In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Western fear of China may cost the world

Posted by seumasach on May 12, 2011

David Gosset

Asia Times

13th May, 2011

See also:

Let’s build a strategic alliance with China!

The vast majority of discourses on China are characterized by at least one of the four following shortcomings, while some surprisingly narrow approaches combine all of them.

First, one often fails to fully appreciate that China’s size is in itself of global significance. Second, one misinterprets the depth and the nature of China’s mutation, which is an irreversible process and a major factor of global change. Third, one fails to take into account the notion that global interdependence will intensify in the foreseeable future. Despite fluctuations, globalization has become almost irreversible. And fourth, one makes the incomplete assumption that Sino-Western relations have to vary on a scale
which spans from mutually antagonistic to mutually beneficial. Another paradigm could serve as both an engine and a compass: Sino-Western relations can also be mutually transformational.

To make sense of a new reality it is often useful to question our most common instruments of measure and appreciation, to be ready to unlearn available narratives and to re-learn with new analytic tools.

In that sense, the Chinese renaissance can not only be understood as a catalyst for globalization, it also enlarges the global village by opening new economic, political, diplomatic, intellectual and artistic horizons. China’s revival not only widens the Chinese people’s representation of the world, it expands a world-system which has been, to a certain extent, contracting for more than five centuries. The analysis of the interactions between the Chinese renaissance and what can be called the global village’s new terrae incognitae is in its infancy but the way it will be mapped will be highly consequential.

The sequence of historical events which led to China’s present condition are well known. The Maoist period can be defined by a long march toward stability and peace. Mao Zedong (1893-1976) fought the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and what he portrayed as the imperialists during the Cold War. From the beginning of the 1960s Beijing also faced the consequences of the Sino-Soviet split and it was in this context that at the end of 1962, Mao Zedong composed the poem “Winter Clouds”, whose title encapsulates his perception of the imminent dangers looming over China. In it, he boldly referred to the hostile foreign forces with metaphors: “Only heroes can quell tigers and leopards/And wild bears never daunt the brave”.

In the post-Maoist moment, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and Jiang Zemin’s governments focused on economic development and prepared Beijing’s integration into the world system. For President Hu Jintao and his successors it is the question of China’s role and responsibilities within the global village that matters. While 21st-century China is still facing considerable internal and external challenges, it could be argued that for the very first time in world history a process of globalization and a great economic convergence have truly unified mankind. What will be the West’s attitude to this new configuration?

Jacques Attali, former advisor to French President Francois Mitterrand, first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and prolific writer, has published another stimulating essay, “Tomorrow, who will govern the world?”, which is not only a call for a better global governance but also an effort to imagine what could be the main features of a world government. Interestingly, the book introduces very briefly the Chinese classical concept of “tianxia” (all-under-heaven, or universality), the views of a prominent Chinese economist Sheng Hong and presents Beijing contemporary thinker Zhao Tingyang to Parisian readers.

On the one hand, four paragraphs in direct relation with China for a publication of more than 400 pages appears of marginal proportion. However, what is significant and encouraging is that an influential Western public figure integrates in his latest reflections several Chinese intellectual debates. Obviously, despite populist parochialisms, media oversimplifications and the unavoidable posturing of politicians, the great dialogue between the West and China is unfolding. This dialogue matters enormously and has to be cultivated in all segments of our societies.

The ability of the West to understand China’s revival and to react constructively to the new dimensions it entails will not only impact its own future but will also shape the landscape of the 21st century global village. As an epigraph to his Post-American World (2008), commentator Fareed Zakaria uses a quote from Arnold J Toynbee’s magnum opus Study of History (1934-1961)which is, indeed, of great relevance for those who reflect upon China’s re-emergence and its effects on the world’s redistribution of power:

Growth takes place whenever a challenge evokes a successful response that, in turn, evokes a further and different challenge. We have not found any intrinsic reason why this process should not repeat itself indefinitely, even though a majority of civilizations have failed, as a matter of historical fact.

