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Friday, 26 November 2010

26 November 2010

BEIJING -- There’s a saying – I think – that you should sometimes try standing in another man’s shoes, so that you can experience what it feels like to be someone else.

For the past several days, I’ve been here in Beijing, standing (metaphorically) in Chinese shoes, trying to look at the world through China’s eyes. (You can hear a fascinating discussion about this on tonight’s – Friday’s – programme, or via the website.)

Think of China as a 17-year-old, said one Chinese academic on our panel. Nearly adult, but not quite ready yet to shoulder all of an adult’s responsibilities. Whenever things go wrong (climate change, for example), the first reaction is along the lines of “Why should I clear up the mess? It’s not my fault.”

Just about everyone I spoke to made the same point: Yes, China understands that with its ever-growing prosperity come ever-growing responsibilites -- but its over-riding responsibilities are to its own people, and it’s not going to bow to foreign pressure just to keep Washington or London happy.

Take the exchange rate, for example. The renminbi is far too cheap against the dollar, says Washington. It gives China’s exporters an unfair advantage, and contributes to a dangerous imbalance in global trade. (In a nut-shell, China exports too much, and imports too little.)

OK, says China. What would happen if we revalued the currency? We’d lose valuable export orders, and tens of millions of Chinese workers would lose their jobs. Not a good idea. True, China could do more to encourage domestic demand to take up at least some of the slack -- but seen from here, that’s already being done.

Standing in China’s shoes – or seeing the world through China’s eyes – you begin to understand why its leaders are so single-minded in their pursuit of economic growth and domestic stability. This is a country which less than 100 years ago was weak, divided and at war with itself – which helps to explain why it prizes stability almost above all else.

But our panellists acknowledged that sometimes it perhaps fails to appreciate quite how intimidating it can look, especially to its neighbours. We’re like an elephant, they said, but perhaps we should try harder to look like a friendly elephant.

You probably won’t need reminding of the numbers: the biggest population of any country on earth – 1.3 billion and growing; the second biggest economy, having overtaken Japan and now catching up with the United States. Plus, it’s now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

So what does China want from the rest of the world? More patience, perhaps, and more understanding of its own domestic needs. A realisation that yes, it’s now a massive global economic presence, yet it’s still in many ways a developing nation which needs to invest huge amounts in basic infrastructure.

Is it throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases? More assertive, yes, because it sees its own interests threatened by the demands being made on it from outside. More aggressive, no – this is not a country that goes to war against its neighbours (we’ll leave the Tibet discussion for another day.)

When we came to discuss this week’s sharp rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula, after the two Koreas exchanged artillery barrages and four South Koreans were killed, the expert view was that Beijing’s influence over its North Korean ally is probably less than many Western governments believe. The priority for China, they said, is to keep the lid on things – the last thing they want here is a military conflagration on their doorstep or the total collapse of North Korea.

For much of the past 30 years, China has opted for a quiet life in international affairs whenever possible. Its leaders understand now that they need to engage more than they used to – but I have the impression that they’d much rather be left alone.

After all, they have more than enough challenges of their own to deal with, and even though they don’t face the prospect of being voted out of office, they still know that they need to respond to public pressure. And you only have to look at some of the online chat-rooms (not an entirely free debating forum, of course) to see that much of the pressure is for a tougher foreign policy, not a more emollient one.

You may be wondering why I haven’t touched on human rights, or democracy, or the fate of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. They are all important issues, but our task this week was to focus on China’s foreign policy and its relationship with the rest of the world. We’ll look at domestic policy on other occasions.

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