The country’s trajectory and the change in its people’s values and aspirations are cause for heated debate. Two experts go head to head

Dear Will

It is now widely recognised that the balance of economic power is shifting from the rich world to the developing world. Indeed, the role accorded to the G20 rather than the G8 in seeking to tackle the financial crisis is a vivid illustration of this. But what is not recognised – and has been barely discussed – are the political and cultural ramifications of the rise of the developing countries. That, I suspect, is because there is a deeply held western view that they will – and should – end up as clones of western modernity: in other words, there is only one modernity and it is western. This is a fallacy. Modernity is a product of culture and history as much as markets and technology. The central question here is China: will it end up like us or will it be something very different and, as a result, change the world in very fundamental ways?

In my view, there is not a chance that China will become “western”. Of course, it will be influenced by the west, as it already is, but it will remain profoundly different. To think otherwise is to believe that western norms are a universal pre-condition for successful modernisation. This is a highly provincial, and hubristic, mindset.

Let me give a number of examples of how China is and will remain different. Although for the last century it has described itself as a nation-state, in fact at its core China is a civilisation-state. The Chinese think of themselves primarily not as a nation but as a civilisation; all those things that constitute a sense of Chinese identity long predate China’s short life as a nation-state. And the logic of a civilisation-state is very different: a necessary toleration of diversity because of the country’s sheer size (as illustrated by the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong); and a state which has for centuries been seen as the guardian of civilisation and therefore organic to society in a way quite different from the west.

Or take the example of race. Unlike any of the other most populous nations, 92% of Chinese regard themselves as of one race: that is a direct product of China’s extraordinarily long history and civilisational consciousness. It also means that the Chinese do not recognise difference in the way that many societies do; and nor is that likely to change anytime soon. Consider also the fact that the Chinese state, for over a millennium, has, unlike Europe, never had to compete for power with other groups such as the church or merchants, with the consequence that there are no boundaries to its power. The Chinese state is, and will remain, very different from the western state, whatever happens to its present government.

None of these characteristics imply that China will not become a formidable power; but they will certainly make it a very different one. Why we should be surprised? The world is constituted of many different histories and cultures. It so happens that for a brief period of two centuries or so Europe (and its major derivative, the US) has dominated the world. That era is now coming to an end. Far from western universalism we are entering the age of contested modernity.


Dear Martin

More than 300 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists put their name to Charter 08 last December on the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – many have been subsequently arrested. What they want for China is an independent and impartial judiciary; freedom of speech and expression; free trade unions; a free media; the capacity to hold government to account by citizens – all institutions you dismiss as “western” and now to be contested by your forecast of China’s imminent rule of the world. Pan Yue, Deputy head of China’s Environmental Protection Agency, has warned that there is no chance of reversing China’s disastrous growth of carbon and sulphur emissions – now larger than those of the US – unless civil society has the capacity to hold the mainly state owned polluting industries to account. Until China develops the institutions advocated by Charter 08 everybody in China knows there is not a chance – just as the hundreds of thousands mourning their dead children after the earthquake in Sichuan know they have no chance of holding the corrupt officials to account who commissioned the jerry built schools in which their kids died. The party’s buildings stayed intact.

These are brave men and women, all of whom will be in silent despair about the innocent way another prominent western intellectual has bought the party’s line. There is no more enthusiastic exponent of the thesis that China is a civilisation state than the party’s propaganda department. The party thus takes refuge in some conception of “Chineseness” to excuse it from the consequences of authoritarianism, and shore up its own crisis of legitimacy. Its proposition is that the communism that aims to build a socialist market economy and which represents all of China’s traditions – the three represents – is linked by a golden thread to China’s great Confucian past. It is spearheading an economic revolution that will soon lead to Chinese world leadership. The Charter 08 signatories are thus wrong.

