Wang Huiyao in dialogue with Kishore MahbubaniCCG | October 18 , 2021
In conjunction with the launch of the Chinese version translated by CCG of Has China won?, on October 18, CCG President Dr. Wang Huiyao spoke with the author Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who has been described by Foreign Policy as “the muse of the Asian century.” Topics including COP15, “common prosperity”, “whole-process democracy”, and the future of Sino-American relations were discussed.
Recent years have seen a broadening of US-China tensions, reflecting the rise of great-power competition in the 21st century.
After a period of increasing frictions, recent bilateral interactions such as a meeting in Zurich followed by an ice-breaking trade talk via remote link up could signal re-engagement between the two countries. As we move into the post-pandemic era, what is the outlook for the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship?
“The final question will therefore not be whether America or China has won. It will be whether humanity has won,” says Kishore Mahbubani, in his acclaimed book Has China won?
Global issues like Covid-19 and climate change are calling for the reinvigoration of multilateralism. In this context, how can the world unite and make progress towards a sustainable recovery?
In conjunction with the launch of the Chinese version translated by CCG of Has China won?, on October 18, CCG President Dr. Wang Huiyao spoke with the author Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who has been described by Foreign Policy as “the muse of the Asian century.” Topics including COP15, “common prosperity”, “whole-process democracy”, and the future of Sino-American relations were discussed.
Wang Huiyao: Good morning to our audience in China and good evening to professor Kishore Mahbubani in New York and also our friends who are tuning in here and worldwide. This is part of a special global dialogue series conducted by CCG. We are really pleased to host today professor Kishore Mahbubani, a good friend of mine. We are going to talk about his latest new book Has China won? the Chinese challenge to American primacy, which was just translated into Chinese by CCG and published in China by CITIC Press. This is a fascinating book that has drawn wide attention in China already. We are going to talk about this book and other issues as well. Please allow me to quickly introduce my guest today. Professor Kishore Mahbubani is a man of many accomplishments. He is a distinguished fellow at Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore and the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) at NUS. I remember many years ago, I went to that school and had meetings with prof. Mahbubani. He’s also renowned as a successful diplomat and an intellectual in the field of public policy and international relations. Professor Kishore Mahbubani once served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations and a one-term President of the UN National Security Council. He spent 10 years in the UN on behalf of Singapore. In 2019, he was elected as honorary international member to the American Academy of Arts and the Scientists and is has authored many books. I remembered attending you last book launch of The ASEAN Miracle at Peking University. I’m very glad to have Kishore with me today. Last time we were in Toronto participating in the Munk Debates with General H. R. McMaster and Michael Pillsbury from the US and we actually managed to win that debate. It’s nice to see you again, perhaps you want to say hello to the audience in China and other parts of the world?
Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you, Henry. Thank you inviting me to this wonderful dialogue. I remember very well the debate that you and I had with General McMaster and Michael Pillsbury, both of whom of course are better known than you and me, and everyone thought that they would of course win the debate. Surprisingly you and I won the debate which is a very good development but it also reflected the fact that if you try to use logic and scientific evidence to back up your arguments, you can win a debate. Now, when the US China geopolitical contest sadly is going to gain momentum that I document in my book, Has China Won?, which you kindly arranged for the translation into Chinese and I thank you very much for that. It is important for us to do the best we can to avoid the worst outcome emerging in the US China geopolitical contest. I think all of us have a moral obligation to prevent a war happening within US and China. Through the course of this dialogue today, you and I can help to promote the better understanding between US and China and between East and West. I think we are fulfilling a very important moral mission in the very challenging world that we live in today.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you for your encouraging words. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly the reason we have been waiting to hold this dialogue until your book is out. We already conducted the special dialogue with many global opinion leaders like Graham Allison, Thomas Friedman, Joseph Nye, Martin Wolf, Pascal Lamy and Angus Deaton – a number of well-known opinion leaders. They agreed that the China-US relations need to be dealt with special care and there should be no cold war or decoupling – that was the consensus. I am very pleased to have to today to raise the awareness. We have a moral responsibility to raise the understanding between East and West. You played the role of a good observer for many years in Singapore and internationally, building the bridge between the East and West. Has China won? has been translated by CCG and published by CITIC Press Group, which is a very well-known publishing company in China. I wrote a forward for this book’s Chinese version. It’s amazing that this book has offered a comprehensive and sober analysis of the Sino-American relation. It also provides suggestion for both countries from you, someone who knows both East and West with a third party’s view. I know you have been very busy, you were a Dean for many years and been participating in all kinds of international events. Could you please tell us a bit about what sparked your interest in writing this book and what is your view on the China-US relations when writing this book?
Three structural drivers of US-China competition
Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you very much. That’s a great question. The reason why I wrote the book is that if you can imagine two trains coming down the same track, gaining momentum and heading towards a collision. What do you do? Do you say “carry on and have a collision” or do you say “stop and think twice on if you really want a collision.” Now, unfortunately, the United States has launched a geopolitical contest against China. As a result, the US and China are racing towards a collision like two trains. My goal is to try and stop the worst scenario of an all-out collision between these two trains. The reason why this is happening – I tried to analyze the reason this in my book – It’s happened for structural reasons. It is not due to personalities. Everyone thought that the US-China contest started because of Donald Trump. But you will notice in the first paragraph of my book, I say the US-China contests was launched by Donald Trump, but it will outlast him. It doesn’t matter who’s the president. I’m sure enough after Joe Biden became president, he couldn’t change anything. The contest will still continue and even Biden said in his election campaign that Trump’s tariffs are hurting the American people and workers, he cannot remove them because the geopolitical contest is driven by structural forces. That is the main reason why I wrote this book, to try to explain the structural forces that are driving this contest. Let me quickly just 3.
One is of course the fact that whenever the worlds no.1 emerging power which today is China, is about to overtake the world’s no.1 power, the US, the world’s no.1 will always push down the world’s no.1 emerging power . So when the US is trying to prevent China from succeeding, that’s normal behavior. That’s what all great powers do.
