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China's Communists could be vital to Liverpool's future

2009. 17 July

by William Leece

( China’s Communists could be a vital part of Liverpool’s future, as William Leece discovers from the man advising the city.

Communism and the far left may have had their day in Europe, but a large chunk of Liverpool’s future prosperity might yet depend on the future of the world’s largest Communist party.

As Liverpool prepares to take its own space at the Shanghai Expo 2010, in the hope of tapping into the Chinese boom, it is easy to forget that China is still a one-party state, with its roots as much in Marx and Mao as much as the legendary Chinese traders of old.

Modern China without the Communist Party would just not be China. It is the glue that holds the country together – and, if that glue were to fail, the quake that would spread from the collapse of what will soon be the world’s largest economy would be truly frightening.

It is a possibility that Liverpool’s business and political leaders need to get to grips with. But at least they will have some of the best-possible advice at hand: Kerry Brown, executive director of the Liverpool Shanghai Partnership, is an academic and former diplomat who is now a senior fellow at Chatham House, the influential think-tank and home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs. He is one of the leading analysts and commentators on Chinese affairs in Britain.

“The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party has left political reforms until very, very late,” he observes on a visit to Liverpool to launch his latest book, a history of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The economic reforms of the last 30 years have been very dramatic, but it’s always pushed political reforms into the fire.”

But sooner or later the crunch will come. The Chinese leadership is as realistic as anyone these days about the need to devise a suitable system for governing, and managing the aspirations of, the world’s most populous country. Especially when that country is now the world’s third-largest economy, with every prospect of becoming the largest at some point in the next 20 years.

By any standard, the achievements of the People’s Republic of China over the last 60 years have been phenomenal.

From a fragmented country racked by poverty, civil war and external conflict, it has grown to the point where it will almost certainly surpass the United States in its economic clout before too many years have passed.

Life expectancy has more than doubled from 32 years to 74 years: whatever the failings are of a party driven by ideology, whose leaders have often been downright thuggish, it has nevertheless delivered the goods for many – if not most – people.

But the day of reckoning is approaching. Three or four massive challenges are looming for China over the next decade, according to Dr Brown’s analysis, and they cannot be avoided for ever.

The changing nature of China’s population presents problems in itself; there is no proper social security system, there is a growing imbalance between the genders, and overshadowing it all is China’s huge demand for energy.

Given the mood of realism within many of those in the higher echelons of the party, the chances are that the changes will be made. But they will be interesting times.

In the more immediate future, though, there is the Expo 2010 to think about. Liverpool’s long-standing Chinese community has given the city a head start in establishing links with the new China, and the city has taken its own space at the British Pavilion.

But, for all the warmth generated by the Chinese in Liverpool, the city is going to have to break away from the past sooner or later.

“We can do the mood music stuff, the soft diplomacy stuff, the culture stuff, but now is the time for Liverpool to say ‘This is what we can do, and this is how we do it’.

“I think the city is getting there, it’s much more knowledgeable about what it wants from China.”

As well as doing business with the colossal manufacturing industries of south China, there is also the prospect of attracting inward Chinese investment.

China is now sitting on foreign exchange reserves of two trillion US dollars, a sum of money almost beyond comprehension.

If even a fraction of that were to be invested in Liverpool and the surrounding city region, the spin-off benefits could be dramatic.

But for that to happen, there has to be a China to make the investment. And, like it or not, that means there has to be a Communist Party.

FRIENDS and Enemies, by Kerry Brown, is published in paperback by Anthem Press, 230pp, £14.99.