By Maiqi Ma, 29 Oct 2015
‘At the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, His Excellency President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China undertook a State Visit to the UK from 19 to 23 October 2015. His visit opens a golden era in UK-China relations featuring enduring, inclusive and win-win cooperation.’ (www.gov.uk)
Despite the wishes of both governments to take the UK/China relationship to ‘ambitious new heights’; despite the effort of numerous individuals and organisations to ensure success; despite the £30 billion worth of trade and investment deals and thousands of job opportunities, many raucous and hostile voices within British society, mainstream media and the tabloid press have been raised in protest against this.
From accusations of global steel dumping, and the clichéd ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Democracy’ arguments, to trendy ‘Wildlife protection’ and ‘Cyber Security’, they try to dig up any excuse to censure the Chinese Communist Party. Ooh, Communism, what a scary word!
To me, who was born and brought up in China, and who simply wishes for a peaceful world, these dissenting voices do no good, but instead are profoundly damaging to understanding and relations. My message here is addressed to those negative British voices.
To our British critics
It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse’: Deng Xiaoping
There are many insular and short-sighted people in Britain (and elsewhere of course) who seem all too ready to express opinions whilst knowing very little about China and understanding even less! Such short sightedness and insularity ultimately prevents people from seeing beyond the boundaries of their own nation’s culture, history and societal norms, and even from thinking critically about them. It’s important to realise that ‘different’ is not always equal to ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, and that Western style democracy and values are not necessarily a panacea for the ills of the world.
They criticise China’s human rights record, yet fail to remember Britain’s part in the International Slave Trade (which to be fair Britain also played a major role in ending under the 1807 Slave Trade Act that banned slavery in the entire British Empire); the two Opium Wars where the UK made war on China in order to promote their illegal trade in opium in our country; its worldwide colonisation and exploitation extending until the post WWII period; the setting up of concentration camps during the Boer War and numerous other dreadful abuses.
OK, you may say, but this is history. That’s true, but to this day the UK still interferes in the affairs of other countries, often sycophantically following the lead of the USA, as witness the recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. These have been terribly costly in terms of human life, suffering and money, they have destabilised whole regions, have led to the rise of extremist organisations, helped to precipitate a major refugee crisis (albeit largely indirectly), and arguably have brought little or no benefit to the people they alleged to aim to assist.
In contrast, modern China has consistently refrained from political and military interventions, seeking instead to project its interests by means of ‘soft power’; i.e. by gaining influence through trade, and by investing in infrastructure and medical projects in the developing world, bringing benefits to all parties.
Let’s look in more detail at some specific areas of concern.
Work places in modern China are regularly criticised in the UK for perceived poor conditions and pay. However, remember that just a century ago, 1.5 million British people worked as domestic servants, working up to ‘17 hours a day all year around with no modern technology’ below the stairs (Dr Pamela Cox). One third of British families had a member who worked as a servant. Looking over a longer period; during the course of the last 300 years, from 1620s to the 1930s; it is estimated that about 6.5 per cent of the British population were accommodated in workhouses at any given time. This was a de facto incarceration meaning that in effect, poverty was criminalised. When paupers passed the "Archway of Tears", they began a life of hard labour, deprivation and humiliation. Families were separated; and members were not allowed to talk to each other. Upon their deaths, few of them were even afforded the respect of a funeral, 'rattle his bones, over the stones, he's only a pauper whom nobody owns' (www.workhouses.org.uk).
Remember too that, during the Industrial Revolution, British factory workers endured appalling conditions. Improvements to those conditions were not made quickly!
Whilst working conditions in some Chinese factories are excellent, particularly in the high tech sector, it is true that the conditions in many others are far less good than those extant in Britain. However, please remember that the workers in those factories are mainly internal migrants from the poorer rural areas of China, and that the pay and conditions in the factories are far, far better than those they left behind in their home villages. By working in the factories they can materially improve their lives to an extent that would be impossible in the countryside, and (this is an absolutely key point) they are able to give their children a good education so that they may have a better job and an easier life than their parents. Lastly, wages and conditions are gradually improving as Chinese workers find their voices and demand better. Please note also that many of these factories are owned by western companies.
The UK Parliament in its current form emerged in 1707 with the union of the parliaments of Scotland and England (modified in the 19th century to include Ireland and again in 1927 to reflect the secession of Eire).
The first British Prime Minister, 1st Earl of Orford Robert Walpole was in power from 1721 to 1742 and presided over a government composed largely of unelected aristocrats (the Lords) and wealthy landowners and businessmen (the Commons). The principle of ‘one man one vote’ did not exist, and voting rights did not extend to those below a certain income level. And, of course, women were excluded from the process entirely. Universal suffrage in national elections for men in the UK was not achieved until 1918. At the same time women aged over 30 were given the right to vote: this was only extended to women under 30 in 1928.
It was only with the ‘Representation of the People Act’ of 1948 that multiple voting rights were removed (and the principle of one person, one vote established) and universal suffrage was extended to local elections. However, the right of hereditary peers and high ranking churchmen to sit in the House of Lords was only modified in 1999.
