The rise of the East will change more than just economics. It will shake up the whole way that we think and live our lives
The world is being remade but the West is only very slowly waking up to this new reality. In 2027 Goldman Sachs estimates that the size of the Chinese economy will overtake America’s and by 2050 will be twice as big.
But we still think of the rise of the developing countries and the relative decline of the developed nations in almost exclusively economic terms. China’s rise is seen as having momentous economic implications but being of little political and cultural consequence. This is a profound mistake.
In the past – Britain and the US being obvious cases in point – the economic rise of a country has always been the prelude to the exercise of much wider political and cultural influence. So why should China be different?
The only plausible reason that I can think of is the hubristic belief that our ways of doing things are so superior that other countries will automatically adopt our arrangements, values and belief systems. It is based on the absurd assumption that China’s modernity will not be deeply shaped by its own long and rich history and culture.
Let me give a few examples of how China will remain very different from the West. The nation state, a product of the European tradition, has become the primary defining entity of nations. The problem is that China is not really a nation state: it may have called itself one over the past century, but for the previous two millennia it was a civilisation state. For China, the nation state is the top soil and the civilisation state the geological formation.
The Chinese do not think of themselves in terms of nation but civilisation; it is the latter that gives them their sense of identity.
Although we tend to think of China in somewhat homogeneous terms, it is a continent that contains great diversity; and to govern a continent requires a plurality of systems that a nation state would never tolerate. The maxim of a nation state is “one nation, one system”; that of a civilisation state is, of necessity, “one country, several systems”.
Think back to the constitutional formula that underpinned the handover of Hong Kong: “one country, two systems”. Despite Western scepticism, the Chinese really meant it, as the Hong Kong of today clearly illustrates.
Now imagine what it might be like to have a civilisation state, rather than a nation state, as the world’s dominant power: the consequences are bound to be very far-reaching but very difficult to conceive because of its unfamiliarity.
Or take the tributary state system, which organised interstate relations in East Asia for thousands of years. It was a loose and flexible system of states that was organised around the dominance of China, the acceptance of the latter’s cultural superiority, and a symbolic tribute that was paid in return for the protection of the Chinese emperor. That system lasted until about 1900.
The deeply rooted attitudes that informed the tributary system have never really gone away, either on the part of the Chinese or others. Furthermore, the conditions that swept it away – the decline of China and the arrival of European colonialism (and the subsequent influence of the United States) – have disappeared or, in the case of America, is waning.
We are now witnessing the rapid reconfiguration of the region around a resurgent China. It is entirely plausible that we might once again see the return, in a modern context, of some elements of the tributary state system, thereby challenging the global dominance of that European invention (the Westphalian system) of sovereign, independent nation states.
There are other examples of how China will remain very different from the Western norms that we are so familiar with: unlike in Europe, the state has never had its powers curbed by competitors, giving it an unrivalled position at the heart of Chinese society; or its highly distinctive position on race, where about 92 per cent of the population believe that they are of one race; and the lack of a conception of, or respect for, difference that flows from this.
The rise of China will transform a world that presently conforms to a Western template. It will not happen quickly; not least because the Chinese are, for now, too preoccupied with economic growth and escaping from poverty to entertain such questions. But in time that will change as the country becomes more prosperous and people can afford to raise their sights and entertain other ambitions. In the 19th century, Europe left a profound and indelible impression on the world, marking the birth of the Western(-made) world. That era is now in retreat.
The rise of China signals the slow dawning of a very different era in which Chinese influence will become profound.
The renminbi will replace the dollar as the world’s dominant currency. The international financial system will be remade in China’s financial centre, Shanghai. Mandarin, already spoken by twice as many people as English, will become a lingua franca just like English is now.
The great landmarks of Chinese history – the voyages of Zheng He, the formation of the Qin dynasty, the inventions of the Song dynasty, the 1949 revolution – will become universally familiar.
Confucius will take his place as a philosopher of global, not just Chinese, signficance. Chinese film, already popular in the West through movies such as Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower will exercise a growing influence on the popular imagination. Beijing, rather than New York, will be the global reference point. Chinese traditional medicine, based on principles very different from Western, will become widespread across the globe.
Our children and grandchildren will grow up in a world that is increasingly unfamiliar to us, where the old Western furniture can no longer be taken for granted. For the first time for more than two centuries Westerners will be obliged to adapt to and learn from other cultures in a quite novel way. It will be a highly disorientating and disconcerting process.