February 25, 2004
Thank you very much John for that kind introduction and the honor of this award.
Chairman Richard Holbrooke, President Nicholas Platt, ladies and gentlemen: For nearly half a century, the Asia Society has forged crucial links between the nations of the Asia Pacific region and the rest of the world through art, education and communication. It’s been an ongoing privilege for me to be a very small part of the Society’s important efforts.
When the Asia Society was founded in 1956, it was bold and rather adventurous to propose that these countries should be celebrated for their global importance. In terms of industrial development, economic growth, and sheer human capital, Asia Pacific is now the most vibrant and robust region on the globe representing a market of more than three billion consumers. Their emergence is one of history’s greatest catalysts for worldwide change.
Against this dynamic background, China, one nation I now have a very personal attachment to, stands out. With nearly 20 percent of the world’s population, with greater international investment than any other country, with GDP growth in the past year of more than 9 percent and with determined plans to expand upon that success in the future, China has attained an economic prominence no one could have foreseen.
To see how strong the winds of change are blowing in China today, one need look no further than China’s burgeoning media industry, historically the sector most resistant to reform. The potential for China to become a new global center for media and entertainment is slowly becoming more real.
China is now the fifth largest economy in the world and is expected, within our children’s lifetimes—by 2050—to become the world’s largest economy.
Its growing strength has unsettled many of the world’s other powers – from the nations of Europe, who are saddled with over-regulation and prohibitively high taxes – to protectionists in this country who see China as a threat rather than a partner.
But as those of you here tonight know, when China launched its economic reforms 25 years ago, most Chinese could not imagine anything beyond a life of grueling labor and crushing poverty.
Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese not only dare to dream but have confidence that their dreams will become reality.
Can you imagine what an ambitious 18 year-old in Wuhan could have aspired to in 1979? Today, at 43, some of the drama of China’s accelerated change can be seen in his daily life when he picks up his cell phone, snaps on his designer sunglasses, or logs onto a computer. Who knows, he may be making $1 million a year at John’s old firm. In 1997, only seven years ago, 3,000,000 Chinese had access to the Internet. Today, the number is close to 80 million and China is now second only to the U.S. in terms of Internet users, and will soon overtake us.
And who in Wuhan—or anywhere else in China even a generation ago – could ever have imagined that Beijing would play host to the Olympics in 2008, an event that symbolizes the ultimate in human achievement and the power of the human spirit?
China’s revolutionary progress does not come without criticism. Nor should it. As many of you know, I have been impatient to see China move more rapidly toward reform than those in real positions of authority have in the past deemed appropriate. If China is to emerge as a durable and responsible world leader, there are considerable improvements to be made in its trade practices and economic policies.
But the impatience and the opinions of onlookers such as myself must be balanced in real terms against the unique conditions and concerns of China. We cannot measure China’s achievements in a vacuum nor judge them solely by Western standards.
For example, China is often accused of being too slow in phasing out its state-run companies in favor of the kind of diverse entrepreneurship that I, for one, have always championed. But in urging greater speed, we have to consider the profound demographic changes that are accompanying China’s economic expansion.
Imagine moving the entire population of Europe somewhere else. That gives you a sense of the magnitude of the migration that has taken place in China since the 1970s as 300 million Chinese left their villages and headed into the cities, creating problems as well as riches. By 2020, another 250 million rural Chinese are expected to make a similar trek, making the problems all the more acute. What we did here over 100 years, China is attempting in a couple of decades.
Its industrialization and modernization is one of the most profound social transformations in human history. China’s stability is linked to its success in providing urban jobs for those who are flooding into the cities. So it is understandable that Chinese authorities are hesitant to make sweeping and instantaneous changes in the system of state-owned enterprises which though often bloated and inefficient are still huge and – at least for now – essential employers.
China would be wise to ignore those who say they’ve gone too far, too fast. Nonetheless, as China becomes more fully integrated into the global economy, the need for meaningful reforms escalates at many levels. Economics is not the only area where reform is in China’s interest – and our own. We in the international community can play a pivotal role in helping them achieve progress across an entire spectrum of economic, social, legal and political issues.
We need to be far more aggressive in helping China confront and come to grips with its deepening AIDS crisis. We need to encourage China to develop institutions that strengthen the rule of law. We need to support and engage grass-roots organizations in China – groups such as NGOs – that affirm civil society by tackling such problems as environmental pollution and local corruption. And we need to help China more effectively combat the rampant piracy of intellectual property that left unchecked will undermine the business models of creative companies worldwide.
But we cannot call on China to be more aggressive in addressing its own problems without applying a similar standard to our own. And one tragically ignored area is education.
It is imperative that we in America wake-up to the fact that we have failed miserably to educate our children about China’s history, culture and language.
It is appalling to me, as I am sure it is to you, that a recent report found that 25% of college bound students could not name the ocean that separates the United States from Asia. 80% of students had no idea who Mao was.
Thankfully, there are organizations such as the Asia Society that are leading the charge to address this educational void. The Society, as many of you may know, is spearheading a national effort to promote the study of Asia in American schools. It was able to secure this year an Advanced Placement course on Chinese Language and Culture, which will be offered widely in American High Schools beginning in 2006.
As a result of these and other efforts, more students will be encouraged to study Chinese at an earlier age, and to be introduced to Chinese history and culture, than ever before.
Today, while over one million students in US schools study French, a language spoken by 80 million people worldwide, fewer than 40,000 students study Chinese, a language spoken by at least 1.3 billion people.
If our students are to be prepared for leadership roles in the 21st century, they have to learn Chinese, and they need to start learning it now.
For inspiration, one can start here in lower Manhattan. In a plain, non-descript building, one of the most innovative, exciting dual language programs in Mandarin and English is being offered to 311 students at Shuang Wen – one of the city’s top-ranking public elementary schools with the highest daily attendance rate in the city – 98 percent. The school attracts not only Chinese-American students, but students from all races, nationalities and economic backgrounds. They come together every day to learn two languages, to learn two histories, and to develop an appreciation for two cultures that no matter what they do in the future will serve them in invaluable ways. We have spent a good deal of time at this remarkable school, and while my own bilingual education has frankly a long way to go / even to catch up to my 2 year-old daughter / my company is deeply invested in making this a model for what can and should be done across the country.
Through our financial support, the school will soon expand from a K through five program to one extending through the eighth grade, and, we expect, ultimately through high school.
But one school is not enough. Other corporate leaders – some in this room I hope – will find similar opportunities to support and encourage the development of Chinese studies in our classrooms. We cannot afford to wait until our children reach college, particularly when their Chinese counterparts are growing up with an understanding of our language and culture.
To allow this disparity to remain and to grow is to risk a greater divide in the understanding between our two nations.
And while we’re educating Americans about China, we also need to do a better job educating Chinese immigrants about the virtues of our Democratic institutions and customs. We must remember that we are training ambassadors with each immigrant and student we educate. Throughout their lives, many of them will be returning home to visit, and often to live. The example they set, and the knowledge they share, will provide authentic witness to the true American character, and help redefine our image in a country now more open and curious about who we really are.
So let us continue to educate ourselves and our future generations about China. Traditionally, the authority of a Chinese Emperor was derived from the Mandate of Heaven – a right to rule that endured as long as the heavens were in harmonious equilibrium. In modern China, the mandate of Heaven has been replaced by the equilibrium created through successful global partnerships – private and public - that will sustain a thriving economy. Just as I am convinced America’s best days are yet to come, obviously China’s best days remain ahead.
And now our collective challenge is to bring our countries together as we mutually shape a better, richer future for both our peoples.
Thank you very much.