So, we can see that the UK’s current system of democratic government and universal suffrage, with all of its remaining problems and faults, has taken a long time to evolve! Do we then expect China to achieve this practically overnight?
Compared to the UK’s long standing and relatively stable political system, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1921, and only came to power in 1949. It is noteworthy that at that time, we already had a female deputy Chairman in the Central Committee of the CPC.
The CPC inherited a country devastated by war, its infrastructure in ruins, and it was politically isolated from much of the world because of the western powers’ refusal to recognise the CPC as the legitimate government of China. Again, let’s be fair, Britain was the first of the western power to recognise the People’s Republic of China.
For my grandparents and parents the CPC ushered in an era of peace and stability following more than a century of war, dislocation and suffering. They were liberated from the ravages of war and returned to their bombed cities and towns to start rebuilding permanent homes. They were freed from the fear of invasion, pillage and rape; from the fear of Japanese atrocities and from the cruelties and depredations imposed by regional Chinese warlords.
You should realise that the majority of Chinese people are actually satisfied, indeed happy, with the rule of the Communist Party. Most Chinese have no wish whatever to change a system that has given them such massive improvements in their health, standard of living and prosperity. In the west you only hear from the voices of a very few dissenting Chinese. These are magnified and exaggerated by your media out of all proportion to their influence in China: they really do not represent the thinking of ordinary Chinese people.
For its part, the CPC is wary of sudden change. Their caution is informed by the political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union following Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives and policies. Russia and its satellite states suffered a period of enormous economic social and political upheaval, the effects of which are still felt today. The CPC has no wish for China to be precipitated into a similar disaster as a result of ill-considered, ill-timed and inappropriate changes to its political systems and structures. Any changes are careful, planned and gradual.
Let’s talk about human rights now. So you think China denies and abuses human rights? Well, it’s not perfect that’s for sure (what nation is?), but consider these points.
‘Women hold up half the sky’: Mao Zedong.
Prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China women in China had almost no rights. Upon marriage a woman became the property of her husband and his family; foot binding was widely practiced; many women were denied an education and women had no effective voice in society or politics. The CPC changed all of that: women in modern China have equal status and rights in law to men, and many occupy senior positions in government, the armed forces and industry. In some respects women in China enjoy advantages their western sisters do not have, for example longer maternity leave, earlier retirement ages and their own public holiday, ‘Women’s Day’ held on 8th March.
Of course gender inequalities in society and the workplace do still persist in China just as they do in the UK and elsewhere. It is instructive that in October 2015, Rachel Treweek, UK’s first female bishop felt the need to argue in the House of Lords, “God is not to be seen as male. God is God.”
Eradication of Poverty
Since Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of China in 1978, the Chinese economy has grown to be the world’s second largest. Some 240 million people (and still counting) have been raised out of extreme poverty. Surely this is granting them the most basic of all human rights; that of a decent life free from fear and hunger? Everyone has enough to eat, starvation has been eliminated; society is peaceful. Schooling is provided free of charge for all children up to the age of 15, and kindergarten care is also provided free. From this perspective China has done much more to advance human rights than the democratic nations who criticise its record.
But how about the one child policy I hear you ask? Well, for a start it didn’t apply to everyone: people in rural communities were often permitted more than one child whilst no limits at all were applied to some ethnic minorities. In fact, the one child policy is most strictly applied to the communist party’s members, military officers and government officials. These public servants and leaders are expected to set a good example.
More importantly, without an effective mechanism to bring under control a rapidly spiralling population China would not have been able to secure the improvements to society and quality of life for its people that are described above. In fact, the one child policy is now starting to be relaxed in recognition of China’s changing age demographic.
Fact: because of its relatively small size, and the founding of modern industrial society in Britain, the UK is the most polluted country in the world. And yes, I admit, you are doing very much better these days.
Specifically considering CO emissions, China is currently the most polluting country in the world in absolute terms, hardly surprising as by population it’s also the biggest. It’s closely followed by the USA and the EU bloc, again not surprising. However, if we consider CO pollution on a per capita basis China is not even in the top 10, in fact it ranks 55th in the world. However, it’s clear to anyone that the situation in China is in dire need of improvement.
It’s widely claimed in the UK media that China is ignoring the problem: in reality nothing could be further from the truth. China ratified the Kyoto protocol on climate change long before the USA, and has set an ambitious programme of carbon reduction targets.
China leads the world in the production and use of alternative energy (hydro, wind and solar power) and smart grid technologies. A total capacity of more than 378 GWe had been installed by the end of 2013. China generates almost as much hydro, wind and solar energy as all of France and Germany's power plants (including fossil and nuclear) combined.
Mainland China has 26 nuclear power reactors in operation, 23 under construction, and more about to start construction. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world's most advanced, to give more than a three-fold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020, 150 GWe by 2030, and much more by 2050. This impetus for increasing nuclear power share in China is driven by concern over air pollution from coal-fired plants.
Contrary to popular western perceptions China is actively seeking to protect its wildlife. China’s efforts to safeguard the Giant Panda are world renowned. Perhaps less well understood is that China is signatory to CITES (the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species), with the provisions coming into force in Chinese law on 8th April 1981.
