By David Gosset
At the end of the 18th century, Lord Macartney, the ambassador of the British king George III, had been instructed to request in Beijing permission to send a British representative to the Chinese imperial court and to create the conditions for the expansion of trade between the Qing Dynasty and the British kingdom. The written answer of the Chinese emperor Qianlong, who reigned over the empire for 59 years (the People’s Republic is 60 this year) is, in a sense, a gem:
Why then should foreign nations advance this utterly unreasonable request to be represented at my court? If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil … I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfill the duties of the state: strange and costly objects do not interest me.
After centuries of complacent Sinocentrism behind the Great Wall and secretive imperial politics within the Forbidden City, China is still often perceived as self-centered, its mandarins as being aloof and self-satisfied. Such a persistent representation misses some fundamental features of 21st century China: an unprecedented level of opening-up and transparency, a thirst for a better understanding of the foreign world and a desire not only to modernize a huge and ancient country but to become a source of modernity.
Consequently, the traditional Chinese separation between the outside (wai), or the foreign, and the inside (nei), or "us", has been considerably reduced. Some elements of the Chinese society might feel uneasy about this change, but China’s opening up to the world does not equate to the loss of the Chinese identity; it is about the transformation of the idea of Chineseness and the revival of the Chinese civilization.
The common and vivid Chinese locution "jing di zhi wa", or the frog at the bottom of the well, is used to deride a mix of parochialism, narrow-mindedness and complacency. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global village, the expression does not apply to China. In a 2009 survey conducted by the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center, it appears that 93% of the Chinese respondents had a good opinion of international trade. The same institute estimates that 88% of the Chinese believe that their country’s economic situation is good (17% for the US, 14% for France and 10% for Japan).
In the Chinese collective psyche, opening-up, progress and confidence reinforce each other. The conjunction of these characteristics partly explains why the visitor to Beijing, Shanghai or Chongqing is often astonished by the energy which circulates, indeed, in most Chinese megalopolis. In 2009, the Pew center inquired about the level of satisfaction in 25 nations and the study shows that 87% of the Chinese are satisfied with the way things are going in their country (36% for the US, 27% for France and 25% for Japan). Any reflection on China’s political system, economy, business or diplomacy has to integrate this high level of confidence in sharp contrast with the general apprehension which dominates in the Western countries.
China’s top leadership adopts a constructive global perspective. Last month, on the occasion of the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese President Hu Jintao made three highly significant addresses which indicate that Beijing not only looks at itself as an integrated member of the world community but as a co-architect of the 21st-century world order.
At the UN climate change summit, Hu’s speech title was explicit: "Working together to meet the challenges of climate change." Besides, the main theme of Hu’s address at the UN Security Council summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament was the necessity to "work together to build a world with universal security". Moreover, at the UN General Assembly, Hu concluded his speech by a reference to the ideal of cosmopolitanism: "We are called upon by our times to unite as one and work together for mutual benefit and win-win progress like passengers in the same boat."
Even on Tiananmen Square on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, a ceremony, above all, targeted at a domestic audience, Hu mentioned his vision of a "harmonious world", "world peace" and China’s contributions to mankind.
The Chinese president is in phase with the Chinese society. As Zhao Qizheng, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), noted in a recent article, Chinese citizens have been transformed into "global citizens".
The effects of this evolution are considerable. The world community which hitherto was mainly a Western exclusive club has now 1.3 billion new active constituents open to the idea of a global order but who expect to be adequately represented in its regulatory or political bodies and equitably depicted in its mainstream media.
One can certainly find China’s new global citizens in the following segments of the Chinese society which give also an idea of the magnitude of China’s opening to the world.
Around 300 million Chinese people study or speak English. Events like the Beijing Summer Olympic Games last year or the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 stimulate the desire to learn the language of international exchanges. China’s largest English school organization, New Oriental, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The unorthodox Li Yang, who is at the head of the language school Crazy English, is a celebrity in mainland China.
With more than 3 million copies, Reference News (Cankao xiaoxi) is the newspaper with the largest circulation in the People’s Republic. Reference News’ loyal readers appreciate the fact that its content is mainly made of translated articles published all around the world. More generally, from July 2008 to June 2009, translated books accounted for 20% of China’s overall book market by title output and 30% of sales.
As of June 2009, with 338 million Internet users, China ranks first in the world for the number of netizens. By comparison, India has only 81 million internauts.
While the number of foreign students in China reached a record high of 223,499 in 2008, the number of Chinese studying abroad expanded to 200,000 in 2009. Since Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up policy in 1978, almost 1.5 million Chinese chose to study abroad.
In 2007, about 37 million Chinese traveled overseas. The World Tourism Organization predicts that 100 million Chinese tourists will travel abroad every year by 2020.
If more than 600,000 Chinese engineers graduate every year from institutions of higher education, one should also be aware that around 30 million Chinese are now learning piano and 10 million violin. Tests to enter the top Chinese conservatories attract nearly 200,000 students a year. The Ukrainian virtuoso, Isaac Stern, portrayed in the 1980 documentary From Mao to Mozart anticipated China’s massive opening-up to the beauties of Western classical music.
The late Spanish diplomat and composer, Delfin Colome, was right to argue in a thoughtful essay that "the future of classical music depends on Asia". And Robert Sirota, the distinguished American conductor and president of the Manhattan School of Music, is more specific: "I honestly think that in some real sense the future of classical music depends on developments in China in the next 20 years."
The Chinese people’s intense interest for the world does not mean that they forget or reject their own tradition. On the contrary, for most of the Chinese intellectuals or the Chinese global citizens, the opening up to foreign cultures is an invitation to the reinterpretation of China’s tradition. In fact, China’s curiosity for the outside world is concomitant with a return to the Chinese tradition and a reflection on the idea of "Chineseness".
Can the West open itself to a Chinese renaissance as China opens itself to the world? If the West believes that it has nothing to learn from China, from its ancient wisdom, aesthetics, values, if the West, facing the overall success of the Chinese model, refuses to question its own assumptions about economic and political modernity, it simply takes the risk to end up as the last frog in the well.
David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum. (Copyright 2009 David Gosset.)