We need to talk about China

Ahead of the launch of the Young Fabians China Programme, Joel Mullan explains the rationale behind the programme and the importance of engaging with the world's new superpower. This article was first published on Fabian Review Online.

This will be the Asian century – defined as much by decisions made by the machinery of government in Beijing or the enterprises of the Pearl River Delta as the last century was by decisions made by the White House and the big US corporations. But are British people ready to reach out and build relationships with the world’s biggest global players?

As the political, economic and cultural power of the Asian economies continue to grow, this seismic shift is too important for discussion to be confined to the foreign policy elite. It will have on-the-ground implications for people up and down Britain. British jobs stand to be destroyed, and others created, through investment decisions while increased competition for scarce resources carries great implications for the cost of living in our country.

Experts predict that China will be the world’s largest economy by 2016. Speaking to the New Statesman last summer, Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, coiner of the BRICs list of emerging economies, said that if he were creating the term today it would simply be ‘C’. In some countries China’s presence is already game-changing, with its immense thirst for resources having a real impact. Australia’s current export boom has come largely off the back of Chinese demand, while there are growing numbers of investment and resource-exploration relationships between China and African governments – most notably in Sudan.

The challenge now will be for the UK to strengthen our bilateral relationship with China. But as Liam Byrne details at length in his recent book Turning to face the east, Britain has some way to go if it is to respond effectively and engage constructively with the rise of China.

The first challenge is one of building knowledge and understanding. There is generally a low level of awareness of Chinese culture, politics and society amongst young people, and indeed among Britons more generally, even among those who are politically engaged.

In part this stems from lack of exposure to information about China. Coverage of Chinese politics and economics in British newspapers is nowhere near as extensive as that devoted to the United States or our European neighbours.

Nor are many schoolchildren offered an opportunity to develop an understanding. British Council research published last year suggest that only 9 per cent of secondary schools offer the opportunity to study Mandarin, a state of affairs that has led to warnings that we are risking our long-term competitiveness.

In parliament, debate on issues related to China is becoming more prevalent, but analysis of Hansard figures for the period March 2013 to March 2014 indicates that France is discussed twice as often as China, and Germany almost three times as often.

Recent YouGov polling suggests that this relative detachment is not reciprocated in China. That study, found that 92 per cent of Chinese respondents believed it was important for the UK and China to have a close relationship. The same study also identified generational differences – with younger Chinese more optimistic about the UK’s future than their older peers.

We need to make more effort to position ourselves in preparation for the Asian century. Relationships need to be forged and strengthened – and organisations across politics and civil society all have a part to play.

In this spirit, next month the Young Fabians will embark on a year-long programme designed to develop our members’ knowledge and understanding of China, and the political, economic, social and cultural trends that are shaping it.  As the next generation of young Chinese leaders come of age, we will look to further explore the shifts in their perspective and outlook, and try to build links and dialogue.

Joel Mullan is the Young Fabians International Officer.

The Young Fabians China Programme will be launched at the London School of Economics on Tuesday 8th April.Speakers include Rt. Hon. Liam Byrne MP and Zhang Jiming, Minister Counsellor from the Chinese Embassy, London.  More information can be found here.

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