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Mandarin, anyone?

Publication Date : 17-04-2012

 

"How are your Chinese lessons?” we asked our granddaughter Kristin, 8. “So-so,” replied this International School second-grader. “Why?”
"You and Kathie will need Mandarin,” we replied. Katarina, 5, is in kindergarten. Both grapple with Swedish, their mother’s language.

"China will irresistibly shape our future,” writes Martin Jacques in the Observer. He updates his 2009 book “When China Rules the World” that foresaw Beijing’s economy overtaking that of the United States after 2020.

That proved an underestimate. Economist projections assert that China will pull ahead in 2018. The International Monetary Fund’s world economic outlook implies 2016, the Guardian claims.

Beyond crystal-balling are hard facts. China dislodged Japan as the world’s second biggest economy in 2010. Flush with cash, housewives made China’s grocery shopping the world’s largest.

The surge started in 1978. China’s economy was 1/20th that of the United States. Not anymore. At the start of the 21st century, China had behind it years of “growing 9-10 percent annuall”. Overall size rose to a quarter of America’s economy.

China chipped at the United States’ dominant global power status, notably in trade. In 1990, no country had China as main trading partner. By 2000, you counted a few on your fingers. Most clustered in east Asia.

A decade later, the list grew to include Japan, Africa, Australia, Chile, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the United States and Egypt. Beijing emerged as the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods last year. America yielded a standard it bore for 110 years.

These are tectonic shifts. “The global effect is of an entirely different order,” adds the Observer. “The world is tilting on its axis in even more dramatic style” than when Europe ruled the roost—until it was dislodged by an upstart colony of then 13 states.

"We no longer have any alternative but to abandon our western parochialism,” Jacques argues. “But the shift in mindset that faces us is colossal…."

During the 19th and 20th centuries, every non-western country was compelled to understand the West in its own terms. “Now, it is our turn to make sense of a country so different from our own. It will be a Herculean task. We always look west, hardly ever east.”

The result is we “insist on living in a world that was rather than is. We are so far behind the curve.” Why? Does part of this hang-up stem from ill-fitting prisms?

Ascendancy bred, first in Europe, then in the United States, a western-centric mentality. The West is the fount of all wisdom. The only universal model of modernisation that worked was westernisation. “Our sense of superiority closed our minds.” Few entertained the idea that a backward China, shorn of democracy and bereft of Enlightenment principles, would flourish.


"We were not even curious,” Jacques recalls. We insisted “on seeing China through a western prism. We refused to understand China in its own terms. Our arrogance bred ignorance.”

Ever heard of China Development Bank and China Exim Bank? Few have. Yet, they lent more to developing nations than the World Bank in 2009 and 2010, “just as the Rothschilds funded much of Europe’s industrialisation in the 19th century”.

China made the renminbi available for settlement of trade. Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corp. foresees that half of China’s trade, with the developing world, will be paid in renminbi by 2015. “Is this a process where the renminbi could dislodge the dollar as the world’s dominant currency?”

Overall figures can mislead, though. China’s huge population base whittles down per capita income. Wellbeing is reflected better in modern human development indices. These factor in education, health, justice, etc. Other equity measures include political freedoms and human rights.

Norway tops 187 countries in human development ranking, gauged by the United Nations. The next four are Australia, the Netherlands, the United States and New Zealand. China is in Slot 101. Given the massive poverty, Beijing won’t break into the magic circle of 47 countries with very high human development anytime soon.

In the Philippines, we’re wedged between Moldova and Egypt at Slot 112. Like China, we huddle with 47 other countries with middling "medium human development”.

The West has primarily been shaped by its experience of nation, the analysis claims. In contrast, China is not even primarily a nation state. It is a civilisation state. China has been molded by its sense of civilisation.

"Unlike Europe, China never sought to acquire overseas colonies. Instead, Beijing established a tribute system in east Asia…The Chinese state bears a fundamentally different relationship to society compared with any western state ….[This] lies at the heart of the Chinese psyche.”

The Bo Xilai scandal rocks a China set for a leadership change in November. Tibet’s rash of immolations continue. Asean countries are edgy over Chinese claims that butt into seas within their exclusive economic zones. The United States stationed troops in Australia in November for a “region that has some of the busiest sea lanes in the world,” President Barack Obama said.

"Learn Mandarin,” we prod Kristin and Kathie. As a Chinese proverb says: “When the sea is wide, the mountains are high—and the emperor is far away, my heart is at rest.”

 

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