Confucius, who has been dead for thousands of years and is an unlikely recruit either to the Chinese Communism of old or the one-party capitalism of today, is the figurehead behind China’s attempts to promote the learning of its language and culture.
They are signing up partner universities across the world – 370 since they began the programme in 2004 – on every continent. There are about 20 in these islands, including one which will be formally launched next year, at the University of Ulster.
Sitting through seminars, lectures, dinners and a concert performance in Beijing these last few days at the 6th Annual International Conference of Confucius Institutes, I was struck by the sheer scale and diversity of the activity – a learning programme in Bogotá, Colombia, another in a small town in Australia, one in Minsk University, Belarus, another in Heidelberg, Germany, a Chinese for Scottish schools programme.
Two thousand people were here – about half from outside China – and only a fraction of those spoke Chinese. Most of the Chinese spoke little or no English either. But they all wanted to engage. Even as the Chinese want us to learn Mandarin, they want to learn about us. Interpreters were everywhere.
China had an advanced civilisation and philosophy at a time when only the Greeks in Europe could lay claim to anything at that level. Romulus and Remus hadn’t even suckled any wolf’s milk yet – let alone laid the foundations of the Roman Empire.
More recently, the Chinese sent ships to Arabia and East Africa when Europeans were afraid they might fall off the end of the flat Earth if they went that far.
But China became more inward looking in the 16th century and didn’t industrialise when the West did. It didn’t build an overseas empire, either.
As a result, the West humiliated China in the period 1830-1930. The Opium Wars, in which British imperial might was used to crush the armies of the Emperor who wanted to stop a very lucrative, largely British drug trade that made addicts of millions of his subjects, is one reason why British trade delegations to this day should avoid China in the poppy-wearing season, as David Cameron found out in 2010.
The Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1901 was mercilessly crushed by a combination of British, French, German, Russian, American, Japanese, Italian and Austro-Hungarian might, a veritable world alliance against China. And then, in 1931, came a Japanese invasion that led to a bitter war that lasted until Japan’s surrender in 1945. China remembers it all.
The Communist Party is still seen by many as the party that brought an end to a century of shame and foreign dominance and that realisation is crucial to understanding contemporary Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution, a reign of Maoist terror in the 1960s and 1970s, is quietly and rarely discussed here, as a terrible mistake. Public self-blame is not China’s strong suit and internal party differences, when they are found in print, are in code, never open. Though most citizens know how to de-code. But there is a kind of pluralism that is fundamentally different to the highly individualistic Western version because of an almost Confucian sense of a greater good.
I flicked TV channels in my hotel room to find BBC World, CNN and a few other English-language channels, but also a multitude of Chinese channels, some of them featuring home-grown rock bands with the kinds of youngsters I fervently hope my daughters will stay well away from back home when they get to a certain age. The clothing is Western, a long way from the uniform grey or black tunic and trousers of the 1960s. The newspapers have been full of criticism of public officials after a spate of school bus and train crashes.
The artist Ai Weiwei, who has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities and has been arrested on what many regard as trumped up charges, nevertheless enjoyed commercial success in China in 2010 with his book “Time and Place”. As Newcastle upon Tyne academic Michael Barr says, Ai is an example of how leading artists “can be a source of both pride and annoyance to the government.”
The growth of Chinese economic power over the last thirty years has been phenomenal and they now hold most of the US Dollars that the US would dearly love to have back in order to help balance their books. China has a voracious appetite for resources, not only oil but also German and Japanese cars, jewellery and watches, even foodstuffs. China consumes half the world’s pork and at least one Northern Irish farmer exported half a planeload of pigs out here recently. The Chinese also want to invest outside China and they have realised in recent years that “soft power”, engaging on a cultural and human level, can break down other barriers. And that will no doubt bring challenges arising from different cultural expectations.
But it can be a win-win. If China gets the imports and investment it wants and we get the exports, jobs and even skills we need, who loses?
The key point is that plenty of others have realised this too and are already engaging with China. Their children are learning Chinese and some of their employees are learning Chinese, too. Those kids will have skills that will be in demand as the 21st century progresses. It’s time Northern Ireland got in on the act.