But the second structural reason that nobody talks about is that there is also a fear of the yellow peril in the Western imagination. Now this is something that is politically incorrect to discuss in in many Western circles. But it’s a fact in the Western history. In the late 19th century, the U.S. Congress passed a bill called the United States Racial Exclusion Act, to keep out Chinese immigrants. Now that already confirmed that there is a sphere of yellow peril that exists in the American psyche as well the Western psyche.
There’s also the third structural factor. That has been a bipartisan consensus in the United States, among both Republicans and Democrats that after the US engaged China and opened up to China economically, China would also open up politically and will become liberal democracy and then the liberal democracy of China and the liberal democracy of United States will live happily ever after. Now, as you know, that’s a fairy tale. But that’s what Americans believed in. And because of that, they are very disappointed that China is not creating a political system that Americans like. So this is another reason why the US-China geopolitical contest is gaining momentum. So there are the structural reasons why this is happening and it’s not due to personalities. That’s what I hope my book could help to make a contribution to help understand why all this is happening.
China is not an expansionist power
Wang Huiyao: Thank you. I think that’s a great rationale for writing this book – to fundamentally identify the structural problems that are really coming into being now. Present Trump just made in happen but there was something built up already for some time. The structural problems, and what Graham Allison called as the Thucydides’ Trap, and as you mentioned, the fear of the yellow peril and the bipartisan consensus, which is something frightening, too. The Chinese people, historically have been peace-loving, never colonized any other places. As mentioned in your book, Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty actually had a travel voyage as far as to Africa but they never stayed or occupied any colony. That was 100 years before Columbus discovered America. Recently we’ve been seeing some positive movement. After President Trump started the trade war in 2018, which has been 4-5 years now, we know that it cannot be carried on – we see a supply chain crisis going on. But China is still the magnetic for global trade. Its import and export with the US has reached a historical high and the China’s total foreign trade also reached a historical high during the pandemic. Now, the US has released Madam Meng of Huawei, and is receiving 1-200,000 students back to the US to study again. Those things signal that maybe we still can work together. Like Katherine Tai said recently, we ned to recouple and the US Secretary of Commerce also said that we have to do business with China. Do you see that this drastic bashing and sanctions on China doesn’t really work? I mean, we live in the 21st century and we have to somehow continue the economic activities and people-to-people exchange. So, can we manage this risk? As Martin Wolf and I talked about, we need to manage these geopolitical risks. And as the US general said, during the end of Trump’s years, they were trying to avoid a hot war. Of course, we’re gonna have a structural problem in five or ten years’ time. Even Joseph Nye and I discussed that maybe by 2035 we can see a bit of normalizing. So what do you think of this horizon? How long are we going to have this kind of fight and can we manage it at a minimum, or manageable level so that we don’t get into a hot war over the issue of Taiwan or anything related to the South China Sea?
Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you. These are very good questions. You are right,
As I have a chapter of the book devoted to the question, is China expansionist? Of course I cite the example of Emerald Zheng He, who travelled all the way from China to Africa, and he could have conquered many territories and many countries but he never did so. So the West has that China is expansionist is not true. If Chinese are expansionists, then Australia will be a Chinese colony and not a British colony because Australia is much closer to China than it is to Great Britain. At the same time, I am glad that you mentioned Martin Wolf and Joseph Nye and how they mentioned that you’ve got to find the ways and means to managing the US-China geopolitical contest. I agree with them and that is the conclusion of my book – I say that the paradox about the US-China geopolitical contest is inevitable and avoidable. You can avoid it because at the end of the day, if the goal of the US is to improve the wellbeing of its people, if the goal of China is to improve the wellbeing of its people, they should be working together rather than working against each other. That’s why I wrote my book so I agree with your argument.
But at the same time you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that I’ve been in New York. I have been in the US now for 8 days and the mood in the US is very anti-China, very. I have met many Americans who say to me directly and openly that China is the enemy. I was quite shocked as even though I have written a book about US-China relations, I know the state of US-China relations, but ever since I researched for my book, there has been a tremendous shift against China in the American body politic. And I think that’s a very sad thing by the way. I actually believe that there is no reason why the United States should regard China as their enemy. China is not trying to conquer the United States. China is not sending naval vessels to California. China is not sending armies to the Mexican border or Canadian border to invade the US. Yet so many American people in the US believe that China is the enemy. The people you have interviewed – the Joe Nyes, the Martin Wolfs, and Tom Friedmans, I know they all want to achieve a reasonable outcome. But at the end of the day it’s the politicians who have to make the decision. You notice as I said that even though Biden himself said that Trump’s tariffs and sanctions have hurt the American people, he still cannot remove them. He cannot do anything about them. And Katherine Tai, I was hoping in her speech that she would say, okey, we would lift some of the tariffs and sanctions because they hurt the American people, but she cant do it. So the mood in the US today is so anti-China that I’m personally very frightened by it. I had no idea how mych the mood against China has become so negative in the US and tha’s why we need to have this dialogue to prevent the worst-case outcome happening between the US and China.
True stories of China should be told by friends of China to the world
Wang Huiyao: Absolutely right. We haven’t been to the US since Covid broke out in January last year and there is no foreigner coming to China either because of the three or four week quarantine, which is a huge investment of time, so that’s has been difficult. Are we in a communication crisis? We recently published another book called Consensus or Conflict?, which gathered so many famous authors to contribute and it was published by Springer Nature and has been downloaded 100,000 times already. It’s an amazing thing. In one of the chapters, we are talking about the communication crisis we are caught in. English is not our native language whereas the Anglo-Saxon has a big impact and has built up their international influence. The international media and mainstream media outlets are all Western voice. And they are not able to come to what really is happening in China. China is not really good at the international language – how can we enhance it? You mentioned some of this in your book as well.
Also, as you wrote that the final question is not whether America or China has won, but that the humanity has to win. We are facing the pandemic, which is like a third world war caused by the virus but we are not really getting our acts together and that is really something to be afraid of. As you said, everybody in the US has come to a consensus of viewing China as an evil empire – how can we correct that way of thinking? The dialogue and the writing you are doing are so important.
