Much was made of President Xi Jing Ping’s address at Davos a few weeks back, extolling the virtues of globalisation in the face of increasing isolationism from Western governments. Davos participants and the press made much of the ironies that such endorsement should come from the world’s largest communist party, marvelling at the extraordinary upturns in the new world order.
As someone who was born in Hong Kong and has lived and worked in Asia for more than 20 years, I can testify to the enormous benefits that globalisation and opening up has brought to China, not just in terms of economic prosperity but also in terms of the access and exposure to ideas, people and values that have served to at once challenge and strengthen China’s rise to power.
But as this new world order starts to take shape, I question whether China truly is in a position to step onto the global stage, considering the huge challenges facing our world right now.
We only need to look at the events of these past weeks, and as ‘post-truth’ becomes the new reality, to see that we are facing the biggest crisis in moral leadership of recent times. The ability for any national leader to step up to the plate with global vision is sorely missing and the jury is still out as to whether China can be the one to lead in this way.
It is becoming acceptable to believe that focusing on national interests first is a justifiable philosophy. After all, even in a democracy, we vote nationally and not globally. But visionary leadership is hardly attained by focusing narrowly on self-interest. China’s self-interest and desire to develop itself is quite literally poisoning its people through its interminable pollution and it has not yet found a way to ‘globalise’ in an inspired and visionary way that has higher principles at stake, aside from purely economic growth.
China has succeeded in lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty since the founding of the Republic, maintaining high levels of literacy and other development indicators, a marvellous achievement that deserves full credit. But for China to truly achieve the stature of greatness will require more than self-interested pragmatism and a refusal to deal with the moral challenges its own society is dealing with and to stretch beyond the binaries the world is offering up and step up to the plate of truly great leadership.
My own engagement with China continues to make me believe that that quality of global leadership is indeed possible. Contrary to what many in the West maintain, Chinese society is just as capable of developing the higher order principled leadership that has been, until recently, the preserve of Western democracies. But it will not come about until the Chinese government dig deeper into their own understanding of themselves and what their culture has to offer to the world and to question the values that shape the country’s ultimate legacy.
I have always admired the capacity for the Chinese to appreciate nuance. Black and white judgments are hard to find in a country with a civilization covering over 5000 years of complex human history. Not for them the binaries, false hierarchies and linear thinking that characterises our current world views in the West. But an understanding that in each Yin is some Yang, and vice versa. I will never forget, when debating the difference in spiritual thinking between West and East with a Chinese friend, he expressed incredulity that our concept of God (good) should be ‘up there’, pointing to the sky. Surely, he said, God, Love, is within each one of us? A truly profound vision of human potential and leadership that has the capacity to shake the world.
I have written before on how the French use the word ‘global’. Global has at its heart the idea of inclusivity, the wholeness and integrity of a circle wrapping up everything within its reach. A solution that is ‘global’ is one that works for everyone. To truly be an advocate of globalisation requires globalisation of thought. It means going beyond the narrow definitions of what serves the national interest vs the global interest, what we believe in the West versus what we believe in the East, what’s good for me vs what’s good for you. Just as it means building bridges in our now polarised world, it also means the capacity to stretch beyond ourselves to something higher, a vision of humanity as pure and capable of so much good, and exemplifies the personal and global leadership that knows the common good is not in conflict with what best serves the individual and society in equal measure.