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Foreign Policy

The World is Faster, Deeper, More Fused, Open and Fragile

Apr 20, 2021
  • CCG

    Center for China and Globalization

A Dialogue Between Thomas L. Friedman and Wang Huiyao

On March 29, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) hosted a dialogue between Thomas L. Friedman, bestselling author, reporter, New York Times columnist, and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Wang Huiyao, founder and president of CCG. Following are excerpts from their conversation on line.

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Wang Huiyao: Welcome to the CCG multimedia center, and thank you for being with us for this dialogue.

This session is part of the “CCG China and the World” webinar series that were launched in 2020 in an effort to engage eminent scholars, experts, government advisers, advocate and business leaders to talk about China and globalization as well as its trend, development and challenges. 

Thomas Friedman: Thank you very much for having me. I have so many fond memories of visiting your center in Beijing. We always have free and frank discussions from which I learn and benefit. 

The world isn't just flat, it's fragile 

Wang Huiyao: Your famous book The World is Flat, which is a long-time bestseller in China and has influenced many people. In that book, you talked about globalization and the three phases - the country, the company and then individuals. So the countries have competed for thousands of years, making the world flat. The company has great roles to play too and now in the 2000s, we are experiencing the internet revolution as individuals and today, we also see how globalization gets more challenges now. Now we have a lot of deglobalization going on, with the rise of populism. So what's your take now on globalization? How do we look at the new trend that globalization has led us to? 

Thomas Friedman: Whenever I do webinars like this, often the first question people have is: is the world still flat? And I always start to laugh a little and I say, wait a minute, I'm sitting in my office in Bethesda, Maryland, and my friend Henry is sitting in his office in Beijing. We're having a conversation as two individuals, as if we are sitting across the desk from each other. Is the world still flat? Are you crazy? It's like flatter than ever. Henry, always remember, when I wrote The World is Flat in 2004, Facebook didn't exist, Twitter was still a sound, the Cloud was still in the sky. 4G was like a parking place, big data was a rap star and Skype was a typo, a typographical error. 

All of those things came after I wrote The World is Flat. So the world today, actually, is flatter than ever. We have never connected more different nodes than we have today. We've never greased the connection, sped up the connection between those nodes more than we have today. But we've also done a third thing. We've actually removed a lot of the buffers that manage to flow between those nodes. So think of this, between December 2019 and March 2020, just as Coronavirus was emerging, there were 3,200 direct flights from China to America and there were 50 direct flights from Wuhan to America. 

The world isn't just flat now. It's fragile. It's fragile because when you connect so many nodes, and then you speed up the connection between those nodes and you take the buffers out, you get fragility. Because now I can transmit instability from my node to your node faster than ever. Ever since I wrote The World is Flat, many people wrote books to say it's not flat, it's spiky, it's lumpy, it's curved or it's bumpy. All those books are wrong. The world is flatter than ever. 

The world is fast, fused, deep and open 

Wang Huiyao: I think globalization is accelerating to some extent, with technology and all the speed that we are involved in. But also the movement of the capital, the goods and the movement of the talent – all of those things have been actually become heavier and faster than before. What do you think about the future trend? Are we looking at some new development trend? 

Thomas Friedman: The book I'm working on now, if I gave it a name and it doesn't have a name yet, is that “the world is not just flat” anymore. The world is fast, fused, deep and open. When I say the world is fast now, what I mean is that there's been a change in the pace of change. So the speed of technological change now just gets faster and faster as microchips improve and telecommunications improve so the world is really getting fast. Second, the world isn't just flat now, it's fused. We're not just inter-connected, we're now interdependent. A ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal is something that Tom is waiting for in Bethesda and Henry is waiting for in Beijing as we are both affected. So we're not just connected. We're fused together, okay? 

Third, the world's gotten deep. Deep is the most important word of this era. Because what we've done now is that we put sensors everywhere. For many years, for millennia, the world has been speaking to us but we just couldn't hear it. IBM did a study a few years ago, they took a lake in New York state. They put sensors from the surface, all the way to the bottoms, and from one edge to the other. Suddenly a lake that was just there as we drove by started to speak, started to tell what was going on at the bottom level, at the middle, at the next level, with fish, with fauna, with all kinds of things. Well imagine, now our knowledge of that is deep. It's very deep. That's why this word deep. So the world is getting deep.

