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When Mahathir touched down in China last month, the China he was visiting was a vastly  different one than the one he visited in 1985. And Mahathir himself was visiting as prime minister of a very different Malaysia.

While China had been propelling itself to superpower status, Malaysia was earning for itself the dubious distinction of the world’s greatest kleptocracy. While China was getting its act together and forging unity of purpose to build a stronger, more prosperous nation, Malaysia was dissipating its energies in endless internal squabbles. We allowed race and religion to divide us to such an extent that it has kept our nation from achieving its true potential.

Phenomenal transformation

In a mere 33 years, China was able to pull itself up by its own bootstraps to become the second largest economy in the world with a nominal GDP of US$14 trillion as well as the world’s largest exporter with exports exceeding  US$1.9 trillion. Its GDP jumped from US$294 to US$8,123.

In 33 years, China transformed its education system from one that emphasised ideological correctness to one that focused on cultivating a highly skilled domestic labour force – a key ingredient in China’s ambition to transition to an innovation-based economy.

In 1985, higher education in China was a rare privilege usually reserved for a small political elite. Last year, thanks to years of concerted effort, careful planning and massive investments in education, some 8 million students graduated from Chinese universities, more than double the number of students graduating from US universities.

Today, China and India supply almost half the global science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, a stunning achievement by any measure.

As a result of qualitative advances in its education system, China has made a huge technological leap forward and is now closing the gap with major industrial nations. Already, 9 out of the top 20 tech giants in the world are Chinese.

Last year, China launched its first commercial jetliner and began the sea trials of its first home-made aircraft carrier. It is now in an advanced stage of preparation to launch its second space station which is expected to be fully operational by the year 2022.

In the transportation sector, in those same 33 years, China went from having an out-dated and dilapidated railway network to having the biggest high-speed railway network in the world. Two-thirds of the world’s high-speed rail tracks in commercial service are in China. The Shanghai Meglev train is also the fastest commercial high-speed magnetic levitation train in the world.


The standard of living in China had risen so dramatically that by 2012, China had become the world’s top spender in international tourism and has remained so ever since. Last year, mainland Chinese citizens made 136.8 million trips across their borders and spent US$300 billion abroad.

Considering that the Chinese government only allowed its citizens to participate in organized tours to Hong Kong barely two years before Mahathir’s 1985 visit, the growth in outbound Chinese tourism is phenomenal. Today, no country, including our own, can afford to ignore Chinese tourists. 2.1 million Chinese tourists are expected to visit Malaysia this year and spend approximately RM12 billion.

A global reach

In 1985, China had what can only be called a primitive financial system. Foreigners were forbidden to even possess the local currency, the renminbi, and had to use, instead, foreign exchange certificates which were limited to a few stores and hotels. Today, the Chinese credit card company, China Union Pay, headquartered in Shanghai, is the third largest payment network by value of transactions processed behind Visa and Mastercard and is accepted in 162 countries.

In 1985, China was struggling to raise development loans; today it lends billions to other developing countries (including our own) and has founded its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.

From a closed inward-looking nation, China in 33 years expanded its horizons to cover the globe. Africa is now being called China’s “second continent” given the number of Chinese settlers, farms and industries on the African continent.

China has a naval base in Djibouti, a 99-year lease on a strategic port in Sri Lanka, and a growing network of roads, railways, pipelines and sea routes linking China with the rest of the world. Its Belt and Road Initiative is a masterful strategy to establish China as a dominant force in the world. And, of course, it is now master and commander of the South China Sea.

Great leap forward in human history

It will not be an exaggeration to say that no country in the history of human civilization has been able to achieve, in such a short span of time, what China has accomplished. In almost every sphere – industry, education, science and technology, transportation and communication, space exploration, food production, etc. – China has accomplished more in 33 years than many others have accomplished in a century.

As I remarked in an earlier article, standing on the 66th floor of the Park Hyatt Beijing last year and looking out across the city, I couldn’t help thinking that I was looking out at the new capital of the world, the new Rome of quite possibly the world’s next great empire.

[Next: Malaysia’s lost years]