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A Superpower And An Emerging Rival: A Look Ahead At China


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In an extraordinary step, President Obama and China's new leader, Xi Jinping, met at a California ranch last weekend to reset relations between the two largest economies in the world and between an established superpower and an emerging rival.

Relations between China and the U.S. have deteriorated in recent years. Washington's issues include hacking, human rights, North Korea and wide-ranging territorial claims. A more muscular China worries the U.S. seeks to contain its political and military ambitions.

Last month, Xi Jinping told President Obama's national security advisor that relations had reached a critical juncture, and a new type of great power relationship was needed. Today we consider a series of - continue a series of interviews and look ahead on China and the U.S. with Rob Gifford, China editor of The Economist magazine.

And if you do business in China, what concerns you about the future? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the science of swarms. But first former NPR correspondent Rob Gifford joins us from the BBC studios in Oxford, and Rob, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROB GIFFORD: It's good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And as it happens, the two-day Sunnylands summit, where hacking was a major issue, coincided with leaks on NSA surveillance. The leaker, Edward Snowden, showed up in semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Will Beijing see him as a gift?

GIFFORD: Well yes, in some ways they will. I think in some ways they won't. I mean, obviously it's quite something, I mean it's quite an extraordinary story for him to show up, in all places, the People's Republic of China, although of course Hong Kong is - still retains a lot of its freedoms from its time as a British colony.

And I think some of the sort of media and some of the microbloggers have been dining out on the story quite a bit, but there is another side to it in that China has just had this successful summit that has been a very important moment in China-U.S. relations.

So it won't want to rock the boot too much, and indeed just today, after a three-day holiday in Beijing, the first actual official statement from China's foreign ministry was trying to really play down the incident. But yes, you can be sure that having just been lectured on cyber issues by the U.S. president that there is a certain amount of maybe smugness and schadenfreude in Beijing.

CONAN: Interesting, Hong Kong of course has an extradition treaty with the United States; China does not.

GIFFORD: Yes, well, it's - we're just going to have to see how this plays out. It is so fascinating that he did choose Hong Kong. Hong Kong still has a British legal system. You know, it's a very strange situation: one country, two systems. And, you know, there's been some erosion of that since 1997 when China took over sovereignty, but by and large, you know, the Hong Kong system still does work.

It still has its own currency. It still has its own completely different British-based legal system. So it is different, but it is still Chinese territory.

CONAN: You describe the Sunnylands summit as a success. What was the most important thing to be accomplished?

GIFFORD: Well, perhaps the most important thing to be accomplished was that it even took place, I would say. I think the fact that we have had the perhaps conceivably the two most powerful people in the world, certainly as you said the leaders of the two biggest economies in the world, the superpower, current superpower and the rising power, in a room together with very few other people for two consecutive days, what, seven or eight hours each day, is a big deal. It's a big issue.

And it's a very important moment, and I think the comparisons with the Nixon visit to China in 1972, you know, are not wide of the mark because here we have a moment where China really could pose real problems not just to the United States but to the whole global system that it's coming to dominate in many ways.

So - and here you have a relationship where the two leaders kind of see each other occasionally on the edge of, you know, G20 meetings or at the United Nations or a summit maybe once a year if they're lucky. That's just not enough, really, to manage such a complex relationship that has such potential for problems, real problems, for the relationship and for the world.

So the fact that they got in the room and really, literally rolled up their sleeves and said to each other very frank things I think is a real step forward and very encouraging certainly for ongoing stability in East Asia and across the Pacific.

CONAN: And that relationship, more than anything that was said in the aftermath of the meeting, that relationship should define how we see the success of this meeting?

GIFFORD: Well, there is - obviously there is a personal element to any of it, you know, and people, of course, look back at for instance Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev where clearly they hit it off. They were able to speak very frankly to each other. There is a personal chemistry that is very important. Can you pick up the phone and call this person when there is an emergency?

