China's Growing Reach Spans Continents

Once insular and poverty-stricken, China has flexed its military and economic might to become a global powerhouse. The country's influence now reaches far beyond Asia. NPR's Rob Gifford describes how China, and its place in the world, has been transformed over the past decade.

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LYNN NEARY, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. China's economic transformation is a remarkable story. Over the last 30 years, the Chinese economy has grown at a rate never seen before. Some 400 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. That's more than the entire population of South America.

Now the world's second-largest economic power, China is also poised to become a global superpower. Over the last month, in the series "China Beyond Borders," NPR has examined the way China is increasing its economic, diplomatic and military profile internationally. We'll be discussing the changes in China, and what it means for the rest of the world.

If you do business with China, what changes have you seen over the years, and what changes does China still need to make? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Or send an email to talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, New York's gay marriage law is on "The Opinion Page." Bruce Steele argues it's still not enough. But first, NPR correspondent Rob Gifford joins us from Shanghai. And I know it's very late there, Rob, so thanks so much for making the time to do this.

ROB GIFFORD: No problem, good to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: So you first arrived in China a long time ago - in 1987 - to study the Chinese language, as I understand it. And I wonder if there's any way you can give us, you know, a sort of concrete sense of how that country has changed from then until now - because I know it's been almost indescribable, the change that's occurred there.

GIFFORD: Absolutely. Well, when I arrived here as a young undergraduate to study Mandarin, September 1987, it was - I mean, really, China was still just emerging from the wreckage of Maoism. Chairman Mao had, with his crazy economic policies and then his crazy political policies, had really destroyed China. And they were just getting their first taste of capitalism, the economic reform.

I remember in our students' dorm, though, there were lots of things that you couldn't buy. For instance, you couldn't buy milk. Can you believe that? I couldn't - and I love a nice, tall glass of milk every day. And I used to go hunting for milk. And they said, haven't you got any ration coupons - or whatever they were - the vouchers that you needed? And I didn't have them, of course, because I was a foreigner. So I couldn't get milk. So I had to go and scrounge milk off the chefs in our cafeteria.

So really basic stuff like that. Now, you can buy anything. Economically, you know, anything you can buy in the United States, you can pretty much buy it here. The speed of change has been extraordinary. That's the economic side of it.

Of course, the similarities, though, are that politically, you can't say anything against the government. And in fact, some people, amazingly - here's an amazing thing - a lot of people looking at China now say, actually, politically perhaps there was more freedom in 1987 because it was before Tiananmen Square, in '89. And a lot of the intellectuals and even the leaders were saying, you know, which way should we go?

There was really open debate and now, frankly, there is no open debate politically - though who knows? Maybe that is coming down the pike sometime soon.

NEARY: Interesting because, you know, as China is solidifying its economic status, as we've said, of course, it's also transitioning from an economic power to a diplomatic, business and military power internationally. In what ways do we see that?

GIFFORD: Well, I think we see it in all the ways - as you said in your introduction - that this series this month has been trying to show, especially in terms of China getting out there to try to get hold of more resources. You look at what's happening in a country like Australia, where the whole - it's probably, of all the developed world, the country - one of the countries least touched by the economic recession of the last three years.

Why? One word: China. China is buying all the iron ore and the copper and the manganese from the western Australian desert. China is into Central Asia, as we heard, in Kazakhstan. It's into Africa and South America. So I think this is really where China is starting to interact with the world. And this is where we're starting, of course, to see some tensions because many people say, and I think with some justification, China is bringing good things.

It's building roads. It's building railroads. It's bringing investment and jobs. But on the flipside - of course, there is always a flipside - there are bigger issues to do with management, to do with employment, to do with some of the work practices in these Chinese companies that are going abroad.

So I think that's really the front line, where China's influence is being felt on the ground - although of course, we see it in the diplomatic sphere as well, at the United Nations; all sorts of issues; dealing with Africa, dealing, for instance, with Darfur; dealing with the South China Sea. Its weight is being felt.

NEARY: Now, are there any precedents in Chinese history for this kind of expansion?

