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Camden Conference focuses on China-by Ron Bancroft (Village Soup, Feb. 26)

“Is this China’s Century” was the question posed at the 32nd Camden Conference this past weekend. My conclusion, after hearing from some of the globe’s most accomplished China experts, was an emphatic yes. This is likely to be China’s century. The United States needs to find a way to live amicably with that outcome.

China is on a remarkable 40-year economic run, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 with his pragmatic reforms to open up the economic system and downplay the role of the Communist party. China is now the second largest economy in the world and is projected to surpass that of the U.S. by 2030 on a purchasing power basis, according to keynoter Martin Jacques, a professor at Cambridge University. Jacques, who has taught and lectured extensively in China, also noted that the U.S. was a country in relative decline – thus hastening the inevitable predominance of the Chinese economy.

Several speakers followed, adding context to this central theme. China views itself as a 2,000-year old “Civilization State.” For much of this period the Middle Kingdom was the dominant economic and political force in Asia. The narrative of current President Xi Jinping is that the last 120 years have been an unfortunate, small slice of time in the long cycle of China’s glory. Xi is determined to bring China to its rightful place in the Pantheon of the Global Community.

The big question of the Conference was: Is Xi’s vision of China’s position reconcilable with the United States and other Asia-focused countries? Unlike the low profile abroad that marked Deng’s leadership, President Xi has been more aggressive in asserting China’s military positioning in the South China Sea, and in his Belt and Road proposal, an incredibly ambitious infrastructure development initiative with antecedents from China’s earlier Silk Road.

While this was the framework of the discussion, many speakers urged us to recognize that China is an enormous country with many subtleties, nuances, and contradictions that made generalizations dangerous. Yuen Yuen Ang, a Singapore native who is a China scholar at the University of Michigan, described how the enormous bureaucracy of the Chinese government, some 50-million strong, actually operates effectively as a meritocracy with democratic elements of accountability and reform. She suggests much good work happens “under the tent” of this apparatus.

Indeed, though speakers were reluctant to endorse President Xi’s claims of the power of the “Chinese Model” as opposed to the “Democracy Model,” several made it clear that the current state of governance in the United States is not encouraging or effective. Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China, put it bluntly: “Our model is leaking soft power at an alarming rate.”

One area of particular focus was the state of China’s environmental policy. China is the world’s biggest polluter, driven by its prodigious use of coal in power plants and industry. Ma Jung, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of China’s leading environmental NGO’s, gave a remarkable presentation of the contributions IPE and other NGOs have been able to make in moving the government to more monitoring, transparency and specific policy changes to address some of the worst pollution problems. IPE has targeted the leading Western companies, such as Apple and Nike, to adopt stricter standards in dealing with their China suppliers. These standards have had significant impact both on alleviating some of the worst pollution and in spurring the government to greater action. Ma’s honest appraisal of his organization’s impact and also the “red lines” he must be wary of as an NGO was courageous.

Professor Wu Xinbo, Dean of the Institute for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, was the sole academic reflecting what I would call the quasi-governmental sense of current Chinese policy. Doctor Wu downplayed the more aggressive aspects of President Xi’s policies in places like the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. He echoed President Xi’s description of these developments as simply a natural aspect of China’s growing prosperity and presence on the global stage. This view was not shared by other panelists.

Robert Daly summed up the imperatives for the United States in negotiating the challenges of a resurgent China. First, prevent China dominance of the Asia Pacific. Figure out a way to co-exist in this area. Second, prevent the global spread of China’s illiberal policies, such as we have seen with the Uyghur Muslims and in Tibet. Third, avoid a new arms race with China.

Most of this distinguished group of scholars agreed that all of this needed to be managed with an exquisite balance of collaboration, cooperation and competition. This is the good and bad news of Camden. For few participants felt the current U.S. leadership was up to this challenge.

Ron Bancroft is a Cumberland resident and long-time conference attendee

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