How returnees will reshape China

Tom Velk and Olivia Gong say as more young, Western-educated professionals return to a better life in China, their influence on business, society and relations with outsiders will grow

When the prodigal son returned to his father's house, his patrimony was dissipated. He was broke and ashamed. In contrast, when Confucius went back to his native land, freighted with a rich cargo of learning, prudence, experience and hard-won wisdom, he was informed that a rich man's extensive stable had burned down, killing many fine horses. Confucius' first response was to ask: "Was anyone hurt?"

He thereby reminded his audience that the welfare of people is and should be the measure and purpose of our social interactions. His questioning demonstrated the principal concern that should guide the direction of international political and economic relations: Will anyone be hurt? How do countries' well-being stand in the big picture?

In the past decade, China is slowly narrowing its economic gap with the United States. Recent data comparing Shanghai and New York City shows Shanghai has a competitive edge for young people who have the option of living in either city.

China's economy is showing more healthy signs of growth than the US'. Single and married Shanghai citizens, for example, had a larger disposable income than their New York counterparts. Current consumer price index data also indicates prices in Shanghai remain at a lower overall level. Education costs in Shanghai are more affordable. Access to modern health care is more difficult than in New York, but the gap is closing.

Other economic data is just as enlightening: China's gross domestic product growth rate is much higher. Unemployment rates have been steady at about 5per cent, whereas in the US, they have fluctuated between 4 and 10per cent.

Taking all this into account, the narrowing of the "material quality of life" gap is significant: for many young professionals who studied in North America, China has become a more attractive place to live, and an even more attractive base for career expansion than the US.

Many are going home. These returning sons and daughters will spark unique changes in different industries in the private sector. They will be agents of deeper social, political and cultural change. They will represent a force in favour of a hybrid, trans-Pacific form of rule-of-law modernisation (not necessarily Westernisation) in new China.

This situation implies that Western platforms of commonly agreed upon rules of behaviour, ownership and dispute-settlement mechanisms will be brought to China. The current Chinese banking system, up until now less efficient and less developed, may well change for the better.

When today's young Asians return home, they will expect to find satisfactory social, political and cultural assets to match the material welfare made available. They want the same level of political and social comfort that they have grown accustomed to while studying or working in the West, and will want to apply it to their careers. They will have ideas about fair play, contracts and property. They will not stand for the lack of rule of law and the presence of corruption.

Their influence will be similar to molecular-sized Hong Kong's. This group of returnees will be scattered, in "salt and pepper" style, all across the mainland. The seasoning will enrich the entire stew, especially if the result is to create business relationships between East and West. Separately, they will create a small platform of east-west contracts, agreements, practices, rules of business and economic behaviour. Many aspects of this practical culture will be private, not dominated by government.

These changes don't have to be a threat to China's sovereignty, independence or cultural uniqueness. Tension will be certain, but if these forces of change happen in small and continuous doses, there will be no Tiananmen Square. Progress has to be slow, consistent and healthy.

As they do business, they will remain in contact with their friends in the West. As they continue their training, they will automatically set up small private communities of interest linking East and West: the impact will be much the same as that caused in the larger world for so many years by Hong Kong. Just as Hong Kong's dynamic history shows, China, when free to do so, adapts readily to change.

And so the influence of young professionals will be an obvious necessity for the continued restoration of Asia's stature as a great and equal economic, social and political civilisation. It won't be a matter of the West poisoning the East. Rather, it will be a matter of many private platforms serving areas of common interest, helping to create individual communities that promise mutual profitability.

Both US presidential candidates, faced with American economic weakness, appeal to voters by making China a scapegoat. But it is a short-sighted and selfdestructive strategy. It serves to antagonise an ancient civilisation whose tradition of achievement and current potential for change is more wisely treated with respect.

History tells too many stories of great civilisations that rejected the option of co-operation, trade, partnership and compromise in favour of opposition and conflict. The stories don't end well.

China's growth may well have been hindered by Western ideas: Marxism in particular. It is undergoing a process whereby it may amalgamate its natural culture with some of the better social and economic ideas of the West. What the West needs to know is that China is not "rising up", or "emerging". It is not suddenly growing into adulthood, but simply re-establishing its former greatness.

When viewed in terms of its thousands of years of history, it is properly seen as equal or even superior to other cultures. If East and West meet on the field of diplomacy, compromise, partnership, contract, law and trust, where respect is paid to the other's intentions and aspirations, where the ethical standard is the battlefield option is less likely to look superior.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Back to the future