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Foreign Policy

Partnerships, Identities and Cultural Diversity

Dec 17, 2019
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

When discussing global governance and international affairs, partnership is a word so familiar and common that many won’t even lift an eyelid upon hearing it. Nevertheless it caught global attention when President Xi Jinping proposed to establish a global network of partnerships to buttress the future system of global governance, be it related to security, economics or other things.

It is crystal clear to all that globalization and multilateralism is under attack and that the governance system in tatters. Certainly this is not because globalization hasn’t worked. In fact, globalization has worked wonders and brought tremendous changes in the distribution of world wealth and economic growth and brought about huge benefits in poverty reduction unprecedented in human history.
The downside is that globalization without balance and proper wealth distribution mechanisms has also produced winners and losers, and the latter lost more than previous times — as demonstrated by the rapid increase of inequality everywhere, especially in developed countries.

Globalization should not be blamed for all these wrongs. It is governments, social systems and civil societies that account for such injustice.

One thing is obvious: The distribution of wealth is highly imbalanced and welfare systems, which had been built in the Western world as a result of the previous big wave of changes in globalization, did not properly cushion the increasingly negative impact on the weakest — hence a political backlash, in particular after the 2008 crisis with the election of Trump as the president of the United States and Brexit driven by rising populism.

It is often said that the failure of the welfare system and the rise of populism are the culprits in the chaos of today’s world. But deep down, the design of the system, and its leading designer, also need to be closely examined.

China has learned two things from its own experience with globalization — that no country can develop in isolation and that the balance between market efficacy and social justice must be painstakingly maintained.

A global network of partnerships, both in theory and practice, is China’s contribution to the improvement of global governance. It is hoped that by knitting this open and inclusive network, globalization can continue to work its magic and inequality can be arrested through a worldwide sharing economy and common development agenda. As is often said, no one should be left behind.

China believes that through a forward-looking and balanced approach to globalization, and with global governance, numerous holes can be plugged. One of those holes has been dug by the insistence on an alliance-based security structure by the U.S. and other Western countries. Created in an age before the current round of globalization, it only deepened divides etched in ideology.

Approaching global governance through partnerships and cooperation on a equal footing has gained traction in the last decade or so. China’s Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as helping to build such global partnerships.

Identity in various shades has occupied national politics at different levels in many countries. In international affairs, identity is an important indicator for any country in its engagements with others. Many people wonder about China’s global identity. Here I list three key elements in China’s identity: a socialist country, a developing country and a major power (or a major power to be).

Being a socialist country gives it a political identity that guides its endeavors to achieve modernization and national rejuvenation under the firm leadership of the Communist Party of China. Being a developing country imbues it with an economic and developmental framework that fits both the past and present-day Chinese economy. Being (or becoming) a major power represents both global status and responsibility.

China’s identity, juxtaposed with that of other countries, tells us a great deal about the world we live in today. One ultra conservative politician in the U.S. described China as non-capitalist, non-Christian and non-Jewish, as well as non-Anglo Saxon. That’s a frightening fake identity! The world is going through a phase of regression in which national, local, ethnic, religious and individual identity means more than collective welfare and shared interests. That is exactly the place where the rising populists are trying to lead the world.

Identity politics has been ascendant and for quite a few countries holds sway in both domestic and world politics. And identity nowadays tends to be more narrowly interpreted and becomes more exclusive with race, language, gender, locality and even certain beliefs and a sense of belonging to a particular group, such as “gay and lesbian.” In so-called liberal democracies and election-dominated countries, politicians and political parties will gravitate toward or cater to groups defined by narrow identities in order to win votes. What was witnessed in the 2016 U.S. election and can be discerned in looking toward 2020 with regard to Brexit and the political radicalization of many European, Latin American and Asian countries, are reflections of narrow-minded identity politics at work.

Cultural diversity is different from identity politics in the sense that cultural diversity is a demonstration of the natural features of people with inherent cultural qualities. Identity politics, by contrast, only alienates people of different groups from one another, bringing social division and conflict. Cultural diversity makes this world colorful and meaningful, utterly unlike identity politics. The two should not be mixed or talked about in the same breath.

For example, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jenny Shipley mentioned to me at the Congdu International Forum that Maori aborigines hold their cultural relics dearly, and some important ones are now in the British Museum. They want them back, and the New Zealand government supports their claim based on respect for cultural diversity, not on identity politics.

Globalization provides context for the identity politics that grips current political life everywhere. It is therefore essential to have a better understanding of globalization’s past and present to fully appreciate the implications of these political movements.

As is clear to all, globalization has created conditions whereby elements of production can move freely worldwide, especially capital. Capital, by its nature, goes where profits are greater and it pays no attention to whether social justice is achieved or whether inequality (including the gap between rich and poor) has increased. Rising inequality and the accompanying anger and frustration of those people who were unfairly treated have given rise to the populism and identity politics that are rampant in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The geopolitical rebalancing that is now taking place, with U.S. hegemony on one side and a growing China on the other, has been forced upon the latter by the strategic misconceptions of the former — which, as predicted by Thucydides, may pit them against each other in a dangerous cycle of rivalry.

This is the backdrop of Trump’s ill conceived, damaging and inefficient tariff wars against China, pushed by resurgent populism and nationalism in the U.S. A world in disorder is apparently smothering an orderly one, providing fertile soil for identity politics to overrun previously prevailing national and global attitudes.

Globalization is efficient, though it can be painful. De-globalization is inefficient and also painful. Just look at the troubles brought by Brexit or the impact of Trump’s weaponization of tariffs.

Politics and economics have always been intertwined and let us watch the 2020 U.S. election closely to see how identity politics influences political life.

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