China Focus: The year 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). From your own experience, what is the biggest change in China over the past 70 years? How has the world benefitted from China’s development?
Martin Jacques: I think the most remarkable change is the transformation in living conditions and the size of the Chinese economy, which is truly remarkable and the most extraordinary change in human history in such a short space of time. China is about a fifth of the world’s population. Then if China is very poor, obviously it will contribute very little to the global economy, and therefore the possibilities for other peoples around the world.
But if China grows, just continues to advance its place in the global economy, then its importance to the rest of the world economically is transformed. Ever since 2008, China has been the biggest contributor to global economic growth. If China’s growth slows down or China’s growth increases, it has a direct effect on many economies around the world.
China Focus: How do you view China’s participation in global governance?
Martin Jacques: For a long time, China was outside the global system. But after 1978, in the reform period and especially in 2001 when China joined the WTO, China became a participant in the process, though relatively passive. But it was still finding its way, concentrating on domestic development.
I think the turning point was around the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, when China made a really important contribution to ensuring there wasn’t a global depression by staging its enormous stimulus program, which actually saved the global economy from something much, much worse.
From that moment on, I think China became increasingly more interested in the possibility of participating in the policies for the global economy. Ever since then, with the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has become a really serious player in these areas.
And as you know, it used to be criticized by the Americans for not contributing public goods to the world. Well, now China is clearly contributing public goods at a large scale, because the Belt and Road Initiative is by far the biggest scheme in the world in terms of helping, in particular, development.
China Focus: Italy became the first G7 country and the latest EU member to join the Initiative. What is the attitude of other EU countries towards it? How do you think the U.K. views the Belt and Road Initiative?
Martin Jacques: Well, I would say that Europe’s reaction in general to the Belt and Road Initiative has varied. What you have seen is eastern and central Europe who have been pretty enthusiastic and so you’ve got 16 plus one. Europe has steadily become more enthusiastic and three countries in particular are involved — Greece, Portugal, and now Italy. Western Europe, in particular the highlands like Germany, France, and Britain in terms of economic power, they’re the biggest. They all are being a bit “iffy” about the Belt and Road Initiative, and somewhat reluctant to get involved and endorse it. At the same time, they do not oppose it.
Britain in some ways has been perhaps the most supportive, but I think politically, we have to wait and see whether the present government, the Johnson government, is a supporter or not.
China Focus: The street violence has been lasting for months in China’s Hong Kong. What do you think about what is happening in the city?
Martin Jacques: I view it as very disappointing and depressing. Clearly, things are not going well in Hong Kong. And it’s 22 years since the handover [from Britain to China]. That’s a long time.
The reasons that made this issue very complicated is the 156 years of British colonialism. So Hong Kong is Chinese in some senses, but in other senses is really Western, with Western norms and values. And that’s a big challenge.
I think the extradition bill worried a lot of people in Hong Kong. That’s why you got issues. The proposal led to the huge demonstration. But of course, in the back of this demonstration, you’ve got all these violent gangs engaging in behavior that no modern society can tolerate.
At the same time, I think that it’s also revealed some big challenges for the Hong Kong SAR government and the Chinese central government in terms of a reform program for Hong Kong, because it’s clear that the society in some ways is stuck, then how to move it on? I think there are a number of questions here.
China Focus: What advice would you like to give to help Hong Kong end the chaos?
Martin Jacques: One, it needs a serious social economic reform program to break the power of the tycoons who still dominate the economy.
Secondly, Hong Kong is a fantastically unequal society. It is one of the most unequal societies in the world. A lot of young people don’t think they have the opportunities and don’t think they’ll ever be able to own property in Hong Kong. So that question has got to be tackled. And Hong Kong has not had anything like the reform and opening-up program and it needs to have one. I think that can transform the way in which a lot of people in Hong Kong see the present situation. But by and large, it’s been stuck and it needs to renew the whole approach.
I think the whole approach needs to be re-thought with a new kind of strategic ambition for Hong Kong and can combine that integration with the (Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao) Greater Bay Area project. It is very important for Hong Kong. But it’ll need to be done in a very thoughtful way because that could also lead to resentment, it could go both ways.
The fourth point I’m making is the importance of dialogue. The behavior of these young people is absolutely unacceptable. And to do that, I think there’s got to be a serious dialogue. You can’t just say go away because they won’t. They’re still in society and this is undermining society. So you need some kind of dialogue.