Seeing China for what it is, warts and all, will help bridge the East-West gap

George Yeo says the world needs a more objective view of China and its unfolding transformation, and Alibaba, as SCMP’s new owner, should know that

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 5:29pm

One of the best-known English-language newspapers in Asia, the South China Morning Post, has been acquired by China’s internet giant Alibaba. That Alibaba bought this venerable newspaper, founded in 1903, has raised eyebrows, especially in the West. Some think that Alibaba needs the goodwill of the Chinese government, and will therefore sacrifice objective reporting to curry favour with Beijing. I see the acquisition from another angle.

It is not unusual for the Western media to see China through the lenses of Western values ... This is not good for either side, because it leads to misunderstanding and miscalculation

In April, a senior journalist from a leading US newspaper emailed me for my views on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) following London’s decision to break ranks with the US. The AIIB, initiated by China, is a multilateral development bank with the aim of funding infrastructure projects. I replied that Washington was misreading Beijing’s proposal as a move against the United States. It should be viewed instead as an economic necessity because of Asia’s huge infrastructural needs. My reply was ignored, probably because it did not fit into a prevailing view of China’s intentions.

It is not unusual for the Western media to see China through the lenses of Western values – in other words, what China should be, rather than what China is. This is not good for either side, because it leads to misunderstanding and miscalculation. What Beijing does has to be assessed with China’s own history and culture in mind. For example, its “One Belt, One Road” strategy seeks to revive the old overland and maritime silk roads for the 21st century on the basis of historical experience. It is now being played out on an epic scale and has the potential to transform Eurasia. The China trade has ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of China over the centuries. From that perspective, the Belt and Road initiative, which the AIIB will help finance, is not a new story at all.

READ MORE: Laying the foundations for China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’

The earlier China trades were based on the countries involved maintaining their own jurisdictions. In sharp contrast, the 19th-century China trade was different because it was imposed on China by gunboat diplomacy. The United Kingdom wrested Hong Kong from China after the First Opium War in 1842. After the Second Opium War in 1860, Western customs officials operating extraterritorially would inspect ships landing on major Chinese ports.

The idea behind the Belt and Road initiative is similar to that of the earlier China trades, and is analogous to the internet. Each country maintains its own internal operating system. Participants accept higher protocols (like trade rules, property rights, disputes settlement), enabling economic exchange to take place. Countries still influence each other but slowly, on the basis of persuasion and osmosis. This is not to say that military strength is not needed to protect trade routes. A larger peace is always a precondition but the dominant consideration is trade, not conquest or colonisation.

This non-interference in each other’s operating system has been a principle in China’s diplomacy over the centuries. When China launched free trade negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002, then premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) said that China did not seek for itself an exclusive position in Southeast Asia. He added that the terms should be changed should the agreement lead to an imbalance in China’s favour. (I was present at the meeting in Phnom Penh when Zhu made those remarks.) At a recent summit meeting with African leaders in South Africa in December, President Xi Jinping (習近平) pledged US$60 billion of aid to African countries, emphasising that China would not interfere in Africa’s domestic politics.

READ MORE: Under Xi Jinping, pragmatism now trumps ideology in China’s foreign policy

Western observers are naturally sceptical of Zhu’s and Xi’s statements, often seeing China’s moves as being cynically self-serving and amoral, if not immoral. China’s moves are indeed self-serving. In Chinese statecraft, good relations must be based on mutual interest. Historical experiences have taught the Chinese that no good comes out of interfering in the internal affairs of others when China’s own interests are not affected.

China’s approach to interstate relations is conceptually different from that of the West, especially that of the US. The US, for example, sets for itself the goal to “convert” others to its democratic values. It is a missionary power in the way China is not.

The US sets for itself the goal to ‘convert’ others to its democratic values. It is a missionary power in the way China is not

It behoves the West, and indeed all the major powers, to analyse and understand China objectively – what I call its deep nature – and its attitude towards Hong Kong. Alibaba’s acquisition of the SCMP should be seen against the history of Hong Kong’s evolution from a British colony to a special administrative region of China. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the SCMP was the establishment newspaper reflecting London’s world view. Under the press tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who privatised the SCMP in 1987, the London world view became an Anglo-Saxon one. In 1993, Robert Kuok, an overseas Chinese from Southeast Asia, became the controlling shareholder. Coverage of China improved hugely. The world view of the SCMP became that of “one country, two systems” – the governing policy of Beijing towards Hong Kong – but from a local Hong Kong perspective. Owners exercise influence through leadership changes, not through editorial interference. The question is what kind of influence Alibaba owner Jack Ma will wield in the coming years. After 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China, the role of the SCMP in Hong Kong diminished in importance compared to local Chinese newspapers. Hong Kong government leaders are more concerned about coverage in the Chinese newspapers, which are read by the great majority of the city’s 7 million people. However, the SCMP’s importance to English readers in Hong Kong and beyond has grown because of its China coverage. It is today the best English-language newspaper in the world covering China. No other paper devotes more time and space in talking about China than the SCMP does, day in and day out; 70 per cent of its fast-growing digital readership is outside Hong Kong and China.

READ MORE: Outgoing Hong Kong Legco chief warns ‘one country, two systems’ will fall apart if Beijing keeps on interfering

For viewing China, Hong Kong lenses are less distorted than Western ones

It is crucial for Ma to respect the aspirations of Hongkongers under “one country, two systems”, especially as 2047 approaches. The year is not too far in the future because, for business to flourish, land rights beyond 2047 must be clarified much earlier. “One country, two systems” today is based on the agreement between London and Beijing in 1984, that resulted in the Basic Law guaranteeing Hong Kong’s separate status for 50 years. What happens after that is a matter to be decided between Beijing and Hong Kong, or, more broadly, between the people of mainland China and the people of Hong Kong. Will Basic Law Version 2.0 be an improvement over Basic Law Version 1.0 or a diminution, or will it be completely withdrawn? As a newspaper with influence over an important segment of Hong Kong society, the SCMP’s world view has to internalise this existential challenge, which requires a clinically objective appraisal of China’s prospects in the coming decades.

This objective view of China makes the SCMP an important newspaper for English readers interested in following the dramatic transformation of China. For viewing China, Hong Kong lenses are less distorted than Western ones. If Ma interferes in the SCMP’s editorial policy, it will lose not only its relevance but also its economic value. Alibaba’s future is enmeshed in China’s future. It is in Alibaba’s interest – and in China’s – for the rest of the world to see China for what it is, warts and all, because what happens in China will affect all of us.

George Yeo is the chairman of Kerry Logistics, which is part of Robert Kuok’s Kerry Group, and a former foreign minister of Singapore. He is also vice-chairman of the Kerry Group, which owns the SCMP. This article first appeared in Foreign Policy magazine