I find the notion that countries are condemned by their past to a future cast in the same mould empirically and philosophically wrong. The “civilisation state” is an empty construct: all states reflect their civilisations which in turn contain traditions that are in tension – individualism and collectivism, freedom and authority. If you mean that China is racially homogenous, what are your readers to make of that explosive claim? It is akin to claiming that everyone in the west is white, and therefore we think the same. But we don’t. In any case there are vast cultural differences between the great agricultural provinces of Shandong and Henan and the bustling commerciality of the Pearl River delta and Shanghai. Do you not believe that there is a universal appetite for due desert for effort, for dignity and for the capacity to express self – and which Chinese culture amply expresses itself outside China in Taiwan, and in its own history? China’s history is pockmarked with epic revolts against tyrannical dynasties excusing their tyranny as fealty to “Chineseness”.

You will object that the middle class is hardly in revolt against the party. You are right – so far. It has been bought off with ample largesse, which is more a hard headed political and economic calculation easily recognisable in the west than anything to do with culture. So much depends upon continuing economic growth, but which I believe is unsustainable – at least until there is political change. You can side with the Propaganda Department and its dismissal of Charter 08’s demands as western. I will stand with Charter 08.

Dear Will

There seems to be some distance between us. So let me try and establish some common ground. Do I sympathise with the signatories of Charter 08? Of course. Do I believe that China needs a more transparent and accountable system of governance? Of course. And – a question you didn’t ask but might – do I deplore the shootings in Tiananmen Square and its environs? Certainly. Your seeming desire to paint me into a corner where you are the democrat and I am the anti-democrat really won’t wash. We give similar answers to these questions. Where we differ is on whether China is fundamentally different from the west in key respects or whether it is destined – in time – to be a western-style society, more or less a clone of us. Alas, you reduce this issue to the complexion of the present government: in other words, difference is simply a matter of politics. I beg to differ.

You dismiss the idea of a civilisation-state – mainly because it appears to have been used by the Propaganda Department. Can I direct you to Lucian Pye, one of the foremost American scholars of China, who died recently? He wrote: “China is not just another nation-state in the family of nations. China is a civilisation pretending to be a nation-state.” Far from being “an empty construct”, as you suggest, it is fundamental to understanding the nature of China – the state, the idea of unity, the notion of race, the sense of identity and much else. The fact that it is an entirely unfamiliar concept to us and that it is rooted in Chinese history and reality rather than our own, is not a reason to brand it as an ’empty construct’.

Which brings me to the question of race. If 92% of Chinese believe that they are of one race does not mean, as you suggest, that I do. It is patently obvious that a population as large as China’s is a product of many different races. But most Chinese do not think this. How do we explain this; and why are Chinese attitudes so different from those of other populous countries, namely India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil? I hope you are not going to tell me that the present government is responsible for this too. On the contrary, this is a function of China’s civilisational history which has led to a long drawn-out process of assimilation, conquest and melding. The consequence is of great importance: the Chinese do not recognise difference. This is clear in the attitude of the Han Chinese towards the Tibetans and the Uighurs. So how will China as a global power relate to a world which is defined by difference: one cannot be too hopeful.

Let me conclude with what seems to me an absolutely fundamental difference between us. Your underlying view appears to be that there is only one form of modernity and that is western. Sooner or later all non-western countries must adopt western-style institutions, practices and values or else fail. In other words, we are the only ones with anything to offer. This, of course, makes political and cultural analysis of non-western societies much easier. We don’t really need to understand them in their specificity, we just need to know how westernised they are. It seems to me to be the height of western hubris to believe that all wisdom resides in the west; on the contrary, all societies embody originality and insights from which we can all learn, the west included. As we move into an increasingly non-western world, this will become blindingly obvious.


Dear Martin

I agree that China’s attitudes towards the Tibetans and Uighurs are oppressive, and that if they were reproduced when China rules the world – a prediction I think will not happen – nobody would like it much. You tell me this is the product of China being a civilisation state, to abandon western hubris and to learn wisdom from others. I presume the “insights and originality” hubristic westerners should admire are to do with China’s economy; you would not want us to adopt China’s attitude to foreigners, racial diversity or its assumptions of superiority.