Kishore Mahbubani: I think you are quite right that many Americans have already begun to see China as the evil empire and we must in one way or the other challenge that perception but that requires a lot of effort. And here actually, I believe that the rest of Asia must speak out loudly and more strongly to that the US-China geopolitical contest is not just damaging the US and China but also the rest of the world. And I’m very glad you mentioned that we face the common global challenges like COVID-19, which is still not over. And you’re right, I haven’t been to the US for 18 months because of COVID-19 and normally I come here two or three times a year and I also go to China two or three times but now I cannot visit China, still, to launch my new book because of the quarantine requirements. COVID-19 is a common challenge, climate change is also a common challenge which we must work together on. You mentioned that the last part of my book where I say that this is not a question of whether China or the US has won but it’s a question of whether humanity has won. In the same page, I say that we humanity is much smarter than the apes living in the forest. But for apes who live in the forest, if the forest is burning, the stupidest thing they could do is continue fighting. They should come together to put off the fire in the forest. Global warming is basically teaching the humanity and asking, are you really the most intelligent species on this planet? If the global warming is going to kill human beings, regardless of whether you are in China or the US, Bangladesh or Brazil, Nigeria or Norway, it doesn’t matter, as climate change is a common challenge and all of humanity should be coming together. Therefore we should pause the pause button on this US-China geopolitical contest. I am very glad you mentioned the other book which as you know I contributed an essay, too. And I am glad that it has been downloaded 100,000 times, but I think it needs to be downloaded a million times or 10 million times if you’re going to reach the 7.8 billion people in the world today. Therefore, I think it’s important for us, for reasonable people like you and me to continue to speak out as loudly and clearly as to say that today, all of humanity today have common concerns and dangers and the need to cooperate is much more important than the differences that we have. But giving that kind of message in today’s environment, especially in the US, it’s gonna be very difficult but we must keep trying you. That’s why I congratulate you for having all these dialogues, because it’s very important that you continue doing that.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you, Kishore, I’m really pleased to hear that. You encourage our activities. Since the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship, we cannot let that go extremely wrong or go to the more dangerous stage. I think there are a few areas about which we could talk further. We could collaborate and see how we are really get those countries be held together, at least at the manageable level. First, as you mentioned already, the climate change – we just had COP 15 in Kunming on biodiversity, during which President Xi announced to pledge 1.5 million RMB, which is over 240 million USD in terms of setting up a biodiversity protection fund for developing countries, so China is actually doing a lot. COP 26 is coming up as well in Glasgow, how do you think the incoming COP 26 can make the world work together? US is of course very active on COP 26 albeit it seems that the US hasn’t joined the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) yet. We know that climate change is a huge problem, hot fires in the US, floods in Europe and China, volcanoes… the extreme weather these days, for example, we had the most rainfall amount in Beijing this year and it’s getting very cold now. How can we work together in solving this common challenge in addition to the pandemic, facing not only China but also the world?
Kishore Mahbubani: You’re absolutely right and I’m very happy to hear that President Xi has decided to contribute 1. 5 billion RMB towards the biodiversity challenge. Here I must say that the tragedy about China is that quite often, on global challenges, China is making a lot of contributions, but China is not very good at marketing its contributions. The world doesn’t know what China is doing. And I’ll give you 3 or 4 concrete examples to prove my point.
Firstly, China is the first country in the world to speak about the concept of ecological civilization, which means that as you modernize and develop, you must take care of your environment also. How, nobody has heard of ecological civilization and this is a tragedy. China as the first civilization committing itself to develop an ecological civilization and nobody knows about it.
Secondly, if you look in terms of why climate change is happening now, it’s not just happening because of the new flows of greenhouse gas emissions from China, India, and the rest of Asia, it’s also happening because of the stock of greenhouse gas emissions that the western industrialized countries are put in there since the Western Industrial Revolution over 100 – 200 years ago. So again, that’s something most people of the world are not aware of. Nobody knows about it. I wrote an article called “climate justice” and I publish it in the Singapore Straits Times ,which I am happy to send you a copy for you to share with your readers, pointing that out.
Thirdly, China has done so much in terms of reforestation. It’s reforested an area the size of Belgium or bigger in China. And again, nobody knows about it. And then you make the other contributions, for example, President Xi Jinping decided that no more shark’s fins served in meals and produced by the Chinese Communist Party, the price of shark’s fin drop and lots of sharks were saved in the world. All these things that China has done in a concrete fashion – no one knows these facts, which is actually quite shocking and quite stunning.
So this is why it’s very important for China to make a bigger effort to try and explain to the rest of the world what it is doing, and I think it’s important to make sure this message is conveyed not necessarily by spokesman of China but friends of China around the world. They shouldn’t deploy Chinese propaganda. They should just tell the facts. That’s the scientific facts of what China has contributed.
I give you another big example – if China had decided that it would produce the same number of gasoline cars as the United States, that would have been terrible for climate change. But China is now the leader in producing electric cars and electric cars will help you save the global environment. And China is a leading supplier of solar power and wind turbines energy. Again, the world doesn’t know all these facts. So I think it’s important for China to look for friends who can explain those, again, as I said, it’s not propaganda – just give the facts and let the facts speak for themselves. And that’s something that China has not been very good at doing so far. And that’s why there’s so much negative coverage of China in the Anglo-Saxon media.
Countries are “living in 193 separate cabins on the same boat”.
Wang Huiyao: Absolutely, you’re right. You give some concrete answers to this communication crisis there or dilemma that China is facing. On the one hand, China is doing very well on the KPI, as you talk about, on climate change. The green that China contributed to the last 20 years accounts for about 20 to 25% of the global greenness, as large as Argentina, yet not many people know that. We need to have a better narrative for that, but also as you said, let friends let other people talk about it too rather than just one channel.
China’s been doing great things. President Xi mentioned that before 2030, China aims to reach carbon peak and before 2060 China is to reach carbon neutral – it’s two “befores” not two “bys”. So that means it could be ahead of schedule a bit as well. And the other thing is President Xi announced this year at the UN that China is going to stop building fossil power plants outside China immediately which is another big commitment in China. And actually, in China the 14th 5-Years Plan already established a target that by 5 years’ time, they would cut the energy per GDP consumption down 18%, they cut the carbon down by 13%, so it’s a lot of concrete plan which has not been properly explained.
