Watching the television coverage of Dr Mahathir Mohamad arriving in Beijing last month on his first official visit to China since returning to office brought back many memories of a similar visit 33 years ago.
In November 1985, Mahathir arrived in Beijing to begin his first official visit to China as prime minister.
As head of the China desk at the foreign ministry, I was part of the team that laid the groundwork for the 1985 visit and a member of Mahathir’s delegation.
The late Ghazali Shafie (then the foreign minister) had been tasked by Mahathir months earlier to review bilateral relations with China and come up with recommendations for a new bilateral framework.
Positioning Malaysia as a friend
Mahathir saw the enormous potential and importance of China and wanted to position Malaysia as a friend and partner.
He realised that many of the old restrictions on trade and bilateral contacts were not sustainable and neither were they in Malaysia’s best interest.
Unlike so many of his Cabinet colleagues at the time who saw China primarily in terms of Malaysia’s own “Chinese problem” and favoured more restrictive relations, Mahathir was confident of the loyalty of Malaysian Chinese, confident of our ability to manage a rising behemoth like China.
What he could not foresee at the time, though, was the corruption and treachery of his own party, Umno, in selling us out to China.
Mahathir’s 1985 visit was, in many ways, a game changer. His meeting with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping (by then the real ruler of China) established a new level of trust between Malaysia and China and laid the foundation for the rapid growth of bilateral ties that have since unfolded.
Greatness or mediocrity?
Thirty-three years, is of course, a relatively short span of time in the history of nations, particularly for a country like China with a civilization going back at least 4,000 years.
However, when looking at developments in both countries, it quickly becomes clear that much can happen even in such a short span of time. Used judiciously, 33 years is enough time to rise to greatness or be condemned to mediocrity based on the choices we make.
For China, the last 33 years have been one of unparalleled, even unimaginable, growth; for Malaysia, despite some impressive achievements, it has been one of wasted years and missed opportunities.
Nations in contrast
In November 1985, Mahathir arrived in China a respected third world leader, prime minister of a rising economic powerhouse, a nation that was already punching above its weight in international affairs.
There was an abiding sense that we were a nation on the verge of greatness, and everywhere we went we were admired and held in high regard. Malaysia was emerging as the go-to place for many third world leaders anxious to discover the path to a better future.
The China that he arrived to visit in 1985, on the other hand, was only just emerging from a dark chapter in its history – tumultuous years of political infighting, disastrous economic policies and an ideology that left the whole country moribund and straightjacketed. China’s GDP per capita was only US$294, well below that of many African states.
And it was still struggling to feed its growing population following the disastrous consequences of Chairman Mao Zedong’s catastrophic agricultural policies in which an estimated 36 million people died of starvation.
A hardship post
In 1985, foreign investment was only just beginning to trickle into China. A year earlier, China’s first international hotel – the Great Wall Beijing Sheraton opened its doors; the now famous Shangri-La Beijing was still a good year away from launch. There were hardly any direct flights connecting Beijing with the rest of the world, not surprising since only government officials could afford to travel.
For the “guailou” (foreign devils) like me who lived in Beijing, very little of the kind of food we were used to was available locally. Almost everything – food, alcohol, cigarettes, clothes, household items, electronics, books and cars – had to be imported from Hong Kong. Life was so challenging that Beijing was classified a “hardship post” for most diplomats which meant that we were only required to serve no more than 24 months instead of the usual 36.
A bruising war
A few years before Mahathir arrived in Beijing, China had fought a brief but bruising battle with Vietnam ostensibly to “teach” Vietnam a lesson over its invasion and occupation of Cambodia. Although Chinese troops overran several Vietnamese cities near the border, it was unable to deter Vietnam.
Reports circulating at the time suggested that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had fared poorly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese. Some estimates put the number of PLA casualties at 28,000 dead and 43,000 wounded compared to Vietnam’s loss of 10,000 solders. It shocked the Chinese leadership and became the catalyst for the modernisation of the PLA and China’s quest for regional military superiority.
What happened in both countries over the next 33 years, between Mahathir’s 1985 and 2018 visits – the hard decisions that were made or not taken, the policies that were implemented, how critical issues were handled – became defining years in the lives of both nations.
We now have a new government, a second chance at reinventing ourselves. As we discuss new plans and directions, it might serve us well to pause and reflect upon those 33 years if only to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Perhaps we might even learn a thing or two from China.
Next: China’s rise to greatness.