After watching the program, I cannot help but make the following observations and comments.
(1) In about ten years, China is likely to become the number one economic power in the world. The U. S. and some of her allies are deeply concerned what will China do when that time comes. This fear of China’s rise prompted the U. S. to change its policy of engagement to containment. As many of us know that China has no intention of exporting its system of communism or "state capitalism" outside its geometrical boundary. What is then the goal and motivation for China ? Mahbubani put it clearly and beautifully that the motivation is for China to revive and re-vitalize its civilization, and to stand up from the humiliations suffered from the imperialist countries (Western countries and Japan) over the one hundred years before 1945. All the Chinese, Chinese Americans, and all the overseas Chinese should be and are proud of this accomplishment. This goal and motivation of China should alleviate some of the concern of the U. S. Unfortunately the U. S., being the sole superpower of the world, consider China’s rise as a threat to the U. S. hegemony. Its containment policy will not change.
(2) Mahbubani made an interesting observation that when he came to America and checked into a hotel, he turned on the television and all the major stations viewed the world completely from the U. S. point of view with little objectivity. All the major newspaper (New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) also reported similar views. These American views and perspectives are quite different from that of the rest of the world. He felt that he was totally cut off from the rest of the world. This reminds me of the situation in Taiwan, where the news media and some politicians only consider their own interests which are quite narrow in scope and totally ignore the big picture. The difference is that the U. S. can afford to be arrogant and ignore the views of the rest of the world because America is the only superpower in the world, while Taiwan cannot afford to be arrogant and ignore the surrounding environment and the big picture. By doing so, Taiwan will only hurt itself economically to say the least. If pushed to the limit, Taiwan could be totally ruined.
(3) On Democracy, Mahbubani remarked that "be careful of what you wish for". This is because the U. S. and its allies wish to see the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and wish to see China becoming a democratic country like the West and the U. S. If China becomes democratic, Mahbubani thinks that China will be more aggressive because there will be no wise and capable leaders to guide the nation and contain the nationalism which is bound to rise when China becomes number one in the world. This point of view has certain truth in it because, in a democracy, policies often are determined by the opinions of the majority of the people which are almost always short-sighted. An even more dangerous scenario is that, before the collapse of the CCP, some hardliners in China may want to start a war (an easy target is Taiwan) in order to gather support from the people by arousing patriotism. This strategy usually succeeds and there are plenty of examples. China can rise peacefully but China cannot fail peacefully. However, the world should not be concerned because neither scenario will happen because China is not likely to turn democratic in the foreseeable future. China's priorities are (1) to continue to develop its economy so that more people can be moved out of poverty, (2) to reduce pollution and improve its living environment, and (3) to fight corruption. To move from a one-party authoritative system to a democratic system, the necessary condition is that the majority of the population should be middle-class. China still need to move hundreds of millions of people to middle-class before it can make a successful transition to democracy. There are plenty of examples of failed democratic movement (just look at the countries that were involved in the "Arab Spring" movement). Taiwan and South Korea succeeded in the transition from dictatorship to democracy because both countries were doing very well economically and the standard of living improved substantially before the transition.
(4) China is likely to become the number one economic power in the world in about ten years. Then, there will be two superpowers in the world. Instead of trying to maintain the world order by a single superpower (the U. S.), it would be much better and easier to do it by the twin superpowers. Even when China becomes the number one economic power, the U. S. will still be a formidable friend or enemy for sometime to come. The transition may take ten or twenty more years for China to move ahead further and becomes truly the number one power in the world. So there is at least a period of twenty years from now, the world will be led by two superpowers. Therefore, there are two scenarios in the future. The first scenario is that the two superpowers can get along well and have a friendly relation. They can rule the world by consensus and the world will be more harmonious. This scenario is what some of us wish for and is also the wish of Mahbubani. But the reality may be quite different. The U. S. policy of "pivot to Asia” is moving the U.S.-China relation in the opposite direction. The U. S. is considering China a rivalry and a potential enemy, instead a competitor and a friend. Because the news media and politicians continue to bash China, the majority of Americans do not have a favorable opinion about China. If this trend continues, it will force China to move away from the U. S. It is difficult for the Americans to gradually accept that China will become the number one power in the world. America has been the superpower at least for seventy years (may be longer). Arrogance and ego prevented Americans to switch their mind-set from being number one to being number two. Even Bill Clinton is afraid to repeat the possibility that the U. S. may become number two sometime in the future because it is considered to be political suicide. The more likely scenario is that the U. S.-China relation will be no better than it is now and could become worse.
(5) I noticed that the majority in the audience were foreigners. In the question/answer session, all the questions were asked by people with foreign accents with one exception. This shows that most Americans are not interested in "What Happens When China Becomes Number One?” The one exception is an older, white gentleman who asked about the freedom in China. The lecturer answered that freedom in China has improved a great deal since he first visited China in 1980. There is apparently a big gap between how Americans view China and how Chinese view China. The differences mainly came from different reference points. The Chinese compares the current status of China with that of more than forty years ago when China just came out the disastrous movement of "The Great Cultural Revolution". The improvements are unprecedented in every respect and nothing short of a miracle. The Americans looked at China from the current status of the West which progressed and evolved over the last two hundred years. This white gentleman remarked at the end of his question that the praise given by Mahbubani on China can only get away in Cambridge. This remark is true but it also reflected the typical attitude of Americans towards China. First, outside Cambridge, which is the most liberal and open-minded community in America, very few Americans will believe what Mahbubani talked about. Second, the title "What Happens When China Becomes Number One?", and the praise that Mahbubani gave to China are not what the Americans want to hear. It is amazing how one simple sentence can reveal the arrogant and self-centered attitude of most Americans. I do not know the background of this white gentleman, I do know that Mahbubani is widely respected around the world and he travels (by invitation) to more than thirty countries a year. I would respect the opinions of Mahbubani anytime over that of this white gentleman.
(6) Most people know that the U. S.-China relation is not only important for the two countries, but also important for the world. As a Chinese American, I am concerned what will happen to us if the U. S.-China relation deteriorates further. Recent incidents that two Chinese-American scientists were arrested and then released without explanation is quite alarming. If the U. S.-China relation take a turn for the worse, lives of Chinese Americans will certainly become more difficult. A good example is the lives of Muslim Americans who are constantly under threat simply because of their faith. We can only hope that the leaders and policy makers in the U. S. have the wisdom to see that the future of America depends strongly on having a friendly relation with China.
Y. S. Cha