And that is very important. But there are so many other issues at play here, and in fact a lot of those issues are the things that they were talking about because, you know, China is not the monolith it once was. There are many, many other vested interested in China. There are many other interests, of course, in the United States just in terms of the different people with different views in Congress, in the business community, and in the military.

All of those things are true in China, as well, even though it is not a democracy. So I think that the personal chemistry is important, but what will also need to come about, and President Obama said this, is there will need to be something a bit more formalized to deal with some of these relations.

He talked about it specifically in relation to cyber issues, I think. But military-to-military relations have always been a bit dicey in the past. They keep being broken off. You know, there are annual talks at a reasonably high level, but the need to be - there needs to be more engagement, more than just the personal chemistry between two men.

CONAN: And those military forces, as China's ambitions and power grows, and America pivots to Asia, those militaries are going to be brushing up against each other more and more in the future, which is what led to some discussion, you wouldn't think automatically, of Thucydides in the run-up to this summit, the of course great Greek historian who described the start of the Peloponnesian War, the disaster that afflicted both Sparta and Athens and, well, has been under discussion as establishing the pattern of the relations between an established power and an emerging one ever since.

GIFFORD: Well that's right, and I think, you know, it's good to go back to ancient history. You'll see the Economist, you may have seen, did just that and talked about Thucydides and specifically that it wasn't just the rise of Athens, but it was the fear, the fear that that created in Sparta. So it's not just the rise of it, it's not just the rise of China, it's what that's doing to the American mind and indeed what that's doing to the American military.

That is one of the things that really has to be dealt with, and if you're just shouting at each other long distance across the Pacific and not actually sitting in a room - this applies to military, you know, military officials, as well, and leaders in the business community and in all areas of trade and commerce and culture, of course, as well - you know, then it's very, very difficult to deal with that fear and that sort of concern about a new rising power, which of course is exacerbated by the fact that it's a one-party state run by a communist party.

It's not like the United States overtaking Great Britain 100 years ago, when, you know, speaking the same language, same sort of cultural, philosophical roots. It's a very, very difficult situation, and it's very unusual, as well. China is a very, very different animal.

CONAN: We're talking with Rob Gifford, former NPR correspondent, now China editor of The Economist, as we look ahead towards the United States and China as their relations come more and more to define the future. 800-989-8255, if you do business in China, what concerns you about the future? Email us, Let's start with Brian(ph) and Brian on the line with us from Ann Arbor.

BRIAN: Yes, hello. First and foremost I'd like to say thank you, Neal, for your years of service on the program. Your show has always been quite sensational, and I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

BRIAN: Yeah, on to my point. I am the leader and organizer for a housing complex in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we have a major university, University of Michigan, where we accept between 50 and 100 Chinese students, and from all over but primarily Chinese students, to come and do research at the university and be scholars, visiting scholars.

And my question is: Part of my job is to foster relationships between our Chinese students and with our American students who are also living here and students from all over, and what President Obama and Xi Jinping are doing in these meetings to make sure that the connections that we're establishing aren't going away because we're making some serious developments in terms of biomedics and financial analysis and engineering as the primary schools of our scholars because we want to make sure that the connections we're making are going to be able to turn into businesses and international businesses where we are cooperating at the most basic level.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much. Rob Gifford?

GIFFORD: Yeah, I mean, I think it's - it sounds very important what you're doing and what universities are doing all around the United States and indeed in Europe, although of course the U.S. relationship with China is in many ways much, much more important. And indeed it is really that relationship we talked about between Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama that is played out at many levels throughout the two societies.

There are now thousands and thousands of American students in China, as well, of course, learning Chinese, learning the culture, learning that hey, these people are people, too, and they have hopes and fears and ambitions for their kids like we do. You know, I went to - first went to China in the mid-'80s as a language student. And, you know, OK, I was only 19, but I was - you know, it was just that realization that they're kind of the same as we are.

