China's changes continue to dazzle Western world

Updated: 2014-05-19 01:52

By Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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Country is achieving growth in its own way, says BBC correspondent

People in the West still have not "got their heads around" the astonishing changes in China over the past 20 years, a leading BBC foreign correspondent says.

"The difference between China (then and now), in my view, is quite confusing to the West," says Humphrey Hawksley, who set up the BBC's bureau in Beijing in 1994.

Nevertheless, the "image of China in the Western eye has shifted in recent years from a mysterious developing country to an economic power closely intertwined with the global economy", he says.

Hawksley recalls his early days of reporting in China when it was difficult to get editors interested in stories that were not linked to the West's criticism of the country's lack of Western-style democracy.

But over the years China has achieved tremendous economic growth, brought a large proportion of its population out of poverty and shown the world that those things can be achieved without Western-style democracy. China is "winning the game", he says.

By that he means that for other emerging economies China has presented an alternative model of achieving economic growth, which is often the thing they are looking for.

"In my travels around the world, in the poorest parts of Africa or Latin America, people want their children to be safe, they want a clinic to be nearby, they want a road. They don't want 'isms', which are all mechanisms to deliver those things."

Though China's economic success is amazing, he says, he is not entirely surprised, having got to know some of the country's political leaders in the 1990s.

One memorable figure for him is Zhu Rongji, who served as mayor of Shanghai between 1987 and 1991, during which time Hawksley interviewed him.

"In his office, he had a big map of Shanghai, which he put on the floor. We were all leaning on the floor, and he said, 'We're going to do this and that, and by 2020 we're going to have a better infrastructure like New York'."

Zhu's determination and attention to detail persuaded Hawksley that he was capable of transforming China's economy. Zhu later became the country's vice-premier and later premier, from 1998 to 2003.

Although Hawksley expected huge growth in Shanghai, he was astounded by the transformation when he saw it.

"I remember some years back flying into Pudong Airport, there is a six or eight lane highway, and all those very wacky buildings, and you think 'My God, this is going to be a fantastic city in 20 years, 50 years, or a hundred years.'"

For a country emerging from poverty, its infrastructure boom symbolizes hope for a better life, and a sense of purpose and future, he says.

"So if you're the poorest of the poor, and you wake up to see a skyscraper, and new airport, you can think you're a part of a system that will deliver it for you."

The turning point of the West's perception of China was the 2008 financial crisis, he says, when China fought against the crisis side by side with Western countries and won respect from them.

"During the 2008 financial crisis, it was Western institutions that were going down. China could have taken advantage of that and used it to weaken the West … because it had the US treasury bonds, but it didn't do that. It could have gone the other way, but it didn't.

"It brought the realization to those in the West that China could be 'a very mature ally in times like this, and the deals could be done, and it was all pushing forward the Western world's economy'."

That realization has resulted in the West dealing with China as an important economic power, and it is increasingly acceptable for Western leaders to talk to Chinese leaders about trade and investment without having to always bring up the topic of "democracy", he says.

Having closely witnessed China's economic miracle, Hawksley says strong government intervention in infrastructure development and manufacturing is an important aspect of China's success.

Both aspects of the Chinese economy required significant government direction because a lot of China's infrastructure delivery is built in anticipation of future market demand, and China's manufacturing growth was facilitated by a favorable exchange rate to encourage exports. These could not be achieved by the private sector alone.

"Essentially China became the factory for the world. It created jobs for everybody, and there is a spread of wealth coupled with infrastructure growth. You wake up in the morning, and realize you can go on a better train, or get better seats, and that means a lot to many people."

This kind of attitude is especially inspiring for other emerging countries like those in Africa, where China has been welcomed as a partner in building infrastructure.

"What the Chinese say is that they will build a road, a stadium, and they don't tie it with anything else. The engineers go and do that, whereas Western aid is tied with 'human rights and democracy'."

From his experience in Africa, Hawksley has witnessed countries where global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have helped for a long time, and yet there are still no roads between two big towns because large institutions are often inefficient in dealing with practical matters.

"All the people want is for the roads to be built, so that (their) children can go to the hospital, and the magistrate can go to court. If you don't build your road, everything breaks down."

Hawksley joined the BBC in 1981. Since the early 1990s he has traveled in China frequently on assignment. When he set up the BBC's Beijing bureau it consisted of just him and a cameraman, but together they reported many memorable stories.

China in those days was still mysterious to many people, partly a result, Hawksley believes, of the country having a long history and a rich culture, and partly a result of China experts in the West making out that the country is more mysterious than it really is to strengthen their credentials and worth.

"Western people who spend years studying Chinese want to keep the mystery up. You could draw mystery around everything you want, but essentially it is not there."

Hawksley says one example is guanxi, which means social connections and is a concept Westerners often talk about to explain why many things are done so differently in China. But essentially social connections help in getting things done in any country, he says.

In recent years the growth of Western media in China has also helped demystify China, giving Western audiences a more objective and multifaceted view of China, Hawksley says.

"China now has more foreign press going there, and it has its own press doing quite good investigations. (The media are) a lot freer than 20 years ago."

Monica Wyithe contributed to this story.