A new world with Chinese characteristics

Un magnifiquíssim article d’en David Gosset

Not one single day goes by without news, debates and comments on China: business deals, trade negotiations, diplomatic summits, political events, state visits, financial ups and downs, societal trends … the list goes on. Conferences, forums, seminars, provocative articles, new papers and the latest books keep China-watchers very busy; but confronting such a profusion, one risks taking short-term variations or insignificant fluctuations for long-term tendencies and losing any sense of pattern.

One question might help us to focus on what really matters: Are Westerners ready to adjust to the Chinese civilization’s reemergence as one of the main sources of global order? In other words, is the West prepared for a world with Chinese characteristics?

This question reflects on qualitative dimensions (values and identity) more than on quantitative parameters. If, in the 21st-century global village, Sinicization does not mechanically mean de-Westernization – because of their purely quantitative territorial element, various national liberations did engender decolonization – it certainly means that the world society will have Western and Chinese characteristics. Complex and mainly invisible, these dynamics provide a stimulating framework to make sense of China’s opening-up and globalization.

No ‘China fever’, no ‘China threat’ but a ‘China factor’
Fourteen years after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the writer Lu Xun was asking: “When are we going to stop bringing new bricks to the Great Wall?” (May 11, 1925, Essays). A defensive construction built and consolidated through the centuries to protect the empire from the invasions of the nomads, the Great Wall could also be seen as the symbol of an immured Chinese mind.

Prague’s genius Franz Kafka, who did not know much about China but experienced the depth of humans’ labyrinthic soul, captured this aspect in his The Great Wall of China. In 1949, China recovered its sovereignty; in 1978, Beijing adopted the opening-up policy – today, the Great Wall is a tourist attraction.

In a process of unprecedented magnitude, one-fifth of mankind, different from the mainstream (the West), is entering the world stage. Czarist Russia’s emergence in the 18th-century European system and the respective rises of Germany and Japan at the end of the 19th century were comparatively of far less magnitude. While Western scientific and economic modernity will continue to have influence on China – Beijing’s overall strategic goal is modernization – the Chinese world will have considerable quantitative and qualitative impact on the global village – in its civilizational expression carried by the Chinese people, China cannot be diluted in the globalization process.

Americanization was a distinctive feature of the 20th century; the 21st-century global citizen’s identity will have Chinese characteristics. The West, on the rise since the 15th century and which, through its American version, still dominates world affairs, will have difficulty conceiving and accepting that it will not anymore unilaterally dictate the global agenda; that it will have to adjust.

Can we non-Chinese look at China without passion? The Marco Polo syndrome – “one feels like in paradise in Quinsai” (today’s Hangzhou in the province of Zhejiang) as reported by the citizen of Venice in his Description of the World – an ancestor of the “China fever”, or the “yellow peril” announcing current hysteria around the “China threat” theme, do not facilitate our relation with the Chinese world.

In “Does China matter?” Gerald Segal asserted that “at best, China is a second-rank middle power that has mastered the art of diplomatic theater” (Foreign Affairs, September-October 1999). At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, Pei Minxin saw China as being on a “Long March to nowhere”, stagnating in a “trapped transition” (Financial Times, February 24). In Chinese universities or think-tanks, it is not rare to meet Chinese scholars who deride the “China fever” of some Western – business, diplomatic but also academic – circles.

True, the People’s Republic of China is a developing country that is, as such, facing considerable challenges. China’s population – more than 1.3 billion – is approximately the population of the European Union plus the entire African continent, or more than four times the US population. If one focuses exclusively on what has yet to be done to catch up with the developed world or on the various visible signs of Westernization within China, the idea of serious Chinese influence on the global village can appear illusory.

However, if one considers the scope of post-imperial China’s metamorphosis (the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century was followed by at least 300 years of disorder in Western Europe) the speed of its transformation since 1978 – per capita income increased 10 times and foreign trade has boomed from US$20 billion to the current $1 trillion – while keeping in mind the Chinese empire’s past cultural, economic and political centrality in Asia, the question of the Sinicization of the world makes sense. It is not feverish speculation or another version of 18th-century European “chinoiserie” – reconstruction of China disconnected from reality – but a phenomenon already at work in the global community.

The presupposition of the “China threat” leitmotif is precisely China’s capacity to influence on a massive scale our world system, but it is also assuming that this impact will be negative. Between two extremes, “China fever” or “China threat”, the analyst should stay rationally within the limits of what can be called the “China factor”: China’s opening-up means, to a certain extent, Sinicization of the world, a process that has to be integrated and explained and not adored or condemned a priori.

