A major gap in understanding

By Andrew Moody | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-05 09:20


David Gosset says modern China has an interesting dynamic in that it combines Europe's respect of the past with America's New World energy. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

West doesn't get the openness in China; Chinese say Westerners have negative perceptions: academic

David Gosset believes China's new leadership has already sent a signal the world is changing.

The 42-year-old Shanghai-based international relations expert says President Xi Jinping making one of his first overseas trips to Africa symbolized that the world had moved on since the last leadership transition 10 years ago.

"The trip was the perfect illustration of the fact that our world is increasingly multipolar and that South-South relations matter as much as North-North ones," he says.

Gosset, who is director of Academia Sinica Europea at CEIBS (China Europe International Business School), was speaking during a break between meetings in Beijing.

He points out that Xi visiting the BRICS summit in Durban (as well as Tanzania and the Republic of Congo) was a reflection of the shift taking place.

The BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China) had a combined GDP of only around 20 percent of that of the United States when Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao took office in 2003. Now the emerging nations have almost achieved parity.

"Within the BRICS, the top trade partner of Brazil is China, and that of South Africa as well as the rest of Africa is China. This is something that is absolutely new.

"To a certain extent this means the relative marginalization of the West. It does not mean the West is declining in absolute terms, just in relative terms," he says.

Few have done more to create an intellectual bridge between Europe and China. Since taking up an academic post at CEIBS in 1999, the Paris-born academic has set up the Academia Sinica Europea, which is aimed at creating an ideas exchange between China and Europe.

He is also the founder of the Euro-China Forum, which is held annually in a different European country.

Gosset, who speaks exuberantly in French-accented English, believes one of the big challenges of the new leadership is to alleviate concerns and anxieties in the West about the rise of China.

Fond of quoting the classics in his many articles in influential publications, the academic draws a parallel between the fears of the rise of Athens outlined in the Greek historian Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian conflict.

"The rise of China is here to stay and that is the major factor of change of this century. The fear this generates outside of China is genuine and therefore we need to contain this," he says.

He says it is therefore important for the Chinese to improve their so-called soft power skills and for those in influential positions to become better communicators.

"China has a great story to tell but the problem is that it doesn't tell it. You watch CNN and Bloomberg but you don't see many Chinese leaders or officials explaining the Chinese position on different world affairs," he says.

Gosset, who spent his early life in Paris, was not born into an academic family. His late father was a salesman and late mother an accountant but he was brought up in a home full of books.

"This love of books was passed down from my father who was actually a factory worker. Now every time I go to a bookstore I buy books. My wife is upset because we have books everywhere in the house," he says.

His parents also instilled in him a love of travel, taking backpacking holidays often a month at a time to places such as Turkey and Thailand.

"My father died at the age of 58 and right to the last moments he had this love and curiosity about the world," he says.

"I now love to go walking in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, where you have silence and see the stars in the clear sky."

Gosset studied philosophy and Russian at the Sorbonne in Paris before he went on to study Chinese in Taiwan in the mid-1990s.

At CEIBS, where he gives lectures in Chinese, he has established himself as one of the foremost foreign academics in China.

With the forum and in his role at the Academia Sinica Europea, he sees one of his major challenges as getting Westerners to have a better understanding of China.

"There is a major understanding gap. Europeans do not get the level of openness there is in China. They think the Communist Party of China is some sort of clone of that in the former USSR.

"They have no idea about the quality of the intellectual debates they have within the Party. To a certain extent it is the largest think tank in the world but this is completely lost on them. Many Westerners are also waiting for the collapse of China. That, however, will be like waiting for Godot."

Gosset says there are also misconceptions in China about what Europeans and others think about the Chinese.

"I think the Chinese do not realize that many in the West welcome the Chinese renaissance and that they want China to be a success. I think there is a tendency for them to believe Westerners have negative perceptions of them when they don't."

The Frenchman says it is quite clear that China's new economic power saved the West from an even more calamitous fate after the financial crisis in 2008.

"Imagine what our world would be like without a growing China in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It would have been a disaster."

Europe is still very much stuck in the mire but Gosset believes closer integration is the only way forward for Europe rather than a breakup of the euro or even of the European Union.

"People were talking for many months about Greece leaving the euro. I said many times, however, it would not exit," he says.

He says the EU is important because it gives Europe strength in a world of major powers such as the United States and China.

"I appreciate there is growing nationalism in Europe and that we also have the latest crisis in Cyprus and the Italian tragi-comedy but you would not have that level of integration in Europe without crisis. We need to deepen that integration through crisis," he says.

One of Gosset's concerns about US foreign policy is that it seems to be taking up the mantle of the Christian missionaries of the 19th century but this time using the US constitution rather than the Bible to spread the word.

"The new Bible in the US is the US constitution, which has become a holy document. It is not about religion anymore but about concepts such as democracy and how you run countries," he says.

Gosset says China has a very different approach to foreign policy in that it doesn't want to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.

"China does not have this missionary spirit. That is the huge difference between the West and China. It does not want to lead the world," he says.

He believes modern China has an interesting dynamic in that it combines Europe's respect of the past with America's New World energy.

"I use the expression Janus-like. What strikes me is that China is simultaneously obsessed with the past and the future. Like electricity, it is the negative and the positive and that creates a very fruitful tension."

(China Daily 04/05/2013 page32)

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