East Meets West | Kerry Brown: Understanding China is Imperative
Kerry Brown is a leading British expert on China, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of the Asia–Pacific Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He has close ties with China, having travelled extensively throughout the country, and is the author of 20 books on contemporary Chinese history, politics and culture. In his new book China Through European Eyes: 800 Years Of Cultural And Intellectual Encounter, Brown writes: “Whether one wants to accept it or not, China has the capacity to exert a profound influence on the world around it through investment, trade, tourism, anti-epidemic work, and many other means.” In the 21st century, it has become increasingly imperative for people to understand and engage with China.
In a recent and exclusive interview with “East Meets West” of China News Service in London, Professor Brown shared his insights on the important issues affecting the world today, as well as the opportunities and challenges facing China.
CNS: The current international situation has led to a new wave of predictions about the “future of globalisation”. Some even think that the era of globalisation is coming to an end with the deterioration of relations between the US and China, the escalation of regional conflicts around the world, and the transformation of global industrial chains during the pandemic. What are your observations?
Kerry: I think Europe and North America have been powerful and dominant worldwide for almost 150 years. Today, we are witnessing the engine of economic growth gradually shifting to Asia. The Asia–Pacific region has become a hub of the global economy in terms of manufacturing, markets, finance and supply. In fact, while the United States and Europe remain important, the Asia–Pacific region has become the third world economic centre, as the global centre is gradually shifting from the West to the East.
I think we should get used to this shift, which is more of a question of mindset. Globalisation is by no means a simple process, or a harmonious and unified thing, and it has many problems. But what I am saying is that Asia is already as globalised as the United States and Europe. And Asia’s globalisation needs more platforms and space.
The Shanghai Waigaoqiao Port resumed production during the pandemic in May 2022.
Photo by Zhang Hengwei, China News Service
CNS: The US–China relationship has resulted in tremendous achievements over the past 50 years, but recently it has been subjected to the most severe test since the two countries established diplomatic relations. What are your observations on this relationship and its future prospects? What are the implications for the world?
Kerry: What is clear is that the relationship between China and the US is not a simple one. In the past, relations between the two countries were perhaps better than they are now, and the rise of China today is unsettling the US government.
The main question now relates to how this relationship can be managed effectively. This cannot be avoided, but it can be managed over the long term and with an ongoing dialogue. Now is a difficult time.
There are two options, neither of which can be implemented and sustained: one is for the two countries to disengage entirely from all relations, which is impossible; the other is for each side to attempt to restrain the other by engaging in confrontation and conflict, which is also unsustainable. Therefore, China and the US must work with each other because there is no other way, which is why we need to continue working on this relationship.
CNS: Global dialogues and cooperation have never been more important than now in the face of common challenges. Countries with different political and social systems need to unite and solve the common problems faced by humans. Is this an opportunity for them to “seek common ground while reserving differences”?
Kerry: We have no choice. In these years of global pandemics and climate change, the need to cooperate with each other has become apparent. This is a matter of self-interest; even if self-interest comes first, cooperation is vital if these problems are to be resolved. Throughout history, there has always been significantly more international cooperation than international conflict. Indeed, although they can have a dramatic impact, conflicts have not been the mainstream of global history.
Relevant political dialogues between China and the US and Europe have often been complicated. Nevertheless, their global climate change dialogue has been pragmatic, effective, focused and constructive. I think that in the future there is a need to focus on more practical and effective issues, rather than always talking about culture and values. Only after these practical and effective issues have been successfully addressed can we discuss the more difficult problems.
The World Youth Development Forum opened in Beijing on July 21, 2022. Here are some of the participants in a group photo.
Photo by Zhao Jun, China News Service
CNS: In recent years, due to the changing world situation and the ongoing pandemic, China and the West have had many misunderstandings and misjudgements. Is this the price China must pay for its rise?
Kerry: I believe this is a problem that China cannot avoid. China’s international reputation has developed rapidly, and is unexpected in some ways, which can cause confusion. In these new circumstances, China may not be quite used to promoting itself to the world or finding a way to express itself.
However, the West has been learning about and recognising China for a long time. It is also true that China is undergoing a change in its role, becoming more internationally prestigious and influential.
CNS: Given China’s outstanding achievements and rapid rise on the world stage, is the traditional paradigm that “China should learn from the West” outdated? If you believe that learning between China and the West should be a two-way street, which of China’s specific experiences and strengths are worth learning about?
Kerry: Actually, we have always been students of China, and my new book makes this point in particular. China has taught Europe many things and brought many influences over time. China has also taught Europe some significant techniques, such as ceramic techniques and craftsmanship. The Chinese art of gardening, many designs and certain forms of governance of the time have also profoundly impacted Europe.
In 2019, the “Happier Chinese New Year” float at Hong Kong Disneyland had many Chinese elements, with Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed in their Chinese New Year outfits to greet all the visitors.
Photo by Zhang Wei, China News Service
So, “China is also a teacher” … this is not a new saying but a long-standing understanding.
But most importantly, we need to have the will to express ourselves and communicate with each other. China can certainly learn a lot from the West, but the West can also learn from China, so a closer and more cooperative relationship can be built. Finally, we should forget about the notion that “China is a student”. I believe China has already “graduated” and is no longer a student.
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