In any case, let us not take short-term variations (positive or negative) for long-term tendencies. China’s foreseeable future will be made of successes, failures and crises, but the play’s plots will take place on a stage whose backdrop is Chinese civilization’s re-emergence.

When modernization does not mean cultural alienation
How could the global citizen be in any way Sinicized if tomorrow’s China is radically Westernized?

Looking at the young people in Dalian, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Chongqing, it seems that Westernization is China’s future. It gives Chinese students “face” to speak some English – more “face” if it is American English. On campus they practice sports popular in the West, and after graduation they would opt preferably for a career in a joint venture where the corporate culture is supposed to be Western – and the pay higher.

But it is necessary to put these trends into historical perspective. In China, where the present is to a certain extent history, snapshots can be misleading; discourses should integrate different “clocks” and be attentive, behind shorter developments or even ephemeral fashions, to very slow movements, what Fernand Braudel (1902-85) called the longue duree.

Past interactions between China and what was foreign to it show the unique resilience of Chinese civilization: it has the ability to change without losing itself; it could even be defined by this singular capacity of renewal. It is why China’s unequaled civilizational duration stands as a challenge to Paul Valery’s comment inspired by the European tragedy of World War I: “We civilizations now know that we are mortal.”

The Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were established respectively by Mongols and Manchus (about 2 million Manchus took power over 120 million Han Chinese in the first half of the 17th century). However, the only way for the “barbarians” – non-Han – to rule the empire was to adopt largely elements of the Chinese tradition. Immutable China is a myth – the long history of China is a succession of clearly distinct periods – but absolute discontinuity from one time to another is also a narrative. Revolutionary discourse on a new regime for a new China was the most abstract intellectual construction; in fact, China’s history is a continuity of relative discontinuities – it combines permanent (Chinese characters for example) and changing features.

Buddhism and Christianity have also been testing Chinese civilization’s capacity to absorb exogenous elements. Entering under the Han Dynasty (Eastern Han, AD 25-220), Buddhism penetrated deeply into the Chinese world under the Tang Dynasty (618-907); but this penetration has seen the transformation of original Buddhism to fit Chinese philosophical and linguistic context.

Moreover, Song Dynasty neo-Confucianism represented by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was a magisterial reinterpretation of the Chinese classics in reaction against a Buddhist vision of the world. Zhu Xi’s scholasticism has been the core of imperial state orthodoxy until the end of the examination system in 1905.

In the age of European expansion, Christian missionaries spared no effort to convert Chinese people. The Jesuits’ approach initiated by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was to engage as much as possible with China’s elites; no one has ever understood the Chinese world better than the sinologists of the Company of Jesus, but genuine European intellectual excellence failed to change radically the Chinese mind. How can one seriously believe that current superficial material Westernization in China – related with food or clothes, the introduction of managerial skills, the instrumental use of English, etc – is going to affect essentially Chinese culture?

China’s technical and economic modernization does not mean cultural alienation. China is once again translating into its own context foreign practices and theories. Democratization might be unavoidable for the Chinese world – in fact, the process has already begun – but it will be a democratization with high Chinese characteristics.

Some external forms of the translation process can be a surprising accumulation of heterogeneous pieces. Look at a Sichuan-cuisine restaurant with Rococo furniture or at a Shanghai middle-class home where reproductions of European impressionists co-exist on the same wall with Chinese calligraphy. The sociologist observing China’s megasociety can interpret these unusual combinations as parts of a gigantic assimilation. One can also enjoy completed translations where the “original” fits perfectly in the evolving Chinese context; it is often the case in architecture, in urbanism or in design.

The resilience of Chinese culture cannot be separated from China’s demographic vitality; they reinforce each other in what constitutes a virtuous circle. The very fact that China is the most populous country in the world is highly significant. China’s population has always represented a quarter to a fifth of the global population.

This constant feature of the Chinese world is linked with invisible and almost immemorial principles. The great and unorthodox Dutch sinologist Robert H Van Gulik (1910-67) concluded his work Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961) by remarks on Chinese vitality: “It was primarily the careful balancing of the male and female elements that caused the permanence of Chinese race and culture. It was this balance that engendered the intense vital power that from remote antiquity to the very present has ever sustained and renewed the Chinese race.”

