People pass by a flower bed titled “Community with a Shared Future” in Beijing on September 24, one of 12 such beds built along Changan Avenue to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Photo: Xinhua
Andrei Lungu
Andrei Lungu

Whether fighting climate change, promoting scientific discovery or pursuing economic stability, China should act like a transparent global power

  • China has not only restored its traditional position at the head of the Asian order but has become a truly global power. However, this status carries with it certain responsibilities and expectations, including being transparent and open

When the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949, almost 40 years had passed since China’s territory was last administered by a functional central government, the Qing dynasty. This period of chaos and war affected hundreds of millions of lives. In 1949, life expectancy in China was somewhere between 35 and 40 years.

Today, it has reached 77 years, almost equal to that of the United States. But the real miracle has happened over the past four decades. Since 1978, more than 800 million Chinese people have lifted themselves out of poverty through hard work, intelligence, creativity and effervescence, as the government adopted a policy of opening up to the outside world and encouraging private initiative. 

Today, as the world’s largest economy – measured by purchasing power parity – or second-largest by nominal GDP, China has not only returned to a position it occupied for almost two thousand years, but has surpassed it. For the first time in its history, China has transcended the limits of a regional power in Asia, becoming a global power, a status which it isn’t accustomed to.

From the stock market value of US companies like Apple, Boeing or Caterpillar, and property prices in Sydney, to soybean production in Brazil, infrastructure in Africa and the European luxury-brand industry – all have come to depend on China.

But Beijing has yet to adapt to this new reality. That’s why it’s time for China to start seeing itself in a global perspective.

China has the most embassies. It is the world’s largest trading nation in goods. There are more Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 than American ones. And it ranks first based on the number of outbound students or tourists.

No other state can equal China’s ability to be present all around the globe, whether in terms of diplomats or businesspeople. In any capital, China’s embassy could be the largest, promoting investment, scientific cooperation, academic exchanges or tourism. But to do this, China needs to further open up and begin to think globally.

China has done its part in economic rebalancing but the US has not

A key pillar is for “Global China” to become more confident. That means being transparent and open. It means taking the initiative and leadership. Confidence means looking towards the future. These are the characteristics that should define a Global China.

When Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon in 1969, the moment was broadcast live around the world, even behind the Iron Curtain, in communist countries like Romania. In contrast, China’s recent Chang’e-4 lunar mission was shrouded in secrecy – the world learned about the successful landing only after the event itself.
The lunar lander of the Chang'e-4 probe is seen in a photo taken by the rover Yutu-2 on January 11. Photo: Handout/Xinhua News Agency via AP

Leaving the lunar surface in 1969, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind a plaque announcing: “We came in peace for all mankind.” As an emerging leader in space exploration, China should see its space programme through the same lens: as a scientific endeavour for the good of all mankind.

This means increasing its transparency for both the international scientific community and the global public. As the saying goes: with great power comes great responsibility.

Global China means a China that takes a leading role in tackling the world’s problems, from climate change to pandemics. When more than a million hectares of Amazonian rainforest are burning, when Greenland’s ice sheet keeps melting or when the Pacific Ocean chokes on plastic, China also suffers.

China’s, and the world’s, destinies are tied together. And while China has made remarkable progress in the renewable energy sector, it still generates almost a third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, leaving a lot of room for improvement. Global China means taking the initiative in solving global problems.

Are Chinese tourists the greatest threat to Lake Baikal?

Just as important, Global China should stop maintaining barriers between itself and the rest of the world. The Great Firewall, for example, might have made sense as an internal political decision in the 1990s. Now, however, when the government wants to attract more foreigners to invest, conduct research or study in China, and while Chinese tourists make almost 150 million overseas trips a year, surely it has become an example of bureaucratic inertia.

When Chinese scientists are conducting groundbreaking research in important fields, do they still need to add the Great Firewall to the list of barriers that hinder their advances? When China wants to be part of the global conversation and “tell China’s story”, does it help that its citizens don’t have free access to the digital platforms that enable these international discussions? Global China should be open and integrated with the world.

China should realise it is emerging as a global leader, attracting worldwide attention, and it should accept this role. This means embracing foreign interest, even if it also involves foreign scrutiny. How many foreigners have heard of American presidential candidates – like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders – and their policies, and how many can even name a vice-premier of China?

China may challenge the global order, but it doesn’t want to overthrow it

It’s easy for a foreigner to describe the goals of the current US administration, from protectionism to immigration policy, but can foreign observers ascertain whether Beijing really wants to liberalise the economy or to strengthen the state sector?

The Communist Party of China came to power in 1949 as an organisation that had been engaged in guerilla warfare for more than two decades, an organisation that, paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping, “nourished obscurity”, to ensure its survival. Under siege for so long, its mindset might have been understandable.

But today, China plays a fundamental role in the world economy. If it is to become the economic and financial centre of the world, from the management of the renminbi to the way its foreign policy is formulated, China needs to increase its transparency, so it’s easier for the world to engage with it.

As it prepares to celebrate its National Day, today’s China is in a very different position from 70, or even 40, years ago. The fact China is an emerging superpower is obvious both inside and outside the country. But China now needs to learn how to embrace its new role and status, and the responsibilities and changes that come with it. With greater confidence, Beijing should turn the page to a new chapter in its history: that of Global China.

Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP)