Last Friday night, I was on the 7.30 pm train from London to Edinburgh. After a few minutes, I started chatting with a Beijing businessman who was touring the UK with his daughter. He spoke excellent English.
As our conversation evolved, we began to touch on two of my favorite subjects these days – politics and economics. In just a couple of weeks or so, China will get a new President as the Communist Party holds its once-a-decade power transition Congress when Xi Jinping is expected to be selected as the country’s next leader. The transition has been made messy thanks to the political scandal triggered by the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood in the Chinese city of Chongqing nearly a year ago.
My new friend was not too keen to speak about the Neil Heywood affair, but he believes China is at a crossroads. Rather than continue along the same path, many believe that it is time to slow down its reform pace and immerse itself in another cultural revolution. So it is time to slow down, reflect, and agree on the way forward. In terms of economics, he acknowledged the slow-down in economic activity. Still, he explained that unlike us in the West, the Chinese maintain a long-term perspective. Given high average savings rates, many business people are well prepared for an extended economic slowdown.
During the journey, he used his iPhone to take pictures around the crowded train. In my mind, East Coast trains are among the better long-distance trains here in the UK, but for him, it seemed old and cramped compared to the trains in Beijing. It struck me after a while that he saw the UK as we see Rome and Greece when we travel there as tourists. We go there to see the ruins of a once-great civilization.
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After a while, the topic switched to the US Presidential campaign in which China is, of course, a recurring theme. My friend explained that one apparent thing is how little the West understands China. In China, so many senior politicians and businessmen were either themselves educated in the West or ensured that their children attended university here. Unfortunately, the opposite is not true as so few Western decision-makers have real experience of Asia aside from a quick trip.
Stepping back a bit, it is clear that the world at large is in the midst of a transition away from old paradigms that have obviously outlived their usefulness. As we look around, it seems as if almost every country or trading bloc is trying to decide how to deal with pressing social, economic, and political problems. No country seems to have found the perfect answer. Not even the great China. My Chinese friend confessed that one area in which the West is definitely outpacing China is environmental awareness, governmental policy to protect the environment, and available technology to address pollution issues.
Looking at the news, it is hard to ignore the many developing world populations that have grown frustrated at their leaders’ inability to steer the country in a new direction and have taken matters into their own hands, as happened in the Middle East and North Africa. Turning to the US Presidential election campaign and recent Congressional elections, it is interesting to observe the Occupy movement and the now influential Tea Party movement, which arose out of frustration with the two main political parties. Turning to Latin America, many citizens have supported leaders and parties that embraced radical policies to correct historical economic inequalities. None of these responses by concerned citizens in these various countries is perfect, but radical changes rarely are.
What concerns me most about the Caribbean region in general and Trinidad and Tobago is the lack of any real grass-root ideology that enjoys widespread support. The region switched from dependence on a single agricultural crop to a single industry – tourism or energy in Trinidad’s case. Socially and economically, there is an agreement that this is unsustainable. While many point fingers at the leaders, I have always been among those who believe that citizens always get the Governments they deserve. When will citizens start voting for transparency and accountability? When will the wider society become so frustrated that through the democratic process, they elect leaders from beyond the two major political parties? As I look at what is happening elsewhere globally, I believe that this time is coming sooner rather than later. So these are very exciting times.
Despite so many challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope in a brighter tomorrow.
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