Efficiency: The new engine of growth

Updated: 2012-11-23 07:39

By Andrew Moody and Su Zhou (China Daily)

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Efficiency: The new engine of growth

Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says China is a deeply networked society. Geng Feifei / China Daily

Leading Sinologist says the West should look at its own past before criticizing China

Leading China expert Kerry Brown says there is now more of a need for Germanologists than Sinologists.

The newly appointed director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney insists the Chinese are now far easier to understand than the Germans, particularly with their current vacillations over the euro.

"I do sometimes think we have to have a Germanologist in Europe. I tend to find I have an almost instinctive understanding of the Chinese. I must have been a Chinese peasant in a previous life," he says jokingly.

The 45-year-old foreign policy guru, who is regarded as one of the world's leading Sinologists, says the key to understanding the Chinese is simply in how they form relationships.

"China works in terms of a series of dense networks. It is a deeply networked society. You don't need contract law in rural China, for example, because, quite simply, if you don't know someone, you don't have a contract with them. In Europe we like our rules and sometimes this is a bit mysterious too."

Brown, who until recently was head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, Europe's biggest foreign policy think tank, was speaking over lunch at the club lounge of the Kerry Hotel in Beijing on a whistle-stop visit to China.

He had been catching up with sleep after arriving in the early hours on a Chinese airline from Sydney. "I was traveling business class and I said to the air hostess in Chinese that this food was no good and she said that everyone says that. It was very Fawlty Towers, you know."

Whatever the complexities of Chinese studies, Brown says a greater number want to find out more about the subject.

Efficiency: The new engine of growth

"The bottom line is that never in history has a developing country risen so quickly to become a global power. In a relatively short time, knowledge about China has gone from something for specialists to something mainstream that politicians and business people have to know about," he says.

He is excited about his new appointment to the increasingly high profile China Studies Centre in Sydney because few countries have been affected by the rise of China more than Australia.

"China accounts for about 25 percent of trade. It is massive. Australia is almost completely economically dependent on China. Australia's expertise on China is therefore pretty rich and they have had it for a long time. It is great to be in that community now and to be part of building a think tank about China," he says.

Brown was relatively late in developing an interest in China, preferring to study English literature at Cambridge instead.

He made his first visit to the country in 1991 when he was working as a secondary school teacher in Japan.

This inspired him enough to do a one-year course at a specialist language academy at Thames Valley University in London, after which he spent two years in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

He joined the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office before going to the British embassy in Beijing as first secretary. This led to his previous role at Chatham House, where he cemented his reputation as one of the West's foremost experts on China.

Brown says one of the biggest changes in recent years is that you no longer have to be a China expert or fluent in Mandarin to be involved with China.

"I think the traditional idea that you needed to have a strong Chinese classical background and have to speak in perfect tones and all that kind of stuff has gone," he says.

"When you think of the foreigners who used to be here in the 1970s, you will find that many of them were oddballs. We should thank China for looking after them."

Brown says one of the striking aspects about China is the level of optimism. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 92 percent of Chinese believed their lives were better than that of their parents. "In Europe we are not so sure about tomorrow being better than today. And it probably won't be. It may be the same as today but whether it will be better is another thing. I think aspiration in China is very powerful," he says.

Brown says that is not to underrate the challenges facing China's new generation of leaders over the next 10 years. "To me the next 10 years is delivering the vision of a middle income society, where you have more equality. You have to deal with the issue of provincial differences, between the wealthy coastal areas and the poorer inner and western regions but also the social differences. You have 150 million people living under $2 a day and 300 billionaires. These are big differences."

Brown believes the slowdown of the Chinese economy from more than 10 percent over the past 30 years to 7.4 percent currently is far from the "disaster" it is sometimes painted. "I don't think growth will disappear. I guess the great ally they have got is growth. Look around you, all this investment and consumption. There will be growth."

He says the challenge for policymakers is to achieve more efficiency so the economy can advance.

In terms of foreign policy, he believes the West should look at its own past before criticizing China's development of economic ties in regions such as Africa.

"I am sympathetic to the Chinese in them being wary about taking lectures from the West about their moral behavior in Africa. China hasn't done what the Belgians did in Congo or the British did in other parts," he says.

He says many in the West fail to understand that China's outward investment is actually minimal, certainly in relation to the headlines it often generates.

"In Europe it is 1 percent of all investment and in the US 4 to 5 percent. Japan is certainly a much bigger outward investor in Europe. Small amounts of investment get an awful lot of press coverage, however," he says.

Brown takes issue with those who argue that China is a Sino-centric nation that has a fear of foreigners.

"I don't think it is that. I think it is that they don't like paying for consultancy. I think I have to agree. As a pragmatic British person, I am deeply suspicious of consultants too," he says wryly.

He also doesn't believe the Chinese have a grand vision of the future or of taking over the world.

"We have a lot of people abroad like Martin Jacques (author of When China Rules the World) saying they know what China's vision is. But I don't know. I haven't a clue," he says.

"I think one of the issues for China is that it is going to have to think what the bigger picture is."

Contact the writers at andrewmoody@chinadaily.com.cn and suzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 11/23/2012 page24)