And within that great power relationship, as it has become, it's important for diplomacy and high-level officials to meet, but I think those links at the personal level and the cultural level and the university level are also crucial, too.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much for the kind words, and we appreciate the phone call.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, stay with us. If you do business in China, we want to know what concerns you about the future, 800-989-8255. Email Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Rob Gifford has joined us many times over the years to talk, especially about China. In 2004, he set out on a 3,000-mile, two-week trek across China for NPR. One of his most memorable pieces, Rob hired a prostitute named Jong(ph) in the town of Chinyan(ph) in southern Hunan Province, then sat down with her to ask about her life.

When she realized he wanted an interview and nothing more, Rob says the hopelessness poured out like a torrent.


CONAN: Today Rob Gifford, now China editor for The Economist, joins us to look ahead at the future of China and its relationship with the United States and the rest of the world. If you do business in China, tell us what concerns you. 800-989-8255 is the number to call. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Rob, that piece was part of a series that documented one of the great movements of humanity in the history of humanity.

GIFFORD: That's right. I didn't know you were going to play that clip, Neal. You took me by surprise there. But you just reminded me of that amazing journey I took and those amazing human beings that I met in living in hope and despair in equal measures, probably, as they travel across China.

And it's really, I think, that tension between those two things. Yes, as you say, maybe 200 million, 180 million people on the move around China, traveling to find jobs, traveling to find work. Many of them have this hope of a better life, and many of them are achieving a better life, but for instance, that prostitute, just one woman in the middle of nowhere in a small town in central China, you know, there's also a lot of despair as well.

And there's a lot of people who are not participating in the boom, and that is increasingly going to be a problem for the Chinese government just to add to the list of the dozens of other things that they need to deal with.

CONAN: And this week, just a highlight of another of those dozens of other problems, stories in the New York Times and other places about a work camp in China for places like, well, prostitutes, where they're sent, but also political dissidents, Falun Gong members notably, one of whom smuggled out a note in a toy manufactured for an American store that fell into the hands of a consumer in the state of Washington.

GIFFORD: That's right. It's all going on. So on the surface there is a huge amount of change in China. And it's very real. It's not some Potemkin village. It's very real indeed, lives, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of lives have been utterly transformed for the better. And we simply have to, you know, acknowledge that. It is an extraordinary moment in history.

But at the same time, underneath the surface there is still a lot of inertia. So it is still a one-party state, and the sort of dead hand of communism, while it is not as invasive and intrusive as it has been in the past, it's still there. And so the way that dissidents are dealt with and the way that social undesirables are dealt with is still in some ways the same.

And there are still labor camps, and there really - I mean this is the key thing, I think, one of the key things to watch if we're looking ahead at what China really needs to do. The key thing is rule of law. Rule of law is really at the center of everything. I mean what is human rights other than rule of law, an independent legal system to protect people's individual rights?

And this is where the real problem is for China, because of course the problem is as a one-party state you simply can't implement an independent judicial system. But things like that and developments like that, these are the things that Xi Jinping and the new leadership are going to have to grapple with over the next decade; otherwise they are going to be in real trouble domestically, regardless of their relationship with the United States.

CONAN: Let's go next to Richard, and Richard's on the line with us from Wichita.

RICHARD: Yes, I'm concerned about two things that both have to do with basically China's essentially amoral plundering of U.S. technology and science. The first is, as a business consultant I'm concerned about people who want to outsource to China to be - remain competitive with existing Chinese imports, largely from large corporations.

Small businesses find it next to impossible to outsource without running the risk of essentially having their designs, their technology, their intellectual property, essentially stolen from them by the very people that they're outsourcing to. And there's virtually no real effort by China to do anything to curb that. In fact, China seems to quietly be being encouraging of that. The other...

CONAN: Well, let's do one at a time, Richard. And Rob Gifford, this seemed to be an issue that, well, at least coming out of the meeting at Sunnylands, the president and the Chinese premier talking past each other.

GIFFORD: Yes, I think the - this - it's true. I think the whole cyber issue, the Chinese seemed least willing to listen on that issue, the issue of cyber theft. And I think your caller is talking more broadly, not just about...

CONAN: Not just about...

