There is a compelling need for the United States & the broader West, particularly journalists, researchers and politicians, to shed their biases and misconceptions and better understand China given its role as an indispensable global player, say observers.
Peter Walker, Senior Partner Emeritus at McKinsey & Company, a U.S. worldwide management consulting firm, has made over 80 trips to China in the past 15 years. He spent a lot of time with Chinese executives, government officials as well as the general public.
“What I discovered was the people were happy, they were proud, they were energised. The government officials I met genuinely wanted to do the right thing for the people on a long-term basis,” Walker said in a recent interview.
Yet back in the United States, what he read in the mainstream media about China was exactly the opposite. “They talk about how unhappy and oppressed the people are, and how the government officials are basically corrupt, and their only real goal is to stay in power as opposed to help the people.”
The dominant narrative about China was so negative in the United States that the veteran business consultant decided to write a book to “get the story out there.”
In his book “Powerful, Different, Equal: Overcoming the Misconceptions and Differences Between China and the US,” Walker said he wrote “what I regard as an honest story from my own experience,” and did it “in a way that doesn’t come across as either pro-America or pro-China.”
He said there are “two models that are completely grounded in their own unique history and culture.”
James Heimowitz, President of New York City-based China Institute, who has 45 years of living experience in China, agreed.
“Do we think that Americans really understand how the system works in China? … I don’t think they understand well enough,” Heimowitz said.
Founded in 1926, China Institute is the oldest bicultural, non-profit organisation in the United States with an exclusive focus on China.
Heimowitz said that lives of his Chinese friends and their children have improved over decades ago, and they feel a sense of “pride” in the trajectory of their country.
“China now is a place that has gleaming infrastructure. That’s the envy of the world,” he said. “It’s a place that is dynamic, it’s a place that’s energetic. It’s a place that knows how to have respect for its history. But it’s not trapped in living in the past. And it’s still looking to the future.”
“I don’t think anybody can do anything but stand in awe of that success,” said Heimowitz, referring to China’s lifting of over 800 million people out of poverty over the past several decades.
“My central concern about the way that Americans see China (is) trust. I don’t think there’s enough trust. And there’s really isn’t enough knowledge (about China),” said Heimowitz when asked about his take on the harsh rhetoric by some U.S. politicians against China.
“And you don’t build trust by talking about policies. You build trust by increasing people’s comfort through their knowledge of each other,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know that there’s a lot that China can do. I actually think America has to do more.”
“China has put in the effort to try to begin to … get insight and learn from America in a much deeper, more profound way than Americans have found the need to do for China,” he said.
Given that the United States has been a leading world economy for many years, Walker said, it is “not surprising” that a lot of Americans just have “no interest in China” until it became a real economic powerhouse.
Sarwar Kashmeri, adjunct professor of political science at Norwich University, attributed China’s unprecedented rapid development to its “own way of governing — socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
“So I believe a lot of the theories that have been used to analyse China have been very self-serving, not by the government, but by the experts who were trying to predict what China would be like,” Kashmeri said.
It should be understandable that China has its own way of governing, he said. “As far as I know, it is not interested in taking its way and changing every country in the world.”
Western media and researchers have to do “an adequate job” in understanding China’s domestic and foreign policies, said Kashmeri.
Having spent years researching and writing about the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), he found that what has been written about it “is not very accurate.”
The professor has just published his own book on the BRI, using simple language and hard facts with an aim to help Americans understand it “as much as they should.”
“I believe Americans need to better understand China,” Heimowitz said, “because if we don’t, I think we’re headed for very dangerous times.”
Time has come for the United States to get beyond the zero-sum game mentality in its dealings with China, address its misconceptions and work with it to tackle global issues for humanity’s benefit, said the observers.
“China has risen, it will continue to rise. And this is a fact, a reality that America and the rest of the world need to come to grip with,” said Heimowitz.
“The United States is not mentally ready to accept the idea that we could be number two,” said Walker. “I don’t think China pays a lot of attention to who is the winner, the loser, and a lot of that goes back to the different values between East and West.”
“So in the East, it’s always harmony and balance and win-win; in the United States it’s winners-losers, heaven-hell, good-evil,” he said. “We grew up in a dualistic model, therefore, we cannot think about the United States and China coexist(ing) in a constructive relationship.”
Walker said it is a “hopeless task” for the United States to try to contain China. “Can they set China back for a couple of years? Maybe. But China inevitably is going to produce an economy that’s stronger than the U.S. economy,” he said.
“I believe that China and the United States … are going to be the two most important countries to occupy this planet,” Heimowitz said.
“We’re not going to agree on everything. We have different set of values, different systems of governance, different cultures, different histories,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t collaborate. In fact, it means we must collaborate.”