Professor Kerry Brown said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great leveller, and that the most prudent response should be one of humility. (Photo: CGTN)
In an almost 3,000-word article titled "Why the West Needs to Stop its Moralising against China," British sinologist Kerry Brown argued that "knowledge, humility, and honesty will be the things that help the outside world deal with the historic challenge of China's rise."
Brown, a professor of Chinese studies and director of Lau China Institute, King's College London, called for a mindset revolution – particularly in Europe and America.
"We are part of a world which is way flatter now, and we have an obligation to improve our knowledge and understanding of places which think very differently – that will be confronting and challenging, but because of the enormous balancing in terms of the economy and all sorts of areas, it isn't something we can avoid," Brown told CGTN.
"We have to be pragmatic. It's not about liking or disliking another place, it's about knowing enough about it to know what you can or can't deal with it."
Brown highlighted a problem: many places in America and the UK at the moment may have an opinion about China – but not a lot of knowledge.
"I think there needs to be an acknowledgement that as of today, broadly, Chinese people probably think and understand more about the outside world, than the outside world often thinks about China," he said.
"And I think that's what I mean about humility – this assumption that the world begins and ends in Europe and America has long been invalid."
I joked that "knowledge, humility, honesty" are words that could be used to describe a couple, a friendship. Brown said relationships between two countries, no matter how big, are people to people. "If it can't change at an individual level, how can it work on a larger level?"
'We should stop urging others to be like us'
In the August 10 article, Brown said the first thing that should be done fundamentally in 2020 is "to purge our language, outside China, of the constant desire to urge it to become like us, and to be constantly wanting to preach and urge it to reform and change in ways that will, we assume, make it more like us."
He said he wrote the article as someone who in the past did think that was "what we should do."
"So in the past, I think the attitude was democratic systems in the Western style were able to really deliver things and there was evidence for that. But I think now it's way more complicated – growth in China has been restored at least in the last quarter, the COVID-19 pandemic was managed more efficiently than in some parts in Europe and America, there seems to be consensus at least on some issues," Brown explained.
"This [China] is a sort of place which has answers to questions which you wouldn't really say that was the case in some areas in America."
That said, Brown noted that there has to be some sense of fairness.
"Clearly, China has to think hard about why there is so much resentment, frustration, at the moment. There are some things that aren't China's fault, and there are some things that China needs to change. It's not good at the moment that China is diplomatically quite isolated," he said.
"There needs to be reciprocity. America's points sometimes are valid – market entry into China is not easy. Trade deals have exposed that there are a lot of imbalances, and if they continue then this is going to continue to create the problem we see and have seen in the last few years."
'We ought to identify what exactly is threatening us'
Brown acknowledged there is a sense across Europe and America that China is a threat. But he said there isn't a clear consensus on what this threat is: some mean an economic threat, some others a geopolitical and military threat.
"It is clear we need to answer our question about what is worrying and threatening is. We – those in Europe and America – need to work out what is the problem. Once we work through them, we can then be clear what isn't a problem, and areas where it is a challenge," he said.
"I think in terms of facing the global pandemic and facing climate change, dealing with global growth, I think China is most likely not to be a threat, because it's in its self interest to work with others, and it's in our self interest to work from here."
Brown said one way in which the world can better understand China is the need to understand that there are different ways of looking at the world which are not the same as ours but are not invalid.
There also needs to be better efforts in schools to have basic levels of Asia and China literacy, he said.
"While this may not cure the problem, I don't think it's going to harm anyone at least in having better knowledge levels and I think actually it's probably long term in which we are going to solve this problem."
'We all have issues, we all need to improve'
When asked if his views on China have evolved overtime, Brown said: "Well my view has been changing all the time. When I first went to China in 1991, until now, I've adopted different positions – because China has changed."
But an overarching principle remains for him: that everyone has to improve what they're doing.
"And I guess that's what I meant in the article when I said we need to be humble, because we all have issues – we need to admit to that and we are all finding out own solutions," he said.
"We have had a complacent idea that we are fine, and China isn't... Maybe you can do this positively and say 'we are not fine, and China's not fine', or maybe 'China's fine and we're maybe not so fine'."
Brown said he thinks that the most dangerous moment comes when Europeans and Americans assume that China needs to become like them for things to be right.
"If you have a friend, and despite the fact that you have a friendship, you're always slightly irritated that they're not like you. Friendship should really be about accepting differences. And a friend that moralizes – this is not an easy friend to get along with."