Hubris and ignorance are a dangerous combination for an emerging superpower with a chip on its shoulder, says novelist Chan Koonchung
China has been encouraging its citizens and enterprises – state-owned, mixed owned, fake privately owned and genuinely privately owned – to “go out”, and Chinese people are visible in almost every country.
There is an urgent need for Chinese citizens to be aware of their footprint and care about China’s impacts overseas, if only to serve their own interests.
The Chinese state has been paternalistic. It often gives instructions to its nationals on how to behave properly when in foreign countries. Admittedly on the individual level Chinese people can be industrious and reasonable, but they can be exploitative and calculating as well. They can be open-minded, but also very tribal.
Some bad habits may travel far too.
For example, finding corrupt short cuts through the “back door”, rather than following legal but bureaucratic avenues, is often preferred practice for Chinese doing business in foreign countries, though this habit has its origin in China. Focusing on power elites rather than interacting with ordinary people has also led to resentment.
Most of the time, Chinese people are inclined to look for a “win-win situation”. But by win-win, they simply mean that both sides make money. This obviously is too narrow a definition. It ignores public interest, social justice, local sentiments and environmental concerns. In some circumstances, unseemly, self-serving conduct has backfired. It is imperative that a better code of conduct is accepted by Chinese going abroad.
Over history, Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in China) have often proved themselves … Sinocentric. They can be blind to the customs and mentalities of others. They can look down on other races. They become self-protective in an alien environment. But when they feel confident that they understand what is happening around them, they can also be generous and inclusive.
On the whole, Chinese tend to be adaptive, pragmatic and open to education (including self-education). They learn from mistakes and from each other. They can give up on wrong approaches and seek a more felicitous “middle way”.
Ultimately, it is more than the interest of individual Chinese that is at stake here. In the medium term, China’s overall rise will be unstoppable, in spite of inevitable economic hiccups, mediocre domestic policies or even the occasional harsh landing.
As millions of Chinese and a colossal amount of Chinese capital “go out”, a new global condition is emerging. Just as colonial powers transformed the continents outside of Europe in the 19th Century, and American global reach reshaped the world in the second half of the 20th Century, China’s ascendance will soon impact people all over the world.
Hubris coupled with ignorance will be a dangerous combination for an emerging superpower with a chip on its shoulder.
Both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are against imperialism and colonialism. But might they inadvertently fall prey to the temptations of a new round of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism with Chinese characteristics?
Since its reform and opening up in the 1980s, China has irrevocably been connected to the world. It could not turn its back on the international community. It is in China’s own interest to follow best practices when engaging with other countries and other peoples. It is also in the world’s interests for Chinese nationals to be better informed and Chinese capital better employed to facilitate global human development.
Chinese people need to be aware of China’s impacts overseas and care about good governance and best practice: there can be no global governance to speak of without Chinese participation.