How can I best describe the essence of China from my first visit there for eight days in September? With middle age rushing upon me (my fortieth birthday is in October) it is a time to reflect on the past but also look ahead with resolution. China is certainly a place for the future. Indeed many an economist would argue that it is the country of the future. For my part I anticipate, during the second half of this century, that China will be a fully-engaged, world super power in every sense of the word.
First things first. China is physically huge. In the course of my eight day trip there with three Conservative Parliamentary colleagues, we travelled from the capital Beijing to the autonomous region of Ningxia with its city Yinchuan. That internal flight lasted almost three hours yet we travelled barely half way across the country. We also spent a day or so on the coast in Quingdao, a former German colony. It is not simply in land mass that China is so large, but that its vastness is shown in many other ways. The population today is 1.3 billion people (a quarter of the world’s population) roughly twenty times that of the United Kingdom. Although some 60% of China’s people are currently engaged in agriculture, the country is becoming increasingly urbanised, to such an extent that London, Europe’s biggest city, would not even rank in the top twenty of Chinese cities by population. A third of the world’s cement is currently used in the enormous construction that is going on in China and the colossal consumption of steel for the same purpose has, incidentally, helped Corus, the formerly nationalised British Steel, to make a profit for the first time in a decade when only two years ago it seemed more likely to go into liquidation.
Beijing is an amazing place. We were able to visit the famous sites such as Tiannaman Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the awesome Great Wall of China, which extends for 1000 miles, and has most famously been described as the only man-made construction that can be seen from outer space. More importantly, however, we met people. Not many everyday people, of course, as we were guests of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. However, our hosts were willing to engage in adversarial political debate and by the time I returned to London I felt embarrassed at my ignorance before travelling there of the Chinese history and culture. In Beijing we were amazed at the prevalence of the English (or perhaps more correctly American) language. Over half the shop-fronts in Beijing featured not only Chinese characters, but also English language descriptions and Chinese school children now typically learn the language from the age of seven. Truly English is now the language of world business. Accordingly it makes it all the more important in my view for young English schoolchildren to learn much, much more about Chinese culture and history, for there is likely never to be any great necessity to learn Cantonese or Mandarin.
Remembering all that film and TV footage from as recently as ten years ago, it was striking how few bicycles there were in Beijing. The private motorcar has taken over and I was rather amused by the frequent complaints about traffic congestion in Beijing ? I wouldn’t wish Ken Livingstone on anyone but perhaps one way of removing him from London would be to give him a free transfer to China where he might develop his congestion charging policies! There has also been a colossal explosion in the use of mobile phones, with some 280 million handsets now in operation over the past seven or eight years. The military satellite technology of the past has obviously been used to good effect and I was able to make a number of calls to England from all over China without the remotest difficulty.
Above all, the Chinese work extremely hard. Whilst here in Britain we are rightly proud and nostalgic about our past, equally the promise of continued future success is the greatest antidote to nostalgia. The future appears bright for the next generation of Chinese. They are looking ahead with great optimism. As well they might ? as I have often said in the debate that we have in this country about our role within the European Union, too little is made of our trading links beyond the EU. In truth although many complain of “little Englanders”, the real problem is that there are too many “little Europeaners” living within these shores and in the rest of the Continent. I am confident that the emergence of a second economic super power to counter the United States of America will not come from Europe. Political leaders in the EU seem too obsessed by long maternity and paternity leave, 35 hour weeks and various other welfare goodies, for business folk to be confident of continued relative economic prosperity in Europe for the future.
By contrast China and India are experiencing explosions of economic growth based upon hard graft and the aspiration of their citizens. This country has traditionally been a strong, global trading partner well beyond the shores of Europe and in particular the United States, the former Commonwealth countries, including India, and to China, which prior to the emergence of communism in 1949, had for centuries been a strong trading partner. We must not lose sight of where the future best interests of this country lie.
In the course of this rather breathless account of my time in China – an enthralling, energetic and forward-looking country, populated by ambitious, adaptable and inventive folk ? it would be wrong to forget that it faces some real problems. The road ahead will not be without difficulties, especially if the demand is likely to grow for political as well as economic freedom. Nevertheless, crucially the Chinese Government over the past decade or so have recognised the importance of individual property rights, key to the underpinning of some personal freedoms, but also promoting overall economic growth. China is unlikely to become a democracy any time soon, at least in the way that we in the West understand it. The nature of political engagement there is far more consensual than adversarial and I reckon that will be the template for political reform when it comes. In the meantime, China’s emergence as a global economic player will continue apace. Already the sixth largest economy by GDP, it will have overtaken Britain within a couple of years. My advice for those half my age or younger is straightforward ? take the opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture and history. Certainly if you feel inclined to do so, learn their language because it will prove far more useful in your life than most European tongues. Above all, if at all possible, see with your own eyes the awesome development that is taking place in this fascinating part of the world.