Ten years ago, I visited China as a member of a group representing leading Asian newspapers.
After the guided tour, I spent many hours walking alone around the streets of Beijing. This left no doubt in my mind that this was a country experiencing incredible growth in every field.
Neither the skyscrapers nor the abundant expressions of wealth – though the socio-economic inequality was obvious – struck me. Rather, it was the energy of the place – particularly the youthful energy, which spoke volumes about what the future had in store.
It seemed that every achievement that was being done successfully elsewhere, China wanted to do it much bigger – and better.
The environmentally friendly residential buildings, the brilliantly designed theatres and opera houses, the giant libraries and more, all done with a sense of purpose, enthusiasm and efficiency.
I had visited many countries prior, and yet more since, but something remained missing in countries that may seem to be experiencing outward growth: the lack of a wholesome approach to development.
There are those who are experiencing a substantial enlargement in terms of infrastructure – homes, offices, shopping malls, etc. – but lack homegrown universities with direct contributions to knowledge. They rarely invest in public libraries, museums and scientific laboratories manned by their own local talents.
This is hardly the case in China, which is now the greatest contributor to scientific knowledge in the world. The speed in which this change has occurred is as astonishing as the accomplishment itself.
While global media had reported on China’s arrival to the far-side, or ‘dark side’ of the moon, a few linked that unprecedented achievement to the fact that it was merely a culmination of China’s growth in most areas of science.
Indeed, China now has “the highest ‘Share score’ in the Nature Index for the natural sciences, surpassing the United States,” Nature.com reported.
There are nations that boast of having some of the highest income per capita in the world yet, the socio-economic equality gap remains wide. Compare this to China, where, according to a 2022 World Bank report, “Over the past 40 years, the number of people (…) with incomes below $1.90 per day (..) has fallen by close to 800 million.”
The perception is hardly present in the way that China is depicted in many parts of the world, especially as reflected in corporate mainstream media.
In that highly politicised perception, China is portrayed solely based on its human rights record, while its economic miracle is often belittled, devalued or reduced to old racist notions. This includes the relentless campaign accusing China of ‘stealing’ western technology and cutting-edge research.
Former US President Donald Trump, and a large section of the US political establishment during his term in office, advanced the cultural war on China by using such language as the “Chinese virus” – in reference to Covid-19.
Blaming the pandemic and all its horrific consequences on the ‘Chinese’ had numerous consequences, including widespread racism and outright violence, all recorded at length by leading international human rights groups.
This was functional racism, carried out with the hope of halting the rise of Asia as a global leader, and certainly a leader of the Global South.
This growing frustration, if not outright panic, are outcomes of several factors:
First, the speed of China’s growth makes it impossible to halt or even slow down. The fact that Huawei managed to circumvent US-led sanctions by recently producing its latest smartphone, the Mate 60 Pro, demonstrates that China can be self-reliant in matching – in fact, surpassing – the world’s most sophisticated chipmaking technology.
Second, unlike early Chinese growth during Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Chinese Economic Reform’, the country’s recent expansion no longer fits into the West’s global paradigm of economic supremacy.
Third, this growth is a direct challenge to the political discourse – that of ‘western values’ – offering an alternative global leadership, thus changing the political framework which resulted from the outcome of World War II.
Lastly, the rise of China and, by extension Asia and the Global South, also challenges historical perceptions which viewed Asiatic nations as lesser, linguistically inferior and intellectually undeveloped.
Only a few decades ago, China was viewed, at best, as a Western vassal state or, at worse, in the words of Winston Churchill in 1902, as a “barbaric nation” that should be partitioned, since a united China will one day “menace civilised nations”.
It is within these economic, geopolitical and historical contexts that many westerners continue to perceive and criticise China.
Sadly, the ‘debate’ was recently renewed when Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to the Ukrainian president, described China and India as countries with “low (or weak) intellectual potential.”
Questioning Asian intellect is a reminder of an ugly period in history where such language was either tolerated or accepted as fact.
Those who continue to use or even engage with such language are either unaware, or simply too stubborn to admit that the so-called “barbaric nations’ are now leading their own global civilisational project.
This earth-shattering progress is occurring independently of superimposed ‘Western values’, and entirely based on the collective labour, talent and sacrifices of Asian nations.
Such economic miracles will not be slowed down because of name calling and will not stop because of the rehashing of old racist tropes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.