-OpEd-

PARIS — My conversation partner is a Japanese banker. He has just returned from Amman, the capital of Jordan. And he's talking about the Chinese who were also there at a joint meeting of the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). "They were everywhere and everyone was talking about their new silk road," he says.

He's enthusiastic as he describes to me this new reality — this "Chinese dream" — which with the involuntary help of the United States and members of the European Union, is gradually replacing the American and European dream. Because while we, on this side the world, are closing our hearts and borders, the Chinese are building roads, bridges, canals and expanding ports.

They only pursue their interests, and these may coincide with yours.

In the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Swedish farmers who left to make their fortune in Denmark at the end of the 19th century find themselves confronted with the harshness of their living conditions. At the end of the film, one brother goes to the United States. Another stays in Europe to make the revolution happen.

When it came out, at the end of the Cold War, the film seemed to carry a simple message: The socialist revolution has failed in Europe — the USSR was about to collapse — and the American dream triumphs. The brother who crossed the Atlantic made the right choice, though the one who remained wasn't completely mistaken. The social democratic model established itself, after all, in Scandinavia. But in 2018 — three decades after its release — the film's message seems to belong to such a distant world.

Today's Chinese dream is, indeed, of a completely different nature than yesterday's American or European dream. It's no longer a question of joining a land of refuge, synonymous with freedom and respect for human rights. To get to the point, we went from "I come to your country to survive and fulfill myself" to "Come to me with your money and your energy. You are my last hope."

The opening ceremony of a Chinese hydroelectric power station in western African city of Soubre — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

For Africans and Middle Easterners — not to mention people from Southern and Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans — China, thanks to its money, is becoming the ultimate reference. But not just for that reason. For Africans, Chinese workers (unlike Westerners) don't have a colonial past. Not only that, but they live there in conditions very close to those of local workers. For the Greeks or the Bulgarians, the Chinese can be formidable negotiators but, unlike the authorities in Brussels, they don't impose any conditions or give any lessons. Everything is rather simple with them — "they have the hardness of a diamond." They only pursue their interests, and these may coincide with yours.

As a matter of fact, there's a sort of communicating-vessels-phenomenon at play — the American and European dreams on one side, and the Chinese dream on the other. The more dried out the former become, the more the latter blossoms. By closing themselves up as they do — and, let us be clear, even more out of selfishness than out of fear — the United States and Europe are directly contributing to China's efforts. How can we champion values we impose on others when we no longer practice them at home?

"One Belt, One Road"

The Return of Marco Polo's World, to use the title of a collection of essays recently published by Robert D. Kaplan, corresponds not only to the emergence of a new political geography of the world, but to a new map of sensibilities. If the beginning of the 21st century is reminiscent of the end of the 13th century, it is simply because, through time, China has been driven by the same ambition: To consolidate its empire through trade; by establishing two routes, over land and sea, linking China to Europe, via India, Persia and Russia.

The phrasing "Silk Road" is not Chinese. It was forged at the end of the 19th century by a German geographer, Ferdinand Von Richthofen, who was the first to speak of "Seidenstraße." The Chinese prefer to call it "One Belt, One Road" but aren't unhappy to make Westerners dream by using a slogan that corresponds to their imagination, since they are the ones who coined it.

How can we champion values we impose on others when we no longer practice them at home?

Although the "new silk roads" follow the lines of the old ones, the comparison with the end of the 13th century is too simplistic. Kublai Khan, unlike Xi Jinping today, was driven by personal motives rather than a spirit of collective revenge. China had not been humiliated by the Western invader. It exported its products, and refined its civilization and technological superiority — resounding, in certain fields — simply to extend its influence abroad and consolidate its power at home. Globalization, in particular, didn't have the meaning it has now, with the dual revolution underway in transport and information.

The "Chinese dream," buoyed by this mixture of disappointment with the Western world and desire for capital from China, shouldn't make us forget the flaws in the system in terms of respect for the rights that we consider fundamental. In its absolute centralization, the Chinese model can be effective in profoundly transforming a society, building infrastructure and advancing science and technology. Moving from the West to the East, "the dream" has taken on a more materialist and "illiberal" dimension, no doubt more in keeping with the spirit of the times.


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