While China’s been doing well on those KPIs, we are in a supply chain crisis in the world now. President Biden just announced a few days ago, the ports in New York and Los Angeles have to be operate 24/7 as they are trying to relieve the supply chain problem that the US is facing – the supermarket is in the shortage of goods and things like that. At the same time, China is always doing well on those infrastructures. For example, out of the 10 largest ports, 7 of them are in China. And as you mentioned, China is the biggest producer of clean energy vehicles on wind power, solar power, and hydro power. So, can we work together? The US is proposing an infrastructure bill, which still hasn’t been completely executed yet. But as President Biden said, “build back the better world – B3W”. Can B3W work with China, for example, the Belt and Road? Can we elevate the Asian infrastructure investment bank to a global infrastructure investment bank? We can build a larger pie for China and the US to work together rather than demonizing each other, or view each other as a threat? Those are really how we can work together. Multilateralism: World Bank, ADB, AfDB, IMF and WTO can work together. What do you think about that? Can we find a larger pie that a better objective for both countries and the world, rather than being obsessed with this geopolitical conflict?
Kishore Mahbubani: Yeah, that’s a very noble objective, Henry. I think it can be done. But to achieve global cooperation, you first need to explain to people why global cooperation is important. I wrote a book on global governance called the Great Convergence, which has been published in China also. And in that book, I explain that globalization has shrunk the world. And as a result of shrinking the world, the world is changed fundamentally. And to explain how it has changed fundamentally, I have used the analogy of what I call a boat analogy. So in the past when 7. 8 billion people live in 193 separate countries, it was as though they were living in 193 separate boats and each boat had a captain or crew to take care of it, and the boats were separate. So if one boat got COVID-19, there other boats would not get COVID-19 because they are different boats, COVID-19 cannot go from one both another boat. But the world has shrunk and now 7. 8 billion people when they live in 193 separate countries. They are no longer living in 193 separate boats, they’re living in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. And if you had any doubts about it, Covid-19 showed it. COVID-19 began in one cabin, maybe it began in China, and it spread around the world, clearly. So it shows that we are all on the same boat. If you’re on the same boat, we should take care of our common boat. And we now know frankly if we destroy Planet Earth, we have no alternative. If we destroy the environment, the climate, the atmosphere of Planet Earth, we cannot go and live on any other planet, we cannot transport 7.8 billion people to Mars or anywhere. And Mars is not inevitable anyway, maybe except for Elon Musk, he can go and build a small colony for himself there, but humanity cannot go and live in those places. So it’s important for us to understand that we are now on the same boat and that we have a common destiny and we have common challenges, but this requires a complete change in mindset on the part of the policymakers.
But the problem here is there. Many policymakers, especially many Western policymakers, their concepts of geopolitics come from the 19th century. And when I talk about the structural forces that explain why the US-China geopolitical contest is continuing, is because they are applying 19th-century geopolitical concepts to the 21st century. Because in the past when you live in separate countries as though you’re living in separate boats. Now all of us live in the same boat, so our common interests and common challenges are much more important and therefore, I hope that you got to change their mind if you want to achieve what you suggested in your question, how we can all cooperate – we can, but first of all, we must understand why we need to cooperate and the reason why we need to cooperate is you’re on the same boat. And that’s the fundamental reason.
The West should accept China and other civilizations in the world
Wang Huiyao: I think that’s an excellent metaphor. We are living in the same village, we’re on the same boat, we are on the same planet. We are fighting the virus which we don’t know where it is coming from. We have to put our acts together. One of the things I noticed is that, of course, when we say you have to work together, collaborate. People always say you have different values, you have a different system, you have a different development model which does not converge with us. They were not converging after so many years. And then they felt it is not OK, ,we did not converge and we are different. But somehow it’s not that right, you are a person who lived in Asia for so long and also know the West so well. Actually the Chinese history and Chinese culture have many oriental values attached. The CPC could be actually the China civilization party. It has Marxism, but also has a lot of Chinese characteristics of Chinese culture.
Last week, President Xi had just said that China has implemented the whole process of democracy. So democracy doesn’t just mean at the voting time but also afterwards – how you serve the people and get feedbacks, and through consultative democracy that all the delegates to talk and people participate. But then also we have a meritocracy as you mentioned in the book. They’d be picking the best people, deliver a five-year plan after another five-year plan. So that really helps.
Also, we’re living in the 21st century. People can’t use the old model from last century y to measure to the contemporary. For example, in China today, you have a 1-billion smart-phone users. It’s a technology democracy. Where to go, what to buy, where to shop – they’ve been making the votes every day. And you also have a market democracy. People have the freedom to go travel, choose jobs.
We are living in a world of democracy in which probably the largest opposition party is the US government on China. So people read and digest everything, you get feedback and information from think tanks. So leaders can make a wise decision so that they can avoid kind of the old days when information was not that easy to get and you needed everybody to vote on that. That kind of new model with the Chinese characteristics – would that explain some of the Chinese success on this KPI, the fastest growing economy? Fukuyama said it’s not the end of history now, can we accept this kind of a new oriental Chinese development methodology and so that the West doesn’t think China has to converge with them or otherwise evil, I’m going to make you an evil empire for that. So can we come to a more multipolar or maybe more diversified world in terms of value, in terms of acceptance, in terms of respecting each other for finding a way to work?
Kishore Mahbubani: Well, that’s a very good question. Before I wrote the book Has China Won I wrote the book called Has the West lost It, and I’ve written an essay called The West and the Rest in the magazine called the National Interest in 1993, 28 years ago, and one of the most arrogant assumptions that the West has had in looking at the world and you mentioned Francis Fukuyama who wrote an essay called The End of History, in which he sent a sophisticated message but what all the westerners heard was that the West has succeeded, the West has achieved liberal democracy and all the rest of the world now has to copy the West. So the West doesn’t have to adapt and change to other cultures or civilizations. And as I say in a somewhat cruel fashion in my book Has the West lost It, and Francis Fukuyama’s essay did a lot of brain damage to the West because he put the West to sleep precisely at the time when other Asian Civilizations were waking up, including Chinese civilization, Indian civilization, Southeast Asian civilizations. So I think it’s important for the West to accept the notion that other civilizations will not become carbon copies of the West. That’s the most fundamental thing that the West has got to learn to accept. And the strange thing is that even though the West preaches liberalism. Liberalism means that you accept different points of view, alternative points of view, but ironically the liberals in the West cannot accept a world of diverse civilizations and of civilizations that are not carbon copies of the West, and China is certainly not going to become a carbon copy of the West because Chinese civilization is as old as western civilization, maybe even older than western civilization. So China is going to be quite different.