GIFFORD: Not just about hacking, talking about IPR, intellectual property generally being stolen. This again is - it's another China dilemma. Of course American companies, Western companies, see the big market, they want to get into the market. In order to get into the market, they have to go to China, often with a joint venture partner or joining in some way and hand over some kind of technology.

It's a - and if they haven't handed it over as part of the deal, they're there in China, and it's in real danger and often is being stolen from them. I think, again, I'd come back to my last answer in terms of the rule of law, the need for the rule of law. I think one of the - it is a very difficult area, and it's not very encouraging, actually, because, as I say, it's difficult for them even if they wanted to, to implement independent judicial system.

One of the encouraging things may be the fact that now you're getting some successes, some success stories in the business world in China. Of course controversial in other ways (unintelligible) ZTE, some of these high-tech companies are starting to want to protect their own intellectual property.

And that's a key moment because as soon as that starts to happen, and you've having companies suing each other in China in the imperfect Chinese legal system, because they want to protect their own intellectual property, so that - if that happens more, of course, as it probably will as China develops, that is an encouraging sign.

But otherwise, absolutely - America, as President Obama did, should be absolutely on China's case about this because it is, you know, stuff is just being stolen left, right and center.

CONAN: Richard, you had another point?

RICHARD: Yes, the educational institutions in the United States, particularly the public colleges and universities that are government-funded, taxpayer-funded, are giving away this technology to China hand over fist. They're just literally prostituting themselves to China and India in an attempt to keep up their enrollment figures because they make some very good money from those students.

They are the most profitable students the universities have, and they will gladly allow these people to come and plunder us for our technology without requiring them to sit through any humanities courses or any liberal arts courses or anything that conveys American or Western values, insights or history.

CONAN: That's the flip side to the argument we heard earlier from Ann Arbor.

GIFFORD: Absolutely. So it's - you know, it's the flip side of it. Everything that everyone says about China pretty much is true. You know, this is the problem with engaging with China. You know, human rights organizations say human rights are being abused in China all the time. They're absolutely right. The Chinese government says, oh no, human rights are better than they've ever been, and some ways they are absolutely right as well.

Your two callers are both right as well. All the bad stuff is going on, and all the good stuff is also going on. And what we've got to do, I think, is to try to maintain a really robust engagement with the Chinese government and with the Chinese people to say this is utterly unacceptable that you should be stealing our intellectual property while not creating some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of turning them into an enemy by setting up barriers, by damaging the relationship too much by not engaging enough.

You have to engage in order to be able to robustly tell the Chinese that it's unacceptable what they're doing.

CONAN: Richard(ph), thanks very much for the call.

RICHARD: You bet.

CONAN: Here's an email from Steven(ph) in Cincinnati: Could Mr. Gifford please comment on Chinese colonialism in Africa? Viewed by many people around the world as quite menacing. Colonialism I guess his a word for Chinese outreach to get their hands on all kinds of raw materials that they need.

GIFFORD: Yes. Well, I mean that's a loaded word, isn't it? And as the Chinese like to point out especially as an Englishman myself, you know, I'm not sure who I am to lecture anybody on colonialism.

CONAN: Especially with the news out of Kenya and the reparations.

GIFFORD: Well, exactly. So I think, again, though, I think sometimes there's a danger while not - while utterly admitting that there is - there are bad Chinese practices going on. They overlook all sorts of labor rights, labor rules. They are really getting in there to get all the resources they can. It just - we need to be careful we don't overly emotionalize this. A lot of what China is doing in Africa is trade, and trade is acceptable. That's allowed and indeed should be encouraged. And interestingly, many Africans want to have it. But once again, it's just that it can't be allowed to happen without any kind of checks and balances so that any kind of labor rights so ridden roughshod over by a Chinese company coming in, in a Zambian mine, for instance.

And that is what is happening undoubtedly in many places in Africa. It's the old China dilemma once again. China actually doing plenty of good in Africa. By its engagement, African economies are doing well out of China in many ways, but at the same time, doing lots of bad stuff as well.

