Is China's Choice to Submit to the U.S. or Challenge It?

05/26/2015 04:13 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
WorldPost Illustration

This article was adapted from a speech delivered on May 19 at the University of Chicago.

Most of the students here [at the University of Chicago] were born after 1990. In China, we call people like you "90hou," meaning the post-90 generation. You share one thing in common -- you are in synchronization with latest developments of the world.

For my generation, by the first time I heard of an operating system called Windows, Mr. Bill Gates was already the richest man on earth. Now trendy Chinese wait on tenterhooks for every iPhone launch just like here. "Fast & Furious 7" was released in Beijing cinemas at about the same time as in Chicago.

Since so much information is shared among young people all over the world today, shouldn't the younger generation be more open and more ready to understand each other? Isn't it possible to find a new way to build a global order capable of ensuring lasting peace?

When your President Obama spoke here on a Father's Day a few years ago, he said the most important thing for parents is to pass along the value of empathy -- the ability to stand in somebody else's shoes; to look at the world through their eyes.

Peace in China; the Thirty Years' War in Europe

In that regard, the first point of my speech today is about China's experience with the evolving world order.

Henry Kissinger's latest book, "World Order," set off lots of discussion in China. It is absorbing to read the 400 years of rise and fall of powers since the Westphalia peace conference, and the wars and conflicts that led to power shifting.

However, as the book also points out, the Westphalian system was not universal, but one of the many systems that coexisted in isolation from each other given the circumstances. Obviously, [in those days] they didn't have the Internet.

While in China, where history had been carrying on for a long time, a different system of governance, values and traditions were nurtured, which have an influence to the present day. So our view of history may have a different base.

Let me pick up a few moments of history along the evolution of world order laid down in that [Dr. Kissinger's] book.

In 1648, Europe finalized the Westphalia treaty to end the Thirty Years' War and established a modern sense of order among nation states, recognizing their sovereignty and self-determination of internal affairs. Then it spread its colonial power to many corners of the world, including America. The United States freed itself and declared independence in 1776.

In this period in Asia, the long and generally peaceful era had endured. China's Qing Dynasty was in its prime. The population in the 18th century was greater than all the European countries put together. But this serenity [that had lasted] for almost 2,000 years was broken when the European imperialists arrived in the middle of 19th century.

By the time the Versailles treaty was signed in 1919 at the end of the First World War, most part[s] of Asia [had been] colonized and China's territorial integrity too had been violated.

By then, the last emperor of China had abdicated. The attempt by political elites to install a republic and western style parliamentary system had failed once and again in one way or another. The country was descending into chaos and conflict. The young generation looked in other directions for a solution.

It was in this context that the Communist Party of China was set up in 1921 by a dozen or so young people, mostly in their late 20s.

Fast forward to 1941. When Henry Luce of Time Magazine proclaimed the arrival of the American Century, two thirds of China's territory fell under Japanese occupation. Thirty-five million people died or [were] wounded in war.

China will host a major commemoration [in] September to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory in the war against Japanese aggression. We will remember the heroes, reflect on history and the value of peace. China and the U.S. fought on the same side [in that war,] and we will never forget the heroic American pilots who helped China during the war.

China Reconnects to the World

When peace did come, in 1949 the PRC [People's Republic of China] was founded, [and] the economy was on the brink of disaster. Average life expectancy was under 35 years and more than 90 percent of the population was illiterate.

In other words, for many years following the end of the Second World War, when the two superpowers [the U.S. and the Soviet Union] contested for world power, achieving a sort of balance of terror, China's main concern was its very survival, not least feeding its big population. There were many setbacks along the way in China. I still have a keen memory of the hunger and confusion of my younger days.

In the late 1970s, China's relationship with the world turned a new page. The Mainland regained China's legal seat at the UN. The policy of reform and opening to the outside world led by Deng Xiaoping enabled China to reconnect with the world economy.

So when the Chinese talk about the international system, we are referring to the institutions with the UN at the center. China has committed [to that system] ever since. Learning from its painful history, China believes in the principles of equality among all sovereign nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries as enshrined in the UN Charter.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, when attending the event marking the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference [of non-aligned nations earlier this year,] reiterated the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (Mutual respect; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; peaceful co-existence).

The reason I took you on this brief journey is to illustrate that when discussing world order, we should be mindful of different experiences of history and their impact on our perspectives [today.] [Because of those differing perspectives,] we may not have the same feeling for certain things.

Is China Big, Bad or Just Weird?

China has very much grown. But, I have to say, knowledge and understanding of China in the outside world, especially in Western countries, hasn't quite kept up.

A friend of mine, a European journalist and keen observer of China, summed up Western media reporting on China in three categories.

-- China is either incredibly big -- it has the biggest population, biggest cities, even the biggest demand for luxury goods

-- Or China is so bad -- doing all the wrong things and not fitting into the norms

-- Or China is so weird -- eating weird stuff and having weird ways of doing things.

