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Society & Culture

An Evolving China: 70 Years of Success

Oct 14 , 2019
  • Xue Li

    Senior Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The Chinese people have celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. I would like to share my observations and understanding about China’s relations with the world over the past 70 years.

I. Commitment to exploring best practices under socialism

Since of the founding of the New China in 1949, the country has been exploring to find the most suitable path of development. The exploration can be divided into two phases, with 1978 as the watershed.

From its founding until 1978, the country chose the socialist road, becoming a major player in the socialist camp globally. In the international political arena at that time, there were two basic political camps — one headed by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union. When a country as big as China decided to join the socialist camp, it had a tectonic impact on international affairs.

From the 1960s, however, political rifts began to grow between China and the Soviet Union, and China began to explore its own development. During that period, it underscored its relations with developing nations, and in the 1970s eased tensions with the United States. Then it gradually consolidated relations with second-world countries, including European nations.

After the adoption of the reform and opening-up policy at the end of 1970s, China underwent an enormous transformation both in domestic affairs and diplomacy. Domestically, the country put an end to the doctrine of class struggle and prioritized its economy. On the diplomatic front, it opened to the outside world — particularly to developed countries — creating favorable economic conditions. In the early 1980s, based on an international environment in which peace and development were seen as the major themes of the times, China adopted an independent foreign policy with those things in mind.

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, China normalized diplomatic relations with countries including the Soviet Union and Vietnam, and it committed itself to promoting partnership diplomacy while sticking to the policy of non-alignment.

In 1992, after paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made an inspection in southern China, the country established its socialist market economy, which served as the internal force driving the fast economic growth in the 1990s. Since China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country has been devoted to economic development. The size of the economy expanded rapidly, overcame the negative impacts of the global financial crisis of 2008 and overtook Japan in 2010 to become the second-largest economy in the world. In 2012, the pattern of success in the Chinese economy was designated the new normal. To drive economic growth and strengthen relations with developing nations, particularly neighboring ones, China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative, under which the spillover effects of the Chinese economy began to emerge. China has become a firm defender and a strong promoter of economic globalization.

II. Impact and challenges of the Belt and Road Initiative

It has been six years since the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed. From a macro point of view, it was the top-level design for Chinese diplomacy in the new era. It was intended to accomplish the Chinese Dream domestically and achieve the goal of building a community with a shared future for mankind on the international front. The key to the initiative is the term “shared future” — that is, to be committed to building a better future for the community of mankind to share the achievements of development. The initiative is a manifestation of the Chinese philosophy of governance: the wisdom of “harmony without uniformity”. It means, under the precondition of respect for differences, to achieve the goal of development through cooperation without imposing one’s values on others or discriminating against any country or people.

This concept is obviously inclusive and was easily accepted by countries of different cultural backgrounds. To date, 136 countries and 30 international organizations have signed cooperation agreements with China to jointly build the Belt and Road. Some developed and developing countries that previously had reservations about the initiative have changed their minds and signed cooperation memoranda with China (such as Italy), or shifted from a confrontational and resistant attitude to understanding and conditional cooperation (such as Japan). Some have shown willingness to cooperate with China on specific projects without formally endorsing the initiative (such as France, Germany and India). The Belt and Road Initiative will very likely become one of China’s most influential strategic diplomatic policies, having a major, far-reaching impact on the world.

The initiative is also facing growing challenges, caused either by China’s lack of experience, by misunderstanding and misjudgment from some countries or by deliberate suppression by others. But if China can learn from its experiences and make improvements, the initiative, as one of the country’s centennial projects, will not only bring real benefits to China but also to the participating nations. The Chinese government has taken note of such challenges, and has been taking measures to cope with them, from the “Vision and Proposed Actions Outlined on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” published in March 2015, to the First Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017 and a second one this year.

The emphasis on high quality and green development at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was not only a direct response to outside concerns but also addressed the needs of China’s own development.

III. China’s rise is different from the rise of other nations in history

(1) No more than 30 countries and regions, whose combined population is less than 1 billion people, have achieved the goal of modernization. When China, the world’s largest developing nation, makes it into the upper rank, the population of that group will instantly more than double. This will produce the inevitable effect of China transforming itself while having an impact on the world.

(2) All countries and regions that have achieved developed status have capitalist systems. China has basically achieved the goal of modernization and is expected to become a developed country by 2050 — the first non-capitalist one to reach that level. During the transformation, it has found a road that is suitable for its development. This was particularly true in terms of targeted poverty alleviation, which will help put an end to a chronic domestic problem.

(3) The Belt and Road Initiative is not only the top-level design for China’s diplomacy in the new era but also an approach to development worldwide. Based on its own development experience, China is ready to contribute money, manpower and technology to help achieve the goal of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits. It is willing to develop partner relationships with different countries. It does not use force against others, nor seek to establish any sort of military alliance or to build military bases around the world, or to interfere the internal affairs of other countries. This is a new type of global governance, and many developing nations can take it as practical approach for modernization, drawing inspiration from China. It’s natural that some countries still harbor suspicions about the Belt and Road Initiative. After several years of hard work, it is hoped that China’s track record of positive performance and achievements will help mitigate or even eliminate those concerns.

IV. China’s views about the existing global system

China has stated time and again that it wants to be a builder of world peace as it contributes to global development and upholds the international order. It has no intention to dismantle the existing system in favor of a new one. Moreover, it believes that unreasonable and outdated elements in the existing system need to be reformed and improved to better reflect the roles and interests of developing nations. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a constructive and helpful experiment in such reforms. The bank now has more than 100 members, overtaking the Asian Development Bank, which has 68. The AIIB now enjoys the highest rating, as does the World Bank.

It’s worth noting that the AIIB is an open institution and welcomes all to join — in sharp contrast to the preference of the United States, which seeks to set up exclusive international organizations. This is probably caused by the different views on global governance held by the two civilizations. China, since the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), seldom engaged in any kind of alliance diplomacy. Instead, it advocated an open diplomatic system. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the country, in a very brief period of time, tried the approach of alliance diplomacy but soon turned to an independent foreign policy with the principle of peace at its heart. After the 1990s, China began to prioritize partnership diplomacy, something that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

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