Kishore Mahbubani has been called the strongest spokesperson for the rise of Asia, a title he gladly embraces. A professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and former rotating president of the UN Security Council, Mahbubani advocates Asian values, increased Asian self-confidence and other penetrating perspectives outlined in his books.
What is his take on the opportunities and challenges China faces in the globalization era and on the modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance? Mr. Mahbubani illustrated his feelings on the matter in an interview with China Report ASEAN.
Opportunity in Globalization
China Report ASEAN: What kind of opportunities and challenges will China face against the backdrop of globalization which has driven China’s development?
Kishore Mahbubani: If any country has taken full advantage of the opportunities created by globalization, it is China. And China’s economy has still not yet fully integrated with the global economy. I have been to Africa and South America, geographically far from China. What did I see in the marketplaces over there? Products made in China, of course. This manifests that China’s influence has spread all over the world.
If China can encourage other countries to be open to global trading, China will be a big beneficiary. China can also help developing countries take advantage of the huge consumer market that China has created. The country with the largest middle-income population is not the United States, but China. If China can create opportunities for poor countries in Africa and Latin America and help developing countries in Asia by providing greater access to the Chinese market, these countries will definitely support globalization.
In my opinion, countries around the world should study the positive relationship forged between China and the 10 ASEAN member states. Since the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement was signed, bilateral trade volume has been growing very fast. But China should continue its efforts to become more open to ASEAN markets and products and be a role model for the world.
A Community with a Shared Future
China Report ASEAN: What do you think of the concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping?
Mahbubani: A community with a shared future for mankind is not some goal, but today’s reality as the world continues becoming smaller and smaller. We share an intertwined and small world. Most of major challenges we face are global: global warming, global financial crisis, global epidemics and global terrorism.
These global issues highlight the fact that we live in a small global village and our future is interlinked. If one country in the global village has an epidemic, other countries will be affected because we are interconnected.
So, it is very important to understand the major changes in the world and a community with a shared future.
The Power of Innovation
China Report ASEAN: How do you see the role of innovation in globalization? Does China have advantages in this regard?
Mahbubani: Innovation is critically important. The country with the strongest innovation is a successful country. To be honest, the United States still leads innovation globally. The intellectual ecosystem of the U.S., composed of universities, companies and financial institutions, has been by far the most innovative ecosystem in the world. If China wants to catch up with the U.S. in innovation ecosystem, I believe some major challenges await.
In some areas, China is indeed far ahead of the United States, such as mobile payments. Chinese people pay with their mobile phones while Americans still use cash. But it is more important to look at the whole picture rather than just some fields. For example, a few days ago, Google announced a huge breakthrough in the field of quantum computing. This is amazing! Calculations that previously took thousands of hours to complete can now be completed in minutes, which is big deal. It would be folly to underestimated America’s abilities in innovation.
I think the best way for China to catch up with the U.S. in innovation is to learn from the experience of the U.S. The United States became the world’s most innovative economy not just by tapping the talent of 330 million Americans, but by drawing from a pool of 7.5 billion people worldwide. If you go to Silicon Valley, you will find that most start-up founders are immigrants from China, India and Europe. Therefore, if Chinese universities can attract the best people in the world and build the same ecosystem, I believe China can be as competitive as the United States. This is a question of talent.
Western Misunderstanding of China’s Political System
China Report ASEAN: Some Western scholars seem to think the Chinese system is terrible despite the country’s startling development achievements. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Do you think the Chinese system and China’s development achievements can oppose each other? What is the relationship between the Chinese system and China’s development achievements?
Mahbubani: My next book will be about China, and in it I explain how the West completely misunderstands China’s political system. Clearly, if the Chinese government was not listening to the Chinese people at all, China would not have succeeded. The driver behind China’s achievements today is the Chinese government’s improving ability to listen to the voice of the Chinese people. China has established and developed various mechanisms to listen to its people and communicate with them. A chart in my next book shows that the Chinese people trust the Chinese government at a rate of about 70 percent, while the American people trust the U.S. government at only 30 percent. This also demonstrates that Western countries are completely unable to understand how the Chinese political system works.
China Report ASEAN: Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, China has comprehensively deepened reform in terms of politics, economics, technology and ecological civilization. What reform measures impressed you most?
Mahbubani: China has undertaken many major reforms, many of which have been very inspiring. One of the concepts that impressed me most was ecological civilization. In Western economic theory, the purpose of business is solely to make money. If you make money, you’re doing everything right. For example, in the coal and mining industries, it can be easy to make a lot of money every day but at a cost of severe damage to the environment that future generations must pay back. So it is very important to consider environmental factors in economic development. Western industrial countries have ignored environmental protection in their development process, and China has learned from those countries’ mistakes, which is very good.
Although China’s per capita income is still near developing countries and far lower than developed countries, China is still very determined to invest heavily in improving the environment, even more than many developed countries. For example, China’s reforestation program is even more ambitious than America’s, which explains why the ecological civilization is a great idea. Clearly, through integrating environmental factors with the economic development, China has brought strength and hope to the world. I hope other countries follow the example of China to support the concept of ecological civilization.
China’s Eorts to Improve Governance
China Report ASEAN: What do you think of China’s concept of modernizing its governance system and capacity? How will it succeed?
Mahbubani: I think the Chinese government is actively trying to understand the adjustments and changes in its political system to adapt to new political and economic realities, which is good. From my perspective, it would be dangerous for China not to adapt to new situations, so China has decided to make efforts to adapt in its next plan, which was a wise decision. What needs to be changed most? You cannot change everything, and clearly useful things should be kept while useless things changed. But more importantly, there needs to be a process of continuous learning and reflection.
Countries around the world are striving for good governance. For years, the model of good governance was provided by the United States and Europe. As Francis Fukuyama said, the end of the Cold War was the end of history. All societies will become free and democratic. Today, more than 20 years have passed since the Cold War ended. We all see the U.S. struggling to achieve good governance and the same thing in Europe. Obviously, no country can maintain good governance all the time, and no country knows what good government looks like.
All countries around the world need to reinvent themselves continuously. The biggest danger for any country is complacency, and as is the case with China. In the past 40 years, China has become the most successful economy in many fields. However, it would be a strategic mistake to expect the same pattern of development from the past 40 years to the next 40 years. Four decades ago, China’s middle-income population was far from the largest in the world. Today, and for the next 40 years, China will have the largest middle-income population in the world. The way middle-income populations are managed is very different from the way developing countries are managed. So I think the challenge for China is practical. Therefore, the next plan will address the issue of “good governance.”
Believe me, I am from Singapore, and even though the country has been very successful in government management, Singapore has been constantly reinventing itself to adapt to the new world that is coming. The best thing that any country can do is to share experience and compare work with others to see how to further improve governance.
Make the Impossible Possible
China Report ASEAN: You have been to China many times. Compared to your first visit to China, how is China different now?
Mahbubani: My first visit to China was in 1980, 39 years ago. China was completely different from now. When I first arrived in Beijing, there were no cars on the road, only bicycles; no skyscrapers, only relatively small buildings; and without modern hotels, I stayed in a guest house. While jogging along Beijing’s narrow alleys in the early morning, I saw many people brushing their teeth outside. Beijing was much simpler than it is now. This also reflects the development stage of China at that time.
If you had told me in 1980 that I would come back in 2019 to see China prosperous and powerful with the world’s most dazzling skyscrapers, an incredible number of cars and a better standard of living for its people, I would have said you are dreaming. But the greatest thing about China is that it has achieved impossible dreams. China has good reason to celebrate its accomplishments.