However you have evaded my argument. Voting is the coping stone of democracy – but it is flanked and buttressed by much more. Democracy is about justice, accountability, plurality, checks and balances and all the processes that go with them. It is as much about effective company auditing, reliable official statistics, independent trade unions and strong corporate governance as it is about arrest and detention without trial or freedom of expression. However these are all interdependent “Enlightenment” institutions that stand or fall together, and bit by bit most of Asia is acquiring and deepening them whether India, South Korea or Japan. In these terms there is the beginning of an Asian Enlightenment reflecting fundamental human desires which when obstructed produce economic and social dysfunctions.

For unlike you I think China’s economic and social model is dysfunctional. It is not just corrupt and environmentally dangerous. It is wildly unbalanced and lacking in innovation. The wastefulness of the system has been disguised by monumental saving which is so very high precisely because so many Chinese do not believe that the regime and model have much of a future. It desperately needs the institutional apparatus that houses great businesses and the innovation process, and the confidence in the future that allows consumers to consume.

Is China culturally predetermined not to move in the same direction as the rest of Asia? Most studies of the relationship between culture, economics and politics underline their malleability and lack of rigid predetermination: Lucian Pye’s views were at one end of the spectrum. Even for those few hard-line cultural determinists like yourself the Ingelhart-Welzel cultural map of the world shows how close Chinese and European culture is – secular, rational, non-traditional and emphasising subjective well-being and the quality of life – suggesting the gap is much more narrow than you argue.

Of course we must learn from China. Tu Weiming, the world’s premier Confucius scholar, shows the profound complimentarity of Confucian and Enlightenment values. He would find your concentration on the racial dimension and appetite for authoritarian government in China’s culture as eccentric – even downright offensive. Charter 08 signatories much more relevantly represent the complexity of China’s aspirations. This is not western hubris: I am extremely critical of the west’s inability to live by Enlightenment standards. But China needs to develop its own variant of what is happening in the rest of Asia. I am confident that one day it will – and your fear of the yellow peril and rejoice in the decline of the west will both be confounded.

Best Will

Dear Will

I wouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which east Asian and western societies have converged, as you seem to suggest. East Asia, of course, is a huge region, home to a third of the world’s population and many very different cultures. But let us take the one that might appear most westernised, namely Japan. In fact, it remains profoundly different: social relations are shame-based rather than guilt-based and very hierarchical; the legal system plays a much smaller role than in western societies; and the labour force is far more gendered. Not least, its political system differs greatly. It is often classified as western. Certainly there is universal suffrage and a multi-party system but, as you know, the Liberal Democrats have been in power more or less permanently since the mid-50s and, as Karel van Wolferen argues, power really lies in the bureaucracy. So while Japan has the trappings of a western-style democracy in practice power resides in a Japanese-style Confucian state. It is not like China nor is it like the west. Japan enjoys a very different kind of modernity of its own. Get it?

Alas, you have virtually nothing positive to say about China. Is that because you have become a China-denier, always predicting ultimate failure, even though for 30 years it has been astoundingly successful? You are right of course that its present model is unsustainable. But no serious economist in China thinks it is. Indeed, a double-digit growth rate since 1978 could only have been achieved by a constant and radical process of change and reform. You give no credit to the Chinese government in presiding over what is an extraordinary achievement. Sure, fundamental changes must be made to the growth model in due course; and that is probably exactly what will happen, just as it did with the earlier Asian tigers.


Dear Martin

If I didn’t know you better I’d think you were an old Marxist swapping culture for class conflict in an attempt to create another determinist account of history. Of course Japan’s democratic institutions are Japan specific; so are Britain’s, France’s, Brazil’s and South Korea’s. The argument is less interesting than paint drying. The point is that country specific democratic institutions evolve, change and mutate – and sit in creative tension with particular economies and societies as they develop. In Japan opposition candidate Toshihito Kumagai has just been voted overwhelmingly mayor of Chiba once a LDP citadel, portending the end of the LDP’s fraying hegemony. Japan’s seventeen year stagnation is forcing change in its economic model and society; at the same time it is readier to question, less deferential and more willing to use the courts than in van Wolferen’s time. Its democratic institutions – as imperfect as Britain’s – are moving it on.

