In China

By Michael Dunford 

Belt and Road Initiative

WU BOHAO/FOR CHINA DAILY

Fostering high quality development in the Belt and Road Initiative involves first identifying the strengths of problems associated with earlier development paths and seeking to draw on the strengths and addressing the problems.

 

In the last two hundred years there were a series of industrial revolutions and waves of modernisation. These waves led for the most part by a succession of western powers were associated with remarkable human accomplishments, significant material (scientific, technological and industrial) and social progress and greater global interdependence.

 

And yet these advances rested on the domination and exploitation by powerful economically advanced countries of less developed parts of the world (colonies, neo-colonies and imperial possessions). This  development also came with some profoundly negative evolutions: the already mentioned differences in relative prosperity, attempts to universalize Western interpretations of shared human values while denying validity to others, and attempts to impose Western ‘liberal democracy’ and neoliberal economic principles. Consequences included: chaos and conflict in many parts of the world; waves of rampant financial speculation; inequality, social division and narrowly individualistic and materialistic ways of life; creation of material goods and immaterial services of sometimes questionable use value; and serious damage to the natural conditions of human life.

 

Alongside these consequences, this path eroded the sovereignty of nation states and is incompatible with a world centred on the United Nations principles of the equality of nation states and mutual respect, dialogue and cooperation in a world of multiple civilisations. Due to differences in power this situation was largely endured by much of the Global South and East. 

 

In this world China starting in 1949 and accelerating after its reconciliation with the United States in the early 1970s, reform and managed integration into a western-dominated world order made China one of a relatively small number of Global South countries that significantly closed the development gap with the leading countries in the world. China’s experience and in particular the ways in which sovereignty, carefully negotiated economic and social goals, infrastructure investment, high rates of investment, accumulation of capabilities in a wide range of industries and the accumulation of foreign reserves provided China with vital experience and means to emerge especially from 2013 as an international development actor on a par with Bretton Woods institutions.  

 

High quality development denotes a path which on the one hand moves humankind forward while at the same time addresses the problems associated with hitherto modernization and development paths. Overall it involves development centred on the introduction and wide and rapid diffusion of innovations, technologies and products that improve productivity and the quality of life without compromising self-reliance; an equitable distribution of income (through multiple channels), higher quality employment, life-long education and improvements in real income for all sections of the population; reducing gaps in development between urban and rural areas, regions and countries; access to good quality health, education and other public services for all; the enrichment of people’s spiritual and cultural lives (spiritual civilization); ecological civilization; and widespread multi-level processes of joint deliberation, democratic consultation and engagement designed to arrive at substantive shared social, economic, cultural and ecological goals and programmes; and an effective, efficient and responsive system of governance.

 

High quality development is closely related to China’s own quest for a different development and modernisation path that addresses the difficulties associated with choices made in the past and that addresses in the case of the BRI the major deficiencies of past development pathways and challenges confronted by the world as a whole.

 

In a global context it is a modernisation path that aims to embrace the entire world lifting in particular those parts of the world that have been left behind but also requiring already developed countries to assume greater responsibility for their earlier development choices. High quality development in this case means that instead of some parts of the world and some sections of the population making progress at the expense of others or simply leaving others far behind that everyone moves forward together. In China this notion is captured in proposals for Shared or Common prosperity. Common prosperity refers to a situation in which everyone contributes (joint contribution), equitable evolutions of the primary, secondary and tertiary distributions of income that lift everyone (people and regions of the world) and that grant everyone (including the most menial) respect for the positive contributions they make. It rests on the recognition that if one group or country does well so do its partners.   

 

High quality development in general and in the case of the BRI also means development that addresses global challenge such as climate change. In this case it involves the establishment of methodically constructed plans and goals (in China’s case its Dual Carbon Targets), the design of instruments such as carbon caps and carbon and energy efficiency and scaling up Nationally Determined Contributions in conjunction with its partners. These steps however should unfold in an orderly manner without sacrificing essential economic development goals (especially for less developed countries) and ‘establishing the new before breaking the old’ (先立后破as Mao Zedong said in 1940.

 

More generally it involves the careful drafting and implementation of plans that enable the world to move in other directions associated with a quest for greater harmony between humanity and nature (绿水青山就是金山银山 – ‘lucid waters and green mountains are as precious as mountains of silver and gold’ in the words of Xi Jinping). Clean energy (reflected in China’s 2021 decision to cease funding overseas coal-fired power stations), sustainable transport, green corridors as in the combination of infrastructure development and conservation in the Mombassa-Nairobi Standard Guage Rail in Kenya).  