GIFFORD: Well, that's the fascinating thing about this - is, of course, that this is a re-emergence of Chinese power. China, for many centuries, was the world's largest economy. And indeed, it was only in the 18th century and into the 19th century that China fell behind - perhaps through complacency, perhaps through all sorts of things. The West entered into its industrial revolution and suddenly arrived on China's door, and the West was developing faster.

So this is a re-emergence, and we have never really - the difference, though, is that in those days, when China was the biggest economy, it had everything it needed. So it was a sort of world unto itself. The big difference now is that China does not have everything it needs. China needs that iron ore. It needs that copper. It needs the timber and the oil from all around the world.

So this is - obviously, it's a very different international situation now to what it was in the 18th or 14th or 12th centuries. But also, the need for these resources is a key thing that is different from all those periods when China was the world's biggest economic power.

NEARY: Well, one of the pieces that I found very interesting in this series was the one that dealt with the history and the fact that the Chinese don't really - or historically, the Chinese have not seen themselves as aggressors, necessarily. And even now, the Chinese government tries to say that its military is purely defensive.

I mean, how should we look at that historically, and where do we look at that, where China is right now in terms of its relationship to the rest of the world militarily?

GIFFORD: Well, it's very complex. I think that you always hear this here in China. Of course, they say: We build walls to keep other people out. And the narrative that the government teaches is that China is a peaceful nation. And to be fair to China, there is lots of historical proof to show that they - in terms of any kind of maritime colonialism, they have not been nearly as guilty of it as Europe was, as the European explorers and then the adventurers and the economic imperialism and colonialism.

There was a famous admiral who went out - he was in my piece, in the first piece of the series, earlier this month - called Zheng He, who went to Africa 90 years before Columbus. And he basically just had a look around, traded a bit, and took a few giraffes back to China.

And the Chinese always quote this guy as proof that they are not expansionist. The difference - the difficulty is, the problem is, of course, on the Chinese continent - on the continent of Asia, China, at least Chinese dynasties, Chinese dynasties have been expansionist - most recently, the Qing Dynasty moving into Tibet and Shenzhen.

There's all sorts of complexities there. That dynasty was not a Han Chinese dynasty. It was ruled by Manchus, Manchurians. So there's a lot of historical debate, as you can imagine. But the Chinese here very, very adamantly say: We are just building our military up to the level that a nation like ours should have. And you have 11 aircraft carriers, the United States of America. We do not yet have one. We nearly have one.

And really, they are very touchy, very sensitive about any suggestions from Western powers that China is going to be expansionist. But of course, it remains to be seen. Let's face it, from history, rising powers, rising industrial powers don't have a particularly good record, do they?

NEARY: Well, I'd like to play a piece of tape now from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm sorry, we don't - that tape is not available. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was on TALK OF THE NATION earlier this month, and I'll just paraphrase what he said.

He said, you know, if we look at the relationship between China and the U.S., historically, one would have to say that some conflict is inevitable. And when one looks at the consequences of such a conflict, one has to draw the conclusion that an attempt at a collaborative solution is imperative.

What is your reaction to that idea, that one has to work collaboratively with China because conflict may be inevitable?

GIFFORD: Yes, well, I mean, if you're looking at it from just a world peace point of view, you would have to agree with that. China - again, as a quote I put in one of my earlier pieces, China doesn't even have to be bad in any way to destabilize the world order. It - just the fact that a country of this size is rising is very, very destabilizing.

So what's the West going to do? I think there is a danger of self-fulfilling prophecy, of antagonism towards China. Undoubtedly, undoubtedly, rising industrial powers, as I say, can be very dangerous. So I don't think there's any question that people feel a robust engagement with China is very important.

But I think if you're looking at it for the maximum benefit of the maximum number of people in the United States and in China and in the region, and all the people who depend on the economic growth that China brings, of course any kind of military conflict is going to be very problematic for very many people - and not ideal at all.

NEARY: We're talking about the long reach of China, and what its economic and military rise may mean for the rest of the world. We'll talk more with NPR's Rob Gifford in a moment. If you do business with China, what changes have you seen over the years - 800-989-8255. Or send an email to talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We are talking with NPR correspondent Rob Gifford about China's growing reach around the world. His pieces kicked off the recent series "China Beyond Borders." He'll wrap up that series in coming days. And you can find a link to all of those stories at npr.org.

