DER SPIEGEL: Professor Mahbubani, is the “Asian Century” going to end before it ever really got going?
Mahbubani: Because of the coronavirus? No, the road to the Asian Century was always going to be a bumpy one. In 1997, even before this century began, we went through a severe economic crisis. Conventional wisdom in the West at that time was that Asia was finished. In fact, every crisis since then has proven the resilience of this region and its people’s commitment to success.
DER SPIEGEL: China is using a heavy hand to combat the virus. Large metropolitan areas with well over a million residents have been put under quarantine, and authorities initially downplayed the scale of the epidemic. You have praised the “Chinese model” in your books – but doesn’t the handling of the virus show that authoritarian regimes are overwhelmed by such crises?
Mahbubani: Look back 100 years: In the 1920s, hunger, epidemics, civil war and chaos reigned in China. Life expectancy was just 30 years and the child mortality rate was 40 percent. Compare that to today’s China. However, the dramatic improvements that have been made are not the result of the communist system, but of the ingenuity of the people. The Chinese have thought about what a just and well-organized society should look like for a few thousand years, just as long as the West. They have come to different conclusions. They have no reason to copy the recipes of the West.
DER SPIEGEL: The coronavirus is just one of the crises currently facing Asia. The Kashmir conflict continues to divide the nuclear powers of India and Pakistan. In India, growing Hindu nationalism is ratcheting up tensions with the Muslim minority. China is struggling with the protest movement in Hong Kong. Japan and South Korea are deeply divided, not to mention the North Korea conflict. Is this the look of a continent which, as you have suggested, will soon replace the West?
Mahbubani: Given that it is such a large continent, with almost 4 billion people, it would be bizarre if Asia didn’t have many problems. The question is whether one of these crises can derail Asia’s momentum. Kashmir, for example, is an uncomfortable challenge, but it will not break India. There are 1.4 billion people living in China – and just 7 million in Hong Kong. Western reporting has given the impression that China’s stability is at stake in Hong Kong. This is just wishful thinking. Most of these are crises can basically be resolved – with the possible exception of COVID-19, which may take some time.
DER SPIEGEL: You often judge China by its achievements and the West by its mistakes. And then you accuse the West of “double standards.”
Mahbubani: I don’t want the West to fail, I want it to succeed. A weak and divided West is bad for the world. I am not anti-Western or anti-American. I just find that there are better ways to deal with Asia and China. The West has to realize that if history makes a turn, you cannot continue to go straight. The West has had many problems since the end of the Cold War and since that famous essay by Francis Fukuyama announcing the “end of history.” This perception has put you to sleep and made you complacent. I say: Make a U-turn! Travel with Asia and be optimistic. The opportunities that China’s and Asia’s rise offer are tremendous.
DER SPIEGEL: It’s not just the West that is reluctant to follow China’s path. Many Asian countries don’t see China as the benign superpower you describe in your books.
Mahbubani: A “benign superpower” – that would be a contradiction in terms. Superpowers expect others to follow them. The United States has that expectation, and China will too, as it continues to get stronger. But there are differences: You can spend almost 2 trillion by invading Iraq and tilting at windmills like Don Quixote. But Beijing will never be stupid enough to invade a country whose culture and history it doesn’t understand.
DER SPIEGEL: How so?
Mahbubani: The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that the best way to win a war is not to wage it. A superpower needs military strength, of course, but China has not fired a bullet beyond its borders for 30 years. It takes a lot of strategic discipline to refrain from using your military power when you have it.
DER SPIEGEL: That doesn’t do much to reduce the concerns of China’s neighbors.
Mahbubani: Japan and South Korea are very concerned about China, much more so than you Europeans. But they are not worried about China’s infiltration of democracy or anything like that. They fear that China will restore the pecking order that was prevalent in Asia for over 1,000 years. It’s true that this process will be painful, especially for the Japanese, but Japan is not worried about the Communist Party and its ideology. This is about power and hierarchy.
DER SPIEGEL: Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has accused China of pursuing a “new version of colonialism.”
Mahbubani: And shortly thereafter, he made a speech at the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Why? Because he’s smart. Of course, the power shift in Asia is worrying many. Imagine that there was a small cat in the corner of this room. You get distracted for a short time, and when you turn around again, the cat has become a tiger. The room is the same size as before, but the cat – China – is suddenly no longer a cat. Now you have to approach the tiger differently.
DER SPIEGEL: What is your view of the massive digital surveillance regime that China has developed – a regime that has generated concern around the world??