It’s true that trade in endangered species still takes place in China, but these are the activities of criminals who will be punished if caught. One of the problems the Chinese authorities face in this area is the huge size of the country, the third largest in the world, and the difficulty of policing its remote areas.
In China a relatively immature legal enforcement mechanism exacerbates difficulties in CITES enforcement, and also gives problems in many other areas such as environmental protection and workplace health and safety.
Why is this? Well, it’s because the People’s Republic of China is a quite young incarnation of a very ancient culture. The PRC is still in the process of building a comprehensive legal and legal compliance system, having started pretty much from scratch in 1949.
If you think that’s no excuse as they’ve had plenty of time since 1949, then please remember that the UK didn’t introduce the Clean Air Act until 1956 in response to London’s Great Smog in 1952; and that in 1974 Britain introduced the Health and Safety at Work Act to address its unacceptable number of workplace deaths and injuries. Although legislation existed before the Act almost 8 million British employees still had no legal protection at work. After it, between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent and non-fatal injuries by 70 per cent. By 2003 Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union. Those of you who complain about ‘elf ’n’ safety’ might want to reflect on these data for a moment!
In 2002, China introduced the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Work Safety, and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases. China’s workplace health and safety record has consistently improved year on year since the introduction of this legislation. China’s revised Workplace Safety Law, which imposes significantly harsher penalties on offenders, took effect on 1st December 2014. Under the new law, companies involved in serious workplace accidents will be fined up to 20 million yuan (£2 million), and managers found to have failed in their duty to ensure safety will be levied fines between 30 percent and 80 percent of their annual income.
On the environmental protection side China has regulations in many areas including: the Environmental Protection Law of the People's Republic of China (1989), Prevention and Control of Water Pollution (1984, amended 1996), Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution (1995, amended 2000), Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution by Solid Waste (1995), Protection of Wildlife (1988), Water and Soil Conservation (1991) and numerous others.
It’s not really possible to understand the Chinese point of view without an understanding of Chinese culture, and how it differs in many important respects from western culture. Ah yes, you may say, China is a communist country. Well, yes it is, but of course it’s driven by a market economy, so the answer is also, no, it isn’t.
In fact, Chinese thought, attitudes and behaviours are still very much influenced by the traditional values of Confucianism, and to a somewhat lesser extent those of Taoism and Buddhism. These philosophies place great importance on personal ethics and morality. In common with other East Asian cultures, Chinese people are much less individualistic than westerners.
Morality is valued over utility and moral merit over intelligence. The interests and well-being of the group take precedence over those of the individual. Peace and safety are more important than individual freedom, harmony is actively sought and conflict is to be avoided. Respect for family is an absolutely key value, closely followed by respect for the social hierarchy (seniors and elders).
We love Confucius, because he loved peace and harmony, and he hated violence and war. He teaches us how to love our parents and other people. He believed that Benevolence is more important than profit. He was a commoner from a humble background, but people built a palace for him when he died.
International criticism – a Chinese perspective
During its 66 year journey the CPC has made some mistakes, most notably ‘the Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’. We all know that, but the CPC have acknowledged these mistakes and has tried to rectify and learn from them. We all know that corruption is endemic in China and that concerted efforts are now being made to eradicate it. However, can you guarantee that all your politicians are incorruptible? Of course not, remember the MPs expenses scandal?
For those who want to impose their ‘human rights’ or ‘democratic’ ideas on China, we the Chinese would ask: ‘please sort your own mess out first’. If you can convince us that your human rights record and democratic process is flawless, we may be willing to learn from you, and the Chinese ‘State Administration of Foreign Experts’ will invite you to China and ask for your advice.
Of course, in the face of the illegal invasion of Iraq, the UK’s tacit support for the US extraordinary rendition programme (kidnapping and abduction) leading to the waterboarding (torture) and illegal imprisonment (without charges and without trial) of people in Guantanamo Bay for many years, not to mention the many scandals and upsets that regularly rock your political establishment, this may be an uphill task!
China endured 100 years of foreign interference, exploitation and war: we refer to this as the ‘century of humiliation’. We are determined that this will never, ever be repeated, and reports of foreign governments and pressure groups criticising China provoke deep anger and resentment amongst Chinese people.
The Chinese people are the custodians of their history, culture and heritage. We are more eager to improve and build a better future for China than anybody else. Any constructive advice, suggestions and help are warmly welcomed, but we won’t accept having foreign ideas and values imposed on us. For the Chinese, China is, and will always be, our big family.
I have met many British people and made many British friends. I found that those who have been to China, or can speak Chinese, and have a good knowledge of the country and its people hold China in very high regard. They have a genuine fondness for China and the Chinese.
For those of you who knew little about China before reading this article, I hope that you have found it informative and interesting. Even if it has not changed your views I hope that at least it will prompt you start examining them and to seek out more information.
If you are already a friend of China, welcome to our big family!
The views expressed come from Maggie's broad experience and don't necessary reflect those of the OIBC.