And lastly, it's getting radically open. With this every citizen is now a paparazzi, a filmmaker, a journalist, a publisher, with no editor and no filter. With this, a citizen in my hometown in Minneapolis, took a picture of a policeman with the knee on the neck of a man named George Floyd - one person did that with this device, then George Floyd became a name that went all over the world. People in China know the name George Floyd, because an individual with this in an open world was able to tell that story. Same is true from China. We saw that in Hong Kong and we’ve seen that in other areas. So the world is getting fast, fused, deep and open. That is the central governing challenge today. How do you govern the world that is that fast, fused, deep and open? That is our challenge. 

Countries are becoming more nationalistic and the world needs coalitions more than ever 

Wang Huiyao: Yes, that’s true.  You are now thinking of world that is deeper, fused, open and fast - the new trend you've been catching that for the next phase of globalization. It's no longer just flat, but we have and many more layers on that now. I think you pose a very profound question that with the world fast changing, and with the system that we've been built up during the past decades based on the Bretton Woods system, are we equipped enough to cope with all those new challenges? Since the world is really getting so divided and so changeable, the system needs to react. Do we need to upgrade global system? Are we going to have more buffers? I'm glad to see that President Biden signed his order for the US to come back to the Paris Climate Agreement. What do you think about this new buffer that we're trying to build? Maybe, are we losing that, because global governance is falling behind now? 

Thomas Friedman: There's only one way to govern it effectively, both at the national or local level and the international level. And that's what I call, complex, adaptive coalitions. I take that term actually from nature. So I think a fast, fused, deep and open world is like a big climate change. We’re going through a big change in not just the climate of the climate, but the climate of everything - of technology and globalization, etc. 

We cannot manage climate change unless America, China, and Europe, in particular, India, and Japan and Korea, the big economies are all working together. Who can manage global trade now, unless all the big economies are working together? So it's only complex adaptive coalitions that can effectively get the best out of this world and cushion. 

Governments are becoming more nationalistic. China's government is becoming more nationalistic. Under President Trump, America became more nationalistic, Russia, more nationalistic, Britain’s Brexit - more nationalistic. Countries are becoming more nationalistic, right when we need global coalitions more than ever. 

Wang Huiyao: I think that it looks like global governance is really lagging behind global practice or globalization. 

Thomas Friedman: But the problem is that there's a whole set of issues now that can only be managed effectively with global governance - cyber, financial flows, trade, climate, labor flows - they require global governance, but there's no global government. What do we do when we need global governance? But there is no global government. We have this problem. When US and China, the two biggest countries start fighting in the middle, the situation gets even worse, basically. 

The difference in values matters more when China makes "deep goods" 

Wang Huiyao: The UN probably is not sufficient enough now. After the second World War, we had the Bretton Woods system, the United Nations, World Bank and IMF, WTO and China is one of the first signatories on the UN Charter and things like that have carried us for 75 years. It has been 50 years since Dr. Kissinger visited China and later the China-US relation was normalized. China has joined WTO for 20 years and China's GDP has really gone up 10 to 12 times. China has been able to prosper as China embraced globalization and lifted 800 million people out of poverty.

What has also surprised to me was that the 10% of Americans own more than 80 % of the stock, have seen their wealth triple in 30 years while the bottom wage earners have zero gain. Could it be that every country has its own problem and China also has to tackle its own problem? Particularly in the Trump era, during which he blamed everything on China for this widening gap when China actually managed to lift 800 million people out of poverty. Maybe we need to have some global consensus, or have some global new narratives. What do you think of those? 

