China is not emerging from a vacuum. It has a well-documented history of excellence, writes Jeffrey Sehume.

Johannesburg – For conscientious researchers the exercise of studying societies removed from the mainstream is not simply to collect information and gather facts.

For these researchers, keen to loosen the mysteries behind the formerly unknown, the journey is to evaluate “new” experiences, to perhaps draw comparative lessons. Ultimately, this is done in order to illuminate the past, improve understanding about the present, and inform the future. The People’s Republic of China has drawn the interest of lay researchers and scholars since that country began to open up in 1978.

Interest in this strikingly different society has tended to focus on unravelling the political and economic frameworks responsible for its status as a powerhouse for the new millennium.

Many are asking if the prophesy made in 1899 by US Secretary of State John Hay is being fulfilled by the Chinese administration, whereby the country becomes the “storm centre of the world” and its importance means it will shape global “politics for the next five centuries”.

The growing body of research aimed at getting to know China is made more alluring by the fact that China has shunned the label of future guarantor of human civilisation – as was said about the Roman and British empires at their height.

It speaks volumes about China’s long-term strategy, as counselled by former leader Deng Xiaoping, to endeavour to “hide its talent and bide its time”.

Is this a reflection of a civilisation that has survived for more 2 500 years, based on principles of self-reference that have withstood external influences, unlike many other civilisations, whose values have been submerged to the point where they are no longer recognisable.

China has a population of more than 1.35 billion, comprising nearly 20 percent of the global population. this vast population brings problems in terms of efficient governance; maintenance of law and order; provision of education, health care and welfare needs.

How does one cultivate a supportive environment to look after people with diverse needs, ethnic and religious characters?

What are the available instruments to effectively organise the livelihoods of individuals, families and communities ravenous for the basic middle-class consumer goods taken for granted in the West?

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent state visit to China underscores the growing interest of other middle-income countries in the models adopted by the Middle Kingdom.

China’s industrialisation and the management of its state-owned enterprises speak volumes about what we can learn from a country which, five decades ago, had undistinguished development indicators, like many poor countries, with ostensibly intractable crises, such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, violence and maladministration.

While China’s model might not have been perfected yet, it has produced measurable positive results for its population, who wish to realise the “Chinese Dream”, reducible to triumphing over more than 150 years of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

Of course, the local delegation was mindful of the singularity of each country’s history, present conditions, and future prospects. A model of success cannot easily be replicated elsewhere, as if it were a universal scientific formula.

But why should South Africa care about China, which has become the manufacturing capital of the world?

China is not emerging from a vacuum. It had a well-documented history of excellence in scientific invention long before the West assumed global ascendance after during the Industrial Revolution.

As British Sinologist Joseph Needham would document in his multivolume encyclopaedias, many of the inventions we nonchalantly use came from China, for instance, the magnetic compass, paper, gunpowder, movable-type printing, porcelain, smallpox inoculations and earthquake detectors.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) has initiated a two-year project, titled The Rise, Decline and Rise of Chinese Civilisations, to account for China’s glorious history and for its much-admired, but seldom replicated, story from the late 20th century to the present.

Economic indicators highlight the unfolding Chinese Dream for two reasons.

First, according to a report released by the International Monetary Fund last year, China was the world’s number one economy in terms of goods and services.

This led US economist Joseph Stiglitz to weigh in, saying that China would remain in this top spot “for a very long time, if not forever”.

Second, China is worthy of study because it has managed to uplift the lives of more than 500 million citizens in one generation. This feat has never before been achieved in history. But with massive wealth comes great international obligations.

In this, China has been somewhat Janus-faced by, on the one hand, taking the lead in the establishment of development-focused multilateral institutions, such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and Brics, while being coy about assuming a leadership role in other areas for fear of upsetting the reigning military superpower that is the US.

Perhaps China is being pragmatic by staying mindful of the reality that our world is not amenable to dominance by one or two superpowers but is suffused with multipolar centres of regional powers.

In such a geopolitical calculus, perhaps the promotion of national and regional interests has to be balanced with what is beneficial for the global good at the same time as advancing a commonwealth of shared universal principles.

To its credit, China does not have a historical record of colonial invasion using either its economic or martial might to impose its will on others. Rather, it is reputed for promoting a tributary system that sought to establish connections with far-flung regions, as the admiral Zheng He did in the 15th century.

This also explains the stated policy of promoting a win-win approached through, for example, the Brics Development Bank, recently launched in Shanghai, and the Asian Infrastructure Bank, which has attracted the interest of major Western powers like the UK, Australia and Germany.

Another initiative that marks China’s ascendance is the “One Belt, One Road” project, an indirect response to the martial policies of Full Spectrum Dominance, which has resulted in the so-called religious fundamentalism, the subsequent war on terror and migration by the rickety boatload.

Was American political scientist Samuel Huntington prescient in predicting a clash of civilisations?

Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar disagrees, saying China’s sober response to these crises has been the promotion of what he term “full-spectrum co-operation on politics, economics, finance, diplomacy” or peaceful co-existence, as articulated by President Xi Jinping.

The fact is that our interconnected planet demands that emerging and established powers have to consciously calculate the impact of their intended and unintended policies and actions. The successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, involving P5+1, could not have produced the UN-endorsed Joint Comprehensive Action Plan if multilateralism was not prioritised.

Equally, the solutions to 21st century crises, such as terrorism, forced migration, climate change, rising inequality pitting the 1 percent against the other 99 percent, in order to produce sustainable and shared solutions, will demand peaceful co-existence.

Human societies have made major inroads in moving away from fearing or demonising the unknown and acting on these fears to the detriment of others.

Although China has selected models of societal organisation that are not popular in the Western hemisphere – state-led capitalism, Mandarin bureaucracy, collective rights – these should not necessarily be dismissed as unacceptable, according to “civilised” standards.

To downgrade what is unfamiliar and exotic is tantamount to intellectual xenophobia, which sows resentment and not understanding.

There is a reason why in many Pew Global Attitudes surveys, citizens have expressed satisfaction with the model of governance in China. Bar the activism in Hong Kong, the Chinese state model is preferred because it is viewed as an extension of the family and not as something established purely for utilitarian ends.

As British academic and journalist Martin Jacques says, “there’s a huge reservoir of goodwill in China towards the government”, since they have resurrected a model of managing society – based on Confucian and legalism philosophies – that are unique to the historical conditions of the country.

* Mistra will host a book launch on Tuesday at the University of Pretoria where The Philosophy of Chinese Civilisation will be released.

— Jeffrey Sehume is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute.