The age of empire is returning, and it has Chinese characteristics

Keith Burnett
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Along The Hong Kong Border
Chinese leaders are willing to fund grand-scale investments in infrastructure that will connect up Asia, and to bring a new age into being (Source: Getty)

The Computer Electronics Show earlier this month was flooded with innovations built by hundreds of companies carrying the “Shenzhen” marque – referring to the hotbed of Chinese innovation in the Guangdong Province, which international trade secretary Liam Fox made a priority on his new year visit to China.

This is what China is calling a “New Journey, New Era”, and it is tied up with the common mission of the Confucius Institutes, which gathered last month for their annual meeting: to teach Chinese language and culture and help businesses keen to work in this rapidly developing market.

This is how a great nation will become yet greater – whether the world is ready for them or not.

Read more: London should look beyond Brexit to a decade of Asian engagement

Those whose only image of China is the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an may not be familiar with this modern Empire with a global reach.

I learned vital lessons even before I arrived at the Confucius Institutes Summit, having traveled nearly 1,000 miles to Xi’an from a freezing Beijing by a late high-speed train – just a fraction of the thousands of miles of high-speed track China has built. As the digital display showed speeds of well over 200km an hour, I barely felt a judder.

Then, at the Council meeting chaired by the vice-premier, I listened to the head of a university in Thailand tell how his Confucius Institute was teaching local people Chinese language and culture.

Why? Because Thailand knows that the Chinese high-speed train tracks are coming their direction, and that Thais will soon be able to travel from Bangkok up to Kunming, in Southern China, and on to anywhere in that great country where they want to travel or do trade.

As the American pioneers once knew, the coming of the railway meant one thing: jobs. Thais have realised they will be part of an enterprise that exceeds anything that the world has seen, and they want to be part of the growing prosperity that this will bring.

This Chinese train, along with the rapidly growing network of regional airports, will realise President Xi Jinping's dream of making any part of that great country, however distant and however modest, less than eight hours’ travel away. Chinese leaders are willing to fund grand-scale investments in infrastructure that will connect up Asia, and to bring a new age into being. They will succeed and the world will change.

As a Brit, I have seen a legacy of empire but, halfway across the world, a new age is dawning. What I saw at the formal opening ceremony of the Confucius Institutes conference could provide a clue about a changed global order.

After the usual speeches, a blind young African student, wearing a hijab, was led up to the podium. She was a student at Khartoum University and told the Conference, in flowing Mandarin, why she studies Chinese.

With a liking for languages as a child, her father encouraged her to learn Mandarin so that she could get a job with the Chinese companies in the Sudan. As she was led back from the stage, the Chinese viceprremier decided to get up and thank her personally. She gave the delicate African woman a hug.

I was in the seats at the front and could see just how she held her: it was no perfunctory or merely affectionate squeeze, it was decidedly gentle and loving. Liu Yandong is a Chinese politician who had committed her time and efforts to the teaching Chinese, embracing a representative of a future world.

There is a tale about George Washington Plunkett, a politician in the early days of the United States – one which I have always felt got to the heart of what it meant to share a patriotic identity. Asked what it would take to make a newly arrived immigrant on the Lower East Side docks a true American, the experienced politician answered: “Do you give them a copy of The Bill of Rights? No! You give them a job.”

That is how the Chinese are building an empire. From the ancient capital city of Xi'an to Africa, and right across the Belt and Road, China is extending its trade and its influence. It is a new Rome and we are witnessing the birth of the Pax Sinica.

Like all great powers, it will have choices ahead. It is my sincere hope that it chooses, in the words of President Xi’s start-of-the-year address, “to always be a builder of world peace”.

Read more: Everything Under Heaven: Xi Jinping is establishing his empire

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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