Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 26 November 2010

26 November 2010

BEIJING -- There’s a saying – I think – that you should sometimes try standing in another man’s shoes, so that you can experience what it feels like to be someone else.

For the past several days, I’ve been here in Beijing, standing (metaphorically) in Chinese shoes, trying to look at the world through China’s eyes. (You can hear a fascinating discussion about this on tonight’s – Friday’s – programme, or via the website.)

Think of China as a 17-year-old, said one Chinese academic on our panel. Nearly adult, but not quite ready yet to shoulder all of an adult’s responsibilities. Whenever things go wrong (climate change, for example), the first reaction is along the lines of “Why should I clear up the mess? It’s not my fault.”

Just about everyone I spoke to made the same point: Yes, China understands that with its ever-growing prosperity come ever-growing responsibilites -- but its over-riding responsibilities are to its own people, and it’s not going to bow to foreign pressure just to keep Washington or London happy.

Take the exchange rate, for example. The renminbi is far too cheap against the dollar, says Washington. It gives China’s exporters an unfair advantage, and contributes to a dangerous imbalance in global trade. (In a nut-shell, China exports too much, and imports too little.)

OK, says China. What would happen if we revalued the currency? We’d lose valuable export orders, and tens of millions of Chinese workers would lose their jobs. Not a good idea. True, China could do more to encourage domestic demand to take up at least some of the slack -- but seen from here, that’s already being done.

Standing in China’s shoes – or seeing the world through China’s eyes – you begin to understand why its leaders are so single-minded in their pursuit of economic growth and domestic stability. This is a country which less than 100 years ago was weak, divided and at war with itself – which helps to explain why it prizes stability almost above all else.

But our panellists acknowledged that sometimes it perhaps fails to appreciate quite how intimidating it can look, especially to its neighbours. We’re like an elephant, they said, but perhaps we should try harder to look like a friendly elephant.

You probably won’t need reminding of the numbers: the biggest population of any country on earth – 1.3 billion and growing; the second biggest economy, having overtaken Japan and now catching up with the United States. Plus, it’s now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

So what does China want from the rest of the world? More patience, perhaps, and more understanding of its own domestic needs. A realisation that yes, it’s now a massive global economic presence, yet it’s still in many ways a developing nation which needs to invest huge amounts in basic infrastructure.

Is it throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases? More assertive, yes, because it sees its own interests threatened by the demands being made on it from outside. More aggressive, no – this is not a country that goes to war against its neighbours (we’ll leave the Tibet discussion for another day.)

When we came to discuss this week’s sharp rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula, after the two Koreas exchanged artillery barrages and four South Koreans were killed, the expert view was that Beijing’s influence over its North Korean ally is probably less than many Western governments believe. The priority for China, they said, is to keep the lid on things – the last thing they want here is a military conflagration on their doorstep or the total collapse of North Korea.

For much of the past 30 years, China has opted for a quiet life in international affairs whenever possible. Its leaders understand now that they need to engage more than they used to – but I have the impression that they’d much rather be left alone.

After all, they have more than enough challenges of their own to deal with, and even though they don’t face the prospect of being voted out of office, they still know that they need to respond to public pressure. And you only have to look at some of the online chat-rooms (not an entirely free debating forum, of course) to see that much of the pressure is for a tougher foreign policy, not a more emollient one.

You may be wondering why I haven’t touched on human rights, or democracy, or the fate of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. They are all important issues, but our task this week was to focus on China’s foreign policy and its relationship with the rest of the world. We’ll look at domestic policy on other occasions.

Friday, 19 November 2010

17 November 2010

Just about everyone else has had their say about The Wedding – so I don’t see why I shouldn’t as well.

What interests me, though, is not really what kind of dress The Bride will wear – or even where they choose to go on their honeymoon. No, what interests me is why it interests us.

Here are some suggestions.

First, in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, the royal family remain something that unites us. Love them or loathe them, they provide us with (i) a head of state, and (ii) endless fascination.

Second, if we are, biologically speaking, pack animals – in other words, if in our natural habitat we are programmed to form close-knit groups around a single leader – then the identity of that leader is of obvious significance. (And, given that Prince Wills is the next Annointed Pack Leader but one, it follows that whom he chooses as his mate is important, since they will together, all being well, in time produce another future Annointed Pack Leader.)

And third, we live in an age that celebrates celebrity. And thanks to Prince Diana, the royal family are now A List celebs, guaranteed to sell magazines every time they feature on the cover. Which applies not just in the UK, but from what I can gather by trawling global media websites, just about everywhere else as well.

The US media, for example, in a nation that was founded largely in order to rid itself of royalty, were far more interested in Prince William’s engagement than in the fact, announced the same day, that the UK government has agreed to pay millions of pounds in compensation to British citizens who were detained at Guantanamo. Strange, you might think, but true.

It is impossible to resist the temptation to refer back to the last fairy-tale royal wedding – of William’s parents, Charles and Diana, in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. Impossible, if for no other reason, because he chose to present his fiancĂ©e with his late mother’s engagement ring. And, being the size it was, you couldn’t exactly fail to notice.

Then, in their first TV interview together, he came out with what I thought was a tellingly poignant answer when he was asked why he had waited so long to pop the question -- “I wanted to give her a chance to back out if she needed to before it all got too much. I'm trying to learn from the lessons of the past.”

From which, surely, we must deduce that he believes that if his mother had been given a similar chance, she would have backed out. That must be a hard lesson for a son to learn. (Remember, Diana was just 19 when she got engaged; Kate Middleton is 28.)

Soap opera? Of course. But maybe that’s part of their job. For as long as there have been newspapers, the doings of the royals have been staple fare. For better or for worse, we feast on them, just as we do on Susan Boyle, David Beckham, or any other celebrity.

