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Belt, road, epiphany

Jan 13,2020
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Ko Dae-hoon
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I was invited to the “Experience China” event for the media in countries on Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. It was an eight-day journey at the end of the year through the bases of China’s southern maritime Silk Road, from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. I traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) and toured six cities, including Guangzhou, Zhouhai and Huizhou in Guangdong Province and Xiamen, Quanzhou and Fuzhou in Fujian Province.

In the beginning, I didn’t have high hopes. I thought China would show off “subcontracting factories of the world” in shoes, sewing and smokestack industries to the 20 reporters from the developing countries along the “One Road, One Belt” — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Egypt. While China has Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei, I had a sense that China was unrefined. I was mistaken. My ignorant prejudice that a Korean reporter would have nothing to be impressed by from China was wrong.

In Huangpu, Guangzhou, I met young venture businessmen researching high-tech drones and 3-D recognition technologies, and in Zhouhai, I saw the will to maintain two systems under one country while looking at the 55-kilometer Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge.
In Fuzhou, I felt the threat of TCL, which has become the third largest appliance company after Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics. In Xiamen, I was intimidated by the skyline on par with Seoul, and in Quanzhou, I discovered the traces of trading with Islamic civilization 700 years ago illustrated by Marco Polo. In Fuzhou, I witnessed the grand vision to revive the maritime Silk Road explored by the Zheng He fleet in the Ming Dynasty.

The Silk Road was developed in the Han Dynasty, and trade boomed in the Tang Dynasty. China misses the glory of powerful Han and prosperous Tang. China picked what it wanted to show, and I could feel the energy from the base cities as I traveled on bus, train, ship and on foot. It was the dynamic energy of living creatures. Modern buildings coexist with thousand-year-old tradition, and the countless construction cranes blocking the sky created an unbelievable sight. The China dream for a 21st century Silk Road that I had only read and heard about gave me goose bumps.

Coming from a country with a per-capita GDP of $30,000, I was quite impressed. So the reporters from the countries with per-capita GDP less than $5,000 were undeniably shocked. The Chinese officials at the reception asked for cooperation for the “One Belt, One Road” project, and the reporters offered their support. Their support was linked to some sort of patriotic expectations that their economies would grow if they became a part of the “One Belt, One Road.”

China’s grand dream is to create a society where 1.4 billion people live comfortably and become a global empire greater than the United States by 2049. I ran into an interesting clue during the visit. There was a slogan “Freedom, Equality, Fairness and Law” under the title “Core Values of Socialism.” The signs were all over China — along the road, in the markets, hotels, bus stops and parks. “Freedom of human will, existence and progress, equality of participation and rights before the law, fairness of equity and justice and law as the basis of politics.”

Out of curiosity, I asked about the strange mix of ideologies to a Chinese member of the group. He said, “Don’t look at it from a Western perspective. There are Chinese-style liberty, equality, fairness and law. We have a belief that we will be happy and better off within those values. What’s the difference between socialist market economy and capitalism today?” He supported long-term rule of “Emperor” Xi, adding that when Xi was young, he looked like Korean actor Song Joong-ki and was popular. He meant that the values that could be criticized as the concepts were decided by Xi and the Communist Party, but they set a clear standard for mindset and action of the people. He stressed that the honest concept with no room for hypocrisy and lies can be the power of integration towards “One Belt, One Road.”

“Equality, fairness and justice” of the Moon Jae-in administration are double-sided. They have been spoiled into a standard of perfect discord and dividing sides. Watching the “democratic dictatorship” as seen in the liberal administration’s budget plan, revised electoral law, and an extra law enforcement agency focusing on investigating high public servants, including prosecutors and judges, to the “massacre” of retaliatory reshuffle of the prosecution, I am doubtful what is really better than the one-party monopoly of China. Does the Korean society have a future as it uses such scary words as “war” and “cleanup” while China is rising with the “One Belt, One Road?”

The journey gave me an ominous feeling that the day will come in the near future that Korea will have an audience with China. The realization of the Silk Road means establishing the order of 21st century tributary system. At the U.S.-China summit in April 2017, “Emperor” Xi said that Korea was a part of China, and it was not a mistake but his true thinking. The small country Korea on the frontier of China that President Moon Jae-in mentioned in December 2017 during his trip to China is becoming reality.

The few years in which Korea rarely demonstrated its economic superiority over China is disappearing like smoke. The sad memories of the tributary system may be before us.