Congress, the delegates were quite surprised. Now they come in bigger number. 800 came this year, and they can even sit in some of the meetings and ask questions.
As President Hu Jintao said at the 17th Party Congress: power should operate under the sunshine.
At the center of the democratic reform is the decision making process. Both the Party and the Government have set up the structure with which major decisions are made only after full consultations.
Transparency in the personnel system has also been a focus of constant reform measures.
I once visited the Ministry of Science and saw at the entrance hall some big posters about who is going to be promoted and opinions are invited. This is done at all levels and for all important posts.
Election was introduced at rural level 10 years ago. 64,000 village committees were set up as of the end of 2004, all of them being directly elected. 85% of the villages have set up mechanism for important decisions.
However, I am not saying that China has the perfect democratic system. The reason that the President used the term democracy about 60 time is precisely because, as the General Secretary of the Party, he wanted to emphasis the importance and was calling for greater effort to develop democracy in the Party and the government.
We are half way through the reform program and everything is still in a transitional process.
Just like you can see new buildings in Beijing every year, you will also see new political development in China every year.
The direction is towards greater openness, transparency and accountability.
On the international front, the role China wants to play is to encourage dialogue and cooperation.
We do not believe in imposing our own will on others, or interfering into other countries’ internal affairs.
I was personally involved in the 6-party talks in which China’s role was to mediate between the North Koreans and Americans.
The North Koreans believed that they had two options: going nuclear or go into negotiations. We said China can not support them going nuclear because it was not in the interest of peace in the region. However, if they accepted negotiation, we would be fully supportive.
We also told the Americans that we were not with them for regime change through military means. We would only take part in a peace process.
The path to negotiated settlement proved to be the widely supported option for the peninsular issue. Though it is in stalemate now, I am confident that the parties will come back to the negotiating table.
We see our role in the world as contributing to peace. China’s interest has never been so closely linked with the world and vice versa.
The financial crisis brought home the fact that we are sharing one boat. As the Chinese President remarked at the London summit, only by working together, can we steer the boat to its desired destination.
Now coming back to the question with which I started the speech, is China a power?
I firmly believe that, China, a country with 1.3 billion smart, hard working and happy people, is destined to be a strong country in the world. But China will not become a hegemon.
China has come this far not through war, but through hard work by its vast number of people and through fair trading with the world. The source of strength of China is in its economy.
China’s diplomatic objective is to promote peace and cooperation in the world, in which China can continue to prosper and its people can achieve better life.