News Decoder

China is not necessarily a threat to the rest of the world and has done more to reduce poverty within its borders than any country in history.

China is not necessarily a threat to the rest of the world and has done more to reduce poverty within its borders than any country in history.

So says Jane Macartney, the offspring of Britain’s first envoy to China and a former foreign correspondent in China, first with Reuters, then with The Times newspaper.

In an interview with News-Decoder, Macartney discusses the changes she has seen in China since she first went there in the mid-1980s, how the country has been “utterly transformed” and how citizens now have an “incredible array of choice” of material goods and access to the rest of the world.

Macartney’s ancestor Lord Macartney led the first British diplomatic mission to China in 1793.

Asked if China is a threat to the rest of the world, Macartney says: “I think not necessarily. This is the rise of China, just as you had the rise of the United States.”

If the rest of the world is anxious about a rising China, it is because of a lack of understanding of what is happening in China and also because of the leadership’s penchant for secrecy, she says.

“China is going to become a great nation, as it once was,” Macartney says, noting that China by some measures was the largest economy in the world until about 1820. “I think the issue is how we respond to China, how we deal with China.”

Asked to comment on remarks by some candidates for the U.S. presidency that Washington would have to get tough with China, Macartney says: “I’m not sure that the United States is in a position to say, ‘We are the most important power and we dictate the terms.’ There should be perhaps a greater equality in how they deal with China.”

North Korea is an enormous problem for China because Beijing cannot exercise the influence it would like over its renegade neighbor, nor does it want to see the Pyongyang regime collapse, Macartney says.

“The last thing that China wants is to see North Korea collapse, become part of South Korea, become a united Korea, with U.S. nuclear-armed troops on the other side of a river from China.”

Until Japan makes a full apology for its conduct while it occupied China during World War Two, it will remain a convenient whipping post for Beijing, she says.

Macartney, who covered protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, says China’s leaders try to erase any memory of those protests so that people do not rise up uncontrollably. “To talk about Tiananmen is seriously high risk,” she says.

Asked what is most difficult for her to explain about China to those outside the country, Macartney says:

“What is most difficult is to explain that what is happening in China isn’t bad, that China isn’t this big bogey. No other administration in human history has lifted 600 million people out of poverty in 30 years. It’s the most astonishing achievement.”


Jane Macartney worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times and Reuters. She was The Times correspondent in China for six years and lived in Japan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London when working for Reuters. She reported on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and traveled to Tibet during periods of unrest there. She is the author of part of a book on the 1989 student movement in China and contributor to a book on the Afghan war.

This interview is part of a series with News-Decoder correspondents, including another one focusing on China with former Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger.

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