The new 'sick man'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 April, 2010, 12:00am

It is well known that for 100 years after the Opium war, China was subject to the predations of the Western powers and Japan. Parts of China were partitioned into spheres of influence by various countries and the nation was derided as the 'sick man of Asia'. Many Chinese were so poor that they could not survive within the country and so worked as labourers in mines and sugar plantations in South America and on railways in the United States. Their lot was little better than that of slaves.

Anguished Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries, aghast at the depths to which their nation had sunk, encouraged each other with the cry zhenxing zhonghua, or 'revitalise China'. This was a slogan used by Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. It continued to be used after Deng Xiaoping advocated the country's modernisation.

For centuries, China had lulled itself into a false sense of security, confident that it was superior to 'barbarians'. This smugness was evident when the Qianlong emperor rejected the entreaties of Lord Macartney, an envoy sent by King George III in 1793, seeking an exchange of ambassadors and trading relations.

The emperor preferred isolation to trade and diplomatic relations, saying: 'I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.' He was living in a dream world. Less than 50 years later, the British showed China what gunboats could do. China was brought to its knees. The reaction was the rallying cry 'revitalise China', not only on the mainland but in Chinese communities around the world.

The establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 was a reflection of a national mood, with a people anxious to regain their national dignity. Mao Zedong's declaration that 'the Chinese people have stood up' was a clear indication of this.

However, China continued to be poor and weak. Mao was too focused on world revolution and class struggle to bother much with economic development. After his death, Deng redirected the country's energies and now, after three decades of single-minded pursuit of economic development, China has achieved remarkable progress.

For the first time in living memory, China is being accorded respect by the world, and its high-quality but low-priced products are purchased by appreciative consumers in both the developing and the developed world. Chinese are now welcomed as tourists in the most exclusive establishments in Europe and America.

While in the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese leaders humbly listened while being lectured on how to run their economy, now there is even an emerging degree of hubris as Chinese officials berate the United States on its financial regulatory environment. China seems to have a clear vision of where it is heading when other countries have lost their anchor. The speed with which the Chinese economy rebounded after the global financial crisis shows that it is being managed by people who know what they are doing.

In many ways, it seems, the tables have turned. The New York Times has reported that China is offering to supply the technology and engineers to build high-speed rail lines in California.

The irony is that, 150 years ago, Chinese workers were hired to build America's railroads at a time when China had little more to offer than cheap labour. Now, China is offering technology and engineers, not coolies, to help the US build a modern rail system, something the country badly needs.

America, like China, for too long preferred to live a world apart. Like China, America thought of itself as the centre of the world. Americans called the annual baseball championship the World Series even though the rest of the world was not involved.

The US, the foremost power in the 20th century, seems to have fallen victim to the same sense of superiority and smugness that brought China low in the 19th century. It is time to coin a new slogan, zhenxing meiguo, or 'revitalise America'. The time to begin is now, when the US is still the world's leading economic and military power. Stop the decline. Reinvigorate the country.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator



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