Towards Peace and Understanding: An Interview with Dr. Li Kaisheng
It was a pleasant morning as I walked to the agreed meeting place. I was running late by a few minutes due to the morning traffic congestion so I walked hurriedly, hoping that my interviewee would have also been delayed by the slow flow of traffic. As I got nearer the rendezvous point, I saw a man with a dark blue polo shirt tucked in his jeans seemingly waiting for someone. He was in his usual casual ‘professor-look’ and as he saw me, he waved, smiled, and stood up to shake my hand.
The man is none other than Dr. Li Kaisheng and he was all smiles as he approached me. Dr. Li is an associate research professor from the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. He was in the Philippines for a six-month stint as a research fellow at the Asian Center in the University of the Philippines Diliman.
His six months in the country was almost up when we met for this interview, and he was going back to China in a few days. We were lucky to be able to book an interview with him to get him to share his experiences, perspectives, and the memories he made as a first-timer visitor to the Philippines. Here is how the rest of the morning went with Dr. Li.
How was the whole experience of being a research fellow in the Philippines?
For me it was very good. For me the most interesting thing during my six-month stay is how I deepened my understanding. I think our countries should know more of each other. There are so many Chinese people who have no good understanding of the Philippines, which included me. Before I came to the Philippines, I had a very simple idea of it. My major is international studies and my research is about Asian security and China’s foreign strategy. I have a belief that the foreign policy of every country is deeply rooted in its society, politics, its history, its culture, and people. I think after six months, I’ve been to some places, met some people, I think I now have a more comprehensive understanding and I think this is the best thing that I have achieved.
What were your expectations when you were about to come to the country?
I expected to get more understanding about the people, the culture, and all about the country. I can learn a lot about your country from books, but I think direct engagement is different and is highly essential.
What were the challenges you faced during your first few weeks in the Philippines?
Honestly, I didn’t encounter any big challenge in the Philippines. Personally, most Filipinos were very kind. So while I may have some problems, people were there to help me. Filipinos and Chinese are both Asian people so I think we share so many similarities. If I go to other countries especially the Western ones, that’s what’s going to be a big challenge for me. But for now everything was okay. Of course the weather is different. In China they have four seasons. But this is still okay.
What is the best thing about the Philippines?
I think the best for me is the friendship I have experienced. This is very important especially during this time when our bilateral relations are not so good. Dr. (Aileen)Baviera impressed me so much on what she does for Philippine-China relations, especially on people-to-people engagements. She already knows a lot about China but she’s still trying to learn more.
I will also remember amazing places like Manila, Negros, Davao, Baguio. If I had just stayed in Manila, I won’t be able to conclude that Filipinos are very kind. But visiting these other places, I experienced the same kindness everywhere.
I was also impressed that there are so many museums here in the Philippines, unlike in China. China has a longer history, culture, and so on while the Philippines has a relatively short history. But there are so many museums in different cities across the country, even a small city has a museum. It reflects the Filipinos’ pride in their culture and history. It also reflects the good attitude of Filipinos of wanting to keep their history and culture, and it expresses their patriotism.
And what is the worst thing you can think of?
I think the impressions of the media. I saw so many emotional reports about the South China Sea. Of course I understand we have disputes on this issue. The Chinese people and Filipino people have different opinions and it is okay. In China, our media also has problems. There are information in Chinese media which I think are not comprehensive, some are even distorted. I think that is bad. In the Philippines, there are also reports that I feel are too emotional. I hope the bilateral relations can improve in the near future. Although the South China Sea issue may be always there, I think it is not really a big issue if both sides have enough will to manage it. The big issue is that both sides have no interest to develop better relations, and we cannot cooperate anymore such as in economic affairs, infrastructure, agriculture, etc.
How did your interest in studying the Philippines develop?
My previous studies had been on Northeast Asia. I think East Asia (Northeast and Southeast) should be an integrated region. The connections between these subregions are not so much. I try to have an understanding of the whole of East Asian security and in this region, the Philippines is very special for China. Despite the similarities, we also have differences such as in ideology, political system and civil society. This is one reason why I chose to study the Philippines -- because of the differences. As a developing democracy, the Philippines is achieving its success and suffering its defects. I believe China can learn something from the Philippines’ experiences and lessons. In addition, being an ally of the United States, the Philippines is very important for China’s geopolitical environment. We have some disputes but if we can resolve those, we’re going to have better relations.