Thomas Friedman: US-China relations have gotten very complicated. I think the four decades of US-China relation from 1979 to 2019 will go down as an epoch in US-China relations. Unfortunately, that epoch is over. And over those 40 years, China and America became in some ways, one country, two systems.  We really got fused together. We sold you deep things, you sold shallow things, for the most part, okay? When China sold us only shallow things, politically speaking, we didn't care whether China was authoritarian, communist, libertarian or vegetarian. It didn't matter because you were just selling us shallow goods. But when China, by its own technological development over the last 10 years, has been able to make deep goods - Huawei, 5G, very deep goods. Now they come to America and said, we want to sell you deep goods, just like you sold us your deep goods. Suddenly, the difference in values matters. That's where the absence of shared trust between our two countries now really matters. 

1979 - 2019 saw 40 years of relative peace and prosperity of the world, with China-US relations at the core 

Thomas Friedman: China’s focus has always been on the collective and stability because you are 1.4 billion people. In America, our values are individual. We put much more privacy on the individual, the right of the individual to express themselves, the right of the individual to start a company, the right of the individual to thrive and do better or worse.

Now, we’re having a clash on values in a way we didn’t during that 40 years’ effort. And that is going to be a problem, because our difference in values is really now making it very, very complicated and because China is wealthier now and more powerful. It’s also able to assert itself and its values at home and abroad, more powerfully. 

The big question is, can we get back to a joint project, a shared project?   The core of the relative peace and prosperity of the world for those 40 years - 1979-2019, was China-US relations. If we rip that apart, the world will not be as prosperous, and it will not be as peaceful. When it’s getting fast, fused, deep and open, it won't be governed the way it needs to be. So we need to have some very deep conversations. China needs to understand in a deep world. If I think that there's forced labor there, I may boycott your cotton. And Americans need to understand that a country of 1.4 billion people needs to maintain stability - that's a high priority and that it’s going to come in a different way. We have to have an honest conversation. 

Wang Huiyao: What China has been doing for the last 40 years including opening up has transformed the country enormously beyond recognition.  

So I remember when the former US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, invited me to his farewell cocktail event, he said that he really thought that the success of China attributes to three factors. One is that the Chinese are really hard-working. The second is that Chinese attach great importance to family values as they have great respect for seniors and collectivism. And the third is education - in China a family often has one child and the whole family value education. 

So the success of China is not really a purely traditional, old and orthodox system as some Americans may understand it. With a system that now combines technology, consultative democracy, market, economy and meritocracy, China is delivering well on its performance. So if China can lift 800 million people out of poverty, and also keep the least number of casualties from Covid-19, that's probably the biggest human rights achievement that can be achieved in such situation. 

Also, as you said, China has 1.4 billion people and the stability is always important. China has built 2/3 of the world’s fast trains network and it has 7 out of the top 10 largest ports in the world and has become a largest trading partner with 130 countries and after all, China can contribute over 1/3 of global GDP growth. So in terms of KPI, China is doing well. 

Western journalists to draw independent conclusions on Xinjiang

Thomas Friedman: It's a very good point. People said to me that if you're going on a webinar in China, they must be censoring. I said, no, I'll bring up Xinjiang, I'll bring up Hong Kong and nobody's gonna censor me. We're having, actually, a very valuable dialogue as you're giving me China's perspective and I'm giving you the concerns of America. Having a respectful dialogue is so important. 

Unfortunately, what happened in Alaska was sort of a mutual debate and name calling, which leaves everybody just feeling kind of angry.

That's why I think it's so important that we have a dialogue. And we find ways to go together in a fused world, as my friend Graham Allison always says, we now have mutual assured destruction. The two of us can destroy each other, we can destroy the global economy, we can destroy the global climate. So we are doomed to work together. What bothers me right now is that we're not having the kind of frank but respectful dialogue that we need. I've heard what Tom says about the situation of the Uighurs or Hong Kong, I don't agree with all of it, but I'm gonna try to work on something. 

Wang Huiyao: Yes, I think as the largest two economies in the world, we have a moral responsibility and humanitarian duties now to really work together, absolutely. You talk about the issues on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The feeling here is that we often hear the Western countries say here we have 1- 3 million Uighurs locked up but we really don’t know where that is coming from. Where is the original source of the statistics? A lot of the buildings or compounds that they use satellite to see in Xinjiang are empty. Also, the Chinese government has actually stated in the white paper last year that people who received vocational education in the schools have all graduated.  

