Monday, October 12, 2009

Can the Arab world learn from China?

Coincidentally, I am now 'working' together with a China-state company, part of one of the biggest conglomerates in the world. The huge and complex networks or chains of the companies within the group somehow very much part of learning experience.

Malaysians with our mixed environment can be the bridge between the Arab and the Chinese. It is an opportunity to bridge the gap, even though, historically, Arab and Chinese have been in business since thousand years.

Different cultures and ways, challenges in communication are not obstacles in doing business. Process of adapting and understanding each other can be stressful. Everyone has his/her own weaknesses, strengths and we have to bear with some characters or attitude.

At the end of the day is the bottom line, can we deliver?

Can the Arab world learn from China?

Poverty eradication, unity and good governance are values which this part of the world would do well to adopt

  • BY Patrick Seale, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 October 9, 2009

  • Image Credit: Nino Jose heredia/ Gulf News

Anyone surfing the net, watching TV or reading newspapers this past week could not fail to have been impressed by the grandiose celebrations on October 1 of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Rarely in modern history has the birthday of a state been commemorated with such splendid pageantry and overwhelming pride.

‘China has stood up!' the Communist leader Mao Zedong declared in 1949, when he finally routed his nationalist opponents. His triumphant phrase echoed round the world. Today, after six decades in power, China's Communist Party bosses could legitimately go one better. They might proudly say, ‘China stands tall.'

Is there anything the Arab world can learn, and perhaps emulate, from the ‘Chinese miracle'?

It may be that China's most extraordinary success has been to limit its population to around 1.3 billion by insisting on a harsh one-child policy. Only a strong state, able to enforce strict discipline on its citizens, could have implemented such a policy. The contrast with the over-crowded Arab world is striking.

When Jamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers seized power in Egypt in 1952 there were only 18 million Egyptians. Today there are 80 million. Any visitor to Cairo cannot fail to notice the great weight of population. One unfortunate consequence is that Egypt today has to import 50 per cent of the grain it needs. Egypt is not alone in wrestling with the curse of overpopulation. The same is true for Algeria, Syria, Yemen, and indeed for almost every Arab country.

China is not a democracy, as the word is understood in the West. It remains under tight one-party rule. President Hu Jintao, the country's chief executive, is secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But nor is China any longer a Communist state in any accepted sense of the word.

It embraced market capitalism 30 years ago in the late 1970s, freeing its people to work where they want, to travel overseas, to buy property, to build businesses, to trade and make money in every possible way — and to spend it as they please.

How does this compare with the Arab world? Like China, many Arab countries are under the rule of a dominant political party. But have Arab talents and energies been freed? One can hardly say so. On the contrary, all too often they are stifled by petty regulations, incompetent or corrupt bureaucrats, and the sort of ‘croney capitalism', which allows those close to power to benefit, while others struggle to survive.

Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement of modern China has been to lift some 400 million people out of poverty within one generation. Here lies the Chinese Communist Party's real claim to the people's loyalty and its most important single source of legitimacy.

After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping was the Chinese leader who unleashed China's extraordinary potential by loosening the state's hold on the economy. Writing in the International Herald Tribune on October 1 this year, Zhang Wei-Wei — who was Deng's senior English interpreter in the mid-1980s — claimed that China's enormous success was due to the government's focus on eradicating poverty. This, he argued, was the most fundamental of all human rights, more important than the civil and political rights on which the West has tended to focus. How does the Arab world compare with this achievement? All too often Arab leaders ignore the civil and political rights of their citizens, but — unfortunately — they have neglected poverty eradication as well. Although authoritarian, even dictatorial, the Communist Party has given China skilled, sound and effective governance. A massive stimulus package has allowed the country to surmount the current global economic and financial crisis. While much of the rest of the world floundered, China achieved 8 per cent growth this year — after averaging an amazing 10 per cent growth every single year over the past two decades.

Massive forex reserves

The figures speak for themselves. At $2,100 billion (Dh7,715 billion), China's foreign exchange reserves are the largest in the world. Its major companies are scouring the world for access to raw materials and to sources of energy in Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Angola and Nigeria. Moreover, having long since developed higher education and embraced the IT revolution, China is now leading the world in the search for renewable sources of energy, such as solar power. It is the world's biggest manufacturer of solar panels.

Next year China is expected to outstrip Japan as the world's second-largest economy after the United States. It seems set to overtake Japan as the largest motor-vehicle manufacturer. A Chinese company, BYD, the world leader in electric vehicles, plans to start selling all-electric sedans in the US next year. In fact, by switching from internal combustion engines to alternative fuel vehicles, China is pioneering an attempt to leapfrog an entire generation of technology. Economically, China could well outstrip the US itself within a decade.

Of course all is not rosy in that vast country. There are doubts whether China's rapid growth rate is sustainable, and whether — as export markets dry up — it might not result in dangerous overcapacity in steel, cement and chemicals. Millions of casual workers have lost their jobs and been forced to make their way back to the countryside. The large apparatus of the Communist Party is by no means free from corruption and influence-peddling. This past summer, riots by Uighurs in China's western most province of Xinjiang have damaged the image of cultural harmony which the authorities have sought to propagate.

Such blemishes apart, there is much the Arab world can learn from China's remarkable experience, and especially the priority it has given to poverty eradication. But it is not the only aspect of the Chinese miracle to admire. Discipline, education, hard work, unity, pride in their ancient civilisation, an enthusiastic embrace of modern technology, good governance, and above all nationalism, these are also virtues and values which the Arabs would do well to adopt.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

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