In the coming decades, if the West responds wisely to the Chinese rise, it will grow, and Sino-western synergy could ideally take the global system to another level, but if Western elites – the “creative minority” in Toynbee’s terminology – fail to measure and embrace China’s metamorphosis, the West will lose momentum and the scenario of a cooperative world will look more and more improbable.

In a situation of perceived loss and decline the West would certainly develop an irrational fear of China and one would take the risk to enter the tragic logic famously described by Thucydides to explain the Peloponnesian conflict: “Athens’ rise and the alarm it inspired in Lacedaemon made war inevitable”.

Fundamentally, the West faces a choice between vain short-term maneuvers to conserve an impossible status quo and the arduous effort of recreating itself in a deeply changing environment. In other words, either it becomes a relatively passive observer of the power re-arrangement or it changes with the Chinese revival. It can either take a conservative and defensive reaction and exhaust its resources trying to preserve a situation which cannot in any case be frozen, or it can participate in an energizing movement. Prince Tancredi Falconieri’s words addressed to the Prince of Salina in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard are a guide for action in a time of inevitable mutation : “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.

While Sino-centric or Western-centric politics could lead to endless tensions or even conflict, cosmopolitan thinking and actions would take us always closer to peace and development. Contrary to what partial examinations can suggest, China is not an obstacle to a period of global enlightenment. Almost 80 years ago, the Chinese thinker and diplomat Hu Shi (1891-1962) introduced in his Haskell lectures a highly valuable framework to make sense of Chinese post-imperial dynamics : “Slowly, quietly, but unmistakably, the Chinese renaissance is becoming a reality”.

China’s traditional secularism and humanism have in the past inspired the West. Diplomat and man of letters Zhang Pengchun (1892-1957) who served as vice-chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a pivotal role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noted during the debates chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt : “In the 18th century when progressive ideas with respect to human rights had been first put forward in Europe, translations of Chinese philosophers had been known to and had inspired such thinkers as Voltaire, Quesnay and Diderot in their humanistic revolt against feudalistic conceptions”.

As six centuries ago the Italian renaissance reaffirmed man’s central position and opened a period of progress, creativity and innovation for the European continent, the Chinese renaissance can signal a 21st-century world humanistic movement. In that sense, China’s re-emergence should not be perceived as a threat but as one of the major catalysts of a new axial period. In his All-under-Heaven System (2005) Zhao Tingyang aims to “rethink China” in “recovering China’s own ability to think, reconstructing its world views, values and methodologies, and thinking about China’s future, Chinese concepts about the future and China’s role and responsibilities in the world”. While the Chinese intellectuals “rethink China”, the West has certainly to question its own narratives on a civilization-state which has embarked in a process of economic modernization, socio-political reforms, cultural metamorphosis and of discovery of the world.

Jacob Burckhardt’s classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) presents a chapter on “the discovery of the world and of man” (part IV) thats opening is a powerful synthesis: “Freed from the countless bonds which elsewhere in Europe checked progress, having reached a high degree of individual development and been schooled by the teachings of antiquity, the Italian mind now turned to the discovery of the outward universe, and to the representation of it in speech and in form”. What strikes today’s reader of Burckhardt is the fact that his words are also mutatis mutandis the outlines of the Chinese contemporary dynamics. Economic development, individual emancipation, re-interpretation of the Chinese tradition have created the conditions of China’s journeys to the world.

China’s opening up has already enriched the global village but if the West opens itself to the possibilities that the Chinese renaissance offers, Sino-Western cross-fertilizations would not only be mutually beneficial – the quantitative and objective win/win – but mutually transformational – a qualitative and almost limitless creative process of values and of a greater common good.

One has to think and manage an immensely stimulating paradox: communications and technologies have reduced distances, the planet has shrunk in the globalization process but simultaneously permanent and inevitable dialogues between civilizations have broadened our horizon and enlarged our world, and it is from these new immaterial territories, from these utopian terrae incognitae, that the vision of a better future can be imagined.

David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai & Beijing, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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