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A new world with Chinese characteristics
By David Gosset
With China's economic, social, political and cultural renewal, a five-century period of Western domination of the world has ended. One has to make sense of China's complex dynamics to apprehend a new world with Chinese characteristics.
However, several misconceptions caused by a combination of distance, ignorance and arrogance stand as serious obstacles to a better understanding of the reality of China. In this perspective, unlearning misperceptions about the Chinese world is an important step on the way to understanding it.
One often assumes that China is just another relatively homogeneous nation-state, a part of Asia like Japan, Korea or Vietnam. In fact, China is, mutatis mutandis, the Europe of Asia. In other words, China is a highly diverse and heterogeneous continent whose complexity calls for nuanced analyses, diplomatic approaches, or focused business strategies.
There is certainly not one Chinese market. To maintain equilibrium between the different components of the Chinese world and to ensure that one-fifth of mankind lives in decent material conditions are the two main tasks of China's leadership. These are also two major contributions to global stability.
As China opens to the global village, one believes - and often expects - that Western influences will change China. However, if it is true to say that Western practices and theories are influencing Chinese people, China is fundamentally in a process of absorbing foreign elements by translating them into its own context. From Shanghai to Chongqing, from Dalian to Hong Kong, techno-economic modernization does not mean Westernization. The Chinese world is not a passive entity but a living matrix of civilizations.
Changes happening in the Chinese mega-society help to define, by an effect of sharp contrast, some of the permanent features that make the essence of the Chinese identity: an extraordinary, rich corpus of Chinese characters, a quest for harmony, and a strong belief in renewal - provided it is substantially self-renewal, as noticed by the late Robert van Gulik at the very end of his magisterial Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961).
Thirty years after Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening-up", one goes on to discuss "China's integration into the world system". This is a misleading expression. One cannot integrate China as, for example, the European Union system integrates its new members. Because of its continental size and nature as a living civilization, China will be the co-architect of a new world order. The West will have to adjust to a new world with Chinese characteristics.
One commonly fears China's rise as a source of instability. Such an assumption contains two inaccuracies. First, one should not speak about China's rise - even a "peaceful rise" - without reflecting on the re-emergence of the Chinese world. Second, one should remember that China has been for centuries a structuring pole in Asia and beyond.
In fact, China's renaissance is, potentially, the source of a more stable Asia, and of a more harmonious global system. Will a re-emerging China and the United States clash in the 21st century? Let us not forget that during World War II Chinese and Americans were allies against Japan. Thirty-five years after the Shanghai Communique, China and the US are de facto interdependent. More and more people both in Washington and in Beijing realize that a genuine cooperative Sino-US relationship could open an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity around the Pacific.
Analysts debate China's modernization but tend to acknowledge only its economic dimension. However, post-imperial and post-Maoist China is also going through a process of political modernization. Democratization with Chinese characteristics will enrich the vocabulary of Western political scientists. The level of individual freedom enjoyed today by its citizens has no equivalent in China's past, and the effort to establish the rule of law will bring more social, economic and political improvements.
The mainstream Western media are constructing a "Chindia" myth, but putting China and India into the same category is an intellectual imposture. China and India are two very different civilizations. Moreover, discourse on India's formal democracy hides a paradox: Chinese citizens - male or female - have, on average, more opportunities to be educated, to find a decent job, and to enjoy genuine social pluralism than do India's citizens. In China, invisible metaphysics does not constrain individual emancipation, so socio-political reforms have a real impact on the people's lives.
The West is assuming that it will continue to be at the avant-garde of the world as the unique source of material and moral progress. It should realize that if China is already enriching the dynamics of the global village, then, one day, it could also possibly lead by its capacity to innovate and to co-design a modernity in which it would have once again a central position.
The West takes the China factor seriously now, but can it look at the dragon without bias and misconceptions? Can we, the non-Chinese, look at the dragon without fear?
Westerners associate the dragon with the idea of evil, which has to be tamed or even eliminated. The legend of "St George killing the dragon" is recurrent in Western art. In the Chinese context, the dragon is a ubiquitous and highly positive symbol. In the magnificent Sorrow after Departure, the great poet Qu Yuan flies with dragons to have a taste of heaven's perfection.
One does not need St George to fight indiscriminately all the dragons or, at the opposite end, to forget about one Western image of evil to be aware of the difference between the two representations. Concluding his book To Change China: Western Advisers in China, Jonathan Spence wrote: "At least - if each partner in the equation has attained a new level of self-awareness - there is a chance that the old misconceptions will not be repeated." In any case, one should rejoice that the Sino-Western encounter is inviting us to a new level of comprehension.
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai and founding director of the Euro-China Forum.
[ Last edited by thetruthbut at 2007-4-12 02:24 AM ]