Postcard from China: Reflections from a visit to Guangdong province (Part 1)

After returning from my first ever trip to China, I felt a ‘postcard’ was in order to summarise this wonderful experience. It was a huge honour to be asked to represent our Party along with fellow Chinese Lib Dems Merlene Emmerson, Alex Payton and Steven Cheung on this visit by official invitation of the Chinese Government in the Guandong province in Southern China. The trip was organised by the British Chinese Project, a not for profit organisation that works to increase awareness and greater engagement in politics by the British Chinese population. Our sixteen strong delegation included representatives from all three main parties and staff from the British Chinese Project.

As the first province in China to ‘open up’ Guangdong is of strategic importance economically to China. Being on the coast and bordering Hong Kong has allowed trade, investment and growth to boom at an impressive rate over the last few years. The purpose of our visit was to find out more about the Government and economy in this part of China and learn how Guangdong and the UK can better work together for mutual benefit. Our busy week comprised of meetings with Government which included a very important meeting with members of the Guangdong Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), best described as the political advisory body which forms part of the Government. We also met Government advisors, economic experts and visited successful businesses.

Industries are very much on the move in Guangdong and businesses and the Government are very keen not to be recognised just for their manufacturing power which has traditionally been the case. It was important for our hosts to ensure we were shown through business visits that Guangdong is on the cutting edge of development in the technology and increasingly knowledge industries. What was particularly interesting from our discussions was that Guangdong is keen to promote itself in its own right as a key place for Britain to do trade and business with. Indeed as a Westcountry girl I was pleased that one of the things discussed was the twinning of the province capital Guangzhou with Bristol and how the two cities could tie up in the future for trade and investment.

One of the reasons the Guangdong Overseas Office was particularly keen to have our delegation visit is because Government and Business see the overseas Chinese as extremely important in achieving some of their key aims, namely projecting Chinese culture abroad, bringing back skills to the country and perhaps most importantly providing the local knowledge abroad for Chinese investment and business ventures. Increasing representation of Chinese in Government in Britain is very important to the BC Project and all the delegates from the three main parties. From our discussions it was very clear that this is something equally important to business and Government in China. Indeed I was overwhelmed at the well-wishing we got from every meeting for future UK elections.

I have returned feeling there is lots to be positive about in China, something I wasn’t sure I would feel at all. One thing that was clearly projected from our hosts in many of our meetings was that the Chinese way of Government works best for them, their history and their situation. It seems to me China does not care whether it is perceived as ‘good’ or bad’, but it does care it is seen as strong and as a nation that should be respected. As a social media lover, the simple inability to be able to get onto my Twitter and Facebook account for the whole week brought home the reality of state control the people still have to endure. Free speech as we know it is certainly, by our standards still a very long way off. However, China is undoubtedly changing because the state is increasingly opening up more and more to the rest of the world. Reform of the enterprise approval system is happening, meaning companies wishing to do business abroad can be sanctioned to do this much quicker; they are certainly chomping at the bit to do this. As China increasingly goes global, coupled with a very switched on youth, many of whom are able to hack through the Government blocks on social media and banned websites, I believe the Government will be able to control free speech less and less.

China is a nation on the move and the next decade will be fascinating. At present it looks unstoppable economically. For the West, fostering good relations has never been more significant politically, economically, socially and culturally for peace and prosperity. For Britain there is a huge opportunity for Chinese investment here and increasing understanding of China will boost this more and more. The overseas Chinese in Britain as the third largest ethnic group and have a key role to play. It has certainly therefore never been more important to have increased Chinese representation in all levels of Government; this will be a real positive for the Chinese in Britain and for British – Chinese relations and prosperity as a whole.

* Sarah Yong is a Somerset campaigner and a Vice Chair for Chinese Liberal Democrats.

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  • Sarah, it is great to hear your trip went well – and despite my comments on China sometimes seeming rather cynical, overall, I am actually positive about China.

    This is for three reasons:

    – The mobility of the young of China has opened them to experiences of the outside world, which has really changed their world-views ( 大開眼界). This means many of them return to China with a sense of wanting reform there. Many are negative about their country when they leave (due to an overly nationalistic curriculum), but upon their return, do want to actively believe it can be better.

    – Political reform is something that China is aware of and in some quarters is actively seeking. (Your comments about the Chinese system and how it works for them, I will come on to later.)

    – Political dissent does exist, whether it be in the form of simply not listening during ‘spurious’ political lessons or actively protesting in the streets, people in China are aware of their rights (or lack of them in many cases) and demanding a response from their Government.

    My reversions are, however, that:

    – The Government’s overall focus is tracked on business and maintaining their economic growth, regardless of the human cost, environmental damages and the entrenchment of social/economic inequality.

