What next for China: Great Wall or Bridging the Gap?

As he prepares to meet President Xi, the University’s Vice-Chancellor reflects on what China’s questions about its future mean for the political economy of the West

keith_Burnett_100In his speech to both Houses of Parliament during this week’s visit to the UK by President Xi Jinping, he began, as is the Chinese way, by paying tribute to those who came far before him. And that means, going back way beyond the starting-point of most of our Western history text books.

For what those who study the contemporary face of Chinese socialism often forget is that China has a profound sense of its own ancient roots. It is entirely consistent with what President Xi has written for his own people that he addressed a ‘mother of parliaments’ founded in the 13th century by reminding MPs and Lords that China’s own sense of the link between its people and the rule of law went back four millennia.

It is not a new theme for the Premier of the People’s Republic. I have read President Xi’s reflections on The Governance of China in both English and Chinese and been struck by how fundamental and searching are the questions he is asking about the legacy he has inherited and what it means for the future of China, its governance and political economy. What will it be to find a version of what he repeatedly refers to as ‘socialism with a Chinese face’?

Those who have not visited China over recent years and who only know of its people through the images of state visits, military parades and Olympic athletes, can underestimate the profound changes which are forcing questions of national political and economic philosophy on this nation of 1.4 billion people.

Just look at China’s youth. In a generation, China has gone from the Land of the Bicycle to become the Land of the iPhone. It is a place where the urban young are as likely to have read about Steve Jobs as Karl Marx, where young girls learn not only communist songs but Elsa’s anthem from the Disney film Frozen, easily mouthing lyrics which urge them to ‘Let It Go’.

And indeed the images of the past are disappearing fast. Even in the second and third tier cities, growth is phenomenal. With openness has come material aspiration and a questioning of the traditional values of Confucius. The ‘Little Emperors’ of the one-child policy are growing up in a culture barely recognisable to their elders.

Is there any wonder, then, that those who see the virtues of a planned economy which is currently delivering 71 airports and which constructed a high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai in just over three years question what the future holds, and how to capture opportunity without threatening the principles which have served as the bedrock of a nation for four thousand years?

Meanwhile, we in the West also have some profound political and economic questions of our own. The near-consensus of recent years about the virtues of the supposedly free market was badly shaken by the financial crisis and a lingering sense that we do not yet understand how to limit its excesses or when to pull control back into our own hands.

So when the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visited China earlier this month in the company of the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury and Sheffield Economics graduate Jim O’Neill, he did so as one who increasingly acknowledges the need for state intervention to kick-start infrastructure investment and who knows that the resurgence of the UK’s less affluent and productive regions would also require some degree of coordination and planning.

It could be said that, while China seeks to refine socialism and law to fit the needs of a contemporary China, the West is asking parallel questions about its own assumptions.

And there is more. There are some issues which neither Chinese socialism nor Western capitalism can solve alone. These are the great questions which cast their shadows over both societies. How can we create sustainable societies both in terms of the environment, and how we care for our ageing populations?

On these challenges, both systems fall short. As another Sheffield Economics graduate and recent Carnegie medal winner Jeremy Grantham has written:

Capitalism does millions of things better than the alternatives. It balances supply and demand in an elegant way that Central Planning has never come close to. However, it is totally ill-equipped to deal with a small handful of issues. Unfortunately, these are the issues which are absolutely central to our long-term well-being and even survival.

Jeremy Grantham though does see causes for optimism. ‘I have high hopes for China’, he says. ‘They have embedded high scientific capabilities in their leadership class. They know this is serious and they are acting much faster now than we are.’

This brings us to the nagging question underlying so much of the commentary around President Xi’s visit: whether or not the West should fear China and build its own walls of protectionism, or open ourselves to partnership?

My own view, based on many years now of travelling to and working in China and with Chinese people, is that we are all safer together. When President Xi says the UK and China can be a ‘community of common interest’ and praises those such as UK universities or the network of Confucius Institutes which make efforts to improve understanding between our cultures, I heartily agree.

But we must go further. Economic ties are not enough. Sustainable societies need more than financial incentives: they need shared values and human connection. We need to see each other’s fears and challenges, aspirations and talents. We should pool our strengths and take what we learn to the wider world.

President Xi’s book makes reference to a classic Chinese story about a great leader who, when young, was so poor that to study he had to drill a hole in the wall he shared with his neighbour to learn by ‘borrowed light’.

It is more than apt. Despite the iconic image of China’s Great Wall, our common future cannot and must not be defined by borders. We need what President Xi has called a ‘bridge of understanding’, a place of meeting and – for the safety of our children and children’s children – to share the insights and answers which neither of us can achieve alone.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is a physicist by discipline. He is also a speaker of Mandarin Chinese and in 2014 was awarded an individual honour by the People’s Republic of China for his contribution to the understanding of Chinese language and culture.