25 May, 2021

China Today and Tomorrow

20-21 May 2021

The advantage and power of the virtual to bring together people from across the globe to meet when physical travel is either not possible or justifiable were fully felt at last week’s Ditchley conference on China. A large conference by Ditchley standards, this was an on-line gathering of just under 100 participants from China, the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ghana, France and the UK and an intense day and half, round the clock conversation, which engaged different perspectives from politics, academia and business in frank exchanges with Chinese voices about China today and its immediate future.

The uniqueness of China was a starting point. China today is a phenomenon without historical precedent. There is no historical reference that reflects the combination of: the type of government system; the huge domestic and regional market; the level of global engagement that China has; and its game changing technological abilities. These factors have come together to create a phenomenon that is different from anything the world has experienced in the past.

Being such a phenomenon also means being the centre of the world’s attention. The world wants to talk about, and with, China. And since 2017, China’s explicit intention to have a global role means international focus on China is inevitable. But current geopolitical trends reflect a hostility both on the part of China and the Western or liberal world. A narrowing of opportunity to interact is stunting the relationship between China and the rest of the world. Despite the current geopolitical environment is there room for more manoeuvre?

Global understanding of China could be helped if China were able to set out the areas where discussion is welcomed and areas where it is not. This clarification could help China and the liberal world find the language in which to discuss the questions raised in this conference, about universalism and respect, climate change and trade; and the language in which powers can disagree.

The world and China must engage and expand not just channels of communication but ways of talking to include philosophical, cultural, historic and scientific understanding of values, and engage beyond a bilateral ideological competition with the global North to include interaction with the rest of the world.  

This conference heard how China’s self-perception is changing. The 19th Party Congress in 2017 marked a shift from a single-minded pursuit of economic development to a goal of achieving a more balanced development. Significant social change is taking place in Chinese society and especially amongst young people whose experience is qualitatively different from earlier generations, characterised by better education and more prosperity.

Chinese perceptions of the West are also changing: China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with some perceived hostility from Western countries, was said to be reinforcing patriotic responses, particularly amongst the young - the 400 million millennials in China whose expectations are different and who are already changing China’s story.

The unique phenomenon of China today and tomorrow (and yesterday) continues to be core to Ditchley’s unfolding programme with upcoming conferences on the future of the US, the Indo Pacific region and world order.

Further details of the conference can be found here. The Director’s conference report will follow.