TOM PLATE WRITES – A friend of mine, someone I’ve known for decades – surely my best friend – is a most patriotic American. But unlike what many in China might imagine lurks in America’s secret heart, he’s not rooting for China to sputter, much less collapse. He’s not hoping for economic disaster or Maoist reversion or Japanese invasion or any great jolt backward of the kind. On the contrary he hopes China is now well clear of the worst of the past. Excluding nasty party hacks, militaristic admirals, etc. – if the Chinese as a whole deserve anything, they deserve a break.
And he is but one American, he believes, of very many that know there’s more to China than trade-deficits, the South China Sea and intellectual-property scamming – the inescapable Western media stories. The Chinese have brought to the world immense learning – thought-experimenting dialectically long before Hegel started synthesizing his theses. If the modern world had tried practicing the Mohism of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi, the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 might not have been needed. Western philosophy offers wonders – but isolated, if not alienated, from Eastern philosophy, it’s parochial and incomplete.
The extravagant, glitzy ‘Belt and Road’ plan of the national government in Beijing may wind up derailed by political and financing potholes, but it strikes my very close friend as exhibiting at least some genuine measure of optimistic drive. At the very least, there must be more than one way of looking at it besides the inevitable Eurocentric assumption of old-fashioned empire-building that the West used to do so sinfully well.
My friend said he read somewhere that China is the number-one higher-education choice of English-speaking African students, not the U.S. or Britain. Most Americans would be shocked to hear this: Their institutions of higher learning comprise the best in the world, as everyone knows. Maybe this astonishing educational migration is due to programmatic Beijing subsidies as part of a self-serving soft-power push in Africa? Many Americans may suspect a Communist brainwashing campaign. But my friend insists they’ve all been watching too many old movies: Some people might wish to go to China simply because they feel they might have much to learn.
In no little part because China has risen, Asia is rising, right? In case anyone’s been nodding off on the planet Neptune for the last decade or three, there’s a new book just for them with the title ‘The Future Is Asian.’ My very close friend (he’s a charitable sort, has been writing about Asia for many years) pointedly mentions that Kishore Mahbubani’s very first book on the global geopolitical revolution (ironically titled ‘Can Asians Think?’) was published back in 1998. This former Singaporean diplomat was the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, ranked in the top ten of such invaluable schools worldwide, after just 15 years old. That’s the new Asia. So fast.
Asia is where the president of the United States plans to deplane later this week . Mr Trump is to touch down in Hanoi for a meeting with the youngish Kim Jong Un. It’s a fitting, telling location. The economy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is booming and that of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not. This suggests that not all communist governments run their countries into the ground. Beijing – my friend points out – has persistently been offering a copy of its economic playbook to Pyongyang for years. Today’s Vietnam has profited from taking pages from that book to heart, as now must Mr Kim if he wishes to survive. My friend argues that the Nobel Prize Committee in Oslo could award Deng Xiaoping something nice posthumously, for showing how economic innovation is possible even in a rigid polity. It won’t happen; still, my best friend’s best advice to Beijing is to keep looking forward and don’t look back.
Yes, China’s economic ‘miracle’ has underwritten the refurbishing of a once-dilapidated military machine, especially its surging navy (PLAN) and air force (PLAAF). My close friend is surprisingly unruffled and makes two points. One, with its history of being exploited and invaded, its leaders would have to be brain-dead – or perhaps CIA double-agents – not to devote substantial resources to the defense sector. Two, if your aim is to become a global power, choosing the pacifist route is not exactly a time-honored formula. Its military buildup deserves no Nobel Peace Prize, for sure; but it is anything but senseless. The West will just have to deal with it.
Finally, my best friend offers this advice on how to view China to understand it: Psychologically, don’t park on the outside looking in – try to imagine being on the inside, looking out. That’s hard for Americans, who spend much of their time staring at themselves. If China has nothing to teach us but one thing, it is that there is usually more than one way to skin a cat, whether a black or white one. The trait is practically American, when you think about it.
By now you have concluded that my close friend is quite an odd fellow, and thus suspect that he might be me. Yes, I have been dialect-ing with myself, East meets West, in this peculiar methodology. I can say I try never to lie to myself; my hope is that I am not just talking to myself. (Then again, what are good friends for?) Peace is hard work; war is for simpler, cruder minds.
The initial version of this column appeared earlier in the week in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2187569/why-chinas-model-development-offers-asia
Columnist Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. This marks his one-hundredth consecutive fortnightly column appearing in the SCMP since June 2016.