Writing the wrongs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2011, 12:00am


Why would a 75-year-old businessman spend 20 months of his retirement writing a book on a sweeping topic like the relationship between China and the West?

Paul Cheng Ming-fun, a former Legco member and ex-head of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, who attended college in the United States and worked for US companies for more than two decades, felt it was his mission to explain his native country to Americans.

'Citizens of the West, particularly in the United States, need to know more about China, which is a rising power,' he said. 'In fact, even what they think they know may be fuelled by misconceptions and misunderstanding. I hope my book can help clear up misunderstandings about China held by some Americans.'

That book, On Equal Terms: Redefining China's Relationship with America and the West, was published this week by John Wiley & Sons (Asia), the American publisher's Singapore-based subsidiary.

Cheng, who published the book under his pinyin name in Putonghua, Zheng Mingxun, says his background makes him an ideal interpreter between the two worlds.

'Having worked for major American multinationals in the US and Asia, I have lived with a foot in both worlds,' he said. 'I have many friends from the United States and get along with them very well. The tension between the US and China stems from US politics, not its people.'

In his book, Cheng disputes some beliefs widely held in the West, for example that the US lost jobs and suffered a huge trade imbalance because American companies relocated production to China.

According to Cheng, most products exported from China are manufactured using materials from around the world; they are assembled in China and then shipped to markets in the West.

'America's trade deficit is with many countries around the world, not just China,' he writes. 'In fact, the value added in China is marginal; it is not nearly as significant a part of the overall GDP as some may think.

'Consider a product that sells for US$100 in the United States; I would calculate that no more than 10 per cent of that would be likely to stay in China - representing labour for assembling the product - while perhaps another 10 per cent would represent materials imported from various parts of the world.'

He says 'assembled in China', rather than 'made in China', would better describe the products that many Americans find it difficult to do without in their daily lives. 'China tends to be merely the final stop in many a multinational's vast global production network,' he says. 'The most inexpensive link in this chain takes place in southern China, where workers are typically paid less than a dollar an hour to do the soldering, assembling and packaging. If they didn't do it, would it create jobs in the United States?'

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a man who feels so warmly toward America, Cheng offers a vigorous defence of China's one-party rule.

He takes issue with the many Western thinkers who believe every country should adopt a democratic political system, regardless of the nation's history, saying China should not be judged solely on Western values and standards.

In his book, he states: 'When the financial crisis first surfaced in the US a few years ago, party politics got in the way of decisions and made that government slow to react. Imagine, a nation such as China with more than a billion people speaking what amount to different languages and living in widely varying circumstances around the country. A proliferation of political parties would result in total chaos nationwide.'

But Cheng does see room for subtle change in China, such as allowing more freedom of speech. 'Compared with what I witnessed during my visit to China in 1972 - the first after I left the mainland in the late 1940s - the degree of freedom of expression in recent years is much better. You can't expect China to turn into full democracy overnight,' he said.

Cheng believes the Chinese government should be more statesmanlike when responding to perceived international provocation as this would help improve Western perceptions of China.

Cheng was born in 1936 in Gulangyu , an island off Xiamen in Fujian . After the Japanese army invaded China the following year, his grandfather took the entire family to Hong Kong.

Cheng was sent to Tianjin after the second world war to attend primary school before returning to Hong Kong to attend high school. He studied at Lake Forest College, a liberal arts institution north of Chicago, in the mid-1950s, then went on to work with US multinationals in New York, Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

In 1987 he joined Inchcape Pacific, a long-standing British trading company, as an executive director and in 1992 became its chairman. He served as a member of the Legislative Council from 1988 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1998 and was chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce in the intervening years from 1992 to 1994.

In 2005, he was appointed chairman of The Link Management, which operates a listed portfolio of shopping malls and car parks it took over from the Housing Authority. He resigned in January 2007 in protest over actions by the Children's Investment Fund Management of Britain, then the largest investor in The Link, pressuring management to kick out small tenants in favour of large chain stores to obtain higher rents.

Today Cheng is deputy chairman of fashion company Esprit Holdings and active in a private-equity fund business. He is also co-chair of the foundation board of the East-West Centre, a Honolulu research organisation that promotes relationships between Asia and the US.

Despite the countless articles and books describing the shift of power from West to East and proclaiming that the 21st century belongs to China, Cheng is sceptical.

'Being as familiar as I am with America, I would not write off that country just yet, he said. 'All one has to do is attend a National Football League game or college football game to feel the spirit. The American dream is still very much alive, but it is politics that appears to be in the way.

'China is not a military threat [to the US]. It is a tough economic competitor, yes, but Americans are also born competitors.'

Cheng said China and the US could join hands to form a dream team for the interests of future generations. In 2010, the US was estimated to have spent US$636 billion on defence, more than eight times China's US$78 billion expenditure.

'Imagine, if the US and China took the lead and rallied other countries to join them in cutting defence spending,' he writes. 'These funds could be used to address poverty, starvation, disease and climate change - all issues we must address for the sake of future generations.'

So does he think his 20 months of hard toil paid off?

'Some of my US friends agreed after reading my book that we [US and China] may not agree on everything, but it's good to have a more balanced view,' he said.