The same is true with Hong Kong. Now Hong Kong is no longer in a chaotic situation when Hong Kong legislature council was stormed and US Capitol Hill too. We really need a lot of dialogue on these issues and we need to welcome all the journalists on both sides to really promote this dialogue. 

Thomas Friedman: I think the best thing in the world is mutual interdependence. I want China dependent on intel chips and I'm totally comfortable if America is dependent on Chinese supply chains. I think the more interdependent we become, the more the politics will follow. 

How many Chinese tourists now are coming to the world? Tens of millions every year. So people say to me sometimes, “Friedman, you said China would become more open but in the last 5 or 6 years, it's become more closed.” I said, “well, who declared the year of 2021 the end of history? Countries move at different pace, like three steps forward and half step back. I am confident that as China develops not just out of poverty, but also grows a middle class that wants to travel and have its students that go everywhere in the world, the trend line toward openness will continue. So we should have a little confidence in that, too. I think the more we integrate, the more that will happen. But we do have this core trust problem. 

The efforts of China and the US would really change the direction of the relationship 

Thomas Friedman: And one of the things I often ask myself is “what are we fighting about?” Yeah, it's surely not ideology because China is more capitalist than we are in a lot of ways. Does China want to take over Chinatown in San Francisco? I don't think so. Does America want to occupy Shanghai or Nanjing? I don't think so. I'm not even sure what we're fighting about. In the deepest sense, yes there's a clash of values, I get that.

Obviously, it's two great powers who have influence, but this all should be manageable. It does require each of us to do something hard. And that's what's very important. It would be hard for confidence building measures by China on Xinjiang or on Hong Kong. It will take hard confidence building measures in the West, on something like Huawei, where Americans can give a test like you can install 5G in Texas, and we'll see how you do. 

Wang Huiyao: What is the point to fight when two countries are so intertwined? The US-China business council issued a report not too long ago which shows that the trade war could cause a drop of 0.5% in the GDP of the US and the loss of 2-300,000 jobs in the US. 

China and the US to have more dialogue and collaboration on climate change and infrastructure

Wang Huiyao: President Biden is having this Earth Day next month on climate change and invited many leaders. We hope that President Xi may be attending as well, and so that the two leaders have a chance to hold a dialogue again. I notice there are new changes with the Biden administration. They are not calling CPC anymore on a daily basis and they are more pragmatic. They are not arresting and charging many with espionage and calling many Chinese students spies. 

So it might be a good idea that China and the US can work on infrastructure together. Maybe we can elevate the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the AIIB, to the World Infrastructure Investment Bank, to which the US and Japan can join, the only two countries that are still not there. 

Thomas Friedman: For me, 90 % of US policy is about making America stronger. That is, if we invest in our infrastructure, if we invest in our education, if we invest in our government funded research, if we take advantage of immigration, it's one of the great advantages we've always had over every other country that we can attract the world's best brains to our shore, including Chinese.

Very frankly, I'm trying to use China's success on infrastructure, on education, on science, on anti-poverty, as a way to stimulate and challenge Americans. So I’m not at all ashamed of taking China's successes and saying to Americans, they're gonna be the leading and most powerful country in the world if we don't get back to our formula for success. I don't want China to fail. I think the world will be better if China succeeds and we succeed at the same time. 

Wang Huiyao: The US and China as the two largest countries in the world have to work together. Let's have peaceful competition rather than confrontation and rivalry. We have our differences but let's build up a more transparent system with rules in terms of competition. 

"China and America really need to make a second impression on each other" 

Thomas Friedman: This is my message. You only get one chance to make a second impression. Not the first impression - you only have one chance to make a second impression. China and America really need to make a second impression on each other right now. We both need to give each other a new look, a second look. 

I think what happened in Alaska was a necessary throat clearing for both sides. Both sides need to clear their throat. And Joe Biden is a good man, he's a stable president, he is not like Trump. He's a partner for a serious dialogue and I’m still hopeful now that both sides have kind of got everything off their chest so that they can sit down and have the kind of dialogue that you and I are having which is honest, frank and respectful but also where we actually agreed to do something and bring the relationship where it needs to be. 

(Source:Center for China and Globalization)



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