In the case of China, Chinese leaders have to understand Chinese history, Chinese tradition, Chinese culture, and also Chinese strengths and weaknesses. Whenever the central government in China is weak, the Chinese people suffer. When the Chinese central government is strong, the Chinese people benefit and that’s why the last 30 to 40 years of Chinese history have been the best 30 to 40 years of Chinese history for the bottom 50% in China in 4, 000 years of Chinese history. That’s a remarkable fact about China that many in the West are not aware of. Chinese civilization is coming back again, after having gone to sleep for almost 200 years. But Chinese civilization has failed to explain the nature of Chinese civilization to the Western audience. They don’t understand it at all. Instead, if there’s anything negative that they can pick up a story on China, they’ll write the negative stuff. So recently when China cracked down on big tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and DiDi, all the West said, “OK, China is going after big companies, China is going to destroy itself.” Really? China may destroy itself? Or is China trying to create a society which is not a plutocracy, and as you know in my book, I give a whole chapter to the question of why America is weakening itself by becoming a plutocracy. If China decides not to become a plutocracy, that’s a positive development for China. This is something again that China is hard to explain to a Western audience. What China needs to do a better job of is to explain to the West and say that we respect the fact that you are in the West, want to have a certain kind of society which is which works better for America for the West, where you emphasize individual rights more than individual responsibilities, but maybe China wants to have a society that emphasizes individual responsibilities more than individual rights. We have a diverse world, we have two different kinds of social models. Let each society chooses its social model, and then we see which is the best, instead of saying that the West is best and the rest must copy the West. That’s what the West has been saying and it may not necessarily be what is good for other societies. And this is what China needs to explain in a very careful and nuanced fashion. But so far, it has not succeeded in explaining to the West that actually China will never become a carbon copy of the West.
Common prosperity is a call to realize a more balanced society
Wang Huiyao: I totally agree with you, you put it well. I think China puts individual responsibility more than the individual right. It’s a Chinese social model. And that’s the model that helped China contain COVID-19, as china had the quarantine, had the lockdown, and the people stay at home, sacrificing a bit of individual right. But then the whole society got free (of the virus) and functioned so well. So this pandemic crisis has on the one hand proven that maybe the Chinese way of doing things may not be necessarily as bad as people thought in the West. So you’re right. We have to talk to people more about that as well so that we can explain better how China works.
This year, it was 100 years of the founding of CPC and also President Xi announced that we have eliminated extreme poverty. That 800 million people account for 70% of the global poverty reduction and this fulfills the UN 2030 agenda 10 years ahead of the schedule. As Larry Summers told me at CCG that this is probably something compatible to the Industrial Revolution of Great Britain, or even greater than that. But China never stops, China now proposes another objective – common prosperity. China, after lifting 800 million people out of extreme poverty, are now thinking about the working class, those DiDi drivers, the delivery boys, and all those 250 million migrant workers working in different parts of China. Premier Li has addressed that 600 million people living by about 1,000 RMB a month. So now they’re working on those less wealthy and less affluent exactly to avoid the problem that you mentioned in your book about the situation that in the US, the 1%, the wealth of wall street may be equal to that of the 50% of the general population, which hasn’t seen any progress in the last several decades. So about this common prosperity, as you also mentioned that they are also trying to stop the monopolizing of the big companies but also trying to be fairer like recently there is also crackdown on extreme after-school activities as it is too much burden on the elementary students or high school students. So I think there are a lot of ways the central Chinese government to be strong and push for those noble objectives, trying to achieve another goal for 2049. By 2035, China is going to be well on its path to achieving modernization basically and by the 2049 a fully modernized and developed society. So what you think about this common prosperity, that China has shifted to? China is probably building the largest middle class in the world with common prosperity. What is your take on that?
Kishore Mahbubani: As you know in the West, outside China, there are two schools of thought on common prosperity and what China is trying to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon view is that China is shooting itself in the foot with common prosperity because when China goes after the big tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, DiDi, when China restricts the power and influence of big companies, China is only ensuring that American big techs will succeed and win. So some people in the Anglo-Saxon will celebrate the fact that China is going after all these big tech companies. That’s one school of thought.
But the other school of thought, this is what I suppose is the view in China, is that these companies in some ways have become too powerful, and are putting the interests of the company ahead of the interests of society in many areas. For example, video games may be bad for the population at large and too much tuition may be bad for the society at large. So what China is trying to do is some kind of societal correction that may actually help the Chinese people and help Chinese families and maybe may result in producing more babies if you create a more balanced society for people, especially at the bottom. Right now, there are two schools of thought on what common prosperity means. Only time will tell which school is right, but I think at the same time, it’s very courageous for the Chinese government to take on some of these big tech companies because you may end up in China, hurting itself in the process. So it’s going to be done very carefully and it’s got to be handled in such a way that on the one hand, the common prosperity spreads in China but on the other hand, you got to make sure that China’s global economic growth also doesn’t slow down – these are contradictory objectives that you got to handle very well.
Free trade agreements generate prosperity and peace
Wang Huiyao: Yes, we need to strike a balance for that. You’re right, on the one hand, we need to maintain economic vitality and entrepreneurship for the market forces to be ever strong, but on the other hand, we also need to raise the working class in China for the migrant workers to be well protected. I think China has made a lot of progress with that. For example, China now has 1 billion people who have Social Security benefit already and 1.3 billion people have medical care protection – that’s probably the largest in the world. And then, to improve on that to create the larger middle class is something, as you said, very bold initiative. But if handled well, it really can avoid this polarizing society that we see in some other countries and that maybe you know populism, nationalism could be keep at the base, so that it’s not going to disrupt the whole society. That’s the progress China is making. So that’s my understanding of this common prosperity.