We're talking to Rob because of that series, but also because it's our last chance before he leaves NPR. Rob first came to China as a language student in 1987. He returned in 1999 for a six-year stint as NPR's Beijing correspondent, and returned last year to report from Shanghai.

In another 10 days or so, Rob Gifford will become the newest correspondent for The Economist, and we'll talk more about that in a few moments. But first, if you do business with China, what changes have you seen over the years, and what changes does China still need to make?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Or you can send an email to talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're going to take a call now from J.R., who is calling from Cleveland, Ohio. Hello, J.R.

J.R.: Hello, there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

J.R.: Yes, I'd like to make a comment. We're a rubber company. I don't want to go into the particulars of it, but we started exporting rubber into China in 2004 or so. Since then, our domestic sales in 2004 were about - I want to say 10 percent exports, and about 90 percent domestic.

And now in 2011, it's 90 percent export to China, and 10 percent domestic. I mean, Chinese are buying so aggressively we can't believe it. And as far as kind of changes I'd like to see in China - are, you know, when we ship these containers to China, you know, very often they're stolen, the goods are stolen. So that's the only comment that I'd like to make, actually.

NEARY: Well, can you explain that a little bit more? What do you mean? What happens, exactly?

J.R.: Well, you know, there's you know, at the ports, there's - you know, officials that are corrupt. They'll let go of the containers to somebody else. They'll, you know, forge the papers, the - what's it called - bill of lading. They'll forge it, and if it gets into the hands of the wrong person, you know, very often there's the danger of theft of goods once it gets to China.

And you know, from customers, they tell us that it's the corrupt officials that are paid and, you know, goes to containers ahead of somebody else.

NEARY: Huh. Well, thank you so much for that call, J.R. I'm going to ask Rob Gifford to respond - actually, to both points, if you can, Rob, the idea...

GIFFORD: Sure. Yeah, I mean, the first point is crucial. You know, the caller is saying that now, 90 percent of his business is export to China. I think that's very typical. And I think - you know, again, it's a difficult balance to make. The fact that many American jobs have come to China, it's an undeniable fact. And factories have closed in America because of it.

Now what we're seeing, though, is consumption is up in China, and consumption of American goods is up in China. And so there is the hope, of course, that that is going to help drive the American economy a little more.

In terms of the second point, corruption is a problem here, no doubt about it. It's one of the biggest problems here, and the government knows it. What can you do in a one-party state? It's going to be one of the biggest problems. I mean, there's corruption, of course, all over, in places where it's not a one-party state. It's a problem in the developing world.

But in China, when you don't allow checks and balances, where you don't have any kind of oversight, independent oversight of officials, you know, it's relatively easy for them to skim things off, take containers, whatever it is that this gentleman has had problems with.

And the thing is, at the moment, the economy is booming so much that so many people are benefitting that they can get away with it. It's only when the economy stalls - people will put up with a lot of corruption, as long as their life is getting a little bit better here in China.

It's only when the economy stalls, and there are real problems, and people are losing money - for instance, like in Indonesia in the late 1990s, people put up with President Suharto for a long time. As soon as they were being hit by the corruption, by the economic downturn, they were no longer to put up - able to put up with him, and he was overthrown. So corruption could be a key thing here in China.

NEARY: You know, one of the pieces that you did, Rob, talked about the fact that there are no well-known Chinese brands. Despite its dominance, its economic dominance, we really don't know any Chinese brands. But in that piece, you also pointed out that it goes beyond brand names to - there's a lot of different problems that have to be dealt with.

As China becomes more powerful economically, it has to deal with some of the things - like corruption; like the laws governing, for instance, intellectual property; things like that.

GIFFORD: Absolutely, absolutely, and basic rule of law as well. I think - certainly living here, coming back and forth for the last 25 years, you know - there's no doubt it's very, very impressive what the Chinese have done economically. And we have to give them credit for that. It is amazing what they have done here economically.

But I just think that the next 25 years, the next 30 years, I think are going to have to be different. They can't just go on with 10, 11 percent growth. They're going to have to address some of these more fundamental structural issues - like rule of law, like protection of intellectual property rights, like education as an issue, the system of education, very much based on memorization.

