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Pascal Lamy: China and Europe have to find their own way

Wang Qiwei

He was one of Europe's most senior politicians, and led the World Trade Organization (WTO) for eight years. He has witnessed the changing of the world economic order by emerging countries, including China. So what is Pascal Lamy's vision for the world's future? CGTN Europe went to Paris to find out.

As someone born into a ravaged France less than two years after World War II, it's perhaps no surprise that Lamy has had a lifelong interest in collaboration rather than confrontation. 

Graduating in economics and joining the civil service – and the French Socialist Party – he became an adviser in the early 1980s to the then Economics Minister Jacques Delors. 

When Delors became president of the European Commission in 1985, beginning a 10-year spell as the top politician of what is now the EU, he took Lamy with him – to Brussels and beyond.


First trip to China

Lamy's first time in China was a political visit back in July, 1986.

"I was then the Chief of Staff to the President of the EU Commission, Mr. Delors," said Lamy, "Mr. Delors was the first president of the European Commission to pay an official visit to China. So, I was with him during that trip."

Lamy recalls seeing Beijing roads dominated by bicycles, while cars were an exception. Who would expect that not many years later, the former "kingdom of bicycles" would become the world's largest car producer?

Although Lamy sometimes finds it hard to reconcile the China he first visited in 1986 with the one today, his first impressions of the country weren't based on its economics.

"Most people today see China as a modern, vibrant, growing, and successful economic country," said the former director-general of WTO. "My first entry into China is its very long, complex and sophisticated civilization, with its incredible past, art and literature."

Lamy was Director General of the World Trade Organization /CFP
Lamy was Director General of the World Trade Organization /CFP

Lamy was Director General of the World Trade Organization /CFP

Teaching in China

After serving alongside Delors, Lamy spent time in business with Credit Lyonnais before becoming European Commissioner for Trade in 1999. In 2005, he began an eight-year stint as director-general of the WTO.

That took him into his mid-sixties, and while he may not be quite as prominent on the world stage, a man like Lamy doesn't simply disappear into the background. His presidency of the Paris Peace Forum is typical of his work with non-profit organizations - and he also teaches at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. 

As a distinguished professor, he makes three or four trips to China each year. He admitted that his interactions at the school have opened up a new window for him on China, including how impressive his students are.

"These Asian students are more eager to get what I have in my brain than others," he smiles. "They sort of feel, 'This guy there knows things I should know. I'm going to pump his brain.'"

Lamy jokes that this can take its toll – "By the way, it results in the fact that teaching one hour is more tiring" – but sees it as typifying a thrust and a thirst for an ever-improving future. 

"They still believe that their life will be better than their parents," he says. "his notion that China is moving forward, that you can have ambition, that the future will be better than the past, is quite striking."

Witnessing China's WTO entry

Lamy himself was a close witness to a major chapter in China's economic rise – its entry into the World Trade Organization. Lamy wasn't yet at the WTO, but as the EU's trade commissioner he was its negotiator with China.

"I think the most crucial part of the negotiation was in the discussion I had with the then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who's a man for whom I have a huge respect," says Lamy. 

"A negotiation is a game where you hide your cards until the very last minute. It's sort of a poker game. 

"A negotiation of this kind only concludes when the real cards are on the table – when Zhu Rongji told me, 'Look, this, I will not do,' and I told him, 'This, you don't want to do, but you'll have to do it because I will not change my position, either.'"

After 15 years of lengthy negotiations, the bloc finally welcomed its new member in 2001.

"China did pay a big price. I think it worked. Because China paid a bigger price than others to join, it benefited more from trade opening than others," says Lamy.

More than two decades after its WTO entry, China has now become the world's largest trading nation in goods and the second largest in services.

"Most impressive is the consistency and the duration of this period of high growth which China had," says Lamy. "It has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty, improving the level of education and pushing China upwards the added value layer and the tech layer where it is now."

Pascal Lamy says he loves teaching in Asia
Pascal Lamy says he loves teaching in Asia

Pascal Lamy says he loves teaching in Asia

View on globalization

Joining the WTO not only changed China's domestic situation, but also its interaction with the rest of the world. However, as China has developed, it has also had to wrestle with challenges. 

The world is now being reshaped by pandemic, conflicts and protectionism, with many politicians on various continents reacting against globalization. But it's not something Lamy considers a major threat.

"I don't think the world would de-globalize," says Lamy, "but I believe it will globalize differently."

"We are now in a period where the balance between efficiency and security has changed. This might increase security, but at a cost, because the economies will be less integrated. So, we have a different globalization and the speed of integration will diminish."

Future of China-Europe ties

During 2023, China and Europe witnessed constant high-level exchanges. At the 24th China-EU Summit in December, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to continue mutually beneficial cooperation and jointly address global challenges, with both sides expressing opposition to decoupling.

Looking into the future, Lamy outlines a path for China and Europe in the midst of global geopolitical turmoil. 

"What I think is the future is Europe and China having their own relationship," he says. "The real starting point is the recognition of the differences.

"It's like in a negotiation. At some stage, you have to sit in the boots of your negotiator, try to understand how he sees the situation and sees you. Once you have done that, you're nearer to the real sense of a relationship. It has to go both ways and we have to find our own way."

Pascal Lamy: China and Europe have to find their own way
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