Now I’d like to shift to another area. At the end of last year, we see a very big breakthrough with the presidential change from Trump to Biden. We see RCEP has been concluded during this time, China is also in the process of signing a big agreement with the EU on investment trade. Of course, this year, China has been very strong that after President Xi mentioned China is positively considering joining CPTPP last year, Chinese Minister of Commerce has officially applied to join CPTPP this year. How do you think about this Asian prosperity? ASEAN has already become the largest trading part of China? This region – we’re seeing Asia rising. There’s this another book you are writing, The Asian 21st Century, which we are also translating now and will be published by CITIC again. What do you think about this is Asia rising and its importance and implications and the East Asian culture? How is this going to impact all those latest trade schemes?
Kishore Mahbubani: Well, you’re right, Henry. That, it is quite surprising that in the past, the number one champion of free trade agreements used to be the United States of America by far. And I remember in 1985, I accompanied the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew when he addressed a joint session of the United States Congress in 1985. So this is 36 years ago, and in that speech, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew mentioned how the United States, by championing free trade and by spending the virtues of free trade, had helped to generate global prosperity in the world. 36 years ago, it was the United States that wanted to sign free trade agreements with everybody and I think China had not signed a single free trade agreement in 1985. And what’s amazing is that today, the roles have reversed in a very profound way where today United States Congress is not willing to sign or ratify any free trade agreement.
You mentioned the CPTPP -it was President Obama, who signed the transpacific partnership (TPP), but the US Congress and Senate have not ratified at all so it’s a tragedy. Now it’s actually China that wants to join CPTPP. It shows how much the world has changed so it’s very important that we in East Asia continues to promote free trade.
Here I must say on the question of free trade, I’m glad you mentioned the RCEP has been concluded. I see many Asian countries delayed the conclusion of the RCEP because they’re very keen to get India to join the RCEP. And I must say I felt very sad that at the last minute India decided not to join the RCEP because by not joining the RCEP, India is not participating in the great growth and success story of East Asia. But we in East Asia must continue to push for greater trade liberalization because you know the theory of comparative advantage that Ricardo set up is still valid and alive today. Even though countries like the United States or India and others have walked away from the virtues of free trade. We in East Asia must continue to push for it because trade not only generates economic prosperity, trade also generates peace. And one of the things I have launched recently, Henry, you can Google and find it, is the Asian Peace Program – APP. If you go to out website, what we’re trying to do is to generate peace in East Asia and we believe that one good way of generating peace in East Asia is through encouraging greater free trade and encouraging greater free trade agreements, too. I have written about that in several different places so I hope that we in East Asia what should not just support the RCEP, but should also welcome China’s application to join the CPTPP.
Wang Huiyao: Yes, thank you. I think that’s great news. China is very active now to pursue it. You are the expert on Asia and have been studying and researching this fast-growing continent for a long time. But there is also geopolitical risk there as there’s particularly big rivalry now on South China Sea and the issue of Taiwan. ASEAN has been caught in the middle between the US-China rivalry in the region. And Japan, for example, is quite allied with the US. But I’m glad to see recently Present Xi spoke on the phone with the Prime Minister of Singapore, but also the new Prime Minister Japan. So what do you see as the solution of South China Sea issues with ASEAN countries and this Taiwan issue and also how ASEAN countries taking sides when they have to if there’s serious geopolitical conflict? What’s your advice on the region?
Kishore Mahbubani: You are right. There are many difficult issues in our region and the reason why my colleagues in the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and I launched the Asian Peace Program is that there are many geopolitical flashpoints in East Asia, including the South China Sea and Taiwan and many such issues are a problem. But what we must do is to send a message that even though we continue to have differences over many of these issues like the South China Sea, we do not go to war over them. We try to negotiate peacefully to arrive at an understanding. So for example, the ASEAN countries, and China are trying to reach an agreement on the code of conduct. So, this is something that we should push harder and harder to get an agreement on to ensure that there’s no conflict in the South China Sea and I think we can avoid war in the South China Sea. But I’m not so optimistic that we can avoid war in Taiwan. Because Taiwan is a much more sensitive issue for China because you know. China believes that Taiwan is always been a part of China and should at one point in time reunify with China and of course, all of us are hoping for a peaceful reunification between Taiwan and China. But for that to happen it’s important that all the parties do not violate the one-China policy that has been agreed by everybody and this is what worries me about the Trump administration. Because in the Trump administration, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, tried to walk away from the one-China policy and that’s very, very dangerous, but once you walk away from the one-China policy you may trigger a war across the Taiwan Strait and a war across the Taiwan Strait if the United States gets involved may lead to a nuclear war. And millions of people would die in a nuclear war, so people need to understand that the stakes on Taiwan are very high and it could lead to a very dangerous outcome of a nuclear war. And so, the best way to avoid a nuclear war is not to change the status quo in Taiwan and we must all respect the one-China policy and this is something that, for example, most Asian countries respect, and so we must all speak out, explain to the Western countries, why the one-China policy is important and why they should not go back on agreements that were negotiated very carefully within the United States and China over the past 50 years since Henry Kissinger went to China in July 1971.
Wang Huiyao: I think the 3 communiqués are very important cornerstones between the US and China and we should maintain that momentum and not change the status quo in order to avoid this military conflict, that’s very important.
This year is 50th Anniversary of the Restoration of the Lawful Seat of the PRC in the UN and is the 30th anniversary of China joining the APAC, and the 20th anniversary of China joining the WTO? These really symbolize China’s openness with the rest of the world. In your book, you mentioned that when the Bretton Woods system was founded, there was only 2.5 million people in the world and today is 7.8 billion people. So, is world’s global governance is falling behind the global practice? What can be done to the world and multilateralism? And how can China play a more responsive and larger role in this process? We need to upgrade, enhance and improve the current global system. You worked at UN for so long. What do you think of multilateralism? What should China do to collaborate better with the world?
Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you. A very good question. As you just mentioned, Henry, I was ambassador to the UN for over 10 years. An after being an ambassador to the UN for over10 years, I fell in love with the United Nations and I think the United Nations is one of the most wonderful organizations in the world. And the United Nations Charter is one of the most beautiful documents in the world. So we should work together to try to strengthen the United Nations.
And one of the mistakes that the West has been making and I documented this in my book, The Great Convergence, which has been published in China also, is that even though the West created all these multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and including affiliated organizations like World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, the West has been trying to weaken these organizations over the past 30-40 years. I keep emphasizing that this is against Western interests. The West represents a minority in the global village and is wise for the West to strengthen institutions of global governance in a global village. So I hope that China will do the exact opposite of what the West is doing when it comes to the United Nations and for a start, I think China should try to revive the United Nations General Assembly. Because the United Nations General Assembly, at the end of the day, represents what I call the parliament of men or the National People’s Congress of humanity so China should do its best to go to the United Nations General Assembly and debate many of these global issues. So when the United States invaded Iraq, they said we’re doing something which is in accordance with international law. But all you had to do is to have a debate in the UN General Assembly and let all the countries speak out and most of the countries would say this is not in accordance with international law. In fact, as Kofi Annan said, since the United States’ invasion of Iraq was neither an act of self-defense nor endorsed by the UN Security Council, it was illegal under international law and that’s something that the UN General Assembly can say. So, I hope that China will do its very best to try and revive, strengthen and support the United Nations, because the United Nations may become, at the end of the day, a valuable kind of a soft line of defense for China because anytime the West attacks China, China can take the issue to the UN General Assembly and then ask the rest of the world, do you agree with the West or do you agree with China? Have a debate, and then the West will be surprised to discover that many in the world don’t agree with many other points the West is making on global governance issues and so this provides a geopolitical opportunity for China to strengthen these institutions of global governance like the United Nations.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you for that sound advice. China should attach more importance to the UN, which I think they’re already doing now. China has already become the second largest donor to the United Nations and the largest peacekeeping force, among the P5 member countries. I think there’s more in the future. Now we are facing climate change, digital economy. Maybe we should have an international data organization or maybe another on carbon or climate change. So on multilateralism, we need some new structure and I hope that China can be more actively involved in that. Half a century has passed since China rejoinedthe UN system which I think is still the cornerstone of world Peace and prosperity and China should really, as you said, be more active there and have debates in the global parliament there, that’s the right word to put it.
Biden is a much nicer man than Donald Trump and the US should rethink its approach to China
Wang Huiyao: So, we have had a very fascinating discussion. My staff is telling me we have had almost a quarter-million people watch us online which is very significant. We have collected a few questions. So, I have a question from China News Service: you once said that the US Biden administration’s China strategy is doomed to fail. Why is this evaluation? What do you think is the biggest problem in the current US strategy toward China? So, China News Service has been following you and raised this question for you.
Kishore Mahbubani: I think the tragedy about the Biden administration’s Policy towards China is that on the one hand, Joe Biden is a much nicer man than Donald Trump. We should all be happy, we should all clap that Joe Biden won the elections and Donald Trump did not win the elections. Because he’s a much nicer guy, a much more friendly and a more thoughtful person. I was hoping that the Biden Administration, who therefore adopt a fresh approach to us in China. But unfortunately as I mentioned at the very beginning of my comments, I’ve been in the United States for a week now and the mood in the United States is very anti-China. Many in Americans see China is the enemy and therefore the Biden administration’s hands are tied and they cannot change the tragedy the reason why it’s a real tragedy that they cannot change the policy.
And you mentioned about the strategy, as I document in my book, Has China won? which you have just published and translated into Chinese, the fundamental mistake the United States has made is that it has launched a geopolitical contest against China without working out a strategy. That’s amazing that there’s no strategy and as I say in the book that the man who gave me this insight that the United States doesn’t have a strategy is America’s greatest living strategic thinker Henry Kissinger and he was a man responsible for opening up US-China relations in July 1971, 50 years ago. And he was the one who said to me that America doesn’t have a strategy and also evidence shows that the Biden administration doesn’t have a strategy because if they all the Biden administration has to do is to ask a very simple question: what are your goals? Are you trying to isolate China, like America successfully isolated the Soviet Union with the containment policy, it’s not possible. China does more trade with the world than United States does, you cannot contain the world’s largest trading power. Are you trying to overthrow the Communist Party of China? It’s not possible. Because the Communist Party of China, as the Harvard Kennedy School has documented, is very popular, you cannot overthrow as it enjoys the support of the people. Are you going to stop China from becoming the number one economy in the world? It’s impossible. You cannot stop it because just as China continues to grow and do well and has the same per capita income as other East Asian countries, China with 4 times the population of United States, will have a larger economy than the United States. All these possible goals are not attainable so the first question the Biden administration should answer is, what are the strategic objectives of the United States in launching this contest against China? I watch this issue so closely, but there are no answers as to what the strategy of the Biden administration is. I, actually, as a friend of the United States, am trying to tell the United States that you are knocking your head against a wall. And you must step back and maybe think very hard before you carry out any actions against China because you cannot, as a young Republic of the United States which is less than 250 years old, with one quarter the population of China, transform a 4,000-year old Chinese civilization with 4 times the population of the United States. That’s a Mission Impossible. So why not accept the reality, and accept the fact that you cannot transform China, therefore learn to live in a world where there are diverse civilizations and diverse societies? That’s the way to approach it.
ASEAN has been a miracle and Asia should unite
Wang Huiyao: That’s a great message. I think we are not trying to change each other. It’s a multi-facetd world. Maybe we should try to be more colorful and accept each other for the better prosperity of the world.
China News Service has another question – in recent years, with the US trying to strengthen the ties with Japan and South Korea, and of course ASEAN, there’s a problem of East Asia and North Asia who are caught in between as the US is trying to at least get allied with Japan and South Korea. So how does North Asia and ASEAN countries cope with that? There’s a division in Asia, also. Can we get Some Asian prosperity and Asian values or Confucianist values and wisdom that we can learn from or benefit from?
