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January 24, 2010

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East meets West revisited

MAY I congratulate Hu Jintao, the President of the People's Republic of China, Han Zheng, the Mayor of Shanghai, and Chen Deming, the Minister of Commerce for hosting this global event, the first time in 159 years of the World Expo that a city in China - the famous city of Shanghai - has this great honor.

That Shanghai is the venue comes as no surprise. It is the most famous international Chinese city of all. Starting in the 13th century, as a cotton manufacturing center, Shanghai today is China's greatest commercial city, handling more than a quarter of total trade passing through China's ports. The city of Shanghai has been called "The Paris of the East."

The magic of Shanghai - its dynamism, culture, entrepreneurial sophistication, cosmopolitan ethos, architecture, and artistic skills as the entertainment hub of Chinese cinema, animation and even lianhuanhua comic books - is world renowned.

Twenty world cities now have 10 million or more inhabitants. Among them Shanghai is a leading city for its quality of life, life expectancy, medical treatment, sustainable environment and pollution controls.

The young and old of many countries visiting Shanghai will experience "a Better City, a Better Life." Shanghai has a unique allure, and it is no surprise that over 70 million people are expected to visit the Expo. I am delighted to be just one of them.

China is now the world's largest exporter with over US$1.5 trillion of exports, or nearly 10 percent of global trade. According to the International Monetary Fund, China accounts for 75 percent of the world's current economic growth.

China's GDP is the third largest in the world, after the United States and Japan, with a nominal GDP of US$4.9 trillion (2009) when measured in exchange-rate terms.

Again this should not come as any surprise. Even as late as 1820, the gross domestic product of China was still 30 percent higher than the total GDP of Western Europe.

World trade between Europe and China originated in the second century BC. The Han Emperor Wu, then ruling over 55 million people, extended the boundaries of China to the Tarim Basin - beyond the modern-day Xinjiang Uyghur region - and up to the Caspian Sea, establishing the famous "Silk Road."

That road created the first "bilateral relations" between Europe and China, with the first Roman envoy arriving in China in 166 AD. Some centuries later, it was used by travelers like Marco Polo, who described the wonders of Cathay.

China had by then founded an imperial bureaucracy, domesticated the dog, pig, chicken and water buffalo; produced apricots, peaches and tea; invented grafting techniques, early writing; and introduced paper, paper money, gunpowder, canal lock gates, cast iron, deep drilling, efficient animal harnesses, kites, magnetic compasses, movable type, porcelain, sternpost rudders and wheelbarrows.

By the third century AD, the Romans had built 53,000 miles (85,295 kilometers) of roads from Scotland to the Euphrates, joining Europe to the Silk Road. They introduced Christianity, democracy, Roman law, civic municipal governance, literacy, amphitheatres, bathhouses, sewers and aqueducts, peas, parsnips, plums and apples to Europe.

Then as now, China's concept of modernity was stability and harmony while in the West it was liberty and justice.

The Silk Road was augmented by sea travel, with ships plying as far as East Africa and Sri Lanka, with Syrian textiles traded in Boulogne, amber from the Baltic sold in Rome, furs and silks from Asia bought in Gaul.

That sea trade, centuries later, would make European powers and finally Britain enormously wealthy and powerful. Yet, 80 years before Columbus sailed to America, the Chinese Admiral Zheng had sailed from China to many places throughout the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and distant Africa in seven epic voyages from 1405 to 1453.

China has uplifted 350 million people out of extreme poverty in the last 25 years - the most unique progression of the human condition in living memory - and has also become the world's largest exporting nation under an international regime of increasing freer global trade under the WTO.

However, global freer and fairer trade is not to be taken for granted. There are forces in Europe and elsewhere resistant to freer trade and supportive of self-destructive protectionism for short-term political gain.

They ignore at their peril the bilateral trade between the EU and China, which exceeds more than US$400 billion per year and the fact that EU exports to China in 2008 alone supported some 13 million jobs in the EU.

These short-term thinkers need to be educated. In a recession with huge job losses in the West, this is not an easy task.

The Chinese leadership has kept global currencies stable, while holding US$2 trillion of depreciating US debt. From the surprising rebound in growth of the Chinese internal market to the stimulus made to counter the recession, China has demonstrated to Western leaders that it is indeed a world leader.

Shanghai World Expo will not only bring governments and national leaders together, it will also link companies, workers, clients and customers from all over the world.

It is a platform for exchanging views. It is an opportunity to eliminate trade protectionism and trade disputes. It could also be a platform to re-launch the stalled WTO Development Round for the benefit of the developed and the developing world.

As Chairman of the EU-China Friendship Group in the European Parliament, I am delighted this event is being held in China in the early 21st century, and I hope that China will contribute to free and fair world trade as my country Great Britain did in the 19th century.


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