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Friday, April 12, 2024

China on the front foot – The USA on the back foot

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Graham Perry
Graham Perry
Experienced Arbitration Lawyer | China & Chinese Business Affairs | Public Speaker/Lecturer.

There is always tension between change and stability in all aspects of life. 

Development requires progress and progress depends upon change so change is a given permanent. There is always change. Things do not standstill. They are always on the move. Sometimes change is cataclysmic – deep, thorough going and all-encompassing. Sometimes change is biding its time, preparing for a significant moment and ready to jump. But whether change is macro or micro, structural and fundamental or gradual and cumulative, it is an ever-present. Sometimes we do not see the forces that are getting ready for decisive action and we underestimate their importance. Other times the change explodes as the forces of preparation are given full vent. But the human condition does better if it anticipates change and development and progress.

China comes into this analytical formula. Since 1949 China has been changing – sometimes dramatically and sometimes cautiously but regardless of the pace of the change, the change is an ever-present imposing itself on the status and structure of the country and also on its relationships with the outside world. 

Consider China in 1949 and again in 2020. The starting point is always The Sick Man of Asia – no phrase better explains the desperate position of China at the end of the Third Civil War and the War against Japan. It was destitute, devastated and exhausted. The prolonged hostilities had taken its toll. China was at a low ebb. But in the midst of the turmoil of war, something significant was taking place – there was a new leadership. The Communist Party had displaced the dynasties and the Kuomintang and the Japanese. China was under new ownership. Bad as things were, they were about to change. In his statement from the Forbidden City, Mao Tsetung announced the world shaking development. China was about to Stand Up. The People and the Party had come together to build a New China. 

The seventy one intervening years have seen experiment, progress, setback, and zigzags. Change and change again has seen China emerge from the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmin Deaths to build a society poised to become the largest economic power in the world. A remarkable 500m people have been taken out of poverty (and consider what that figure means in terms of growth and development – roads and hospitals and housing and clothes and travel and a life of growing prosperity.) It is doubtful that the world will ever witness such a surge of progress for so many people in so short a time. 

Some in the world, like the famous old King Canute, refuse to recognise reality and try, instead, to reverse the tide. And it is the case that retreat and failure could happen if the Party took its eye off the ball and overlooked its priorities and allowed standards to drop and momentum to stall. It won’t happen because the Party is alert and not complacent. It is alive to the challenges and aware of the hopes of its enemies that it will slip back. In this important respect the Party and the leadership of the Party are primed and ready to re-charge their batteries and go to the next stage of the New Long March.

Some see things differently and worry. The US knows the old ways are on the way out – not immediately but over time. Gradually their grip on the levers of power is being loosened and step by step new alliances, new groupings and new influences are guiding the world forward. The US resists and there is tension. But this tension is merely change at work. The tectonic plates are always shifting – sometimes slowly, sometimes at a pace and earthquakes do happen. Change is not one paced – sometimes it is a 100 metre sprint and sometimes it is a 26 kilometre marathon but at every point in history one side is getting stronger and the other side is getting weaker – sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes outrageously.

The West is in “de-coupling” mode. Let’s unite and isolate China – they proclaim. They can’t unite. They have too many disagreements, too many single agendas, too many different politicians and, at the same time, too many businessmen who, unlike politicians, want more co-operation not less, more harmony not less, more achievement not less. This is the phase that the world is presently experiencing. It will last for a few years. The US is still strong. It is a superpower that has no intention to vacate its position of power and influence and it will take time, but History is about the Rise and Fall of Big Nations. And this is the era when China is on the rise and the US is on the decline.

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