Special Features

FOCUS | A China journey

Progressive urban townships mark the rise of China's affluent class. JOEL PAREDES, INTERAKSYON.COM

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

WUXI CITY, Jiangsu - In 1984, as a young journalist visiting China for the first time,  I asked my host group to arrange for us to  watch the “The East is Red.”  It was a 1965 musical that dramatized the history of the Chinese revolution under the leadership of the late Chairman Mao Zedong.

“We don’t have that anymore. Perhaps you would want to see our own ‘Broadway musical’ ,” one Chinese colleague replied.
 
So we watched  “ Hua Mulan,” an opera based on the  exploits of a legendary woman warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties  who took her aging father’s place in the army.
 
While Hua Mulan never really hit the famous theater strip of New York,  it  was eventually adapted in the Walt Disney film “Mulan” in 1998, with  our own Lea Salonga  providing the character’s singing voice.
 
At that time, China had only begun to open  the  country under the guise of socialist modernization. But they were reminded of the value of patriotism and love for the country.
 
That, in a way, explained the popularity of Hua Mulan among the old guard, and the youth.
 
One could sense that they were veering away from chairman Mao’s influence and his “old guard.”
 
 The “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was openly being criticized for the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of people following the  purging  of the remnants of  so-called “capitalist” and “traditional”  elements  in the socialist society.
 
One sign of this subtle veering away: even Mao’s little “red book” was nowhere to be found, although his selected works were still being displayed in the airport bookstore.
 
Before leaving Beijing, I bought the Vol. 1 of Selected Works of Liu Shiaoxi, who had just been posthumously honored by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. After  being tagged as  China’s  foremost “capitalist railroader” and “traitor of the Chinese revolution” Liu, believed to be the prime mover of socialist modernization,  was  China’s head of state  from 1956 until 1966, when he was purged  for implementing China’s economic reconstruction.
 
Back to my 1984 travel: I eventually found the remnants of Mao and his revolution in the Mao cap with its little red star and the Mao jacket -- their common outfit then in public, but limited to blue, green and grey colors. 
 
Today, revisiting China 32 years later, there are no longer any subtleties: the influence of the west is quite glaring. And yet, the way the Asian giant reckons with change - embracing capitalism while keeping the political structures of its revolutionary past; shunning western imperialist muscle in Asia while maintaining robust economic relations with the US; alternating between being bully and comforting big brother to its neighbors - is a source of perpetual fascination.
 
The East is (turning) West
 
My first stop was the packed Starbucks outlets right inside Shanghai’s international airport. I later found that it was vastly popular in urban areas  where many  locals  now prefer to drink coffee instead of the traditional tea.
 
A typical Starbucks in China
 
Along with huge skyscrapers are the huge shopping malls which had  mushroomed at the center of  the central business districts, complete with the glitter of neon lights that were nowhere in socialist China’s not-so-distant s past.
 
Foreigners need not use FEC (foreign exchange currency), now that the Yuan is the only accepted local currency in the whole country.
 
The Mao outfit, already hard to find in 1984, is now gone.  It is quite common to  see locals wearing designer clothes with western labels. 
 
I checked out one of the shoulder bags displayed in a retail store, but found that its brand was called “Mexican.”
 
Even the popular   Chinese liquor known as  “maotai” has been replaced in many official functions during  their  “gambei” or ceremonial toasts with red wine. The explanation was that the fermented sorghum – which can now cost a fortune -- was quite strong, compared to the sweet wines, which are mostly sourced from the west. But I also learned that vineyards are also being developed in many areas as local entrepreneurs began developing an industry for grape wines which continue to gain popularity, not only globally but also among the affluent Chinese. 
 
Undaunted by the changes, I I asked a Chinese colleague where I could get a copy of the second volume of Liu Shaoxi’s selected works. He hardly knew him.
 
Later, Xia Hailin, China Report editor, advised me, “Why don’t you get instead an English copy of Xi Jingpin’s selected works ?”  
 
Despite China's having a huge population of 1.3 billion, the socialist way of life had managed to propel a new affluent class, which can be found only within the privileged “Party” members of the past.  
 
I must admit: for a while I found myself lost with China’s-fast changing political landscape. 
 
But don’t get me wrong.  While the  Asian giant enjoys the  capitalist mode, China’s political system has not changed. Leaders of the Communist Party are higher than appointed or elected government officials. 
 
