PROFESSOR Zhang Weiwei is not particularly well-known around the world. An author and former translator for the Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, Zhang is, however, a very important figure in China.
He has written a ground-breaking book, The China Wave – which has not, as far as I can make out, been translated into English – about China’s way of approaching development and one that is attracting great interest in his home country.
In an interview with the one news service that seems to have a knack for ferreting out the interesting and the newsworthy – Al Jazeera – Zhang made some very interesting observations.
In the West, whenever China is discussed, there are plenty of Western “experts” on call who offer opinion after opinion, many of which are, frankly, silly and born of a lack of education. Western news services seem to fight shy of calling on the Chinese themselves to analyse their own country.
Zhang’s point of view, is, in this context, refreshing, simply because he turns the lens on aspects of China which nobody so far has even thought relevant.
For example, one of the West’s preoccupations is that in a few decades China could well become the most powerful country in the world; with that as background, Western countries are forever postulating how China should become a democracy.
But Zhang points to an aspect of this democracy debate that has never been highlighted – if China had had a one-man one-vote system, he says, the country would have had a peasant government given its population structure. Such a government would be very nationalistic – and would probably go to war with Taiwan. Or even with Japan.
Is that what the West wants? Certainly not, says Zhang, and that is a very good reason why China needs the kind of government it has at the current time.
Another argument that the West uses against China is the question of individual rights. Zhang points out given China’a past — right from the 1800s the longest period of internal stability has been eight or nine years — the average Chinese values internal stability much more. For the last three decades, there have been no invasions or internal uprisings in China and from the Chinese point of view that is much more important than the freedom to protest.
The West often tries to pass off its system of government — where accountability comes at the ballot box every three or four years — as superior to that in China where a nine-man politbureau is the supreme decision-making body. But as Zhang points out, the basic criterion for any member of this body is that he or she should have been a successful governor of a province for at least two terms. And as he points out, these are provinces which often have four or five times the population of an European country.
Zhang even has a little dig at the US here, pointing out that under such a system as this, a man like George W. Bush would never have been chosen as a leader.
As to Western fears of Chinese expansionism, Zhang is quick to point out that Beijing built a great wall to keep others out; in other words, its main preoccupation is internal social stability, not taking over and running the affairs of others.
He emphasises the value that China places on its past, the fact that people always look to history to understand the present and the future. Despite the fact that Mandarin has been in use for nearly 3500 years, he points out that the teachings of Confucius can still be read and understood by the average educated school child. This is in stark contrast to the fact that even a professor at an English university often cannot understand the works of Shakespeare as they were originally written.
Thus, China has a vast store of historic cultural wealth in its vaults that it can draw on and use while deciding about its future. This is not available to the West.
Zhang also points out that while the West is prone to laud its systems as superior, there has been no job creation in the US since 2008. By contrast in China, every year for the last three decades, there has been growth and job creation at every level, down to the smallest unit under governance. Why should China then adopt Western systems which have been shown to be inferior?
In short, Zhang shows that it is often more useful to look at the East through its own eyes, rather than consistently yielding to the big mistake of trying to measure Eastern achievements with a Western tape measure.