Dr. Mohamed Noman Galal: Remarks by an African/Arab Scholar

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Let me begin with a personal note. My name is Mohamed Noman Galal. I am an Egyptian scholar and a retired Ambassador. As you know, Egypt is a four-pronged country. It is an African by history and geography. It is an Arab by cultural and destiny. It is a Muslim country, by choice, due to its culture and religion. It is a Mediterranean by geo-strategic situation, and part of its culture and history.

In a nutshell one can say it is four-in-one. Through this prism I would like to cast a look at Chinese history and development through various eras in a telegraphic way within the allocated few minutes.

First is the period of ancient Chinese history and civilization. The African and Arabs, Egypt is included, have some contacts with ancient China particularly through the Silk Road and the sea roads especially East Africa, where Chinese sailors undertook few trips. Alexandria, the ancient, capital of Egypt, was one of the focal points in ancient contacts with China. Africa and Arab views, at that time, have three characteristics:

1) Admiration of its achievements: Compass, fire, writing … etc.

2) Few knowledge about China but positive impression as it is too far away and had different and ambiguous culture.

3) Hope to learn from its scientific developments and its wisdom. It is narrated that prophet Muhammad of Islam says “Seek Knowledge even in China”.

Second is the period from Medieval, through the modern history. Both Africa and Arabs were in clash with European. The end result both, along with China become a victim of colonialism and imperialism. Liberation movements united, to a great extent, their positions got them closer to each other. Mutual support generated more positive impression.

Third is the era of post-independence. Africa and Middle East became embroiled in the cold war rivalry and power politics as well as the nation building. Due to Chinese/Soviet rift, few Africans and Arabs kept their contacts with China due to pressure from Soviet bloc, the Western influence and the radical slogans in Chinese politics. However, most of the intellectuals and politicians supported China restoring its legitimate seat at the UN in 1971. They were jubilant when they won the voting in the UNGA and the Chinese representative took his seat in the UNGA. They felt that China is one of them. It is a developing country, with no ambition to invade or dominate over other nations.

However, African and Arab scholars, myself is included, were confused about the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution. Some admired, while others feared and third group were skeptical. All wondered what will be the fate of China. Blurred vision prevailed, albeit, admiration of Chinese progress and Chinese leadership. I recall my dissertation for Master degree at Cairo University in 1974 on that Cultural Revolution, I recall my first published book titled “Cultural Revolution and Political Change in China” in the mid seventies. My conclusion was that China will not go continuously with that upheaval and extremist rhetoric. I predicted it will reverse the course. I was among few scholars in African and Arab world who were trying to have in depth, studies about China at that time.

Fourth is the current phase, till 1978 about now. A “volte-face” took deep rooted in today China. A sugar-coated concept was tossed up i.e. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. However it is a radical change that has happened in China today compared to China of yesterday. This change has in three dimensions:

1) Focusing on development and nation building internally and externally.

2) Separating economy from politics in domestic development and in foreign relations.

3) Taking assertive approach toward home and outside world in certain issues related to its security and territorial integrity while keeping low profile in most of other international issues. In other words, China raising high the banner of its soft power and keeping low its hard power.

The sea change in Chinese development nearly in all fields is not only astonishing, but also, it is a resounding and stunning. African and Arabs are counting China one of them and not yet one of others. They pin high hopes on China to champion their noble and just causes in a more assertive way. However, many Arab and African feel that China is still shying away from shouldering its role as a full fledged international power. While China characterizes its status, as a big developing country, with great achievements but still has a long way to go. In September 2010 a debate between some Arab and Chinese intellectuals took place in Beijing each group held fast to her own point of view about the status and role of China at international stage.

One can conclude by putting forward the question: is this a real and genuine Chinese position? Or, is it a temporary and circumstantial one? No clear, unanimous and definitive answer is available. Scholars can discuss and deliberate, while politicians may surprise us one day in the future.

Thank you for your indulgence.

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