Lack of interest hinders understanding China

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-29 23:58:01

Lack of interest hinders Europe understanding China

There is a famous Chinese proverb: "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away." It refers to the fact that China is a huge country in which the central government has often historically had difficulty exercising authority over remote regions and provinces.

We need a new version of this proverb, to explain foreigners' lack of understanding about China. The whole world is impacted by China's development; but at the same time it can often be difficult for people to work up any interest or detailed understanding of the problems which affect the contemporary China.

On a recent visit to an EU-China energy conference in Brussels, I was struck by how impoverished the understanding of Chinese issues was among some of the European scholars present. Although researching China, some of them had never even visited the country or had done so only briefly. Given that Brussels is the epicenter of the EU, I was surprised by the lack of knowledge and even interest in China among these movers and shakers.

Even worse, although the conference was about the vital issues of energy production and security, some participants, including the keynote speaker, found it necessary to emphasize issues such as human rights and Tibet which were not really relevant to the discussion. One speaker spent his whole presentation explaining why Europe needed to protect itself against what he saw as illegal Chinese trade practices in the selling of solar panels.

While these issues might be important from a European perspective, there seemed to be no way for the Europeans in the room to overcome their preconceptions in order to attempt to understand the complex reality of today's China, or to see the necessity of trying to build bridges and better relationships with their Chinese counterparts.

In Prague, I attended a couple of events at which some European business people explained their experience working in China. For practical reasons the participants had obviously made an effort to understand and work with Chinese companies. Yet it was clear that there was still a lot of confusion about how to proceed in establishing relationships, contacts and contracts with Chinese firms.

For instance, everybody seemed to be particularly worried about their trade secrets being stolen by unscrupulous shysters, spies and con-artists. However, one speaker pointed out that the stealing of trade secrets is pretty much standard practice among companies worldwide, and is by no means exclusive to China.

This suggested that at least in European business circles there may be a chance of working toward a better understanding of what China's growing influence in the world may mean for everybody.

Nevertheless it is clear that for many of Europeans China is very remote and they have difficulty focusing on issues relating to East Asia. Many ordinary people also appear to believe that what happens in China is uninteresting and has little impact on their lives. They do not seem to realize that China and Asia are now the heart of the world's economy and the most dynamic region of the world.

Many people in Brussels, Prague and elsewhere in Europe also seem excessively concerned (even obsessed) with issues such as the Cultural Revolution, the now-defunct one-child policy, and the possibility of "teaching" China a Western-style democracy which would not necessarily appear to be a good match for China's present needs.

These are issues which, while they may be interesting and important to some Europeans, are less vital to today's global development than the state of China's economy and environment and the impact of these on the world as a whole. In other words, Europeans are either not focused sufficiently on China as it is today, or, if they are focused, are obsessed with issues which either relate to China's past or fairly distant future rather than its immediate development.

Thus it seems that we need a new version of the old proverb to explain the lack of European understanding of and interest in China and East Asia. Perhaps it could go like this: "The cultural and psychological barriers are high, and China is far away."

All in all, overcoming the frustrating barriers and distance between Europe and China is a task which should receive the urgent attention of scholars, think tanks, government officials, leaders and business people at both ends of the Eurasian landmass if relations are to be genuinely improved in the near future.

The author is a lecturer in international relations, Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague.

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