It's simply not - it's just not simple. We can't just characterize it as simple, pure neocolonialism even though there are many, many of the issues that are there that Europeans found when they went into Africa 100 years ago.

CONAN: And slightly closer to China's coast, its relations with its neighbors from Japan down through Australia, including Taiwan, that is going to in many ways define its relationship with the United States.

GIFFORD: I think that's true, and that is where we're going to see probably the biggest problems. You know, the - it's not necessarily going to be directly with the United States. It's going to be over tiny specks of land in the East China Sea or the South China Sea. And again, this was one of the huge issues that Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama talked about last weekend. I think, again, the - this is a worry because China - especially because China - of what China sees as Taiwan and what Taiwan is, it can be contained over the next decade probably.

But at some point, China wants Taiwan back, and Taiwan does not want that, and America does not want that either. So I think this is the problem with China - it's actually the problem domestically as well as internationally - is that the relationship can be managed, I think, for a few more years in the current state. But there's a danger. There's a crunch coming domestically when China reaches the point that South Korea and Taiwan and these other Asian tigers did where people want more political change.

But also, there could be a crunch coming down the pike at some point with Taiwan where this issue which is very much on the backburner at the moment comes to the fore, and that utter disagreement about the status of Taiwan gets pushed center stage.

CONAN: China editor of The Economist Rob Gifford. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Mike(ph). Mike on the line from Fresno.

MIKE: Hi. Yes. I am a small business owner in construction-related business in California that import construction-related materials from China. And over the years, the U.S. has pressured China to appreciate its renminbi and so our import as, you know, come up more and more expensive. But in China, the actual renminbi is depreciating because of the inflation. Here, the inflation (unintelligible) so it's actually renminbi buys fewer and fewer products in China but not, you know, (unintelligible) the U.S. It's appreciating. It's hurting U.S. business and would like to see if the U.S. government can talk, you know, pressing China to appreciate its renminbi.

CONAN: Mike is talking about the longstanding issue between the United States and China where many in this country called on China to recalculate the value of its currency upward, and, of course, that makes - if they do that, makes American exports more affordable in China, but as Mike points out, makes Chinese imports here a little bit more expensive, Rob?

GIFFORD: Well, sorry to be shameless, Neal, but for full coverage of this issue, you'll have to buy The Economist...

CONAN: Oh, no, no.

GIFFORD: ...tomorrow. I couldn't get through...


GIFFORD: We've got a long piece. We've got a long piece about this exact issue and...

CONAN: It's one where they've made a lot of progress.

GIFFORD: It is because over the last seven - I think seven or eight years, you know, the Chinese currency has appreciated by something like 35 percent. So there is more progress being made than people admit. That is not to say that it's perfect. And I hate to sound like the sort of eternal optimist here, but it's another classic case of where things are changing but someone shouting loudly in Washington can get a lot of attention. That's not to say it's perfect at all, and, of course, China has been guilty of very much influencing its own - controlling its currency and managing that whole situation to its own advantage. Excuse me. But it's not as bad as people think, and I think in all of these areas, the - it is changing and - in many ways still improving. So I think we shouldn't be as pessimistic as all that.

CONAN: So tomorrow's Economist will expound on this at great length. Rob, we just have a few seconds left. An extraordinary step for this new Chinese leader who has clearly consolidated his power and fully in control.

GIFFORD: Consolidated his power and fully in control, Mr. Xi.

CONAN: Yes or what you think of him?

GIFFORD: I think he is - I think he probably is. I think he - I think he's much powerful than Hu Jintao. I think he's got - he knows he has to reform. I think he knows what he's got to do. He's now got to take a deep breath and domestically take on the vested interests and use that power that he has to push through the reforms that China really badly needs.

CONAN: Rob Gifford, as always, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: If you've ever marveled at a gaggle of geese simultaneously taking off from a field or sighed in frustration as a school of finger mullet changes course just as your net hits the water, well, you'll find out why in just a moment if you stay with us on TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.