China focus: Does the 21st century belong to China?

In an introduction to our extended feature, Hongbin Cong considers China’s growing global influence, citing its trading relationship with Dubai as just one example

It has been said that the 21st century belongs to China. As a Chinese national who has spent periods living and working overseas – including, for the past two years, in Dubai – I have a unique perspective on that assertion.

My country’s burgeoning economic, and cultural influence has certainly been well documented. China is today the world’s fastest growing major economy. Renowned as ‘the factory of the world’, it is one of the globe’s leading exporters and is also attracting record amounts of foreign investment. In turn, China is investing billions of dollars overseas in infrastructure, resources, and, increasingly, technology, media and telecommunications.

This newfound economic affluence has also created a burgeoning middle class that, thanks to unprecedented levels of disposable income, contributes significant amounts of tourist dollars to the economies of destinations worldwide. With a strong interest in culture and history, a new generation of aspirational Chinese are hungry to see the world and are flocking to international heritage sites across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Indeed, the UAE, France and Japan all featured in a recent Euromonitor report on the top 20 tourist destinations for Chinese travellers.

Through increasing intercultural, professional and business exchange, China and the world will continue to get to know each other in ever broader, ever more beneficial ways

Of course it is not only in economics that China is making its mark. The country is garnering increasing attention in the cultural space, with many Chinese artists sharing their works and talents overseas and serving as an inspiration to fellow creatives.

Intriguingly, though, in spite of China’s increasing prominence, in many ways it remains a newcomer to the world and, equally, the world is still very new to it. It is a situation I watch with interest and I believe the country’s growing influence in geopolitics and its diplomatic leverage will play an important role in its ever-increasing awareness.

A fantastic means of boosting awareness is through intercultural exchange. An appreciation of other cultures can, after all, be pivotal in transcending global barriers.

As such, it is exciting for me to see so many people across the globe taking up the study of my mother tongue. It is estimated that upward of 100 million foreigners are today learning Chinese. Of course, this development could be considered less about cultural exchange and more about economics – people have more reason than ever to learn Chinese for commercial and professional reasons. It makes perfect sense – after all, Mandarin is the first language of over 873 million people, making it the most widely spoken primary language in the world.

And with China today being the world’s second largest economy and a nation with which many major economies are actively involved in both business and cultural exchange, the benefits of learning Mandarin have never been greater.

China’s growing global influence and increasing openness to the world is perfectly encapsulated in its dealings with my current home, Dubai. Over the past few years, relations between the two have become ever closer, fuelled by initiatives such as Dubai’s sponsorship of China’s National Table Tennis Team, in addition to the launch of a recent programme to train talented young Chinese interns in the emirate, Dubai Business Internships.

You could say that the tone was set in 2012 when the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the UAE, a trip that saw the signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the two nations. Significantly, the countries also announced a currency swap worth 35bn yuan (US$5.7 billion), again with a view to boosting Sino-Arab trade.

Two years on and China is on course to become Dubai’s biggest trading partner, moving from second to first place. The relationship between Dubai and China takes in logistics, politics and, quite simply, connecting people. Last year, for example, Dubai welcomed 277,000 Chinese tourists – this in addition to the 250,000 Chinese, such as myself, who live and work in Dubai. In fact, increasing numbers of Chinese are choosing Dubai as their second home and I can see why. When I brought my family here two years ago I was bowled over by what I found. Dubai has such vibrancy and dynamism – and it is such an easy place in which to live.

With a strong interest in culture and history, a new generation of aspirational Chinese are hungry to see the world and are flocking to international heritage sites across Europe, Asia and the Middle East

There are actually many similarities between Dubai and China. In business, for example, personal relationships are enormously important in Chinese and Arab culture. The two also complement each other in terms of trade and economic development. Dubai occupies an advantageous position for the Chinese. It serves as a gateway to the region and, specifically, to Africa, where Chinese businesses have many commercial interests. As a result, increasing numbers of Chinese companies are using Dubai as a hub and as a location for their regional headquarters.

Meanwhile, later this year, Dubai will host the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Financial Cooperation Conference. The focus of this prestigious event will be on the ways in which Asia’s fast-growing economies can become more closely integrated and, by doing so, serve as a driver for overall global growth.

So, does the 21st century belong to China? That’s a big statement. What is clear, taking the Dubai relationship as one example, is that through increasing intercultural, professional and business exchange, China and the world will continue to get to know each other in ever broader, ever more beneficial ways.

More By the Same Author