Mahbubani: We should all be worried about that. In the West, some believe that collecting data is OK as long as only private companies do it. But even at the state level, it was the United States that started to record every digital conversation it could get its hands on, as we know from the book by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. If you think collecting data is wrong, you should prove it with deeds. We cannot ask the Chinese to stop spying on others while the NSA is still doing it.
DER SPIEGEL: The extent to which Beijing has deployed surveillance against its own people is unprecedented.
Mahbubani: Let’s not kid ourselves: Of course, the expansion of state surveillance has increased the Chinese government’s ability to control its own people. At the same time, the country’s leaders know that if the Chinese people no longer want their government, all the monitoring instruments in the world will not help them. They will lose the “mandate of heaven,” as others have before them. If a billion and a half people rise up, the 90 million members of the party will be powerless. Therefore, China does not use brute force to control its population, but economic policies.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it not brute force when Beijing is putting hundreds of thousands of Muslims in re-education camps in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region?
Mahbubani: Xinjiang is a completely different thing to the rest of China. If China were an oppressive state, people would run away. Last year, before this new coronavirus broke out, 134 million Chinese people traveled abroad. Why did they all come back?
DER SPIEGEL: The people of Xinjiang don’t get passports. They can’t leave at all.
Mahbubani: Xinjiang is a special case. The West has responded to the threat of religious fundamentalism with military operations. China has taken extreme measures to control the population of Xinjiang. I ask: Who has more innocent Muslim civilians on their conscience?
DER SPIEGEL: That’s a cynical question. In the West, there has been massive criticism of the drone war and the invasion of Iraq. In China, anyone who criticizes China’s government will be locked up.
Mahbubani: Why have no Muslim countries joined the Western protest against China?
DER SPIEGEL: Because most governments in the Islamic world are authoritarian themselves and benefit from Chinese loans.
Mahbubani: That may be part of the answer, but Indonesia, for example, is not an authoritarian state and its government represents the democratic will of the world’s most populous Muslim country. For many Muslims, criticizing Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang is a cynical political step by the West to embarrass China.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you consider Beijing’s oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang to be a sustainable policy worthy of a nation with such a great cultural heritage?
Mahbubani: I don’t know. Maybe I will know in 10 years. Maybe the West’s predictions will come true and Xinjiang will remain oppressed and dysfunctional. Or maybe China’s attempt at de-radicalization will be successful, the number of people in re-education camps will drop and the police presence will decline. One thing, however, is certain: In the conflicts where the West plays a role, such as in Syria and Libya, there is no prospect that they will be resolved within 10 years. In Xinjiang, at least, that cannot be ruled out.
DER SPIEGEL: Why does China have many economic partners, but no political allies, no friends?
Mahbubani: On this point, the Chinese agree with Lord Palmerston, who once said that countries don’t have permanent friends, they have permanent interests. If Venezuela or Zimbabwe helps them to assert their interests, the Chinese will work with these countries. Soft power, the cultural attraction of a country, is a different thing. The United States once had an extraordinary amount of soft power. China could never compete with that, but that was never its ambition, either. However, 120 countries around the world have more trade with China than with any other country.
DER SPIEGEL: Conversely, the USA is still very attractive for China. Why, for example, did the online retailer Alibaba, one of China’s most important companies, go public in New York instead of in Shanghai?
Mahbubani: Beijing anticipated early on that the United States would grow uncomfortable with China’s rise and would frame it as a geopolitical rivalry. And that’s what happened. To delay this process, Beijing has sought to create interdependence between the United States and China. It was a brilliant idea to get Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges, because it means that many Americans now have a stake in China’s prosperity. Not to mention that this move was commercially attractive, because it boosted the market value of companies like Alibaba. It has nothing to do with emotion.
DER SPIEGEL: President Xi Jinping’s daughter studied at Harvard. Is that, too, a sign of calculation and wise foresight?
Mahbubani: This is not just about Xi Jinping’s daughter. If Stalin were alive today, he would be shocked to see China’s Communist Party allowing 300,000 of its brightest young minds be brainwashed at U.S. universities every year. This shows China’s self-confidence in its own culture.
DER SPIEGEL: Many wealthy Chinese tend to trust the United States and prefer to invest their money in the West.
Mahbubani: This is the biggest advantage the United States has over China: If you have a billion dollars and want to invest it safely for a hundred years, then you’d be better off parking it in the United States than in China. Because there will be ups and downs, but basically the political system in the U.S. is stable. Nobody knows what China’s political system will look like in 50 years.
DER SPIEGEL: With this, haven’t you answered the question posed in the title of your new book, “Has China won?”*
Mahbubani: The title is a question. But the answer isn’t “yes,” but “not yet.” And the hidden question behind the title is: “Could America lose?” It is inconceivable for Americans that the U.S. could lose.