How are you going to get innovation if you don't allow your students to think? These are bigger, deeper, in some ways more esoteric questions. But China within the next decade, I think, is going to have to address these issues if it's going to become the country that it wants to become.

NEARY: So it has to do more work internally before it really can take its place as a major superpower, you're saying, even though it has this economic powerhouse.

GIFFORD: I think so, and in fact my final piece, which is going out later this week on MORNING EDITION, is basically looking into that issue. I mean, people talk about the threat of China, and of course it does have a very, very rapidly growing military. Its commercial interests are expanding out across the world.

But I think over the next couple of decades, it's going to be what happens domestically that is going to be key. Because it's got so many problems at home that people abroad don't see, I think there's this sort of feeling of the inexorable rise of China, that it is definitely going to happen.

Well, when you live here and you talk to - especially Chinese people, and also foreigners who live here, there are so many problems here that are not seen in that image of the rising China that is going to take over the world. But I think it's in these issues domestically that China's future will actually be decided.

NEARY: Let's take a call from Joe(ph), who's calling from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hi, Joe.

JOE: Hi. Say, you know, I was wondering, in view of China's expanding footprint, Rob, do you detect the development of any kind of environmental conscience?

GIFFORD: Great question, and it's going to be crucial - very, very crucial. After all, it's our air - it's our air as well that they're polluting. There is something of an environmental movement growing here. NGOs and things are a little bit difficult because, of course, the government likes to control everything. But we are starting to see something of an environmental conscience.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the government itself has developed an environmental conscience. It realizes that it cannot go on like this. And so we're now seeing the government pouring money into green high-tech investment: producing solar panels, working in ways to develop much greener power sources.

And again, when they put their minds to it, they don't have the problems of Capitol Hill. They don't have the big lobby - lobbying companies. They don't have big oil or any of the big interest groups that can prevent some of these policies going through. They can push them through much more easily when they decide on it.

Having said that, though, there is an environmental meltdown going on in China now, and it is the industrial revolution. It's - kind of think of Pittsburgh in about 1900. That's what it is across China, at the moment. And it's a real it's a real problem, and they're doing something. Again, to their credit, they really are doing something, but they need to do a whole lot more. And it's an area, really, where the West should probably get hold of this idea of cooperating with China. As I say, of course, it's our air that they're polluting as well.

NEARY: All right, thanks for your call, Joe. We're going to go to Amir(ph), who's calling from Tehran. Hello, Amir.

AMIR: Hi, Lynn. My question for Rob comes from the arena of language learning and culture dissemination.

NEARY: Go ahead.

AMIR: OK. So over the past few centuries, many world powers have tried to disseminate their language and culture. So I'm just wondering what the Chinese government has done to disseminate its language, given the difficulties involved in learning Mandarin. And what is the viewpoint, or the take, of the Chinese people on a language like English, which is the lingua franca now?

GIFFORD: Yeah. Good question. I'm not sure I have ever taken a call from Tehran before.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GIFFORD: I wish I could answer you in Farsi, but I - on the Chinese front, I'm - I think it's a very interesting question because the Chinese have opened these organizations called Confucius Institutes, often within the embassies or consulates around the world. I bet there's one in Tehran. And part of the agenda of the Confucius Institute is to push the learning of Chinese language. They have seen - and not unrelated to our previous questions - they have seen their development, especially their military growth, is scaring people.

So they've also seen this idea of soft power emerging, the idea that you influence other countries through your soft power - through your culture, through your language, through your movies. And they are trying very hard to do that, and to get out there. And they have a sponsorship scheme where they help teachers from around China to go out to countries around the globe and teach Chinese in a very, they say, peaceful way with - we have no other agenda here. And I think, you know, many - I've spoken to people who have benefited from this program in Europe and in North America, and it's all across Southeast Asia as well.

