We need to talk about China

We need to talk about China

Patrizia Zambrin – 7 February 2020

When I started my journey into Chinese Studies in the 1980s, China, or the ‘Middle Kingdom’ was opening up to the rest of the world under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatic approach to modernisation. In those heady days, we foreign students in Beijing were attracting curiosity and awe, big noses, fanciful attire and gadgetry included, the two worlds meeting and engaging but never really mixing, prevented from doing so by obvious cultural barriers but also by a system where we, the laoway were set apart by the different banknotes we were using at the shops, as well as exclusive access to foreign enclaves like the Friendship Hotel, whilst escorted to tourist destinations or to visit model communes. The few Chinese travelling abroad were part of business delegations on a government-sponsored mission to establish useful contacts and bring back machinery and technology, as a boost to industrialisation. At the same time, an increasing number of talented students in receipt of scholarships were heading to American, Japanese and other academic institutions to advance their learning in sciences and contribute to their homeland’s progress on their return.


Class photo taken in front of the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, now known as Beijing International Studies University. Founded in 1964 by then premier Zhou Enlai, himself a polyglot, the Institute started admitting international students to its courses in 1981.

Then came 2001 and China entered the World Trade Organization, with the encouragement of the USA, which considered the move as in its economic interests and leading to a more open China. China’s industrialisation gathered pace and soon the country became the source of cheap goods for eager Western consumers and a promising market for large corporations. Thus, an estimated 800 million Chinese workers eventually earned their way out of poverty and the ubiquitous bicycles and uniforms of earlier days gave way to motorized vehicles and colourful crowds. China was finding its place in the world, free from the almost deferential approach towards Westerners that I had witnessed in my travels, for instance when a train attendant stopped the entire locomotive in Tianjin, running after us with the tie that my forgetful boss had left on board.

There was of course a trade-off to this rapid development, visible to the naked eye in terms of rising pollution levels but also in the unbalanced development between coastal areas with convenient trade links and inland regions growing at a different speed.

Another twenty years on and China is likely to surpass the mighty USA in economic terms, despite trade war measures imposed to contain its rise and a pandemic thrown in. Given that China is also the only major economy to have maintained growth in such an exceptional year as 2020 was, signing an important trade deal with 14 other Asian countries, while another hefty one with the EU is awaiting ratification, it is reasonable to expect a realignment of economies and trade flows. 

If originally the scope of imposing tariffs by the USA was ostensibly economic as well as in retaliation to China’s unfair practices, namely forced technology transfer, intellectual property and anti-dumping infringements, the different outcomes in tackling the health crisis by the two superpowers, where China has seemingly emerged as the winner in comparison to America’s (and Europe’s) mixed response and heavy death toll, have prompted ideological questions that even staunch defenders of personal freedom and other liberal values find challenging. 

To counter its critics over what it describes as internal affairs, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, or to settle old territorial disputes such as the South China Sea and the status of Taiwan, China is now shaping a different narrative and claiming the main role in a so-called Asian century, as an alternative model of leadership to the Western one, with the USA at its centre.

Far from assuming the superiority of our democracies over the authoritarian example, it is nonetheless important to remain vigilant on the slippery nature of the debate that tackling the crisis has unleashed and defend our core principles once it is over and our diminished economies will need rescued. Just like the financial crisis needed a concerted effort at an international level to avoid catastrophic results, only a similar, coordinated approach to save battered economies and broken lives will prevent the downfall of our institutions and the values they represent. 

The chaotic nature of our political system and the slow pace demanded by consensus politics have been found wanting in an emergency that caught many countries unprepared against an invisible threat, reluctant to impose restrictions on individual freedom, challenged at times by libertarians and pandemic deniers. However, the alternative is an authoritarian state that can lock people in without much debate, prevent the flow of information from outside its borders with a firewall and rein in transparent communication in name of social harmony, an uncomfortable option indeed. No matter how resilient the economy or how effective the control on people, there are fundamental values that we hold dear and cannot trade in for a more ordered society.

Even as a Sinophile watching the health and economic crisis unfolding around me, I remain attached to the notion that civic liberties and a pluralistic society can best be safeguarded in an open democracy, with checks and balances to protect the system from concentration of power and ensure renewal at the top, including an independent judiciary, fixed terms in office and freedom of information. 

Recent events in Washington, alarming as they are, cannot change the course of our history.

As Aristotle once put it: “…Democracy, although a departure from the most perfect form, may yet be a good enough government, but if anyone attempts to push the principles of it to the extreme, he will begin by spoiling the government and end up having no government at all.”

So, we need to talk about China, as the sleeping giant has come of age and is not content with its reach but eager to exert its influence on other countries and continents, via soft power and economic might, with the Confucius Institutes, Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese diaspora as its main promoters. Just like we welcomed China’s presence at the big table then, we can make space now for more trade deals and cultural exchanges, only, this time, with eyes wide open, mutual acknowledgement of our fundamental differences and above all, a mature commitment to public scrutiny and to basic rules of engagement, such as reciprocity, rule of law and level playing field, if we are to trust the new world order.


Patrizia Zambrin of Edinburgh, an early graduate in Chinese Studies from Venice University, who studied at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages and has worked as a translator of Chinese. 

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