To understand today's China, first understand its past
Published on Jun 10, 2014 5:18 PM
In a recent speech at the College of Europe in Belgium, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the key to understanding today's China is an understanding of its past. He outlined several traits of China crucial to the study of his country. Below is an excerpt from his speech.
First, China has a time-honoured civilization. Of the world's ancient civilizations, the Chinese civilization has continued uninterrupted to this day. In fact, it has spanned over 5,000 years. The Chinese characters, invented by our ancestors several millennia ago, are still used today.
Over 2,000 years ago, there was an era of great intellectual accomplishments in China, which is referred to as "the period of one hundred masters and schools of thought". Great thinkers such as Laozi, Confucius and Mozi, to name just a few, explored a wide range of topics from the universe to the Earth, and from man's relations with nature to relations amongst human beings and to that between the individual and society.
The extensive and profound schools of thought they established covered many important ideas, such as the moral injunction of fidelity to one's parents and brothers and to the monarch and friends, the sense of propriety, justice, integrity and honour, the emphasis on benevolence and kindness towards fellow human beings and the belief that man should be in harmony with nature, follow nature's course and unremittingly pursue self-renewal.
These values and teachings still carry a profound impact on Chinese people's way of life today, underpinning the unique value system in the Chinese outlook of the world, of society and of life itself. And this unique and time-honoured intellectual legacy has instilled a strong sense of national confidence in the Chinese people and nurtured a national spirit with patriotism at the very core.
Second, China has gone through many vicissitudes. For several thousand years before the industrial revolution, China had been leading the world in economic, technological and cultural development. However, feudal rulers of the 18th and 19th centuries closed the door of China in boastful ignorance and China was since left behind in the trend of development. The country was subdued to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society.
As a result of incessant foreign invasions thereafter, China experienced great social turmoil and its people had to lead a life of extreme destitution. Poverty prompted the call for change and people experiencing turmoil aspired for stability.
After a hundred years of persistent and unyielding struggle, the Chinese people, sacrificing tens of millions of lives, ultimately took their destiny back into their own hands. Nevertheless, the memory of foreign invasion and bullying has never been erased from the minds of the Chinese people, and that explains why we cherish so dearly the life we lead today.
The Chinese people want peace; we do not want war. This is the reason why China follows an independent foreign policy of peace. China is committed to non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, and China will not allow others to interfere in its own affairs. This is the position we have upheld in the past. It is what we will continue to uphold in the future.
Third, China is a socialist country with Chinese characteristics. In 1911, the revolution led by Dr Sun Yat Sen overthrew the autocratic monarchy that had ruled China for several thousand years. But once the old system was gone, where China would go became the question. The Chinese people then started exploring long and hard for a path that would suit China's national conditions. They experimented with constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, multi-party system and presidential government, yet nothing really worked.
Finally, China took on the path of socialism. Admittedly, in the process of building socialism, we have had successful experience and also made mistakes. We have even suffered serious setbacks. After the "reform and opening-up" was launched under the leadership of Mr Deng Xiaoping, we have, acting in line with China's national conditions and the trend of the times, explored and blazed a trail of development and established socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Our aim is to build a socialist market economy, democracy, an advanced culture, a harmonious society and a sound eco-system, uphold social equity and justice, promote all-round development of the people, pursue peaceful development, complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects and eventually achieve modernization and ensure prosperity for all.
The uniqueness of China's cultural tradition, history and circumstances determines that China needs to follow a development path that suits its own reality. In fact, we have found such a path and achieved success along this path.
Fourth, China is the world's biggest developing country. China has made historic progress in development. It is now the second largest economy in the world. It has achieved in several decades what took developed countries several centuries to achieve. This is, without doubt, a proud achievement for a country whose population exceeds 1.3 billion. In the meantime, we are clearly aware that the large size of the Chinese economy, when divided by 1.3 billion, sends China to around the 80th place in terms of per capita GDP. In China, over 74 million people rely on basic living allowances; each year, more than 10 million urban people would join the job market and several hundred million rural people need to be transferred to non-agricultural jobs and settle down in urban areas; more than 85 million people are with disabilities; and more than 200 million people are still living under the poverty line set by the World Bank, and that is roughly the population of France, Germany and the UK combined. In the 40-day-long season of the last Chinese New Year, China's airlines, railroads and highways transported 3.6 billion passengers, which means 90 million people were on the move each day. Therefore, to make the lives of the 1.3 billion Chinese people more comfortable requires still arduous efforts for years to come. Economic development remains the top priority for China, and we still need to work on that basis to achieve social progress in all areas.
Fifth, China is a country undergoing profound changes. Our ancestors taught us that "as heaven maintains vigour through movement, a gentleman should constantly strive for self-perfection", and that "if one can make things better for one day, he should make them better every day". Being faced with fierce international competition is like sailing against the current. One either forges ahead or falls behind. Reform, which was first forced upon us by problems, goes deeper in addressing the problems. We know keenly that reform and opening-up is an ongoing process that will never stop.
China's reform has entered a deep water zone, where problems crying to be resolved are all difficult ones. What we need is the courage to move the reform forward. To use a Chinese saying, we must "get ready to go into the mountain, being fully aware that there may be tigers to encounter". The principle we have laid down for reform is to act with courage while moving forward with steady steps.
As we say in China, he who wants to accomplish a big and difficult undertaking should start with easier things first and make sure that all details are attended to. With the deepening of reform, China will continue to undergo profound changes. I believe that our efforts of deepening reform comprehensively will not only provide strong momentum for China's modernization drive, but also bring new development opportunities to the world.
To observe and understand China properly, one needs to bear in mind both China's past and present and draw reference from both China's accomplishments and the Chinese way of thinking. The 5,000-year-long Chinese civilization, the 170-year struggle by the Chinese people since modern times, the 90-year-plus journey of the Communist Party of China, the 60-year-plus development of the People's Republic and the 30-year-plus reform and opening-up should all be taken into account. They each make an integral part of China's history, and none should be taken out of the historical context. One can hardly understand China well without a proper understanding of China's history, culture, the Chinese people's way of thinking and the profound changes taking place in China today.
The world's development is multi-dimensional, and its history is never a linear movement. China cannot copy the political system or development model of other countries, because it would not fit us and it might even lead to catastrophic consequences. The Chinese people, over 2,000 year ago, had come to understand this from a simple fact that the tasty orange, grown in southern China, would turn sour once it is grown in the north. The leaves may look the same, but the fruits taste quite different, because the north means different location and different climate.