And it's part of China trying to show in a peaceful way, in a soft power way, that it has an ancient culture, that it wants to engage culturally with the world. Of course, the critics - some critics say, oh, look, we're worried about this. What are they trying to do? They're trying to make Chinese the lingua franca of the world. The Chinese, again, are very defensive about this. They say: We're not into trying to do that at all and compete with English. But I'm sure we're going to see more of that. And I'm sure even in schools in Tehran, especially in schools across North America and in Europe, we're now seeing many, many more people, kids, especially in high school, even in elementary school, now start...

AMIR: At least, the alphabet doesn't allow them to do that.

NEARY: I think we've just - may have just lost our connection to Rob, unfortunately. We can take a few more calls, but we'll hope that Rob comes back on the line. If someone - if you'd like to call and contribute to our program on China, we've been asking those of you who have done business with China to give us a call, tell us what your experience is. Has it been good? Has it been bad? What kinds of things do you think need to change in order for China to really move from being an economic power to actually being a world superpower?

And if you've had experience with that, working with them as a business, we'd like to hear from you. So give us a call at 800-989-8255. And we're going to go to John in San Jose, California. Hi, John. Can you hear?

JOHN: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Hi, John. Go ahead. We're hoping that Rob will get the line back, but we'd like to hear your story in the meantime. Go ahead.

JOHN: OK. I'll keep it short if you're going to ask me to. I was in China about two years or a little better, and I was in Hunan Province, in the city of Xiangyin. It used to be headquarters for the nationals(ph) and also for the Flying Tigers. I tried to set up a small training facility for the employees of the various international courting hotels utilizing students from Hunan University, their graduate students, to help them perfect their English skills. The gentleman who calls himself the director of foreign affairs for Xiangyin came to my condominium. And I'd met him before, several times.

He brought along two young women with him and said oh, about your new business; these are going to be your partners. And one woman didn't speak English at all. The other was certainly not proficient. My idea, it wasn't my business. It was in order to get a little extra R&D for the kids to pay their way through the rest of their graduate studies. Because of that...

NEARY: Let me...

JOHN: ...because of that, I dropped it and...

NEARY: It's too hard to do business with China. Are you saying it was just too hard to do business with China?

JOHN: No. He wanted to have his young ladies take over the business and make money on it, and I didn't see it as a moneymaker. I saw it as a service to China, and to the graduate students at Hunan University.

NEARY: Right. Well, thanks so much for your call, John. I think we've got Rob Gifford back on the line. I don't know if you heard any of what John...

GIFFORD: Hi, Lynn. Yes. Sorry, I got cut off briefly.

NEARY: Right.

GIFFORD: I did hear some of that. And again, you know, it - you - we've heard a lot of these concerns and these complaints, and they're very real. There's a million problems in China. There's a million problems. And you talk to investors here, foreigners trying to do business here, they're banging their heads against the wall the whole time. They are also making a lot of money, though. China is a very, very imperfect place to do business, but it is a very profitable place to do business. So I think a lot of people here hold their nose, jump right in, and are making a lot of money. So I think we're going to see more of that.

It is still the gold rush here, and I think it will slow down a little bit in the coming years. The problems will continue to be there. The problems are here for anyone who tries to come and do business here. But there's no doubt China - the train is still rolling. I just think in the next few years, it's going to start to slow down and there are going to start to be some more bigger-picture, structural issues that need to be addressed here in China.

NEARY: I just want to remind our audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Rob, we just have about a minute left, but I wonder if you could just reflect on a - is there one story in particular that might stand out to you as you look back on your many years of stories that you reported for NPR?

GIFFORD: Well, first, I'd love to say what a great ride it's been - actually, nearly 12 years of reporting for NPR. And I'm very sad, in many ways, to be leaving though I'm very excited about my new job, as China editor of The Economist. I think the road trip, basically hitchhiking across China, you know, what - how amazing that NPR editors would let me do that and put that on the air, and how amazing - what an amazing country to witness that kind of transformation close up, 200 million people on the move, speaking to them day in, day out on the buses and with the truck drivers. It's a country on the move, and it's going to be for a long time to come. I've enjoyed the ride myself.

NEARY: NPR's Rob Gifford in Shanghai. Good luck to you, Rob. We've loved your stories over the years.

GIFFORD: Thank you so much, Lynn, and thank you, NPR.

NEARY: Coming up, "The Opinion Page." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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