Are you afraid of China?
The question rang loud in the room, hanging in the Beijing air like the daily smog.
I was at a forum there earlier last month to discuss Singapore-China relations with Chinese academics and officials. To be fair, the question wasn't asked in an intimidating way. But it was enough that it was asked. I couldn't think of any country in which such a question could be raised in as direct and forthright a manner.
Welcome to the new China.
In Beijing, you cannot but be impressed with a city so eager to show how far it has progressed since the Middle Kingdom succumbed to the might of the Western powers.
The gleaming skyscrapers competing to be the tallest, the shiniest, the most angular, the one with the largest hole in the middle, they proudly proclaim an ambition to be among the most advanced metropolises in the world.
But China's size is such that when it grows, it moves the earth and everything else in its wake.
So there is now growing concern in the region over an assertive superpower in the making that is flexing its muscles in its territorial disputes with four South-east Asian countries and, more ominously, Japan.
How will a rising China affect our lives in the years to come? What sort of accommodation will the people and countries in the neighbourhood have to make as China's influence grows? Will its competition with the United States for pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific lead to stability or conflict? These questions and more are being asked as the world grapples with the irresistible rise of the soon-to-be-largest economy in the world.
In Beijing, I tried to find some answers.
In formal discussions, they are remarkably consistent in their responses: China is focused on its own internal development and has much to do to reform its economy to spread the benefits of growth to all and especially to reduce the income disparity between its urban and rural populations.
It, therefore, wants peaceful ties with all countries so as not to distract it from its economic upliftment. It is not aiming for global or even regional hegemony.
Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the realisation of this China Dream the central goal of his leadership.
In casual conversations when they are less guarded, the Chinese display a directness more like Americans than the Japanese.
At that public forum attended mainly by students aspiring to join the foreign service, the questions came thick and fast. Why does Singapore want American military in the region? What sort of relationship does it seek with China?
That question about whether we were afraid of China was pre-faced with this alarmingly honest preamble: "You know we are friendly with countries far away but if you are at China's doorstep, we will show you who is boss, as we did during the war with Vietnam in 1979."
In his book One Man's View Of The World, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote about the Chinese way.
"The Chinese are not interested whether you run a democracy or you're despotic. They just want you to comply with their request. It's a totally different approach.
"They have come to the conclusion that if they stay on course, avoid upsetting the existing powers and make friends with everybody, they can only grow stronger."
The question then is: How will that strength be used?
Like Mr Lee and other China analysts, I, too, do not believe China will seek to conquer territory or use brute force to subjugate its neighbours. It does not need armed conflict to show who is boss. My take is that its influence in the Asia-Pacific and especially in South-east Asia will come in three waves.
The first is economic and is already well under way.
With an economy growing at an annual rate of 10 per cent a year for the past 30 years, China is now the largest trading partner for most ASEAN countries.
In time, Chinese multinational companies will dominate these countries in the same way Japanese, American and European companies did, but multiplied many times because of its sheer size and proximity.
When its middle class is developed and China becomes the largest engine of growth, South-east Asia will be fully employed to serve the world's largest market.
After economic domination, Chinese soft power will follow in abundance.
It has a long and rich cultural history and no shortage of talent in the literary, artistic and entertainment fields.
In time, it will outdo Hollywood and the West End.
Already in the movie industry, home-grown films have outsold Hollywood at China's box office this year, according to a report last week.
The Chinese learnt in quick time Western film technologies and storytelling methods but use their own rich cultural content and context to win over their audience.
Watch out for this soft power projection overseas.
The third wave?
After the economic and cultural domination, language will be the final conquest.
We won't need a Speak Mandarin campaign because it will be the working language for most Singaporeans.
Indeed, language and soft power go together, each reinforcing the other.
So should Singapore be afraid of a China-dominated future?
It will be a different world, and, for Singapore in particular, the changes will come more quickly than in other countries because of its majority Chinese population.
Will Singapore, despite being sovereign, lose its unique identity and become more like another Chinese city, not much different from the many in the mainland?
I hope it won't come to pass but it is a prospect Singaporeans can't rule out.
Obviously the stronger Singapore is as an independent country, the deeper its sense of identity and the more linkages it has with the rest of the world, the better its chance of resisting these pulls.
For China, looking ahead at such a future, military aggression is the least attractive option.
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