In the global community, fundamentally optimistic and life-oriented China will interact with various Western forms of nihilism; life will quietly prevail.

China and globalization
China absorbs, translates and regenerates itself vigorously. Last year, from Beijing to Singapore, Chinese people celebrated the 600th anniversary of the navigator Zheng He’s (1371-1433) first travel. These celebrations of the Ming Dynasty explorer, Asia’s Christopher Columbus, were also indicative of China’s current mindset: Chinese people can also be extrovert and do not intend to witness passively, beyond the Great Wall, the reconfiguration of the world.

Forty years after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution nightmare, 28 years after Deng Xiaoping’s decision to reform and to open the People’s Republic of China (gaige kaifang), Chinese people are embarking on their “Age of Discovery” – which might well announce, as it did for 14th-century Europe, a time of Renaissance.

In January 2004, Parisians looked at a red Eiffel Tower in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit, which coincided with the “Year of China in France”. The event “China in London 2006” is the largest celebration of Chinese culture ever seen in the British capital. In 2007, Russia will hold its “Year of China”. It seems that the world is preparing for a Chinese century. French journalist Erik Izraelewicz can write a book titled When China Changes the World (Quand la Chine change le monde, 2005). China is succeeding in having non-Chinese framing the debate in a way that is advantageous to it.

I el soft power…

Already 30 million non-Chinese are learning Mandarin. Beijing has opened Confucius Institutes (following the example of the Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institutes or British Councils) both to teach Chinese and to explain Chinese culture throughout the world. Chinese is already the second language on the Internet, with more than 100 million Chinese netizens.

A global audience greets Chinese artists. Movie director Zhang Yimou, composer Tan Dun and cellist Ma Yoyo (born in Paris and educated in the US) are internationally acclaimed for their talent and creativity. Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Cheung have penetrated European or American imagination. Chinese design is enriching fashion. The idea behind Shanghai Tang founded by Hong Kong businessman David Tang Wing-Cheung is to “create the first global Chinese lifestyle brand by revitalizing Chinese designs”.

Chinese brands such as Lenovo, Haier and Huawei are largely recognized worldwide. In the 2004-05 academic year, China sent more than 115,000 students abroad (62,000 in the United States). The World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020, 100 million Chinese tourists will travel the world: the global tourism industry will have to adapt to Chinese characteristics.

China’s direct investment overseas is rising rapidly. Up to the end of 2004, China made $45 billion direct investment in more than 160 countries; in 2004 alone, China’s direct investment overseas reached $5.5 billion, surging 93% over 2003. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo will reinforce this momentum. Almost exactly 100 years after of the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911), China will be once again at the center of Asia, and in a position to challenge US unilateral domination over a world system in search of equilibrium.

The Chinese world is not only made of the 22 provinces – nine of them more populous than France, with obviously many subcultures – five autonomous regions, four municipalities, two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau) of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and the highly Sinicized Singapore – the city-state can certainly be considered a part of Greater China – but it also includes in its largest extension a Chinese diaspora active worldwide.

The “Sons of the Yellow Emperor” – in reference to Lynn Pan’s History of the Chinese Diaspora (1990) – estimated at 40 million people, are not just about Chinese restaurants (although food and cooking are key elements of culture) or Chinatowns (perfect examples of Chinese culture resilience far away from the Yellow River or the Yangzi); the notion of Chinese diaspora indicates that China is not only a political entity related to a territory but, above all, a cultural expression already having global reach.

Co-architect of the 21st-century new world order?
For the West, necessary adjustment to the re-emergence of the Chinese civilization requires modesty and intellectual curiosity. Are we Westerners ready to learn from Chinese civilization as Chinese people are ready to learn from the West? This is the precondition of a genuinely cooperative relationship.

Seriously engaging China is to accept the very possibility of Sinicization. The West, in a position of scientific and economic superiority since the Industrial Revolution, is used to treating China as a product of orientalism. For the majority of Westerners, China is either a museum – hence the surprise of many foreigners in China: “I was expecting something else!” – or a classroom: one has to lecture Chinese people on more advanced standards. The West has to reflect on these prejudices and to look at China as a living matrix of a civilization that is already shaping our time.

If China proves to be an integrator factor in a world plagued by morally unacceptable exclusive globalization, if China proves to be a laboratory where cultures can cross-fertilize in a world threatened by hatred between civilizations, one should rejoice to find a co-architect of the 21st-century new world order.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea, China Europe International Business School, Shanghai.


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