On September 21, 1949, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of modern China.
Some 70 years on, China has risen from extreme poverty and a closed system to the world’s second largest economy and the de facto leader of globalisation.
“Economic globalisation represents the trend of history,” President Xi Jinping declared during the opening of the Second China International Import Expo in Shanghai on November 5, 2019.
“Like the world’s great rivers, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Amazon and the Danube – they all surge forward in relentless flow, and nothing can stop their mighty movement, not the current of undertows or hidden shoals or rocks beneath the water,” he added with a poetic tinge.
On the sidelines of the Shanghai Expo, China also invited some 270 scholars and media experts from 90 countries to the Second Hongqiao International Economic Forum on ‘China’s 70-year Development and the Building of a Community of a Shared Future for Mankind’, organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) on November 5-6, 2019.
Our largely chaotic and uncertain post-September 11, 2001 world is a perfect tale of two grand visions competing to shape the future of global power.
One of these grand visions is modern China’s idea of “building a community of a shared future for humankind”.
China’s journey to the helm of globalisation started when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, unveiled the ‘reform and opening-up’ in December 1978, the most innovative and effective economic strategy in modern history.
Deng’s successors embraced the market, replaced doctrinaire socialism with a “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” hoisted on China’s 5,000-year-old civilisation, and re-engineered the Communist Party on the basis of “democratic centrism” as a stabilising force to underpin development.
“We realised that if we do not open up, we will chock up,” said a Chinese official.
The result of reform and opening up is what has been lauded as “China’s development miracle”, which has transformed China and the world in an emphatic and irreversible way.
The miracle in China’s development is obvious. In less than seven decades, China has become the world’s second largest economy.
It has pulled an estimated 850 million of its citizens from the clutches of poverty, contributing to 70 per cent of the mass of humanity liberated from poverty, the largest in human history.
The life expectancy of its people has risen from 42 years in 1949 to over 70 years by 2019. Over 500 million Chinese have joined the middle class. The lesson is clear: poverty is not the destiny of any nation.
The Second China International Import Expo reveals China as the “world’s factory”.
In 2019, China is the world’s largest manufacturer, contributing more than 30 per cent to the global economy and projected to have 24 per cent of the global GDP by 2030.
No other country has accomplished such a feat with a huge population of 1.4 billion people.
The other grand vision shaping the future of global power is the American-led liberal international order with its long roots in the liberal revolutions in America (1775-1783) and France (1789–1799).
China’s rise has profoundly challenged the liberal order, now in retreat. As the world slipped into the dark age of egoism, major western powers have suspended globalisation, resorting to unilateralism, populism, isolationism and protectionism.
Globalisation is weaponised in the form of trade barriers, sanctions and other obstacles to free exchange of goods, services and ideas.
Right-wing theorists paint doomsday scenarios of a world inexorably hurtling down to a “clash of civilisations” or the “Thucydides Trap”, where the old power resorts to war to stop its challenger.
China views globalisation as the safest pathway to its “peaceful rise”. It has adopted three strategies to de-escalate superpower rivalry and calm the world.
First is a strategic foreign policy based on twin propositions. One is the “peaceful development” strategy premised on the thesis that war impedes development.
Two is Beijing’s idea of “building a community of a shared future for mankind” as an alternative paradigm that views the whole world as “a symphony” rather than a cacophony.
China is envisioning the world as a mosaic of many equal civilisations with its own development as an alternative path to modernisation.
There is no one path to modernisation; modernity is plural, not singular. As such, western modernity is one way, but not the only way.
As its second strategy, Beijing is consciously downplaying rivalry with the US. “Rise does not mean hegemony,” says one of its experts.
“We have no ambition of replacing America as the ‘shining light upon the hill’ or to impose our civilisation on the world.”
Officially, Beijing contrasts itself from the US, insisting it is a “developing country”.
As its third strategy, China has taken the lead in globalisation, using development as a means to global peace.
In 2013, Beijing launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its instrument of spreading the benefits of its development to the rest of the world and the remaking of the world.
In Africa, China is spreading the benefits of its development path to a continent once theorised by Ali Mazrui as a “triple heritage”.
Its architecture for dialogue with Africa rests on the triple pillars of the BRI, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the China-Africa Institute (CAI), launched in April 2019.
Faced with critics of its mantra, China is drawing from the wit and wisdom of Deng Xiaoping: “When you open the window, you get fresh air and mosquitoes.”
Professor Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute. This article is an except from a paper presented at the 2nd Hongqiao International Economic Forum on ‘China’s 70-year Development and the Building of a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind’ in Shanghai, China, on November 5-6, 2019.