Increasing understanding of China needed – as much as possible

09:00 by Hubert Fromlet, Kalmar

China has been a conundrum for many years – and it still is. This means that China can be (too) difficult to understand – certainly not always but too frequently. However, three conclusions can be made for trying to understand what is or will be going on in China:

  • China is a giant country that needs a lot of deep and careful observation. Occasional articles and subsequent analytical absence from China is certainly not an appropriate way to become an expert on the largest economy in the world.
  • Understanding the Chinese economy means that good knowledge is needed also about the history, the traditions and the culture of this gigantic country.
  • Furthermore, it should be recognized that China is not a transparent country. Insufficient transparency is an institutional shortcoming which can be frequently found in China. For this reason, (foreign) analysts dealing with China should continuously try to improve their institutional understanding as much as possible.

Winds of change

Certainly, China is in many respects a very conservative country. This can particularly be stated when it comes to the supremacy of the Communist Party though this supremacy has been individualized significantly in recent years by President and CP Chairman Xi Jinping’s dominance.

Thus, since Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, also China as a country has been changing. In 1978/1979, China’s then political leader Deng Xiaoping introduced his visionary “Reform and Opening-up Policy” which was the decisive move to internationalization of the Chinese economy. Opening China was a major step forward.

During many years with visits to China, I really had a feeling that China cared about its international economic relations – though many times purely in order to support Chinese cross-border trade or to attract foreign direct investments to China. But China gave many Western political and commercial leaders (mostly) a feeling of beneficial welcome.

In the past few years, however, considerable winds of change could be noticed which were started by President Trump but ambitiously continued by President Biden and joined by President Xi. Contrary to the opinion of most foreign China analysts, it may not be a safe prediction that China for a long time in the future will give international trade relations more weight than the non-peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Sure, China still does so – but for how long? It may be worth-while to add that President Xi in October 2021 has been stating that reunification “must be fulfilled” – obviously without completely ruling out the future use of violence but preferring a peaceful solution.

Consequently, China’s hardening attitudes vis-à-vis Western countries can clearly be recognized, also when it comes to recent negative Chinese comments on the possible enlargement of NATO with Finland and Sweden joining. China seems in this context applying a position that is more or less completely in line with the Russian one (https://www.manilatimes.net/2022/05/07/news/world/nato-inciting-bloc-strife-chinese-envoy/1842671. Without doubt, China feels nowadays as a strong global political leader – more than a couple of years ago.

Yes, there are winds of change in China…

Universities should broaden knowledge about China

Today, China is already the number one country in many different economic respects and, consequently, becoming an increasingly stronger global political and economic player. Already by now, China is the country with the highest total GDP in the world (in PPP terms, not per capita). Despite China’s declining GDP-growth trend since a decade ago, it can be expected that China will increase its global market shares further. However, temporary growth distortions are unavoidable and will turn up occasionally.

Considering this probable or possible future, it will be increasingly important to improve the understanding of China in both (Swedish) universities, the banks, the press, politics and the general public. Recent developments in Russia were completely underestimated ex ante – certainly also in Sweden in the past 20-25 years. Such an insufficient understanding should not happen in the future analysis of China. It takes time when trying to understand China; this should be better understood in Sweden.

Therefore, when now turning to Sweden, professional China researchers – with their main occupation in academia and other research institutions – should be financially supported by the Swedish government and Swedish foundations. Of course, we have a number of good China researchers and journalists at home in Sweden. But there should be more of them.

Hopefully, Swedish university leaders and lecturers will in turn become more active in providing students with broader knowledge about China – both what regards history, politics, culture, economics and management. All these topics should be preferably offered in the same course!

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board

 

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