Newfound friends would later explain that the new generation of Chinese leaders  simply would not want to dwell on China’s turbulent past, even if those who have been affected  during the country's painful transition years continue to tell their stories. 
 
The gains of China are still credited to strong Party vanguards, if not the old guard. Local party leaders are still deemed higher in rank than local government  executives. 
 
All these are the outcome of  China’s socialist modernization, or a possibly new form of capitalism but with Chinese characteristics.
 
 
 A newly-opened mall in Jiangsu province 
 
 
Indeed, “China is really rapidly changing,” says 35-year-old Wang Xi, a reporter for the China Central Television. Within 10 years, he predicts, “we might even look like the US or Europe. “
 
As the country welcomes foreigners, the Chinese gain an opportunity to update and share their new technologies with outsiders.
 
But as they open their economy to foreigners, their leaders  are also trying to ensure they can cope with these changes.
 
Earlier on, the state leadership declared that they expected to eradicate poverty by 2020.  The  “one-child” policy, meanwhile, was also repealed, ending decades of a harsh demographic policy that China   eventually realized had its own economic pitfalls.
 
Despite the rollback of the one-child policy, Chinese leaders point out that with the expected increase in population,  they have to ensure that government can address a possible widening of the gap between rich and poor.
 
And despite being more open to the outside world, they can also be  sensitive to perceived foreign “enemies.”
 
Wang, for one, explained that there were obviously more Buicks than Toyotas along the busy thoroughfares, simply because China continued to have some irritants with Japan.
 
At this, I wondered to myself how the Chinese would look at the Philippines, given the much-publicized rift over the South China Sea. But then, especially following his China visit, President Duterte's initiative to restore old friendly ties seemed to be bearing fruit, given Beijing's move to cut the Filipino fishermen some slack in Scarborough Shoal by stopping moves by the Chinese coastguard to actively shoo away the Philippine boats.
 
How the Chinese perceive the Philippines
 
I found that if the Philippines was ever mentioned in the south of China, it was  invariably in association with the strong typhoons that, following their usual path, also wreak  havoc on its vast plains after pummelling their neighboring archipelago the Philippines.
 
Still, “Typhoon Duterte,”  as one local official described the Philippine President, was an exception.
 
“I was quite impressed with President Duterte’s visit,” Wang Jinjian, the deputy mayor of Wuxi City, told a group of  visiting ASEAN journalists.  In Beijing, he said,  Duterte “was so warmly welcomed than anyone else (who had visited).”
 
He confirmed that with Beijing’s commitment to forge a stronger partnership with the Duterte administration , they are bound to comply with the inclusion of the Philippines in  President Xi Jinping’s “going out” policy.
 
A good start is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative which President XI formally offered to all ASEAN member countries in his 2013 visit to Jakarta. The initiative forms part of China’s  “One Belt and One Road” strategy  that aims to create multiple economic corridors spanning more than 60 countries across the globe.
 
Wang is apparently keen on reaching out to the Philippines, seeing some parallels, considering that Wuxi has become a model city in the Jiangsu Province for its fast-growing small and medium enterprises.
 
The rise of China’s affluent class 
 
Before leaving for home, President Duterte actually led his key Cabinet members to a gathering of members of small and medium-sized enterprises from both countries, and visited the global headquarters of Bank of China where he witnessed the signing of bilateral agreements in trade and investment.
 
One senior Philippine official was quoted later in regional media as saying, “we wish that we could learn from your good experiences so we can become as  developed as China is right now.”
 
In Wang's view, the Philippines  continue to be a favorite  tourist detention for Chinese tourists despite irritants in the past, including the de facto travel ban imposed on travel to Manila following the 2010 killing of eight Hong Kong tourists in a botched hostage drama at the capital's main park.
 
He noted that Wuxi itself is a major tourism destination in China, generating 85 million local and foreign tourists annually, but their locals would still prefer to visit the Philippines as a top destination in the region.
 
In fact, he noted that Puerto Princesa has been included in their  list of sister cities.
 
Now, they are interested in expanding to other Philippine cities following Duterte’s visit, where both countries agreed to embrace a new era in their economic and trade relations.
 
Taking the cue from the China experience 
 
Political observers have always looked at Southeast Asia as important for China’s trade and security interest; hence, resolving its  disputes with  the Philippines and other ASEAN neighbors remains a continuing challenge for China’s foreign policy.
 
But If President Duterte’s “independent" foreign policy  -- which he reiterated in Beijing -- calls for the Philippines’ keeping some distance from the United States, it is a different case with China, and mostly for pragmatic reasons.
 
