Tim Laporte

Egg on my face

This week I attended a talk at the Lowy Institute. Jane Perez, the Beijing Bureau Chief for the New York Times, gave a talk entitled "The view from Beijing".

The topics ranged from the leadership strength of Xi Jinping to the success of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Jane is a thorough and dedicated professional. Her knowledge of China, its influence in the South East Asian region and its involvement in world politics is second to none. For those of you interested in the talk, here is the link.

I walked out of Jane’s talk feeling somewhat uneasy. Why? On reflection, I think I was unsettled by what I read as jaded cynicism from Jane about how we, in the West, perceive China. For me, the crux of her message was simple. The West grosslyunderestimates China.

In January this year in Davos, Xi Jinping's speech marked a watershed moment. For the first time in history, China publicly asserted its position as a major player on the global stage. But from a Western perspective, what evidence is there that China's actively participating globally? Their leadership is notably absent in relation to the current global crises we face. China is not involved in the Syrian crisis. China hasn't contributed any resources, let alone adopted a leadership role, in the attempt to resolve the famine in Somaliland.

So in what sense is China a global leader? After listening to Jane Perez, it dawned on me that China's view of world leadership is profoundly different to our own. Their global agenda appears, to us at least, to be unabashedly self-serving. Our own (Western) notion of what it is to be a global leader is diametrically opposed to this. For us, on the surface at least, world leadership is about global citizenship. Better-off countries coming to the aid of those in crisis, world leaders uniting to solve political, social and economic challenges. So when China declares itself a global leader, we look around and see no evidence to support this.

But China is engaged in global politics. Take their Belt and Road Initiative. When China first announced this initiative, the West was underwhelmed. It all sounded well and good, but how feasible was it? Four years on, we're the ones left with egg on our faces. The project has surpassed even China's own expectations. And the benefits for China go far beyond financial returns. Through this initiative, China is successfully buying political influence. In May, during a United Nations summit Greece opted to block the European Union's decision to formally critique China's Human Rights record. Greece was a recipient of China's Belt and Road Initiative in a time of great need. Vietnam’s previously prominent oppositional voice over the South China Sea has mellowed markedly since Vietnam has participated in the May conference on the Belt and Road Initiative— 'China and Vietnam will manage and properly control their maritime disputes'.

I think we'd all agree that in the case of the Belt and Road Initiative, the repercussions of China's global activities are far from insignificant. Through this initiative, China has been quietly strengthening its global power and influence. And they're managing to do so right under our noses, while we continue to view Xi Jinping's assertion of global economic leadership as mere propaganda. Sure, China may not be playing by our global arena rules. But we're probably not playing by theirs, either.

My passions lie in geopolitics and organisational politics. I'm an avid reader of news feeds and follow major think tanks from most continents. And yet, Jane Perez's talk has reminded me, once again, that when making sense of the world I still remain bound to — and constrained by — my own socio-culturally derived frames of reference. Jane is right. I have been underestimating China. 

The idea that our own frames of reference are limiting is far from new to me. I live and breathe this stuff. But in getting to the bottom of the unease I felt on leaving Jane's speech, my conviction that the capacity to challenge and expand our frames of reference is integral to one's ability to be an effective leader — in politics, in business, and in life — has been strengthened ten-fold.

Tim Laporte is a leadership advisor and co-founder of Leadership Partners. More articles on adult development, complexity theory, leadership and system thinking can be found here

This article is edited by Talia Gill, our brilliant communications specialist

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