Traditional ideas are combining with economic self-confidence to create a new and powerful sense of ‘Chineseness’

Martin Jacques persuasively argues that a modernising and modernised China will keep its essential and dynamic Chineseness in a new era of “contested modernity”, and that the rise of China as both a “civilisation-state” and a nation-state is ending the dominance of the west and ushering in a new era of global diversity in values and power distribution. It is hard to contradict his observation that “contrary to almost universal western expectations after Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Communist party not only survived but reinvented itself and, over the last 30 years, has presided over the most remarkable economic transformation in human history”. But his assertion that China’s age-old sense of superiority will reassert itself is more controversial.

Throughout China’s very long history there has been a persistent theme of continuity and change – the former very tenacious, but the latter sometimes very drastic. Modern China has undergone many major changes. The Chineseness of China is dynamic, shaped not only by traditional ideas of China, but also by contemporary ones.

China’s current leaders and, through them, the majority of the Chinese people have a strong belief in Chineseness and its overwhelming importance to national reform and development. This belief in Chineseness is not like the traditional Confucian one, which treated it as a universally applicable value. It is more particular, not assuming that what is best for China is necessarily best for the world. This aspect was introduced by Mao Zedong – before his own revolutionary “universalism” after the 1950s – by his insistence on determining the strategy of the Chinese revolution according to China’s particular conditions, and his resistance to the attempts of Comintern to impose a universal revolution.

China’s achievements over the past 30 years are a major source of Chinese patriotism today. The success of so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has restored the Chinese people’s self-confidence after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, and in the face of the earlier spectacular success of the west. This self-confidence has now developed in the context of the global financial crisis, which has further dented the west’s prestige and increased its dependence upon China. Its effect on China’s foreign policy is noticeable.

China is aware that it still faces many challenges: its huge size and population, its domestic problems and the foreign policy situation. But both the Chinese Confucian empire and a China willing to follow the west (whether in the sense of Woodrow Wilson or Lenin) have passed into history, probably never to return.

– Shi Yinhong