DER SPIEGEL: And according to what you just said about the stability of the U.S. political system, they’re right.
Mahbubani: No. I highlight all of America’s strengths in my book, and if China believes that competition with the U.S. has already been decided, I warn against it. Nobody knows how this contest will end.
DER SPIEGEL: What strategy do you think the West should be following?
Mahbubani: Let China be China. The West should abandon the illusion that it can change China. The obvious example is the expectation that the liberalization of the Chinese economy would automatically lead to liberalization of the political system. Not that it is fundamentally out of the question. But the chance of liberalizing the Chinese system from the outside is practically zero. All attempts to do so have only strengthened the legitimacy of the Chinese regime. Hardly anyone in the West remembers how the colonial powers ransacked the Summer Palace in Beijing 160 years ago. But the Chinese remember it very well, and today every attempt to influence the country is seen as an effort to destabilize China.
DER SPIEGEL: What position should Europe take in the struggle between China and the United States?
Mahbubani: I worry about Europe’s pessimism. Europe knows that there are major challenges ahead, but it refuses to coolly analyze its geopolitical interests. What is the biggest threat to Europe? It’s not Russia. It’s not China. It’s demography. In 1950, Africa had half as many inhabitants as Europe. But today, Africa has twice as many, and in 2100, it could have 10 times as many. If Europe does not export jobs to Africa, Africa will export Africans to Europe. The rise of the extreme political right in practically all European societies is a direct consequence of their governments sticking their heads in the sand on this issue.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that have to do with China?
Mahbubani: It is in Europe’s fundamental interest to develop Africa, and if you are looking for a partner for developing Africa, China is the obvious choice. China invests much more in Africa than the United States does. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just gave a speech in Addis Ababa that was an insult to the Africans. Don’t trust the Chinese, he said – speaking to a continent to which China has given so much.
DER SPIEGEL: Beijing also did that to advance its own interests.
Mahbubani: Functionally, Chinese investments in Africa are a geopolitical gift to Europe. But instead of thanking the Chinese, Europe slaps them in the face.
DER SPIEGEL: Still, as the debate about the controversial network supplier Huawei has clearly shown, many Europeans simply don’t trust China.
Mahbubani: We often assume that our attitudes toward other countries are the result of rational and logical analysis. Logic, however, would teach Europeans that, while China is not a friend of Europe, European and Chinese interests are converging. The fact that so many Europeans have such a negative attitude towards China has an emotional source, rooted in a deep-seated fear of the “yellow peril,” which is now pushing to the surface again.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that a Chinese employee of Huawei would be able to resist his government’s desire to find out everything it possibly could about Europe with the technology available?
Mahbubani: Sooner or later, China will have the same ability to penetrate any country’s communications network as the U.S. does, with or without Huawei. If you want to protect your communication systems, go ahead and lock out Huawei. But you can’t shut out China along with it.
DER SPIEGEL: If that is the case, maybe many Europeans prefer being spied on by the Americans than by the Chinese. There is at least a cultural proximity between the U.S. and Europe.
Mahbubani: Go for it! I encourage you to buy American 5G technology if you want to.
DER SPIEGEL: That’s a malicious proposal. The U.S., as you well know, doesn’t have any large 5G companies. The biggest 5G producers aside from Huawei are Nokia and Ericsson, two European companies.
Mahbubani: That’s true. And remember: 7.5 billion people live in the world, and only about a billion of them are in the West. Your prosperity ultimately depends on what the other 6.5 billion do. If only half of them buy Huawei and if Europe remains sentimental and buys American technology, Europe would effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world. Europe has every right to make this decision.
DER SPIEGEL: In other words, you think that both the U.S. and Europe are in danger of missing out on the Asian century. But at least Europe has done one thing that Asia has failed at: It has overcome the great divisions in its history. The conflicts in Kashmir and Hong Kong, the hostilities in the South China Sea: It all shows that Asia has not even started to process its history.
Mahbubani: It may surprise you after this conversation, but I totally agree. There are currently no major wars in Europe or in Asia. But unlike in Europe, the prospects of war cannot be ruled out in Asia. In this regard, Europe is way ahead of Asia. But Asia is close to my heart, and so I have raised money and started an initiative in the past six months called the “Asian Peace Program.” We launch in July. In a series of papers and conferences, we will be looking for ways out of Asia’s most protracted conflicts: Kashmir, the crisis between India and Pakistan, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and the division between North and South Korea. Our dream is that one day, Asia will get to where Europe is today and enjoy zero prospect of war.