I don’t say it necessarily matters very much – but I do think it’s interesting. Don’t you?

A word about next week: I’m going to be in China to report on how it sees its role as an emerging global power. So do try to tune in on Thursday, and again on Friday for a special programme that we’re recording in Beijing with a panel of Chinese foreign policy experts and an invited audience at Tsinghua University.

Friday, 12 November 2010

12 November 2010

What do you think is the real reason why David Cameron was in China this week?

I’ll give you a clue: he took nearly 50 British business people with him. So yes, just like President Obama a year ago, President Sarkozy in April, and Chancellor Merkel in July, he was knocking on Beijing’s door and asking: “Scuse me, would you like to buy anything?”

World leaders sometimes give the impression that they see only two things when they stare at China on a map: lots and lots of people, and lots and lots of money.

Some critics find this unedifying. Shouldn’t world leaders have better things to do than hop on a plane to China and plead for a bit of business? Well, it may be unedifying, but let’s just look at some numbers.

When Angela Merkel was in Beijing, Germany signed 10 commercial agreements worth more than $4 billion. The biggest slice of the action went to Siemens, which came away with a research and development deal worth $3.5 billion to provide steam and gas turbines.

Which helps to explain why Germany is still by far China’s biggest trading partner in Europe. After all, they’re both major exporting nations, so it’s little wonder that they sell plenty of goodies to each other.

It also provides some useful context for this week’s announcement that Rolls Royce have secured a deal worth $1.2 billion to provide engines for China Eastern Airlines’ fleet of Airbus A330s. Not to be sniffed at, by any means, but not yet on a par with Germany.

Selling stuff to China means jobs back home. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? And in these days of sluggish economies and high unemployment, aren’t jobs back home something we want our political leaders to concentrate on?

Perhaps there’s even a link between Mr Cameron’s trip to China and the overhaul of the welfare system that the government announced yesterday. If hundreds of thousands of people are to come off benefits and find real jobs in the real economy, well, those jobs will have to come from somewhere. And if some of them, directly or indirectly, are the result of deals struck in Beijing, I suspect there’ll be few complaints.

So what are we to make of the prime minister’s almost ritualistic remarks about China’s iffy human rights record? He knew, as do all visiting Western leaders, that he had to say something; but he also knew that if he wanted Chinese signatures on those contracts, he couldn’t overdo it.

The words may change from visitor to visitor, but the basic message is always the same: “We really think it would be a good idea if you loosened up a bit, allowed a bit more criticism, perhaps even permitted someone to challenge the Communist party.”

Or, as David Cameron put it: “The best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”

I wonder how that sounds if you’re a successful Chinese businessman. Lessons in how to create prosperity, from a Europe struggling to emerge from recession? Talk of stability from the Europe of mass French pensions protests and British tuition fees demos?

One Chinese official was quoted this morning as asking, in the context of the G20 talks on global trade imbalances: “Why do you say we should take the medicine if you’re the ones who are sick?”

China is well aware of its economic strength these days. And it’s increasingly prepared to use that strength to bolster its security objectives. Just ask some of its neighbours, like Japan or South Korea, how they feel about China’s growing international confidence. You’ll get some very nervous looks.

I’ll have more to say about China in a couple of weeks’ time, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

5 November 2010

If you’ve ever been the parent of a small child, you will probably remember those moments when, in a fury of disappointment, it puckered up its little face and screamed: “But you promised!”

You probably explained that people can’t always have everything they want, and that sometimes they have to learn to wait. And then you waited for the response.

“I HATE you.”

I mean no disrespect to American voters when I say that I have been thinking back to my days as the parent of toddlers in the aftermath of the mid-term elections this week. I’m not saying that American voters behaved like children, but after all those uplifting campaign promises of just two years ago – remember Yes, We Can, and Change You Can Believe In – well, is it surprising that millions of them are angry?

One of America’s great strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that its people are eternal optimists. They are convinced that one day, with luck and hard work, they will be rich; that the rest of the world will learn to love the American way of life; and that yes, there is no greater good fortune than to be able to say “I am an American.”

The flip-side of this is that they are impatient. Two years ago, a persuasive Barack Obama promised them better times ahead – and many of them believed him. Instead, they see unemployment levels still high and government spending growing.

President Obama now seems to recognise that he should have been clearer about the time scales he had in mind. A few days ago, he told the TV host Jon Stewart: “When we promised during the campaign change you can believe in, it wasn't change you can believe in in 18 months.”

So now he’s lost control of the House of Representatives and has only a wafer-thin majority in the Senate. The next two years on Capitol Hill will not be a pretty sight.

But we have been here before. Mid-term drubbings – or “shellackings” to use the Obama term – are standard fare, a bit like bye-election defeats in the UK. They tell us next to nothing about what will happen in the next Presidential election, when Mr Obama will be up against, well, who? Are the Republicans really ready to nominate Sarah Palin as their candidate for the White House, with opinion polls suggesting that Obama would easily beat her?

(He’d have a much tougher time against other potential Republican contenders like Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, according to one poll this week – but as I say, I wouldn’t want to pay much attention to what the polls say now. Two years is a long time …)

A word about the Tea Party movement, which has attracted so much attention. For non-Americans, it may seem difficult to comprehend the level of antipathy which its supporters feel towards President Obama and the Democrats. But again, it does fit neatly into a long American political tradition: suspicion of Washington, suspicion of Federal government spending, hatred of taxes, a deep-seated belief that Americans do best when the government is off their backs.

Some of you may remember Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”

But Obama does believe that the government can, and should, help – help those millions of Americans who had no health insurance, and the millions more who have no jobs. He says government spending can do it; but his now much-strengthened opponents say government spending is the problem, not the solution.

They will battle it out between now and the next election – mark it in your diary: 6 November 2012.