During my stay, I have been writing articles about the Philippines. Of course those are just my personal opinions but I try to show more information about the Philippines. In China, there are so many people that have strong interest in the Philippines but there is not that much information. That is not good, having so much interest but so little information; that makes it easy to distort information. So I have been trying to share more information about the Philippines to Chinese readers. I have published more than ten articles in Chinese media and for me this is my contribution. I just want my articles to show a real image of the Philippines. Some are very good such as the people being so kind and so peaceful, while some are not so good such as issues about political families(political dynasties) and so on. I hope Chinese readers will know more about the Philippines after reading my articles..
In your six-month stay, what Filipino values stood out the most?
I think it’s the value of being peaceful. I think Filipinos are a very peaceful people. I’ve read the book Philippine Philosophy Today. it says that Filipinos try to resolve disputes through peaceful means, even in international relations. So I think even if our countries have different approaches to the South China Sea issue-----China insists on political negotiation but the Philippines filed an international arbitration, both approaches are peaceful which shows we want the same approach – a peaceful one. This is the value that impressed me the most.
Another is the value of close family ties, which is the same in China. Here in the Philippines, usually there are big families. Even if you have no job or no money, you can get so much help from your family.
What do you think are the misconceptions of the Chinese on the Philippines?
I submitted a paper to the recent Asian Politics & Policy Conference and in that article, I addressed some Chinese misconceptions of the Philippines. Personally, I think so many Chinese people just believe that the Philippines is a follower of the US. Everything is just decided by the US. Some Chinese believe that but of course, that is not true. Not everything can be managed by the US and it is also in your constitution to have independent policies. Many Chinese people have no idea about Philippine politics, society, and so on, which may even include some Chinese officials. They communicate mainly with the Philippine government. The Philippines has a very active civil society and I think that will make a difference. Chinese people, including the government, cannot understand this very well. There is less communication between the Chinese government and the Filipino people.
What do you think are the misconceptions of the Filipinos on China?
I think the common misconceptions center on China’s foreign policies. I’ve met quite a few Filipinos, ordinary people, scholars, etc. and most of them believe that China is more assertive, even aggressive. I can understand that, because of the South China Sea issue. Compared with President Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping may carry out some tougher policies. But they are mainly some counter-reactions to the US strategy. It is hard to define them as aggression. I think it is China’s cultural arrogance and less understanding about the security concerns of the Philippines as a smaller country, not an aggressive policy, that is the problem.
What do you wish Filipinos to know about China?
I hope the Filipino people can know more about Chinese culture. China is a country that has a rich history, and China’s foreign policy behavior is rooted in Chinese culture. Now, more and more Filipinos are studying in China and I hope more Filipinos can learn about Chinese history, maybe even learn the Chinese language. The same is true with the other side, I hope more Chinese can also learn about the Philippines.
The Philippine Studies Seminar I attended at UP was actually a good seminar. When I attended the seminar, I felt a little bit ashamed. It should be Chinese universities encouraging Chinese people to learn more about the Philippines, but it was the UP who is training Chinese people to study about the Philippines. That should be the obligation of Chinese universities. Now it’s the Philippines helping China. China should also help the Philippines understand China, especially now that China is already economically progressive. This is one problem of Chinese universities– they always focus attention on bigger countries. There is less attention for smaller countries. I hope that there will be more exchanges. In the Philippines, there are so many people supporting these exchanges, such as Mr. Carlos Chan.
If given another chance, Dr. Li said he will surely visit the Philippines again, and if he were younger he would want to learn the Filipino language.. Dr. Li said he hopes Chinese and Filipinos can walk together beyond the territorial dispute and develop a mutual interest for cooperation. He also hopes that Chinese people will have more understanding of the Philippines.
Before he goes back to China, he said, he wants to part with the Chinese saying “yi he wei gui” which means ‘consider peace/harmony as the most important.’ Surely, Dr. Li had nothing in mind other than the better development of Philippines-China relations.
As we parted ways, he again firmly shook my hand, saying “I will surely be back.”
Links to Dr. Li’s articles in his blog (written in Chinese):
**Ten of them were published in Chinese media and also in Global Times. The total number of visits of these 18 articles is about 4,798,000 in this blog. They were also posted in Dr. Li’s other blog http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1310767952.