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Speech to Oxford Union – 21st Century belongs to China

February 17, 2013

Why I support the motion

Ladies and gentlemen, that China will dominate the early half of the 21st century is in no doubt in my mind, nor I suspect even in the minds of the honourable opposition speakers. The Hon. Gentleman (Stephen Halper) from America himself just wrote a book called The Beijing Consensus that asserts literally in one of its titles that the Chinese Model will dominate the 21st century. Even the Hon. gentleman former ambassador opposite has been quoted as saying China’s rise is a “crucial event in the 21st century”. As you have heard from the honourable gentleman colleague from the Lords and will further hear from the Hon. Lady (Linda) to follow me the sheer size of its population, its energy and work ethic and smarts, and continued moderate economic growth will ensure that it will thrive and remain in the headlines in the decades to come.

What happens however when the growth eventually slows, when increasingly China is called upon to play a stronger role in international affairs, and when the population inevitably ages?

China will soon at that point face many of the same challenges Britain faced in the mid Victorian era – social and environmental challenges after decades of industrialisation and urbanisation (smog in fifties), calls for greater involvement of the people in decision making, vested interests within the establishment leading to abuses of power and corruption, a growing social media (cheap printing presses and early photography in our case), an economic model (in our case state sponsored mercantile capitalism) that needed to adapt, and a destabilising world beyond its borders in turmoil that was sometimes bloody and violent.

Then as now China’s development could stall and peter out. Or like Britain it could find a way through. Britain did this through enlightened more inclusive entrepreneurs like Spedan Lewis, son of John Lewis, and George Cadbury (or like a businessman I recently met from China who has started giving away shares knowing his diabetes will not let him live much longer). Britain did it through leaders inside and outside the country responding to public opinion who knew change eventually was needed and who over time clarified the law (recent events in Ningbo showed that change is possible); and Britain did it through the gradual development of a more vocal middle class who mobilised to solve social problems in education, health, and housing.

Britain evolved over time to respond to the challenges of industrialisation. But it took us time – around a century before we had a full democracy – and even then around the same time that Germany’s own democracy gave them one of the worst dictators of the 20th century. Recent experiments in the last decade in village level democracy in China reportedly led to seventy percent of elected posts being filled by gangsters. Even in Greece today where western democracy was born worryingly fascists are making once again a bid for power. Even the Hon. Gentleman opposite from Hong Kong in a recent debate a few years ago at the Royal Geographic Society said that the future belongs to China not India, despite the advantages the latter has in terms of democracy and Western style governance. Good democracy takes time and money to build. Millions of Chinese still live in poverty today. So where we might get to in China might be different and have Chinese or Confucian features and not just conform to the neo liberal expectations that we have in the west – the point is that it will take time.

China has, in my view, a number of key elements that will help it make a continued impact well into the latter half of this century beyond its sheer momentum and size and the ability to direct policy in its own unique way.

Firstly, it has development model that will reverberate around the world: if this is to be China’s century it will also be Southeast Asia and Africa and South America’s century fuelled by Chinese investment, road and railway building, and access to a huge market. In many ways this process is a continuation of the former British model completing the industrial revolution we began to spread, developing cities and building infrastructure to lift millions out of poverty; a model we abandoned in the 20th century but which we can participate in again as we help train and advise those from all around the world who will spend their lives after studying and working here once more helping to build and educate and administer the new cities of the 21st century into which the citizens of the world are moving – the Chinese dream led by the second generation of entrepreneurs building up China’s consumer, health and education sectors which we in Britain have much value to add and help build; one that will necessarily need to be sustainable for the environment and society unlike the American Dream we have developed in the West; and one which will have wider influence in the world not just through cheap goods but increasingly in the fashions and trends that affect our lives. Only a few years ago products and services from Japan and South Korea were regarded as inferior and copycat and sweatshop based and now our teenagers read manga and even our royalty dances Gangnam Style. How long will it be before we see and follow fashions and technologies emerging from Shanghai, Beijing, and the other five hundred cities built or being built in China in the next decade or so; how many more businesses will we see like Made.com and solar companies and digital computer graphics firms that harness western innovation alongside Chinese engineering and markets, and others yet to emerge developing new forms of eco-affordable housing, wearable technology, health food and drinks, and transportation? We must also remember the Chinese dream is also the world’s dream (Samsung’s business is forty percent Chinese); over seventy percent of GDP is run by private firms in china, half of exports in China is from foreign owned firms, and only thirty percent is in state hands, mainly in industries such as energy where we in the west constantly complain about price rigging among those we have privatised.

The third element in China’s favour is a healthy fear of the alternative and this is where your opinion really counts; you hold the key to whether this is a Chinese century or not, or whether it is one which descends and fragments into conflict and mistrust; you are not innocent bystanders; will you go for what is in fact the underdog and see how a Chinese century could in fact continue to benefit all of us or side with those who are ideologically wedded to a narrative of western superiority which has in part contributed to the mess we all face – one which has abandoned the young through over indebtedness, indecision, and social breakdown. When we hear criticism we must also be mindful of the agenda of those throwing stones, who do not themselves necessarily come from a neutral, unbiased perspective. As the ambassador recently himself wrote: “There are those, for example on the US right wing, who would describe China’s influence as fundamentally malign: militaristic, expansionist, challenging the United States in its back yard. I do not think that that thesis can be sustained.” The tea party would love to see China’s emergence falter. The tea party would love for the 21st century to belong to them.

Alternatively we can continue to enjoy the fruit of China’s development in more affordable goods, jobs, and investment and prize the hard work, respect, and family orientation that Chinese culture emphasises. China has, against the odds and unbelievable opposition over centuries, overcome defeat, opium wars, and a lack at times of hope and self belief. China’s private entrepreneurs have endured the most incredible hardship often from crushing poverty and obstacles to get to where they are today; China citizens experience greater freedoms today than they did ten years ago despite setbacks and millions of them now travel the world hungry to learn. Will you join in and be part of and encourage this process and reap the benefits or will you knock her and set us on a path to conflict out of fear, isolationism, and mistrust? Will you start new opium wars that arose out of jealousy and a desire to reduce China’s trade surplus, wars which Gladstone described as unjust and a disgrace to our great British nation? The only people in my view who ultimately will benefit from such Cold War 20th century thinking are those who make weapons and writers of hawkish right wing books and articles.

Or will you choose the path of peace, of development with inevitable setbacks; but which can with our help and greater understanding lead to sustainable prosperity in the end not just for China, but for us all? The choice is yours. I say let this century belong to China and thereby let it belong to all of us.

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