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Perspectives

September 17, 2009
Chinese diplomats promote ‘harmonious world’ policy

Outside the northeastern city of Dandong, construction workers take a break. Photo: Ben Piven

Multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about China’s ascendancy, after reporting on cultural and political issues from East Asia.

“Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find anything in American supermarkets made in China. Now, when an American friend shops for a gift, he can’t find one not made in China.”

Wu Jianmin, a high-level adviser and former president of China Foreign Affairs University, recalled his admiration for American supermarkets when he first came to the U.S. in 1971. He had been accustomed to government ration coupons for textiles, rice and most other goods.

China is no longer just playing catch-up, said Wu, who briefed a group of American journalists at China’s Consulate-General in New York last Wednesday. He and four other high-ranking foreign policy experts were on a world tour, promoting increasingly confident Chinese President Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious world.”

This policy entails peaceful development, a repudiation of territorial expansion, and a non-aligned stance. But mounting Western pressure to force Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programs is testing China’s commitment to this program.

Wu and his fellow policy wonks emphasized that Americans need to have patience, despite saying that China does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Regardless, China will display its own new weaponry on October 1.

“Congratulations on your 60th birthday. I’m looking forward to watching the parade on television,” I said to Wu and his team, eliciting a chorus of laughter. “But should Americans be worried about the weaponry that you’ll be displaying?” I asked.

“America is a great country. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Our weaponry is peanuts compared to yours,” Wu responded.

Then, ABC News‘ Chuck Lustig asked if the U.S. is losing geopolitical clout. Wu respectfully declined to comment.

Zhang Yuyan, a prominent economist in the group, responded adeptly to Newsweek senior editor Rana Foroohar’s question about the export economy. Since exports started shrinking last year, China has struggled to transition from an unsustainable export-led growth model and take steps to bolster domestic consumption. The Chinese government will be hard-pressed to stimulate demand and dis-incentivize traditional tendencies to save.

The diplomats were exceptionally honest about China’s environmental problems. “We pollute too much,” said Wu. “It’s not sustainable. We’ve got to change too.”

As China builds fast rail, superhighways, and skyscrapers at breakneck speed, the U.S. emerges from the worst recession in decades. China invests heavily in alternative energy infrastructure, and America is bogged down in massive geopolitical quagmires.

We can expect a 21st century in which power is spread more broadly across the continents. While an Asian century per se might not be upon us, the Red Dragon is fostering its bold vision of a “harmonious world.”

– Ben Piven

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