Ghassan Charbel – Asharq Al-Awsat
When Mohammed bin Salman was born in the summer of 1985, Xi Jinping was a 32-year-old youth who was forging his path towards the top positions in the Chinese Communist Party. Had China surrendered to the old dictionary that was dividing the world into two rival camps, the two leaders could have only met at a neutral venue, such as the United Nations.
The world has changed, however. China has changed and Saudi Arabia has changed. This made it easy for the two leaders to meet in Beijing to strike a partnership for the future between the two peoples. The silk and change road. A partnership of mutual interests and dreams.
As Xi threw a banquet in honor of his guest, I began to examine the two men, two countries and two experiences. One must not forget that the dinner was held near the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. A traveler to Beijing now realizes that the key to understanding present-day China does not lie in the Great Helmsman’s tomb, but in Deng Xiaoping’s career. Deng shouldered the burden of steering the country towards the future and breaking away from the policies of the past.
Lucky are the countries that enjoy extraordinary leaders standing at extraordinary crossroads.
China was lucky to have Deng who worked in Mao’s shadow before falling out of favor during the Cultural Revolution when he was accused by the Red Guards of harboring Capitalist ambitions. The truth is that the man shared a much different and greater dream.
Deng was among Mao’s delegation that visited Moscow in 1957. Mao suddenly turned to Nikita Khrushchev and pointed to Deng, informing him that “that small man is very intelligent and has a great future ahead of him.”
Indeed, Deng had the ability to understand the messages of the current age. Khrushchev’s reaction to Stalin’s death helped him realize the fatal danger of the “cult of personality”. He also realized the danger of allowing the country to be run from a leader’s tomb. Perhaps he made all of these realizations because he studied in France for some time and because he visited Moscow before it became crippled by the fear of reading the suffering of the people.
“The prevalent feeling in China was that our country was weak. We wanted to make it strong. We traveled to the West and endured the travails of immigration in order to learn.” When he later became the most powerful man in China in 1978, he predicted that his country would need half a century to complete the mission of modernity and political and economic control. He therefore, sought to dispatch missions to western countries where they would learn engineering, economics and modern management.
A Chinese woman wondered about Deng’s famous quoted: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” He meant that results are more important than the means and you have the right to alter methods in order to reach the best outcome. This is China today. She added that the China of openness, modernity and refusal to surrender to ideology began with Deng. This is why China is not seeking enemies or adversaries, but it wants partners and it has approached the world with its Belt and Road Initiative. It will speak to the world through the language of cooperation, investment, expertise, technology, artificial intelligence and robots, not the method of imposing policies.
The past decades have seen the Chinese youth unleash their potential and provide the necessary environment for innovation and competition under the protection of stability that is provided by the Communist Party. China is expected to achieve a massive economic and technological leap under its current president. The Chinese woman said that a “major country always needs a strong man of vision. This is currently embodied in the president. Stability is a red line. We have also learned from the Soviet experience under Gorbachev.”
China in the early 1980s was different than the Middle East at the time. Our region was living under the weight of the Iranian revolution, Afghan jihad and Iraq-Iran war. Extremism emerged and sought to take root in mosques, schools and universities. Fear and the “wait and see” policy prevailed. The world was meanwhile bracing for a series of global, technological and communications revolutions that would transcend borders.
In the new millennium, the wheels of change sped up and the world found itself confronted with massive challenges that demand thinking out of the box in order to remain abreast of modernity and book a place for itself in the future. You are no longer entitled to close off your country under the excuse of preserving your identity. The cost of isolation is a thousand times greater than the inconveniences of assimilation. Walls have been torn down and bridges have been built. You must coexist with the other. You must trade interests and expertise with him. Gone are the days of clinging to the past and the battle of the future has begun. How can we improve education? How can we provide job opportunities? How can we unleash energies to create a new world instead of rejecting it?
Saudi Arabia is lucky that it is facing the world with the future on its mind. Relations are no longer built on formalities and general statements. They are built on partnerships, interests, stability and investment. This is why Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared that the Arabian Peninsula is a fundamental part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is in line with the Saudi Vision 2030. This was further demonstrated by the decision to include the Chinese language in Saudi school curricula.
What applies to Beijing, also applies to new Delhi and Islamabad, despite the tensions between the latter two. The Saudi interest in the rise of Asia did not begin yesterday, but it was evident during the past three years. This is why the Crown Prince’s trip was not aimed at searching for alternatives as Saudi Arabia is aware of the importance of relations with the West, despite some passing dark clouds.
Experience says that the road to change is not always paved in silk. Major changes become difficult when they demand a change in mentalities, not just methods. Most importantly, one must reserve his seat on the train of the future that is moving along the track of silk, modernity and change.