Mark Seddon: This will not be America's century - but China's

Any opinion is possible, provided it does not conflict with the party's economic strategy
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The Independent Online

"Your speech," said the friendly official out of earshot of anyone else "is not very helpful!" Gloomily, I contemplated similar entreaties from Tony Blair at Labour NEC meetings, but gave the speech anyway. I had come to Beijing for a groundbreaking seminar organised by the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Billed as a discussion on the "new economic and political world order", the event was a clear signal that China intends to take a much more active role in the international arena. In a unipolar world dominated by one remaining superpower, the United States, a new power is rising in the east and every move it makes is as sophisticated as it is carefully calibrated.

"Your speech," said the friendly official out of earshot of anyone else "is not very helpful!" Gloomily, I contemplated similar entreaties from Tony Blair at Labour NEC meetings, but gave the speech anyway. I had come to Beijing for a groundbreaking seminar organised by the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Billed as a discussion on the "new economic and political world order", the event was a clear signal that China intends to take a much more active role in the international arena. In a unipolar world dominated by one remaining superpower, the United States, a new power is rising in the east and every move it makes is as sophisticated as it is carefully calibrated.

Invitations had been sent to all European social democratic parties and all - save the British Labour Party - had sent delegations. I came under my own steam, fascinated to find out how China manages a rampant market economy while maintaining a one-party system. I was intrigued to discover how the Chinese Communist Party, under the late Deng Tsiao Ping, pioneered the Third Way while Peter Mandelson was hawking the Morning Star outside north London Tube stations.

I discovered that Mandelson is held in some regard by the party hiererchy, having heaped praise on the Chinese Third Way at a private gathering of functionaries from the party's huge International Department a few years back. The thoughts of Blair's Third Way guru, Professor Anthony Giddens, are enthusiastically studied by students who would once have pored over the central tenets of Marxist-Leninism. Fortunately, China's own revolutionary leader was not too far from the thoughts of one official I met: "Chairman Mao once said," he winked, "a man who puts his hand in his trousers and finds four balls, knows his enemy is close!"

What I was to discover might dampen the enthusiasm of the free-market zealots, while offering hope to those who believe that market reform must be accompanied by political reform, or rather a pluralistic democracy. For in the new China it is now possible to hold almost any opinion, provided it does not conflict with the party's overall economic strategy - or organisation. This new openness meant that I could talk of the need for free trade unions, for the right of assembly and for democracy in front of one of China's Vice-Foreign Ministers - and film the proceedings too.

Determined to avoid the fate of the collapsed Soviet Union, China's leaders will soon allow more direct elections, but within the one-party system. As one of them explained: "Multi-party democracy could encourage separatism - it is at least 50 years away". And China's Third Way is officially the "Socialist Market Economy", an attempt to avoid Russian wholesale privatisation, while setting great store in highly profitable joint ventures with foreign companies.

At the centre of the new Green Silicon Valley is the port city of Dalian, dominated by international software companies re-locating from India. Dalian has just been earmarked as the "Shanghai of the north". And in Dalian, the globalising buccaneers of the software industry are already eyeing up neighbouring North Korea. "When they join the global economy," said Brenton Newell, the American manager of Dalian Software Park, "the first in will be the call centres." In five, 10 years time, a routine call to discover train times from Staines to Waterloo could be answered by a former peasant farmer turned telephonist in Pyonyang.

In Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province in what was once Manchuria, I was shown luxury BMWs that had been assembled for a tiny proportion of the cost in Europe. On assembly lines elsewhere in the massive car plant, Toyotas rolled off at a fraction of the cost they might in Japan.

But for those workers who can't find new jobs, the welfare net is rudimentary. New companies re-locating to China may soon discover that they may have to carry some of the pensions burden of the future.

And there have been persistent reports of labour unrest, especially here in the north-east as the "iron rice bowl" gives way to the private sector. In Shenyang hundreds of thousands of jobs have been "re-structured" out of coal, steel and shipbuilding. But here, in the heart of the rust belt, economic growth still runs at 12 per cent, more than the national average of 9 per cent.

Many of the claims made by US neocons are wide of the mark, but perhaps their most expansive claim - that this will be "America's century" - may one day be seen as the wildest of all. For at some point between the middle and the end of this century, it will be obvious to all but those in the bunker that this is likely to be China's century. "Our society, like yours, has been here for thousands of years," said old hand Liao Deng. "American society is only a couple of hundred years old."

The writer's video diary for 'Newsnight' from inside China will be shown on 11 November

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