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Society & Culture

China’s Long Road to Prosperity

Aug 29, 2013

“You’ve come a long way, baby,” words made famous by cigarette maker Virginia Slims, were marketed directly to women in the 1970s. However, this campaign would have also served China’s transformation over the last several decades. 

Tom Watkins

Aug. 11, 1842, marked the date that many Chinese note as the start of modern history when the Qing Dynasty signed the unequal treaty of Nanjing, which allowed for Great Britain to end the devastating First Opium War (1839-42). 

Things have taken a miraculous turn for the better since that century of humiliation.  

Imagine if Mao Tse-tung could come back for a day. He would see what the leaders and the people of China have accomplished since October 1, 1949 when he stood at the gates of Tiananmen Square, proclaiming the founding of The People’s Republic of China. 

Although some historians disputed its authenticity at the time, it was reported that Mao proclaimed, ” The People of China have stood up.”  

As the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, it is apparent to the world that China and its people are still standing.  

What has transpired in China over its 5,000-year history is truly mind-boggling. The last thirty years alone are both remarkable and universally acknowledged, as China has become a rising economic and military superpower. Consider this: 

* In 2012, China became the world’s largest trading nation in goods, ending America’s post-war dominance.

* 400 million people have moved from abject poverty to “middle class” as China has become the world’s fastest growing, large economy

* Chinese students have significantly outperformed U.S. students on international educational tests

* China is the world’s largest auto producer

* China now holds roughly 7.2 percent of total U.S. debt, worth around $1 trillion

* It is estimated that 33% of China’s international trade will be in Chinese currency—the renminbi—by 2015. 

Every country in the world—as well as many states and cities in the U.S.—has been seeking ways to capitalize from China’s meteoric economic rise. With 1.3 billion people and a rising middle class of nearly 400 million middle class and upper-middle class consumers, the Chinese market is a mother lode for 21st century global commerce. 

In their recently released book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March To The Twenty-First Century, old China hands Orville Schell and John Dulury brilliantly walk us through “how a nation, after a long and painful period of dynastic decline, intellectual upheaval, foreign occupation, civil war, and revolution, manage to burst forth onto the world stage with such an impressive run of hyper-development and wealth creation, culminating in the extraordinary dynamism of China today.” 

The authors weave a tale through Chinese history about the lives of eleven influential officials seeking ways to end China’s “century of humiliation” in a quest for fuqiang,”wealth and power.” 

In another book, Dual For The Middle Kingdom: The Struggles Between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, published four years after Mao’s death, IN 1980 we learn that China pivoted again. Speaking prophetically, the author summed up the condition of the People’s Republic of China before Mao died. The Great Helmsman provided the direction that the people of China must travel before they can become truly great. Mao said:  “China used to be stigmatized as a  “decrepit empire”, “the sick man of Asia, a country with a backward economy and a backward culture, with no hygiene … where the woman had bound feet, the men wore pigtails, and eunuchs could be found; the moon was inferior and did not shine as brightly as in foreign lands … We are like a blank sheet of paper, which is good for writing on.  

[But] even when one day our country becomes strong and prosperous, we must remain modest and prudent, learn from other countries, and not allow ourselves to become swollen with conceit. We must … go on [learning after] scores of five year plans. We must be ready to learn even ten thousand years from now.” 

Deng Xiaoping reinforced his words when he opened China to the world saying, “Keep a cool head and a low profile. Never take the lead, but aim to do something big.” 

Clearly, since the days of Deng, China’s aim has been on target to produce–fuqiang,”wealth and power.”

The awakening of China has been good for the masses of China (clearly there remain many other issues, including those of human rights as documented by Amnesty International andCongressional Research Services). 

Today, China and the U.S. stand at the crossroads of the most important bilateral relationship on the planet.  How we manage the relationship between our governments and people will impact our respective citizens – indeed, all of humanity.  

Today, both America and China have fuqiang. How the U.S. accommodates the rising power from the East and how China manages its new economic and military might will be akin to that ancient Chinese saying, “Water can float the boat. Water can sink the boat.” 

China and the United States are inextricably linked on multiple levels. It is far better for our respective countries and the world that we both are sails and not anchors. Perhaps this ancient Chinese proverb captures our mutual destiny: 

“Though my left hand beats the right…Who wins?” 

Yes, China you have indeed “come a long way baby”! Where you—no, where WE go from here is equally as important. 

Tom Watkins has been working for more than 3 decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China.  He is a U.S.-China business and educational consultant and advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute and Detroit Chinese Business Association.   Follow him on twitter @tdwatkins88

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