How to engage with China more constructively
Peggy Liu, Chairperson, JUCCCE May 26, 2019
No person is perfect, no country is perfect. This is not a comparison
of who is more perfect. It's some insight into how 2 imperfect entities
can understand and engage better with each other.
China is not the China of 30 years ago. The country is changing so
fast, it's a new country every 5 years. Please, be patient and remember
how long it took the West to develop. China is doing the same,
rebuilding in short decades. Picture a land that was devastated and
really just started rebuilding in 1990. The first supermarket in 1990!
It's developing basic legal capabilities from scratch. Rule of Law
classes were started in 2017 at government academies. It's in rapid
prototyping mode- try/fail/learn/try/fail/learn- at country scale.
It was a baby learning to crawl. Now it's a lanky teen, whose parents
don't quite understand it. But it's quickly coming into its own by
observing and interacting with the outside world and deciding what
aligns with its own context and values. Loving, constructive input,
rather than nagging put-downs is what this teen needs most.
"China is changing at giga scale and giga pace."
The slang, the food options, the dress style, the access to
international travel, the thriving cybercontent... is all changing the
sensibilities of the Chinese people. Engaging with Chinese
citizens at a cultural exchange level is the best way to "change China"
and bring it towards Western sensibilities.
China is a very diverse country of 7 markets and 55+ minorities, and
it's changing all the time. It's hard for even Chinese people to keep
up. Rather than view it as a single entity, view it as the European
Union, just managed centrally.
It's not really "Communist" anymore- in the way Westerners have a
knee-jerk reaction to that word. A high level Ministry of Finance
official once told me China is run more like a multinational
corporation. Like IBM or GE. The government is led by people with
Masters degrees in engineering and economics. These are "techonomist"
leaders who think long-term and systematically. It is super aware of its
shortcomings and vigorously debates them domestically. It welcomes solutions presented constructively, in private settings.
The best way to address this is through its educational system for
government. They have a minimum mandatory 12 day training for anyone in
government. I've taught over 1000 mayors and central government
officials at 3 of the 8 official academies teaching the first classes on
ecocities. Many overseas experts have come in to help present
solutions, have open conversations about where China is in its stage of
development, and open up opportunities for collaboration. With
collaboration, has China been able to learn and leapfrog. Now, China is
starting to share its learnings with the rest of the world.
My suggestion for other countries is to cooperate on the ground in
China to build towards the behavior you want to see in China. China
wants to be better. It does that by researching best practices and
seeking out top international experts for private dialogue. Shouting at
it in public and pointing out weaknesses today does not help it get
better for tomorrow. The best way for governments and private
companies to help improve China's international engagement is to
leverage its educational system (workshops, vocational and compulsory)
and international advisory boards.
A great example is how Lawrence Berkeley National Lab worked for years with the Chinese government
on reducing heavy industry energy emissions. This single collaboration
has had tremendous impact on how China has been able to (almost) halt
emissions growth. The UNEP says
China is one of the few major economies on track to meet its Paris
target for reigning in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. International
company CEOs vie to be part of the Shanghai and Beijing mayors advisory
councils. Even at the highest level, the State Council, China relies on a
heavy-weight international advisory council to help it critique its
policies and give suggestions for future country direction. This
includes people like Director of Norwegian Polar Institute's Jan-Gunnar Winther on "Blue Economy." Which other countries actively ask for critique in that way?
The Chinese emphasis on "saving face" means it really doesn't help
change things in China by critiquing it in public, or doing protests on
streets. In private dialogues, over dinner and drinking, Chinese are
very open and self-effacing. It's not that Chinese don't know there are
issues, it is just trying to figure out how to get to a solution that
works in the China context. Help it see a solution and they will jump on it with policies, investments, pilots at city-scale.
Try to look at the need for different workflow and processes when you
implement at the scale of 1.4b people. It's really different.
This also means that China can help technologies cross the chasm and
get to economies of scale in a way that no other country can. This will
benefit other countries by making tech affordable and accessible. From
solar to electric cars to digital payments. The world will win if companies can figure out a collaborative way of working with Chinese companies rather than build a wall.
Think about how your country/company can benefit from China's pouring
billions of dollars into learning how to scale new tech? Marrakesh did.
It was the first city in Africa to deploy electric buses, thanks to a
donation of 50 buses by China, and a joint venture EV bus manufacturing
plant that will produce 1000 buses a year for the African and European
But the size of population also means that crowd control is really
important. I've been in situations where one person can setup bad
behavior in a mob (anyone at a sports game experience that?) I live in
Shanghai, with 26 million people. My two sons grew up here. I'm really,
really concerned about safety. Luckily, I feel both free and safe in
Shanghai because of the Chinese-style rules of behavior. The differences
in how the East and West approach crowd control is related to how
differently Chinese treat children, privacy and education. I liken it to
parents keeping a safe space at home with teenage boys. I can relate to
that. But I am super grateful that China is the safest country I've
been to (which is probably around 40).
I definitely acknowledge that sometimes local officials execute
national intentions too aggressively. It's learning and many of the
solutions it has to invent from scratch. In these cases, I suggest
experts give suggestions in the form of best practice whitepapers and
work out solutions privately with key decision makers in
capacity-building workshops on how to improve handling of what China
sees as potential domestic threats. Instead of just expressing dismay, offer to help build capacity
for legal and monitoring the way the Environmental Defense Fund does
with pollution issues. This will work too for topics such as
intellectual property and anti-terrorism interventions.