China, for one, is trying to keep up with the “West” not only in doing business, but also in offering new technologies that used to be dominated by the US and other developed western nations.
 
Cynics used to call China a poor copycat of what was modern to the West, but its experience of luring  US-led foreign investments has apparently proved to  be advantageous to China.
 
With Beijing’s policy to open up the socialist economy to foreign business interests, China has managed to create, through state-controlled investments, its own products and technology that used to be profitable for other developed countries.
 
The new entrepreneurs are no longer just concerned with productivity. They are  now conscious of their brand.
 
For instance, the Hodo Group’s garments factory in Wuxi City is one of the main producers of Swedish-owned H&M jackets. Management prefers that the company be known for it own national brand in the local market, and not for  an outsourcing company. Hodo, for one, is 9th among the top 500 China brands.
 
H&M jackets being manufactured by China’s Hodo Group
 
Despite the success of Hodo, penetrating the international market is a major challenge to Chinese entrepreneurs.
 
Take the case of Phoenix Arts Group, which was slapped with an anti-dumping case  when it was manufacturing high quality, but affordable art materials   for the US market after being set up in 1995 . 
 
With that setback, it shifted its new production bases of painting materials  in Vietnam and Cambodia. Today, the company has become a global brand and has expanded with nine subsidiaries.
 
William Chen, the Phoenix board chairman, said they never doubted that they would succeed despite the initial setback. “Because Art is universal, isn’t it?” he said.
 
Meanwhile, it is apparently truly pragmatism that first and foremost dictates how nations relate to each other despite their rhetoric. Ironically, while Duterte continues to hit hard against US interests, Beijing -– its newfound partner -- has called for “pragmatic efforts” for a high-level China-US bilateral investment treaty as soon as possible.
 
As Duterte was meeting President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China’s premier Li  Keqlang  was telling former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that amid a sluggish world economy  and with rising  trade protectionism, strengthening of cooperation  between the two countries sends a positive signal that promotes investment and trade liberalization.
 
Paulson chairs the Paulson Institute, a think-tank aimed at strengthening US-China relations.
 
The regional media later quoted  Premier Li as saying he hoped that both countries would continue to exert efforts to promote positive outcomes  in their negotiations and that they would quickly reach an agreement on a high-level investment treaty.
 
Chen Fengying, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, later interpreted the meeting as a “clear message that the US should uphold trade liberalization and investment facilitation no matter who is elected the new president.”
 
Ambassador Yang Xiuping, the secretary-general of the  Asean-China Centre,  noted that while China is already second to the United States as an economic power, it still considers itself “developing among the developed countries.”
 
“We do not take the leadership. China is not rich enough. We still need to cooperate with each other (and) we need to learn from each other. That is China’s foreign policy,” she said.
 
No‘free ride’
 
Now, with China as a major partner, the Philippines is seen to echo the early supporters of  the “One Belt-One Road” policy.
 
According to Xu Bu, China’s ambassador to the ASEAN,  the Belt and Road initiative  and the Asian Infrastructure  Investment Bank (AIIB) will inject  new impetus into China-ASEAN ‘practical cooperation.
 
Being one of the AIIB’s founding members, the Philippines like all other ASEAN members could get long-term and low-cost financial  services for their connectivity projects through the AIIB  financing mechanism, he said.
 
The AIIB, on the other hand, will invest in other infrastructure projects  under the Belt and Road Initiative, such as building industrial parks.
 
 “In this way, the AIIB will be able to set up industrial chains  and secure economic belt  of collaboration and common interest,” Ambassador Wu wrote in the China Report ASEAN.
 
For Vithit Powattanasuk,  the ASEAN-China Centre’s information director, Chinese leaders clearly know the benefits of their initiative to expand their influence to other countries.
 
“They try to do what the other capitalist cities do. If they want to be entrenched in the market, they have to be very competitive. So they try to do it like a market- oriented economy,” he said.
Western-style communities along the New Silk Road
 
That partly explains why western style communities – and a bit of their culture -- are being developed along China’s gateways to the new silk road.
 
Meanwhile, Wuxi Deputy Mayor Wang was candid in saying that there is really “no free ride” for countries like the Philippines that will join China in its economic initiative.
 
China, he said, has always believed in “shared development” with friendly neighbors.
 
And obviously, the bottomline of China’s mantra of a  ‘win-win ‘ strategy is  still  profit in a strong business partnership.

 

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