 

At present the world is on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution (robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, 3D

printing and autonomous vehicles). These technologies offer the possibilities of significant increase in productivity and the quality of life. Economic growth depends however on productive investment and the the diffusion of clusters of technologies and products. At its centre is the replication of existing technologies through investment in equipment, structures, and software and expansion of the labour force which themselves depend on the unimpeded diffusion of knowledge and skills, non-restrictive approaches to the intellectual property rights (unimpeded diffusion of knowledge and knowhow) and the mobilization of financial resources while paying careful attention to debt sustainability (reflecting the capacity to repay) and avoidance of exploitative interest and debt service payments (an area in which China and new financial institutions have made significant positive contributions).   

 

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High quality development also entails the creation of a peaceful world. In this context there is clearly a struggle between western views about international relations and those of China and much of the Global South and East (Five Principles of Peaceful Existence).

 

In February 2021, the newly appointed Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave several speeches and interviews in which he repeated the line: ‘The world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one does, and then you get chaos.’

 

High quality international development presupposes the equality of all nations, non-interference in their internal affairs and the right to choose their own development paths. As such it entails a vision of an international order that is radically different from the one outlined by Blinken. In the past it is not the case that chaos has prevailed in the absence of hegemonic powers. Today China and much of the Global South and East have a different vision of a harmonious international order that has no need for a hegemon (including the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence).

 

In the Chinese case this vision is rooted in Chinese the core concept of harmony (rather than anarchy or absence of government or a hegemon as in the western case. The concept of harmony is embodied in a number of Chinese concepts applicable to high quality international relations and high quality development. These concepts include ‘All under heaven’ (tiān xià – 天下), ‘relationality’ (关系 – guānxi), and ‘symbiosis’ (共生 – gòngsheng) (Grydehøj and Su, 2022). Guangxi emphasises relations of reciprocity and Confucius’ adage, ‘If you want to establish yourself, help others to establish themselves; if you want to be successful, help others to be successful.’ Symbiosis emphasises the ‘existence of the self in relation to others rather than existence in isolation’. 

 

As this statement indicates the core concepts differ radically from western accounts: individual human beings are considered to be social animals who live in groups rather than individual human beings with rights to individual freedom and autonomy. The difficulty of the latter is that individualism simply cannot generate sufficient social solidarity, a sufficient sense of shared common values or a sufficient awareness of community which are the absolute pre-requisites for the integration and cohesion of societies and nation states and collective solutions to global issues. Instead relatively unfettered individualism releases centrifugal social forces and can cause social disintegration. As Durkheim argued (1983) ‘Man is only a moral being because he lives in society, since morality consists in solidarity with the group and varies according to that solidarity. Cause all social life to vanish, and moral life would vanish at the same time having no object to cling to.’ 

 

And it is in this light the BRI and high quality development require ‘a vision of the world in which the success of one country can only be guaranteed by the success of all. The BRI is only a success if all its member states develop and prosper in tandem’ (Li et al., 2020). It is very striking that if one looks at East and Southeast Asia it was at peace for 300 years up to 1894 and China was at peace for 500 years. In that era a polycentric East Asian gongsheng (symbiosis system) characterised by a set of principles, norms and codes of conduct relating to inter-state relations in which large and small countries found a proper place over the course of millennia fostered voluntary and tribute trade, peaceful coexistence. 

 

In this sense the BRI is transformative, although it is also transformative in many other senses: in terms of the development of the centre and west of China, in terms of the renewal of communications and exchange across the length and breadth of Eurasia, and in terms of the integration of the world in a new model of globalisation that is inclusive and, most profoundly, respects sovereignty (rather than impose the rule favoured by a hegemon and its allies which are out of the reach of sovereign states).

 

In his speech at the Third BRI Forum President Xi made put forward eight significant steps but what was most striking were several general remarks. In indicating that if China’s partners do well China does well and if China does well so do its partners President Xi was drawing on core Chinese concepts of harmony and symbiosis widely shared in the Global South and East. In indicating how cooperation can transform chasms that separate people and places into channels of communication and mutual understanding and benefit he was seeking to point at ways of overcoming the divisions that torment our world. And in emphasizing that the achievements of the historical Silk Roads were a result not of conflict and ideological contestation but peaceful interaction and exchange he reinforced the idea that helping others is also helping oneself. His speech was infused with values that express a commitment to a different world characterized by peace, mutual respect, cooperation and more equal and equitable development. 

 

High quality development and the BRI require an information strategy as well as international exchanges that manage to communicate this vision and encourage its widespread adoption. 

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