Kishore Mahbubani: As you mentioned earlier, Henry, you’re aware that I wrote a book called the ASEAN Miracle which you mentioned in the introduction and it was published by Beijing University Press. The ASEAN countries are truly a miracle, because they have taken the most diverse region of planet earth, Southeast Asia, with a population of 650 million people and the 650 million people include 250 million Muslims, 150 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, Mahayana Buddhist, Hinayana Buddhist, Hindus, Darwinists, and Confucianists. Southeast Asia is the most diverse region of Planet Earth, and even though it’s the most diverse region of Planet Earth, it’s been peaceful now since its founding in 1967, for 54 years. It’s very important for the world to understand that ASEAN is a remarkable organization. In fact, ASEAN should be regarded as the litmus test of what can be doable or not doable in this world today. When the United States is trying to isolate China, the ASEAN countries are saying, all of them were saying – they’re very different countries – but they all say we want to be friends with the United States, but we also want to be friends with China. And don’t ask us to choose between the United States and China. When all the 10 ASEAN countries say this in a united fashion, that sends very powerful message to the United States that you should be careful about trying to isolate China. Now, of course the trouble of our Northeast Asia is that even though North East Asia, the countries, South Korea, Japan, China, Mongolia and others there, most of them are more prosperous and successful than Southeast Asian countries, there still isn’t an Association of Northeast Asian nations to match the Association of Southeast Asian nations. I think this is something that Japan and South Korea to ask themselves this question, why isn’t there similar successful regional organization in the northeast to match the regional organization in the southeast in ASEAN? I think it’s very important for both Japan and South Korea to try and learn lessons from ASEAN on how to manage global affairs. Because Japan has always been trying to copy Europe but Europe represents the past, America represents the present, Asia represents the future. So Japan should learn more from Southeast Asia now and stop trying to be the most European country in East Asia and in that way we will have a much more peaceful and harmonious region in our part of the world, if everyone tries to learn from Asia.
Wang Huiyao: I think that’s the best way to put it, Asia is the future. Asian countries now are already the most vibrant and fastest growing economy in the world. ASEAN has set a good example as you said in your book about half a century of ASEAN success. That’s amazing that it has produced such a great diversified but also unified international way of togetherness and organization. It’s an inspiration that ASEAN has already become a much stronger unity and now is the largest trading partner with China. We should collaborate more and the same with East Asia and we hope that a China-Japan-Korea free trade agreement can be concluded as soon as possible.
Now the final question, we have another one from Hong Xing news. You’ve been for 10 years at the UN and know that organization so well. What do you think can be improved for the UN as a whole, to better cope with the new dilemma and challenges of today like COVID-19 and climate change?
Kishore Mahbubani: As I said earlier, I love the United Nations and I still believe the United Nations represents the future. Earlier on, I used the boat metaphor to show how 193 countries are now 193 cabins on the same boat. Why don’t I change the metaphor and use the metaphor that Kofi Annan, the former secretary of the UN, used, who said that the world has become a global village, and if you live in a village, you must have a council to decide where to build the road and how to collect the taxes and how to take care of a fire in the village, all these are common problems, what they call the global commons’ problems. Now, who’s going to do all that? And the answer is the United Nations. And the tragedy is that, as I said earlier, which I document in my book the Great Convergence. The West, even though they created the United Nations, have been weakening the United Nation. So what we in Asia needs to do is to strengthen the United Nations, Henry, you mentioned that China is already become the second largest contributor to the UN system, that’s very good. In fact, China should become the largest contributor to the UN system just to send a signal that amount of money involved to support the UN is just peanuts. The regular budget of the United Nations is less than the budget of the New York City Fire Department. I mean, the New York City Fire department takes care of only 10 million people in New York. The UN takes care of 7. 8 billion people around the world, so why is the budget of the UN smaller than the New York City Fire department, so clearly we must do something more to save the world. This is why it’s very important for especially those of us in Asia to understand that the West is making a huge strategic mistake in weakening the UN and we must fight back against that and the one way of fighting back is to give more resources to the UN and I’m glad that China today contributes more peacekeeping forces than the rest of the P5 combined and then this is something that we should continue to do more of.
So we in Asia should say that the UN is important, the World Health Organization is important, the World Trade Organization, the UNESCO is important – go through all these organizations and say we want to support all these organizations and therefore stop all the Western efforts to weaken that and if you can get a great consensus in Asia to support the UN then frankly the world will be a much better place, because a world in which you have a stronger global village council is a safer and more peaceful world.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you, I think that is very sound advice. Exactly, Asia should support the UN more. And there are lot of other world problems now. For example, recently G20 passed the new proposal on the global minimum corporate tax of 15%. So that we really should avoid some companies making huge money outside the country, but not benefiting the local workers. So then China takes all the blame, so I think global governance should really be strengthened in terms of a better distribution of the wealth. And also have debates at the UN – your advice is very good. And China can play a more active role in this global system and support the UN with other Asian countries.
It’s quite late now in New York and thank you so much for spending so much time to talk to me and so we’re very pleased that your book Has China Won? – the Chinese version has been officially translated by CCG and published by one of the most famous publishers in China, CITIC Press, which has published Kissinger’s On China, the recent Schwartzman’s book and many other well known books. I’m glad, I’m sure you’re going to be a best seller in China. But again, I really value our friendship, our exchanges and we hope that we can see you again. I think today we had a very good discussion. We talked about so many issues, China-US relations, which is I think one of the main themes of your book, talked about climate change, global governance, United Nations, ASEAN, Asia. We already had about a quarter million people watching this dialogue. So once again, I want to thank you very much and hope to see you at next time when you in China at CCG.
Kishore Mahbubani: Let me also quickly just thank you very much for inviting me to this dialogue. I’m actually quite shocked to learn that there are a quarter million people watching this dialogue that you and I have just done. I hope this means that we have sold a quarter million copies of the book or so to all the people who are watching and I think they’ll find it a useful book to understand US-China relations. I share your hope that we will have this dialogue once again. I hope next time we will do it in person together face-to-face rather than virtually. Let’s hope that the day will come very soon. Thank you very much.
Note: The above text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. It is posted as a reference for the discussion.
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