Kevin Rudd: Are China and the US doomed to conflict? (Full Transcript)

Full transcript of former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd’s TED Talk: Are China and the US doomed to conflict? at TED Conference.

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Kevin Rudd – Former Prime Minister of Australia

Good day, my name is Kevin. I’m from Australia. I’m here to help.

Tonight, I want to talk about a tale of two cities. One of those cities is called Washington, and the other is called Beijing. Because how these two capitals shape their future and the future of the United States and the future of China doesn’t just affect those two countries, it affects all of us in ways, perhaps, we’ve never thought of — the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fish we eat, the quality of our oceans, the languages we speak in the future, the jobs we have, the political systems we choose, and, of course, the great questions of war and peace.

You see that bloke? He’s French. His name is Napoleon. A couple of hundred years ago, he made this extraordinary projection: “China is a sleeping lion, and when she awakes, the world will shake.” Napoleon got a few things wrong; he got this one absolutely right. Because China is today not just woken up, China has stood up and China is on the march, and the question for us all is where will China go and how do we engage this giant of the 21st century?

You start looking at the numbers, they start to confront you in a big way. It’s projected that China will become, by whichever measure — PPP, market exchange rates — the largest economy in the world over the course of the decade ahead. They’re already the largest trading nation, already the largest exporting nation, already the largest manufacturing nation, and they’re also the biggest emitters of carbon in the world. America comes second.

So if China does become the world’s largest economy, think about this: It’ll be the first time since this guy was on the throne of England — George III, not a good friend of Napoleon’s — that in the world we will have as the largest economy a non-English speaking country, a non-Western country, a non-liberal democratic country. And if you don’t think that’s going to affect the way in which the world happens in the future, then personally, I think you’ve been smoking something, and it doesn’t mean you’re from Colorado.

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So in short, the question we have tonight is: how do we understand this mega change, which I believe to be the biggest change for the first half of the 21st century? It’ll affect so many things. It will go to the absolute core. It’s happening quietly. It’s happening persistently. It’s happening in some senses under the radar, as we are all preoccupied with what’s going in Ukraine, what’s going on in the Middle East, what’s going on with ISIS, what’s going on with ISIL, what’s happening with the future of our economies. This is a slow and quiet revolution.

And with a mega-change comes also a mega-challenge, and the mega-challenge is this: Can these two great countries, China and the United States — China, the Middle Kingdom, and the United States, Měiguó — which in Chinese, by the way, means “the beautiful country.” Think about that — that’s the name that China has given this country for more than a hundred years. Whether these two great civilizations, these two great countries, can in fact carve out a common future for themselves and for the world? In short, can we carve out a future which is peaceful and mutually prosperous, or are we looking at a great challenge of war or peace?

And I have 15 minutes to work through war or peace, which is a little less time than they gave this guy to write a book called “War and Peace.”

People ask me, why is it that a kid growing up in rural Australia got interested in learning Chinese? Well, there are two reasons for that. Here’s the first of them. That’s Betsy the cow.

Now, Betsy the cow was one of a herd of dairy cattle that I grew up with on a farm in rural Australia. See those hands there? These are not built for farming. So very early on, I discovered that in fact, working in a farm was not designed for me, and China was a very safe remove from any career in Australian farm life.

Here’s the second reason. That’s my mom. Anyone here ever listen to what their mom told them to do? Everyone ever do what their mom told them to do? I rarely did, but what my mom said to me was, one day, she handed me a newspaper, a headline which said, here we have a huge change. And that change is China entering the United Nations. 1971, I had just turned 14 years of age, and she handed me this headline.

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And she said, “Understand this, learn this, because it’s going to affect your future.”

So being a very good student of history, I decided that the best thing for me to do was, in fact, to go off and learn Chinese. The great thing about learning Chinese is that your Chinese teacher gives you a new name. And so they gave me this name: Kè, which means to overcome or to conquer, and Wén, and that’s the character for literature or the arts. Kè Wén, Conqueror of the Classics. Any of you guys called “Kevin”? It’s a major lift from being called Kevin to be called Conqueror of the Classics. I’ve been called Kevin all my life. Have you been called Kevin all your life? Would you prefer to be called Conqueror of the Classics?

And so I went off after that and joined the Australian Foreign Service, but here is where pride — before pride, there always comes a fall. So there I am in the embassy in Beijing, off to the Great Hall of the People with our ambassador, who had asked me to interpret for his first meeting in the Great Hall of the People.

And so there was I. If you’ve been to a Chinese meeting, it’s a giant horseshoe. At the head of the horsehoe are the really serious pooh-bahs, and down the end of the horseshoe are the not-so-serious pooh-bahs, the junior woodchucks like me. And so the ambassador began with this inelegant phrase. He said, “China and Australia are currently enjoying a relationship of unprecedented closeness.” And I thought to myself, “That sounds clumsy. That sounds odd. I will improve it.”

Note to file: Never do that. It needed to be a little more elegant, a little more classical, so I rendered it as follows. [Chinese language] There was a big pause on the other side of the room. You could see the giant pooh-bahs at the head of the horseshoe, the blood visibly draining from their faces, and the junior woodchucks at the other end of the horseshoe engaged in peals of unrestrained laughter. Because when I rendered his sentence, “Australia and China are enjoying a relationship of unprecedented closeness,” in fact, what I said was that Australia and China were now experiencing fantastic orgasm. That was the last time I was asked to interpret.