I receive many members of the U.S. Congress often making their first visits to China. What strikes them the most is their encounters with ordinary Chinese, such as the migrant workers they bump into while visiting the Palace Museum, or young [entrepreneurs] whose ambition is to be the next Jack Ma of Alibaba.

The ordinary people represent the true face of China, and they are the real driving force for China to grow strong and successful.

To Submit or to Challenge?

I often read memoirs by American politicians, and I am always fascinated about how the U.S. is deeply and effectively involved in the world affairs. [More than that, these leaders] are equally enthusiastic about the internal affairs of other countries.

One cannot help but wonder: is the prevalent understanding of world order amongst Americans that of a world dominated by U.S. rules and power? Is it only centered on American values and interests and supported by U.S. alliances? Does that mean that from the U.S. perspective, rising powers only have two choices: to submit or to challenge? What would you do if you were in this [our] situation?

China is one such rising power. It has grown largely by marrying its natural advantages to the opportunities offered by globalization rather than putting the "flag before trade." Capital, markets, resources and talents that had accumulated only in western countries since the advent of industrialization now have spread outward due to globalization.

Riding on this tide, China has made continued policy reforms and achieved a 9 percent rate of growth for 30 years, allowing great improvement of people's living standard and growing into the world's second biggest economy. It is now the first trading partner to 130 countries. It is even predicted that China's economy will be the world's biggest by 2020.

And yet, international academics have found, to their disbelief, that most Chinese are disinterested in the debate about a new shifting of world power or power competition in the traditional sense.

For us in China, we see inconsistencies at play. For example, if someone or some groups kill innocent people in western countries, they are terrorists. Yet if the same thing happens in China, it's often viewed as ethnic or political issues by foreign observers. When China's neighbors act provocatively on territorial issues, the U.S. turns its head away. Yet when China defends its interests, it is described as either assertive or a bully.

"If we cannot even agree on the most basic premises, how can we have a meaningful debate on the evolution of world order?"

If we cannot even agree on the most basic premises, how can we have a meaningful debate on the evolution of world order? In Guangdong, when people are talking past each other, they are described as having a "dialogue between chicken and duck."

China's focus remains [on its] many domestic challenges, such as environmental pollution, fighting corruption, countering the economic slowdown and steadily improving the livelihood of the people.

On the question of what [a] future world order should look like, the discussions in China are more pragmatic. Though views still differ, one thing people all agree on is that the world has changed. Many old concepts have lost relevance.

First, in today's world, it is no longer possible to have different world orders coexist independently of each other... like in the earlier centuries. The orders of today need to open up and make adjustments to adapt to the new realities and to different perspectives.

Secondly, it is no longer viable to try to achieve a transfer of power and find a new equilibrium through means of war among major powers because of the interconnected nature of today's world.

Thirdly, what we are facing are the new kinds of global issues, which do not respect traditional order or sovereign borders. Look at Ebola. Look at ISIS. Look at the boat people trying to cross from Africa to Europe.

Therefore, there need[s] to be new thinking to build a new global framework, or we may use the term "global order," to cope with these new types of challenges.

The good news is that, as we enter the 21st century, mankind is already experimenting in an innovative and collaborative manner to tackle the challenges, such as [through] the G20 and the [UN] conference on climate change.

For its part, China has initiated the land and maritime Silk Road policies to strengthen Asian and Eurasian connectivity, and is setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to support them.

All these practices are complementary to the existing international system and will help with its gradual evolution into a fairer and more inclusive structure.

"These practices are complementary to the existing international system and will help with its gradual evolution into a fairer and more inclusive structure."

Dr. Kissinger tellingly ended his book with a question: "Where do we go from here?" Obviously, history has come to a turning point. The question is in which direction it will turn.

This question is also [central] for China and the U.S.. Do we have the resolve and wisdom to avoid the old loop [of conflict between established and rising powers?] And can we build a new type of relationship and global order through cooperation instead of confrontation?

That is why Chinese President Xi Jinping has proposed to President Obama to build what he called China-U.S. new model of major country relationship.

Reluctant Twins

Actually, in spite of the misunderstandings and stereotypes, China and the U.S., have already [forged a] close partnership in many fields. We are even called reluctant twins. And the trust level is impressive, too. Otherwise, how can we give each other 10-year visas? So what the young generation is inheriting in our relationship has more positive elements than negativity.

To build a new model of relationship is an unprecedented endeavor for the two countries. We both understand the importance of strengthening cooperation, managing differences and creating a stable strategic framework for peace and development of Asia and even the world. This is the direction for our relations and is also our shared responsibilities.

Evolving a global order for the 21st century is not going to be easy, and the answer takes time. The world will count on the young generation. I am sure you will come up with good answers.

Anti-Japan Protests