In this helter-skelter world we have created for ourselves, we all need to pause for breath sometimes. The stresses and strains of our present world are certainly challenging, and are clearly different from those of our forefathers, but they are not necessarily any harder to deal with than the difficulties they faced in their time. And as one of my friends never tires of reminding me, it is foolishness to believe that we are living in the hardest of times and that everyone else before us had it so much easier.
History, therefore, still has many lessons for us from which we can learn because, no matter how many times you hear “it is different this time”, very often it isn’t!
And so to China.
I received a message today from Korea saying that all my recent blogs seemed to have a China focus, and wondered if China was really top of my mind all the time. Short answer – no – but living and working in Hong Kong, and spending a lot of time on the Mainland makes one very conscious that keeping abreast of what is happening in that country is not just important to me, but also is important globally, and I want to know what’s going on as far as I can. That said I should admit that not for one minute, despite my long engagement with China, would I ever consider myself to be an “expert” on China. I am a foreigner (a westerner, if I am to be more specific) for a start, and therefore I think differently. In this respect, I am drawn by a line in a book I have recently been reading – more of which in a second – which says plainly “If dialogue between Western nations and China is to be successful, we must stop thinking of ourselves as missionaries of a superior civilisation … “. I like that.
Regular readers of my Blog (thank you!) will know that I have delved into books written a long time ago that have provided lessons for today. The best recent example being the descriptive book about the lead up to the Global Financial Crisis we have just witnessed – the causes and the aftermath, that was written in 1875. And now, in part, I have another on the subject of China sent to me by an extremely thoughtful young man with some great ideas and a somewhat extensively varied taste in literature.
Contrast, if you will, the following statements:
“The more the economy develops, the more attention we need to pay to strengthen social development and ensuring and improving people’s wellbeing”
“I think the cultural [and social] questions are the most important, both for China and mankind; if these could be solved, I would accept with more or less equanimity, an economic system which ministered to that end”
Frankly, I don’t see a huge difference in the meaning implied between the two, but they were uttered 89 years apart. Perhaps what gives away the second statement as being the older of the two is the style of the writing. But when were these statements made? The first of the two was Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the last National People’s Congress in March 2011, the latter came from the pen of British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book “The Problem of China” written - or at least published, in June 1922.
As you will have now realised, Russell was also the author of the earlier quoted piece in which I changed a couple of words to make it sound more modern – for example I changed “intercourse” to “dialogue”.
And in his 1922 book there are almost what I would describe as “throw-away” lines like “In the long run, I believe that Japan must dominate the Far East or go under…” (it certainly looks as if that is the direction in which it is heading at present), or “The Chinese nation is the most patient in the world; it thinks of centuries as other nations think of decades”. Something that we all say today.
The only point I want to make is this. Our ideas about “new China” are actually not that new. It is when you read a book such as the one mentioned – despite some of the changes and actions that took place in the world since the time the book was written until now, and significantly in China itself, the issues we grapple with today are not necessarily hugely different from the issues that were being identified and discussed nearly 100 years ago.
Perhaps enough on China for a while, as I think about inflation, the global economy, oil prices, gold, the Middle East as we move towards the start of the next phase of this turmoil – and that’s not over yet, unemployment, nanny states … so many things on our minds.
So, take a good (history?) book, find a shady tree … and explore the past; it is bound to come by you again!