World seeing beyond cheap labour to Chinese values

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am

Last week, in keeping with Lunar New Year tradition, China's leaders offered festive greetings to Chinese people across the nation as well as overseas, wishing them good health, prosperity and happiness. In Hong Kong, the public were again treated to a short, government-produced film involving Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his wife, in brightly coloured dress, offering their new year greetings. None of this is surprising or new. The Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is the most important festival for Chinese everywhere. Even though much of the world has taken to celebrating Christmas and the calendar new year, it is evident that Chinese communities still reserve the Lunar New Year for get-togethers and for opportunities to show generosity and to reflect on love, family and happiness.

While developments in Egypt hogged the news headlines and preoccupied many foreign leaders during this period, these leaders were still eager to impress upon the world their familiarity with Chinese customs. It is a sign of the times that more and more people around the world are beginning to recognise the importance of Lunar New Year. When he was Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd delivered Lunar New Year greetings in Putonghua. Last year, United States President Barack Obama delivered a greeting emphasising how such celebrations served as a reminder of the 'richness and diversity' of American life. This year Rudd's successor, Julia Gillard, used the proximity of Australia Day, on January 26, and the Lunar New Year to give a public reminder that the Chinese had 'been a proud part' of the Australian nation.

A notable entry this year to the list of foreign state leaders eager to connect with the Chinese population was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who issued a video greeting with Chinese subtitles that was circulated via government internet sites and mailing lists and posted on YouTube, and tellingly, the Chinese equivalent of the video-sharing website, Youku, to ensure that ordinary mainland residents would be able to view it. He begins by greeting 'people in China, the United Kingdom, and around the world', and makes his own attempt to interpret what the Year of the Rabbit means, calling it 'a time for friends and family, new beginnings and old wisdoms, for home and optimism'. Cameron articulates the meaning of Lunar New Year impressively; some might even think he outshines Tsang, who issued a simple message of 'good health and happiness'.

No doubt, such messages smack of political opportunism at a time when many nations' economies depend on China to varying degrees. Cameron uses the opportunity to recall his trip last year to Beijing at the head of the biggest delegation of British cabinet ministers ever to visit China and to underline his aim to double the value of trade between the two countries to more than US$100 billion by 2015.

But these messages are also indicative of the influence of Chinese culture and values which have brought admiration from people around the world. China's No.1 women's tennis player, Li Na, charmed the world with her healthy mix of wit, dedication and skill in her run to the Australian Open final. Cameron concludes his message by paying tribute to the Chinese community's 'enormous contribution' to British society, which he said offered a shining example of the value of hard work.

The story of China's rise is often told in economic terms, but the world is belatedly realising that China, in terms of its values, traditions and culture, has far more to offer than just cheap labour.