China should speak for the developing world

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China should speak for the developing world

LI Kaisheng

Developing countries have always been important participants in international events hosted by China. The 29 heads of states who attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May this year mainly came from developing nations. In the BRICS summit in Xiamen in September, leaders from Egypt, Thailand and other developing countries were invited in addition to top officials from the other four BRICS countries.

China's diplomacy has long been associated with developing countries. Chairman Mao Zedong once said, "It's our African brothers who got the People's Republic of China back into the United Nations." Foreign Minister Wang Yi once stressed that developing countries formed the basis of China's overall diplomatic structure; as a continent with the most developing nations, Africa can be called the "foundation of the foundation of China's diplomacy."

However, some observers contend the relationship between China and developing countries is undergoing fundamental changes. To some developing nations, China is now a member of the club of big powers, the second largest economy which has surpassed Japan. Some Western critics accuse China of resorting to "neocolonialism" by plundering resources, damaging the environment and contributing to widening the gap between rich and poor. Many of these accusations are false and present an exaggerated view of the situation. But China's relationship with the developing world has undergone changes.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the country shared a long history with the developing world - from a colonial or semi-colonial nation to independent countries. Most of them belong to the same category in the international political and economic order, lack a say in global political affairs and are down the pecking order in international trade. Due to the need to confront the hegemony of the Soviet Union and the US, China - itself poor at that time - offered economic and political support to many developing countries.

Despite a considerable gap with the developed countries, as long as China maintains stable growth, it will sooner or later be able to emerge out of the group of developing countries. As the world's second largest economy, China's influence reaches beyond that of other developing countries. Thus, solely emphasizing its developing country status will not help China boost its economy and strengthen its polity. In the long term, China has to decide on how to look at itself and how to define the relationship with developing countries.

China should calmly face the identity change and not give up the natural, historical and realistic relations with developing countries. In other words, even if China becomes a developed country in terms of GDP in the future, it can still and should act as the spokesperson of developing countries. This is both a moral imperative and a demand for China's interest.

From a moral perspective, developing countries are still "vulnerable groups" in the current international order and their rights don't find a voice within the structure of international governance. While developed countries invest heavily in technology and upgrading armaments, many developing nations are still plagued by poverty, disease and even war. Fundamentally, the international order is still unfair and unreasonable. The international community including China should take a call for developing countries.

From China's point of view, its development is closely related to the progress of other developing countries. In terms of international division of labor, the places of China and most developing countries have undergone major changes. China also invests in other developing countries and exports industrial goods. But unlike the previous Western colonialists, China attaches importance to promoting infrastructure in developing countries. The Chinese believe a road must be first built if one wants to get richer. Through the Belt and Road initiative, China is committed to building a community of shared interests with the countries along the Belt and Road, most of them being developing countries.

China also has an opportunity to become a spokesperson for developing countries. Its developing background is institutionally linked with other developing nations through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the China-CELAC Forum and so on. And as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, an important member of international organizations such as IMF, the World Bank and G20, and the founder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China is able to help other developing countries achieve their aspirations in international governance mechanisms.

The progress that developing countries make finally depends on themselves. But under the existing international structure, it is an unwise idea to rely only on self-development. As a result, China should not give up its stance that "developing countries are the basis of diplomacy."

In the future, China may need to adapt to this change of identity: although it is no longer a developing country in terms of GDP in the future, it still needs to maintain or promote its role as the spokesperson for developing countries. This is not only necessitated by the need for China's own development, but is also a moral responsibility delegated to China by the international community.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

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