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Vitality Through Diversity
China strives to thread the multicultural fabric of Asian nations into a seamless whole
By Xu Bei | NO.14 APRIL 7, 2016

Speakers attend the session of Dialogue of Asian Civilizations during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2016 on March 23 (COURTESY OF BOAO FORUM FOR ASIA)

The explosion in cultural and economic diversity that, today, billions of people around the world are taking part in is a result of a long historical process that is rapidly picking up momentum.

As e-commerce develops in China, for example, ordering dates from the Middle East—a prospect that would have taken weeks or even months in previous eras—merely requires a press of a button for the product to arrive the next day.

"I couldn't imagine how fast the dates would be delivered," claimed Mo Yan in surprise at the Dialogue of Asian Civilizations session at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2016 in Boao, south China's Hainan Province, on March 23.

Mo, the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature, used the example to muse on how closely and easily connected China has become to the world, thanks to the Internet. The writer, who is famous for his 1987 novel Red Sorghum Clan, claimed that the exchange of commodities has always been—by extension—an exchange of culture, too.

"Civilizations become colorful due to exchanges, and are enriched through mutual learning. Asian countries are flourishing by partaking in the benefits offered by each other's culture," said Jiang Jianguo, Minister of the State Council Information Office, at the session. Speakers from China, Pakistan, Iran, Singapore and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) joined in the discussion and agreed that Asian countries should promote exchanges and protect cultural diversity.

Dialogue is paramount

Asia was the cradle of numerous ancient civilizations including those that brought China, India and Saudi Arabia into existence. Asia is also home to the origin of three major world religions—Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, thereby contributing greatly to the development of civilizations throughout the world.

"Diversity is a very clear feature of Asian countries, and is a treasure created by Asian people that must be cherished," said Mo. "New vitality and impetus for the future development of Asia lies in the diversity of Asian civilizations."

There are 48 countries and more than 1,000 ethnic groups within Asia, where 2,000 different languages and nearly 100 distinct religions have developed due to different conditions, histories, cultural traditions, values and social systems.

"Each civilization is an accumulation of labor and wisdom and deserves respect—every achievement must be preserved," said Jiang. "We can only create a colorful Asia and a colorful world where people from different civilizations respect each other and treat each other equally."

Communication and efforts to learn from each other have been the main driving force for progress in history, according to Jiang. Since modern times, Asian countries have been encouraging and supporting each other in their attempts to attain national independence and to rekindle their combined economic capabilities.

Asia is now the fastest growing region with the largest economic potential in the world. Even so, a number of Asian countries are also facing mounting economic pressures, complicated security issues and unconventional security challenges.

Therefore, they must carry out extensive dialogues to learn from each other's wisdom, eliminate misunderstandings and disputes, promote exchanges and stimulate vitality for economic and social development. By following these measures, Jiang claimed that lasting peace and prosperity could be achieved.

Foundations for dialogue

Cheng Yung-nien, Director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, believed that countries' confidence in themselves is essential to promoting dialogue between cultures.

Singapore is a melting pot of various cultures. The fundamental reason behind Singapore's economic success and harmonious cultural development is its adoption of the Chinese civilization's open and inclusive nature in addition to what it learned from other countries' cultures. "Facing the peaceful rise of China, Singapore should now be confident enough to carry out dialogues on an equal level with China," Cheng said.

Justin Yifu Lin, Honorary Dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, also emphasized the significance of self-confidence in dialogues between civilizations, saying that they must be carried out on an equal basis. Otherwise it would simply become preaching—that is why the most important factor for a balanced relationship is self-confidence.

Lin said Western civilizations used to think that in order for other countries to be successful in modernization, they'd have to conform to Western values. But nowadays, modernization doesn't necessarily mean that a country must be completely Westernized.

Japan, for example, has its own unique culture which has been modernized. The Four Asian Tigers—South Korea, Singapore and China's Taiwan and Hong Kong—all based on Chinese Confucianism, have been modernized, too. The Chinese mainland, whose major culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism, is also expected to become a high-income and modern country by 2020-25.

These examples prove that a country doesn't need to be Westernized to realize modernization. If Confucian-based nations can succeed, other developing nations can follow suit by remembering their heritage and history.

Ahmad Jalali, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Iran to the UNESCO, elaborated the significance of respecting history. He said that both Iran and China have very old civilizations. Nonetheless, he claimed, "when you don't know history, and you want to invent and impose a new history which has no ties to—or denies—the real culture of the people, then [we are faced with a] problem. This is the reason that dialogue is needed. If they listen to history, we will be able to hear the message of dialogue."

Jalali stressed that dialogue is unlike negotiation. "In a dialogue, there's no winner, no arguing over [who is right or wrong]. In a dialogue, we're listening," Jalali said. "Dialogue is not to lose or win, or even to try to convince the other side."

Fostering frequent exchanges

The Chinese Government has always promoted communication between different civilizations to eliminate misunderstandings. When addressing the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015, President Xi Jinping proposed a conference for dialogue among Asian nations to contribute to more vibrant regional cooperation and development.

Before that, at the Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia held in May 2014, Xi called for the promotion of exchange and mutual learning among different cultures and religions through various means such as the dialogue of Asian civilizations.

In his speech at this year's Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, Premier Li Keqiang said that being open and inclusive is the very basis of Asia's culture. The people in Asia crave for peace and harmony amongst its neighbors.

Asian countries are linked by close people-to-people exchanges, said Li. Each year, several hundred million tourists travel throughout Asian countries. China proposes that an Asia Civilization Dialogue Conference be held and that all countries and regional organizations take an active part in it.

Jiang said that the Dialogue of Asian Civilizations session on March 23 was only a prelude, and that China is promoting a conference for dialogue among Asian civilizations, which will be a high-level starting point for the communication of cultural values.

According to Jiang, promoting such exchanges is a long-term task and requires joint efforts of various countries. He offered three suggestions.

First, a regular mechanism for dialogue among Asian countries should be established.

Second, dialogue among Asian civilizations should be conducted via multiple platforms. Non-governmental organizations, the media, cultural and religious groups must play their roles to boost intercultural exchanges.

Third, platforms for Asian cultures and dialogue among young people should be encouraged in order to lay solid foundations for friendship and facilitate intercultural exchanges.

Shaukat Aziz, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, agreed on the necessity of creating a dialogue of civilizations proposed by China. At the March 23 session, he said that all of the citizens in the world, although coming from different countries, speaking different languages and having different religions, must open their hearts to each other and work together.

He believed that inclusiveness and connectivity to each other as a whole can bring decent economic growth. Many countries are focusing on this goal, China being one of them.

"The Belt and Road Initiative is not only physical. There will be roads, railways, and air as well as sea connections, but the most important factor will be people-to-people interactions, which will lead to economic growth and peace, bringing us closer together," said Aziz, adding that Pakistan enjoys the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

Comments to yushujun@bjreview.com

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