    – Whilst the Law and system did need reforming in relation to how China worked without external businesses (for the self-preservation of China, if nothing else), I am sceptical of whether the schemes offered are a step in the right direction or merely a change in a direction. China has always been warying of allowing businesses (specifically ‘foreign businesses’) to gain too much of a foothold in society due to the negative impact this can have on their own sovereignty. As belligerent as it may have appeared to foreign investment, it kept businesses in check; things, such as The Enterprise approval system, leave them far more susceptible to the negative influences of private businesses (especially large ones) at the sake of a quick buck. Furthermore, these schemes will far more favour big businesses who already have a presence in China, whilst not providing enough to the small and medium sized businesses that wish to expand into the Chinese market.

    – The idea that ‘the Chinese way of Government works best for them, their history and their situation.’ Now, this needs dealing with in sub-points, so I will just number those:

    1=I am generally someone who all about fostering a more global and international mindset in the world. This particular ideology fosters a sense of what is best for China, not what is best for China and the world at large. This leads to Chinese Foreign policy becoming extremely questionable. Now, I know that rebuttal exists in the form:
    a – this is not what means
    b – every country does this
    =However, there is a problem with both these points
    a – it does not matter if that is not what originally meant, when put into practice, this is what it fosters
    b – the failings of other countries does morally vindicate something

    2=Going back to point a, I think this ideal comes from a siege mentality that Chinese culture sometimes breeds, whether it be embodied in the great wall of China or the great firewall of China. The Chinese culture often feels besieged and under threat from the outside world (a strange position for a culture, which success came from assimilating many different cultures under one banner). The political sphere of China is not free from this fear (whether it be fair or paranoia aside), which means that it feels the outside world is criticising and attacking its political process and The Chinese way of doing things. Now, in truth, the general experience of China is that most people in China would say their system is wholly unfit for purpose and vast reform is needed because far from being the best system for them, it is negatively holding them. However, this siege mentality creates (whatever culture it is present in) a default contrarian position in people that even if someone is saying something you agree with, you must refute it because it is an attack on you. An amusing antidote about this is when I was discussing the education system of China with a Chinese lady, who was kindly telling of the system’s problems and need for reform. When she finished, I agreed with said that I thought the reforms he sought were both admirable and necessary, to which she responded “How dare you criticise the Chinese way of doing things, you do not understand our education system and its strengths.” Now, again, I realise this is a problem which many – if not all – cultures can suffer from to some extent, but we are concentrating on China in this topic, so my focus will remain there. So, after my somewhat convoluted tangent , what is my point here? Well, simply this, when put into practice this default siege position is negative internationally. I stated why the was negative thing on an international level, but it is also negative on a cultural and social level for China, personally, because:
    a – this train of thought pandemic among an isolationist idealists, who twist it in order to actively repel and expel foreign influence, that is bad for business and culturally closed minded (both bad for reasons it would be trite to explain)
    b – the Chinese as whole are very good at portraying this outer image of ‘this is best for us’ whilst reversing their true feelings, which closes them off from the ideas, advice and assistance that outside world can offer.

    3=This is negative for reform. I am tired after such a convoluted post, so I will just summarise this point that, basically, as a liberal, my default position to try and look for how to improve the system and remain open to criticise in order to find find where improvements can be made. If you spend all your time defending the position, your default becomes one where you stop looking for the problems and start finding ways to make your defences more solid. You close yourself off from criticises that may help you find how to fix a problem.

    Now, in conclusion, as I said, I am actually becoming more positive about the future of China and its place in the world. I feel there is an awareness, both inside and out of China that reform is needed, but those from the outside realise is not about telling China what must be, but helping it find a system that works for China and the world, no matter how different to other systems that may be. However, of course, part of that process is about identifying what the issues/harms of the status quo are and where the need for reform is.

  • peter tyzack 17th Dec '13 - 10:46am

    I too made my first trip to China this year. Three weeks based at Chongqing, visiting Erhai and Dali, and many places around the Three Gorges. A wonderful country and lovely people. My learnings about the realities of modern China are much as Sarah describes, and a mile away from the expectations formed from my UK upbringing and media fed impressions.
    Interesting points from ‘Liberal Al’, but who are you?

  • It’s incredible that the LibDems have candidates, former ones, who can have such an overtly superficial understanding of China even in today’s super connected world.

    Not being able to use Twitter and Facebook is a mark of lack of basic freedoms? Really? They have their own versions of the main social media platforms. Their population on the whole especially the young do not trust their state sponsored news organisations unlike our own relationship with the BBC so one could easily argue the Chinese are freer thinkers than we are in the West.

    Guangzhou has been booming economically for 30 years not the past few.

    I am afraid you are woefully uninformed on China and your lack of Chinese heritage is abundantly clear.

    If you were just another tourist I wouldn’t bother to write but as a representative of your organisation it goes to show the long way still to go before real understanding is achieved of China and how a path can be built to move us in the a West towards a non clichéd and stereotyped view of each other to enable a truly respectful and equal partnership to be fostered.

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