Report from a Conference on China’s New Normal – Duisburg

Duisburg, a German city situated in the Ruhr Area, used to be better known for its blast furnaces, coal mines and the inland port, than for China Studies. This state of things started changing in 2011, when the Yuxinou Railway was completed, connecting Chongqing to Duisburg via a 11,179 kilometers long track. By linking Chongqing to Duisburg, the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe railway has allowed to create new markets for European and Chinese goods, and new spaces for the production of knowledge.

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Duisburg, Inner Harbor

These spaces have opened up at the University of Duisburg-Essen, where an international conference organized by Professors Nele Noesselt and Guo Sujian was held last week on the theme of “China’s New Normal.” I was privileged to access such a space, by presenting some thoughts on the interpretive nature of concepts in ideology and the law, and by discussing the research presented by other conference participants. (See below for the conference program)

During four days of intensive work, the conference addressed a broad range of topics summarized under the headings of politics, economic reform, and political philosophy. Each one of these themes was addressed by a combination of scholars at vairous stages in their carreers, and saw the active participation of students of the Masters of Arts in Modern Asian Studies, a very succcessful program that attracts students from several countries of the European Union.

It is inevitable for any attempt at a fast-paced modernization in the fields of law, economy, and politics to produce negative externalities. More important than the existence of such externalities per se are attempts to minimize or eliminate them.

Accordingly, the discursive trope chosen for the conference was China’s “New Normal” (xin changtai 新常态). The “New Normal” is an idea General Secretary Xi Jinping advanced in May 2014, during an inspection tour of Henan Province, and which is commonly understood as involving a transition between two different states of equilibrium.

China’s development is still at an important time of major strategic opportunities, and we must strengthen our confidence, to adapt to the new normal, and maintain the strategy of the ordinary, starting from the features of China’s current stage of economic development.

中国发展仍处于重要战略机遇期,我们要增强信心,从当前中国经济发展的阶段性特征出发,适应新常态,保持战略上的平常心态

With its emphasis about moving from an old stage of equilbrium to a new one, China’s New Normal is an idea dense with subtle references to classical thought. Adopting this idea as a discursive trope allowed a better understanding of what the broad countours of the coming stage of global equilibrium might be, in the fields of the economy, politics. More importantly, it enabled conference participants to start forging a connection between the domestic dimension of the coming new equilibrium, and its broader global dimension.

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Duisburg, Burgerplatz, Coat of Arms

The domestic dimension of this new equilibrium relates to participants’ respective domestic contexts, and the different roles intellectuals can play in domestic education. Domestic education is broadly understood as sharing knowledge, and taking part to conversations among parties with different interests and points of view, with the eventual goal of producing new knowledge that is public, and can enable all parties make autonomous and better informed decisions in their fields of activity.

The global dimension of this new equilibrium, too, is related to education, and the role intellectuals can choose to play in global education. The addition of a global dimension however presents its own sets of challenges and opportunities.

These challenges and opportunities arise not from the duty to share knowledge. The duty to share knowledge is devoid from the potential biases that might sometimes be involved in the production of knowledge for private sale. Challenges arise from the difficulty in reconciling the local component (or aspect) of education and knowledge-sharing with its global component. These challenges are not due to the fact global education involves persons from the most different backgrounds, and with the most diverse opinions and points of view. They are inherent to the task of bridging several dimensions which are seemingly different, yet they cannot exist without each other. For instance, while the English language may be the native language only to  5 per cent of the world population, the same language is still the privileged mean of cross-cultural communication, due to its ability to incorporate the most diverse phonetical, grammatical and lexical variants. An excessive emphasis on maintaining the purity of such language, and a refusal to accept regional variants, would likely lead to English being replaced either by Mandarin Chinese, or by Spanish in the long run. As English, due to its pliability, is still the language of globalization, so does global education needs a framework of reference that is pliable enough to incorporate regional and national backgrounds, without losing its nature.

In this respect, an interesting, overarching theme that emerged during formal and informal conversations was that of connectivity.

Ideas about connectivity were addressed by participants in different ways. First and foremost, there was the obvious physical railway connection between Chongqing and Duisburg. Beyond this narrower physical dimension, one made by railways and high-values goods travelling between the EU and China, connectivity has a purely intellectual dimension as well. That this dimension is intellectual should not be taken as meaning that the production of knowledge cannot serve practical goals. The  intellectual side to connectivity is essential to bringing a form of order, or better: coordination among all those who are part of networks of communication, exchange, and interaction across different cultures. Coordination allows different parts to work together to achieve the same goal, or goals that may be different, yet contribute to a final result that is seen as beneficial to everyone.

By its own nature all that connectivity needs is an effective communication within and across networks. To exist, networks do not require a center. Much less do they need a hierarchy. The flow of information is however essential: absent the input and circulation of new ideas, new ways of doing things, and communication among its members, a network will collapse. The problem of an effective communication among persons who belong to different cultures has been easily solved by adopting a common language –  English.

Can a language be forged, that is common to all members (individuals, universities, enterprises, governments, NGOs) of networks of global exchange and communication that connect Duisburg to Chongqing, Ningbo to Venice, and Athens to Shanghai, passing through Gwadar? To a closer look, this language already exists in those standards that connect all too justified concerns about economic growth and material prosperity, to equally justified preoccupations about quality of life.

This is a language everyone can already speak, coherent with their most pressing preoccupations, and which can significantly shorten the so-called “learning curve”  between countries at different levels of development and modernization.

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Some of the Conference Participants

Conference Programme 

Wednesday, November 30

Roundtable on China’s New Normal: National and Global Dimensions (16:00 – 18:00) – Nele Noesselt, Guo Sujian, Sebastian Harnisch.

Thursday, December 1

08:30 Registration

09:00 Official Opening and Welcome Speech by the Rector of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Radtke.

09:30 Introduction and Outline of the Workshop. Guo Sujian. Nele Noesselt.

Panel I – China’s New Normal. Change and Continuity. 

  • Guo Sujian: “From Social Control to Social Governance”
  • Guo Baogang: China’s Administrative Reform in the Era of the “New Normal”
  • Nele Noesselt: Governance Change and Patterns of Continuity

Panel II – New Normal and Political Reform

  • Brantly Womack: Xi Jinping and Continuing Political Reform in China
  • Hu Xiaobo: China’s New Normal: Challenges to Old Politics of Economic Refor

Panel III – New Normal: Political-Economic Dimensions

  • Thomas B. Gold: Normalizing Private Business in China
  • Lowell Dittmer: The Political Economy of China’s New Nromal: Origins and Prospects
  • Dai Shuangping: Shaping the Innovation Capacity in China’s Electric Vehicle

Friday, December 2

Panel IV – Political Consequences of China’s New Normal

Panel V – New Normal: Critical and Philosophical Reflections

  • Zhu Yan: Labour Dispute Resolution in Contemporary China: A Paradox of ‘Rigid Flexibility’ and Rise of Opportunism
  • Flora Sapio: Ideological Plasticity in Xi Jinping’s China. Towards a New Political Ontology
  • Alexander Weiss: New Normal Democracy?

Panel VI – Governance Experiments: Local and Global Dimensions

  • Steven J. Balla: Online Consultation and Governance Reform in Chinese Ministries and Provinces
  • Li Yuan: New Normal Meets OBOR

Saturday, 3 December

Panel VII – Governance Reforms and Administrative Innovations

Panel VIII – Governance Experiments

  • He Li: Chinese Discourses on Constitutionalism and Their Impact on Reform
  • Giorgio Strafella: Change, Continuity and Returns: Cultural Policy Under Xi Jinping
  • Alessandra Cappelletti: Slowing Internal Economy, Transnational Investments and Cultural Diplomacy: Global New Normal?

 

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