Monday, 14 October 2013

Why Are ‘They’ So Interested In ‘Us’? Distance, myths and imagination between China and the West

By Xiuli Xu

When I first started my journey into development studies, the field held little interest in China. In various buzzing international conferences on popular topics such as governance, gender, natural resource management, decentralisation and participation, most cases were from Africa, Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, India, etc., with much less reference to China’s experiences.

Ten years later, I suddenly find the pendulum has swung the other way.

The burgeoning academic and public debates on China’s internal development experiences and, in particular, its engagement in Africa are increasingly preoccupying journal articles and the global media. The role of China in both the traditional Bretton Woods system, and newly initiated G20 and BRICS architecture, as well as various thematic summits on climate change, food security, and poverty reduction, has attracted wide attention.

Contention has often arisen around demands from the West for China to be a 'responsible stakeholder' 1, or allegations from the West that China’s engagement in Africa is a ‘new form of colonialism’ (through resource grabbing, labour rights abuses, erosion of good governance, environmental pollution, etc) .

How can China better understand this global shift in dialogue and power, communicate better with the West, and ultimately shape the future international system? This has posed a great challenge for the Chinese government and academia, most of whom, up until now, have focused their attention on internal affairs.

‘Distance’, myths and imagination between China and the West


Much of the West was astonished to see China’s robust economic growth continue consistently over the last three decades, particularly in recent years, emphasized by a boom in overseas mergers and acquisitions. Many Chinese have, in turn, been shocked to see China depicted as an expressionless huge powerful man with army uniform in the shadow behind piles of overseas assets  in the global media. Both responses are fuelled by the ‘distance’, myths and imagination between China and the West.

Distance creates myths, and myths stimulate imagination which may be far from the reality. This distance is not just physical, but also social, cultural, and ideological.

Since the late Ming Dynasty, and following ongoing disruption from unbalanced trade relationships with and invasion by western powers from the 1840s, China chose to focus on domestic issues. This was accentuated by the ‘closed door policy, particularly to the West, implemented in Mao’s era alongside the powerful discourse of ‘independence and self-reliance’ (duli zizhu, zili gengsheng). It was not until after the reform at the end of the 1970’s that the ‘open door’ (gaige kaifang) policy was reintroduced.

China's 'Introducing in' and 'going out' policies

China started to attract foreign direct investment and aid, referred to this as ‘introducing in’ (yinjinlai), from western countries. Gradually China participated in more and more international organisations, such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, WTO, G20, etc.  China also started to enhance its overseas investment and aid under the strategies of ‘going out’ (zouchuqu), particularly since the turn of this century. In China’s 12th Five-year for Economic and Social Development (doc) (shierwu fazhanguihua), for the first time, the strategy of ‘going out’2  ranks ahead of ‘introducing in’(yinjinlai).

However, ‘going global’ is just starting.

In fact, for many Chinese the world is still quite stereotyped and dichotomised. Their conception of the “outside world”, typically Europe and the USA, is of one that is more advanced than China, meaning that China needs to work hard to catch up. This collective belief was born and reinforced by the invasion of China by modern powers, and was a move away from the ancient Chinese worldview of ‘tianxia’ which has China as the center of the world. In this view, there is no objectification of “self” and the “world”, since boundaries between the ancient Chinese empire and other lands had not yet been drawn.

As more and more Chinese gain overseas experiences through tourism, business, and education, so will collective beliefs become more dynamic and diverse.

Encounter and intertwinement 3 : the complexity of ‘them’ and ‘us’

Phrases such as ‘development encounter’, ‘knowledge encounter’ and ‘cultural encounter’ have evolved, partially in response to the rise of BRICS countries, with China at the forefront, and its implications for the current international development system. However, in reality since the 1980s, globalisation has been more an intertwinement than an encounter.

In Professor Nolan’s new book, ‘Is China Buying the World’, he describes how the new round of international business revolution, characterised by cascade effect with ‘systems integrator’ down to suppliers, is resulting in  mutual embeddedness of multinational corporations (MNCs) both from western countries and from China. He argues that high-income countries consider their giant firms to be deeply embedded in the Chinese business system, whereas Chinese firms have a negligible presence in high-income countries - “we are ‘inside them’ but they are not yet ‘inside us’”. However, he also reminds us of the complexity of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the era of capitalist globalisation, emphasising that China’s ‘going out’ has only just started.

The nature of mutual embeddedness and fusion in the new globalisation era, not only in business and investment but also, to varying degrees, in aid, has reshaped the nature of international relationships. Encounters and intertwinement between China and the West are already bridging distances and creating spaces for mutual understanding and learning, through interaction, and thus is contributing to the demystification and reshaping of mutual imagination about each other in the long term.

With the above context in mind, an awareness of this ‘interest’ from the West, an understanding of ‘why they are so interested in us’, and an ability to communicate and react properly to the West’s ‘interest’ in China, might serve as a good start for the Chinese, and vice versa.

1. This proposition asking China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder’ was first raised by Robert Zoelick, the former president of World Bank, in 2005.
2.  Narrowly defining, ‘going out’ means China’s overseas investment in particular. Broadly defining, ‘going out’ includes overseas investment, aid, trade and even sending expertise or labors.
3.  Ackowledgements to Jin Zhang from Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge for the discussion on encounter and intertwinement, where I got some enlightenment in writing.



Professor Xiuli Xu is Associate Professor of Development Studies at the Research Center for International Development (RCID), College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD), China Agricultural University, Beijing, China (CAU). She was recently a Visiting Fellow at IDS as part of the Development Studies Learning Partnership (DSLP), Rising Powers in International Development Programme (RPID).

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