SupChina CEO Anla Cheng
The world runs through China. This is my overarching takeaway from the recent NEXTChina Conference in New York City sponsored by SupChina. Eminent speakers from the business, non-profit, government, medical, and entertainment fields peered into “the future of China” and addressed “why it matters for you.” Given the times we live in, so much of the conversation was framed in light of U.S.-China relations and the impacts this relationship has bilaterally and globally. One attendee commented that this future appears depressing. While such an outcome is easily envisioned, it is not pre-ordained.
Why does China matter? China matters because it is an ascendant nation economically, politically, and increasingly militarily. Backed by enormous sums of money generated by an unleashed market economy over the past four decades, China is leveraging her re-found clout to make tremendous strides at home in developing cutting edge technologies with global impacts and abroad in power projection. Artificial intelligence. Automation. Medicine. Environment. Each of these have broad implications in the social, economic, political, and military spheres, and in all of them, China is taking a lead, creating breakthroughs, and driving the discussion in an increasingly assertive manner.
How does China matter? China’s governance structure is vastly different from the systems that dominated in prior centuries. A command and control mentality powers an overarching goal of securing stability. The past is always prologue in China, and the memory of the turbulence of the latter half of the Qing Dynasty and the twentieth century is never far from the surface. Thus, while the Chinese populace may be newly confident, the country’s political system is strictly command and control. Though China’s domestic economy has exploded since the 1980’s, it too is subject to frequent command and control oversight and direction. What is generating perhaps the most upset currently, particularly outside China and to a lesser extent inside China, is the expanding command and control social order. And this is where the potential impacts of China’s rise may be most potent. What kind of future do people of the world want? China likes to expound grand visions in this regard, e.g., the Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025, and the Thousand Talents Plan. These aspirational dictates are roadmaps for the future, expressions of a desired aim to achieve respect and equality, if not more. These plans are increasingly met with chagrin in the West as a challenge to Western order. But as one Conference speaker stated, “the issue isn’t why China has so many open, aspirational plans. The issue is why doesn’t the U.S.”
Is the world ready for this new China? Apparently not. The word, decoupling, featured prominently throughout the Conference. Are the societies of the West and China separating after four decades of growing closer together? If so, what will decoupling look like and is it even possible? Why is decoupling happening, and what do the reasons therefore have to do with relative positions of strength or weakness, perceived or real? How can a coupled relationship be modified to mitigate and ameliorate deleterious impacts causing strife domestically and beyond? What will happen if the world actually splits into two competing systems in finance and investment, science and technology, education, and military power? In such a profound event, who will be the winners, and who will be the losers? In such an event, what happens to the world?
Is this, in the words of one speaker, “the worst time in U.S.-China relations in living memory?” There is no denying that a shift is under way among world powers. Some of this shift is organic; some is deliberate. Though politics drives most the debate at national levels, this does not have to be a zero-sum game. If cooler heads prevail in capitals around the globe, today’s weighty issues can be tackled to find a compromise path forward. It is not like this has not been accomplished before. Such a path will be neither easy nor smooth, but cooperation, collaboration, and fostering of mutual understanding and respect should be the focus. These require a long-term mindset. The following sound like platitudes, but all sides need to understand that not all is good and not all is bad. We need to be able to discuss the positive and negative openly and in a rational manner.
Whether two proud nations, driven by strong personalities, can re-balance their relationship on a more equal footing is an open question, but the efforts being made by so many are encouraging and worthy of support. It is so true that progress often takes place behind the headlines. A handful of examples include a leading private, western-style healthcare organization operating in China to improve health and well-being, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering women in both countries, a cross-national collaboration by California with China on climate change, an entrepreneur promoting an alternative educational program to improve the lives of children in China, and a young, Chinese particle physicist spreading a message of clear-eyed engagement. Ultimate success in the world working with China and in China working with the world will be determined by the people of different nations connecting with each other so that relationships can move forward.
The world runs through China. The world and China need to deal with it.
Cheng Yangyang Podcast Taping
Dashan (Mark Rowswell) in China