The West has gotten it wrong on China for decades – even as it embraces a market economy, it has shunned Western-style freedoms. And its power is only growing

The dynamics of President Obama’s trip to China were markedly different from those evident on visits made by President Clinton and President George W. Bush. This time the Chinese made clear that they were unwilling even to discuss issues such as human rights or free speech. Why? The relationship between the countries has changed: America feels weak and China strong in their bilateral ties. This is not a temporary shift that will reverse itself once the U.S. has escaped from its mountain of debt. Rather, it is the expression of a deep and progressive shift in the balance of power between the two nations, one that is giving the Chinese — though studiously cautious in their approach — a rising sense of self-confidence.

Nor should we be surprised by the Chinese response. They may have appeared more conciliatory on previous visits by American leaders, but that was largely decorative. The Chinese have a powerful sense of their identity and worth. They have never behaved toward the West in a supplicant manner, for reasons Westerners persistently fail to understand or grasp.

Ever since the Nixon-Mao rapprochement, and through the various iterations of the Sino-American relationship over the subsequent almost four decades, there has been an overriding belief in the West that eventually China would become like us: that, for example, a market economy would lead to democratization and that a free media was inevitable. This hubristic outlook is deeply flawed, but it still prevails, albeit with small cracks of self-doubt starting to appear.

The issue here is much deeper than Western-style democracy, a free media or human rights. China is simply not like the West and never will be. There has been an underlying assumption that the process of modernization would inevitably lead to Westernization; yet modernization is not just shaped by markets, competition and technology but by history and culture. And Chinese history and culture are very different from that of any Western nation-state.

If we want to understand China, this must be our starting point.

The West’s failure to understand the Chinese has repeatedly undermined its ability to anticipate their behavior. Again and again, our predictions and beliefsabout China have proved wrong: that the Chinese Communist Party would fall after 1989, that the country would divide, that its economic growth could not be sustained, that its growth figures were greatly exaggerated, that China was not sincere about its offer of “one country two systems” at the time of the hand-over of Hong Kong from Britain — and, of course, that it would steadily Westernize. We have a long track record of getting China wrong.

The fundamental reason for our inability to accurately predict China’s future is our failure to understand its past. Although China has described itself as a nation-state for the last century, it is in essence a civilization-state. The longest continually existing polity in the world, it dates to 221 BC and the victory of the Qin. Unlike Western nation-states, China’s sense of identity comes from its long history as a civilization-state.

Of course, there are many civilizations — Western civilization is one example — but China is the only civilization-state. It is defined by its extraordinarily long history and also its huge geographic and demographic scale and diversity. The implications are profound: Unity is its first priority, plurality the condition of its existence (which is why China could offer Hong Kong “one country two systems,” a formula alien to a nation-state).

The Chinese state enjoys a very different kind of relationship with society compared with the Western state. It enjoys much greater natural authority, legitimacy and respect, even though not a single vote is cast for the government. The reason is that the state is seen by the Chinese as the guardian, custodian and embodiment of their civilization. The duty of the state is to protect its unity. The legitimacy of the state therefore lies deep in Chinese history. This is utterly different from how the state is seen in Western societies.

If we are to understand China, we must move beyond the compass of Western reality and experience and the body of concepts that has grown up to explain that history. We find this extremely difficult. For 200 years the West, first in the shape of Europe and then the United States, has dominated the world and has not been required to understand others or The Other. If need be it could always bully the latter into submission.

The emergence of China as a global power marks the end of that era. We now have to deal with The Other — in the form of China — on increasingly equal terms.

China, moreover, is possessed, like the West, with its own form of universalism. It long believed that it was “the land under heaven,” the center of the world, superior to all other cultures. That sense of self, which has engendered a powerful self-confidence, has been persistently evident over the last 40 years, but with China’s rise, it is becoming more apparent as the country’s sense of achievement and restoration gains pace. Or to put it another way, when the presidents of China and the United States meet in Beijing in 2019, with the Chinese economy fast approaching the size of the American economy, we can be sure that the Chinese sense of hubris will be far stronger than in 2009.

But long before that, we need to try and understand what China is and how it behaves. If we don’t, then relations between China and the United States will never move beyond the polite and the formal — and that will be a bad omen for the future relationship between the two countries.