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China — Proud and Patient

What can China teach the world about economic development — and national pride?

March 16, 2004

What can China teach the world about economic development — and national pride?

Obviously, the greatest economic success story in the world over the past two decades is China. This success has resulted from the far-sighted, courageous — but cautious — leadership of Deng Xiaoping.

He did not introduce perestroika or glasnost overnight. Instead, he created a steady development toward individual, private businesses and markets.

My first visit to China — about 30 years ago, during the time of Mao Tse-tung — allowed me to experience a rather awful Communist society.

The phrase “blue ants” was quite correct back then. Everyone had to obey the orders of the party. And the party had no realistic idea how to feed 700 or 800 million people — or how to create jobs for them.

Today, there are beyond 1.3 billion people and the population explosion is still one of the country's greatest problems. But on the other hand, all the 1.3 billion people are clearly better off today than they ever had been before in all of their lifetimes.

The sustained economic growth rate of around 8% per year is almost incredible. Of course, the Chinese still have to overcome enormous problems. They still need decades of peaceful evolution.

Just one of their several major problems is the ideological or philosophical void. The old ideology has lost its credibility, lost its attraction — but there is no replacement as of yet.

Of course, the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who return from U.S., Canadian and European universities bring ideas of Western civilization into their country.

But when I ask young Chinese entrepreneurs — or young Chinese scientists and intellectuals — about their spiritual future, I get answers of hope for an amalgam of Confucianism and democracy.

At any rate, after a documented history of four millennia, that there is an outburst of vitality in this country is unbelievable.

China is presently concentrating exclusively on economic progress. Given the almost unbelievable economic successes of the 1980s and 1990s, I deem it likely that China will carry on successfully in the next decades.

China is a political world power today. It is going to become an industrial and economical world power as well.

If China does maintain its stability and effective government, then its GDP will surpass the Japanese within about three decades.

And later on, its economy will achieve the same order of magnitude and weight as the economies of the United States or of the European Union.

There will then be three great currencies in the world: The U.S. dollar, the euro — and the Chinese yuan.

Of course, the Chinese will have to overcome enormous problems in the meantime — and they will encounter setbacks as well.

The West would, in my view, be well advised not to bother the Chinese nation with any ideological or spiritual tutelage. There is no need to hurt their pride.

They are indeed a proud nation, but I do not sense any signs of aggressiveness — also not in the case of Taiwan.

As long as no provocation from the outside occurs, I guess the Chinese can and will patiently wait until the attraction of a prosperous mainland becomes irresistible.

I delivered this same prognosis in front of a large auditorium in Taipei, Taiwan — and nobody booed me.

If prudence on all sides, including the United States, prevails in the future, then any dangers of military conflict emanating from China will be kept under control.

This text was adapted from a speech former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gave at the German Historic Institute in Washington, D.C. on September 17, 2003.