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Chinese Weekly: China should value its ‘critical friends’

Dr Simon Learmount, Lecturer in Corporate Governance and Director of the MBA and Executive MBA Programmes, was recently interviewed by Chinese Weekly about the upcoming “Realising the Chinese Dream” Cambridge-Beijing forum. The following is a translation of the interview:

How did you come up with the idea to organise a forum which brings Chinese business leaders and British scholars together?

“When President Xi Xinping talked about the need for Chinese people to ‘realise the Chinese dream’ in August 2013, I think he tapped into an important, and inspirational idea. But this idea needs to be elaborated – it is only just beginning to be unpacked. I think ‘the Chinese dream’ will, in due course, inspire Chinese people in a similar way that ‘the American dream’ has motivated countless Americans over the past century, and the many facets and interpretations of just what this dream means will emerge over time. This forum represents just one very small, tentative attempt to begin to elaborate ‘the Chinese dream’.

“My colleagues and I were struck by the bold, challenging statements that came out of the Third Plenum in November last year – in particular the call for the private sector to play a ‘decisive role’ in the allocation of resources. This seems to us to be an especially important step for China, as it indicates a willingness to embrace competition and unleash the spirit of enterprise right across the Chinese economy and society.

“Of course China has been ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ for many years. And the case of Shenzhen is a fantastic testament to this policy of gradual, experimental reform and liberalisation. But it seems that right now we are on the cusp of a truly significant step forward for the whole of China – the pieces of the jigsaw have been set out, but now China is set to embrace a path for significant, nationwide rejuvenation.”

What do you think of Chinese dreams? How do you define Chinese dreams?

“‘The Chinese dream’ is a wonderful concept, as it has the power to inspire whilst remaining sufficiently open to interpretation. For me, the phrase indicates above all the realisation of potential. In my view, Chinese people have many deep-rooted values – for example an appreciation of tradition and culture, family and social ties, and nature and the environment. Moreover I am often struck by the innate creative, aesthetic, enterprising sensitivity of the Chinese people I come across. Arguably these values and attributes have, for a variety of reasons, been stifled over recent years. But ‘the Chinese dream’ seems to be a clarion call for China to build a prosperous, creative, harmonious society built squarely on these kind of values and characteristics – in short to recast a Chinese ethos, which would stand comparison with, and contrast to, the notion of ‘the American dream’. The American dream is also to do with prosperity and success, but it is a more individualistic, atomised version of success and prosperity. It is a prosperity and success achieved through individual endeavour, freedom to make individual choices and to reap individual benefit. The Chinese dream, for me, feels more inclusive and relevant given the Chinese context.

“This difference is perhaps best captured in a phrase that I first heard when I came to China in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. When I asked young entrepreneurs what motivated them, they would often reply ‘I want to be rich, and I want my country to be rich’. In the US, if you asked the same question, you would never hear the final part of that sentence. In China, the dream is about more than the sum of individual parts.

“But, the journey ahead is not straightforward, and my feeling is that China needs, and appreciates ‘critical friends’- people who are willing to debate, suggest, disagree and share experiences as the river deepens and widens. This forum hopefully will go some way towards promoting dialogue and helping everyone understand better what the Chinese dream is, how it can be achieved, and what the impact will be in the global context.”

How can UK academia come to understand China and Chinese dreams?

“I think it goes without saying that China has emerged, over the past two decades, as an economic superpower on the global stage, and so many institutions and scholars across the world are increasingly paying attention to the Chinese economy. Just look at the amount of coverage on China in the media, especially the financial and economic media. But in my view this is insufficient – to truly understand China’s role in the world we need to look beyond just its economic impact, and understand the more subtle social, environmental, cultural and political influences. The UK, perhaps more than any other country, has a history of long history of broad scholarship, and is arguably less informed by particular ideologies than some other developed nations. Institutions like the University of Cambridge, where interdisciplinarity is a key value and organising principle, are incredibly important for the understanding of China in this broad context.”

Do you believe the Shenzhen model should be the new path to Chinese economic development?

“One way of looking at Shenzhen is as an (enormously successful) laboratory. There have been some difficulties along the way, but on balance it has been a great success story and there is a huge amount to learn from its story. It is not simply a question of copying the Shenzhen model, but learning and adapting from its success is critical.”

Read the full article (in Chinese) []