I am not your straw man – the hubristic westerner predicting all societies converge on the western model. Of course societies have particularities. But the human appetite for self-expression, dignity and fairness is universal. Country-specific democratic institutions permit their expression and unleash great dynamism.

Your characterisation of Confucianism, with its simultaneous apocalyptic and grandiose predictions for China, is barely more than a cartoon. InThe Writing on the Wall I acknowledge China’s achievement over the last 30 years. 400 million being released from poverty is quite something. But I observe the flaws, and believe they are set to intensify. Economic models and institutions have to change as economic development proceeds. You have yet seriously to confront my two core questions. Does China need democratic institutions to support the next phase of its growth? Is there any reason why it should not have them except for the communist party’s opposition?



Dear Will

It is time to call a halt to our discussion, so let me conclude with two points.

I believe that the rise of the developing countries, above all China and India, marks, in a rough and ready way, a huge democratic advance for the human race. For 200 years, the western world (and later Japan) – together constituting a small minority of the global population – has dominated the world and to all intents and purposes run it. The rest of the world – the overwhelming majority – until now has found itself marginalised and without a serious voice. When we talk about democracy in the west we almost invariably mean the democracy of individual nations, not the democracy of the world, with the enfranchisement of different societies, cultures and traditions. The rise of China and India, which account for 38% of the global population, will represent a huge democratisation of global governance, whether or not China becomes more democratic (and in time I certainly think it will).

At root you seem to believe that western dominance is eternal. I beg to differ. In fact, it will prove relatively short-lived. It started around the late eighteenth century and will fade during the course of this. But this is the story of humanity: the rise and fall of different civilisations. Your argument is that this time it will be different: that unless countries are essentially like the west then they will fail. I accept, with you, that some values are universal. But the rise of China, and India indeed, will be accompanied by the ascendancy of new values which are not reducible to western values and will certainly conflict with some of them. You endorse Confucianism in so far as it converges with our own values, but fall silent on where it is different (and might even have something to teach us). In your view, our values are always superior. I have a more nuanced position: some of our values are precious and to be treasured, others are not. Which do I think fall into the latter category: above all the one which you never seem to mention, the presumption of western superiority which has made us such an aggressive, expansionist and colonising force for most of that two hundred years. I have the same nuanced attitude towards Chinese culture (and others): some of the values are to be honoured, others are not.


Dear Martin

Trying to assume the mantle of being nuanced about China when you have just written a book called When China Rules the World is a bit rich, as is trying continually to paint me as an unsubtle champion of western values. I am not. As a matter of fact, as Amartya Sen always claims, it was the Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC who first insisted on the value of pluralism, respect for argument and dissent, along with tolerance for minorities.

Some economic history is illuminating. Between 1750 and 2000 global GDP per person has exploded some 37 times after millennia of stagnation. The explosion has been driven by market capitalism interacting with all that we call democracy – a fundamentally new form of economic and political organisation which first grew to fruition in the west. Before 1750 China could claim to be the centre of the world. After 1750 it could not. You now think its recent growth portends a reversal to the historical norm.

But this change over the last 250 years is going to continue and it will be led by those societies best able to manage this combination of capitalist dynamism with democratic institutions. China, as Deng Xiaoping understood, has to share in this dynamism or be left behind – hence his market reform programme, and for many Dengists an eventual programme of political reform. However China is now stuck; and the weaknesses increasingly obvious.

The good news is that western societies are no longer the only ones trying to build this complex matrix of institutions, even if they are still best placed because of the legacy of being first movers. The bad news is that capitalism creates vicious inequalities and instabilities – none less than in China’s incomplete revolution, but also in the system as a whole. The task ahead is to promote much better understanding of the links between capitalism and democratic governance, and above all of the need for equity and mutual accountability. It is a permanent job of criticism and renewal. My fear is that innocents like yourself, proclaiming China’s comeback in pre 1750 terms and decrying universal values as “western”, take us in the wrong direction. A tragedy for the world – and a tragedy for China.



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When China Rules the World is the first book to fully conceive of and explain the upheaval that China’s ascendance will cause and the realigned global power structure it will create.

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