An alternative route for China's ascent

2013-04-23Asia Times

For more than 30 years, Western scenarios about China have all started and finished with the hypothesis of the collapse of the Beijing government.

However, 35 years after Deng Xiaoping introduced his reforms, the government has not collapsed, China has become the second-largest economy in the world, and it appears on track to become the number-one economic and political power in the next decade.

That notwithstanding, as David Goldman underscored in a conversation, Western scenarios have not changed: all take for granted that sooner or later the government will fall apart or that something will force a dramatic change in China.

But 35 years of experience should perhaps lead us to consider the possibility of a different outcome: What if, in 10 or 20 years, the Beijing regime has not collapsed? What if China carries on as it is now?

Just for the sake of hypothesis, in contemplating all possible scenarios, one should take into consideration the possibility that in 10 or 20 years, the Chinese government could be roughly similar to what is now, and yet might avoid the clash against America and the rest of the world that is predicted by many Western pundits.

In fact, China is now developing something of new worldview. In recent weeks, President Xi Jinping has presented a new concept for his 10-year tenure: the "Chinese dream" ("Zhongguo meng").

Both Chinese and Westerners have spent a lot of time and spilled much ink trying to explain the significance of the Chinese dream, yet Xi Jinping presented also another concept that is possibly even more important. He said the earth needs a "world dream" ("shijie meng").

Despite the fact that the content of the Chinese dream is still vague and hazy, it is clear that the Chinese dream and the world dream must be consistent with one another.

China should not clash with the rest of the world or with the incumbent powers, but should lead alongside them. China speaks of a dream of living a good life, free of need and hunger. Yet, it is far from enough to define a dream based on the characteristics of the America dream, which currently dominates the global ideology. China's world view needs in fact to be consistent with the broad world view that has shaped and dominated the world for the past 500 years.

The world became "unified" in the early 16th century, after Spanish and Portuguese ships discovered America and reached the four corners of the globe in the late 15th century.

The Spanish did it for the gold and silver of America as well as for power - but they also had the sense of greater mission: spreading Christianity, the salvation of the human race through saving the heathens in African and America.

We know the salvation of souls was also a cruel business that led to slavery and exploitation, but it was also motivated by a true sense of needing to help others and save people. In fact, we know the stories of slavery because some priests and devout Christians denounced the cruel methods used in the Americas and other places.

The British Empire, which superseded the Spanish in control of the planet, also had very base motivations while simultaneously holding very high ideals. They wanted to bring civilization to the whole world. They did not try to convert Indians to Christianity, but they did convert them to the British legal system and the ideal of justice.

America's current global empire may have an interest in controlling oil, sea, and land, but there is similarly a general belief in spreading human rights and democracy. We can all see the faults in these value systems. There is evident hypocrisy when comparing these lofty ideas with the base interests pursued by American, English, and Spanish companies.

However in all of these cases, the ideals are positive, truly helped the progress of humanity, and helped to provide a common shared ideology that fortified the empires and diminished the possibility of having to resort to violence.

People were convinced of the good of those ideals, since they aided to some extent the people who accepted them, and the dominating power used these ideals to exercise their soft power without constantly resorting to force.

On the other hand, the dominated countries and peoples could use these ideals against the dominating powers to limit their reach. The Catholic priests, for example, tried to limit the powers of the Spanish crown. Gandhi used English law to get the English out of India.

Even anti-American Muslims benefited from the American principle of limiting violence against fundamentalists. In all these cases the ideology was considered more important than the use of power. The British did not say: Gandhi is manipulating British law against Britain and therefore we change the law to keep India.

Conversely they felt that to upkeep the British law was more important than to keep India. To keep India without British India, would lose not India but Britain itself. The same was true for America in many cases. These countries recognized the huge strength of their ideology, that ultimately made what they were or are.

It's also clear that America used the strength of its ideals to fight the USSR during the Cold War, when the two value systems were in conflict. Eventually, the American liberal system prevailed and the idea of exporting communism was defeated.

In fact, the idea of exporting communism was so defeated that even surviving communist countries like China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea, while theoretically supporting the idea of promoting communism at home, have long given up on the spread of supporting communism abroad. That is, they recognize communism is no longer a universal value.

This implies that they have converted partly or totally to the liberal American system of values, and that the liberal system has in fact totally won.

This situation leaves China in a very strange position. In 20 years, it could be the dominant political and economic power in the world, and yet right now it does not have a coherent value system but a mish-mash of old communist and new American ideas. In fact, in everyday life, communism does not work anymore, and in considering its interests internationally, China is guided solely by its own national interest.

However, national interest not tempered by a global vision - such as the American ideal of human rights, the English concept of justice, and the Spanish mission to spread Christianity - tends to eliminate any consideration of other states or other people who then become just pawns in expanding a nation's interest.

National interest without limits becomes a kind of fascism. China knows that fascism is not good, the experience of Bo Xilai, who clothed a fascist sentiment in old Maoist garb, proved it to them more than anything else. Then Beijing realizes that it should limit the absolute exercise and expansion of its state interests.

Despite this, China does not know what sort of ideal should used to provide limits internally and internationally. It does not have an ideal that lines up its national interest with the interests of the world in the manner of the ideals sustaining the Americans, British, and Spanish over the past five centuries.

If China truly wants to become the number-one economy, and one of the number-one political entities in the world in the next 20 years, it needs to develop its Chinese dream and put it in line with the world dream, as Xi Jinping already announced.

The shaping of the ideal for a Chinese global reach will take a lot of work, but here we dare offer some basic points. Over the previous three empires, there has been a continuity of ideals.

The British did not dramatically depart from the Spanish Christian mission, and the Americans had even smoother transition from the British idea of justice. Even now, British media, like the BBC, The Economist, The Financial Times, play an important role in shaping and up-keeping the idea of the American values.

This continuity did happen also with the British and the Spanish. Britain was very careful in embracing the protestant reform (opposed by Catholic Spain) in a fashion that was not totally indigestible from Rome, as it upheld the traditional structure of the Church, its rituals, although without the Pope.

That is, if you want to take over from the preexisting empire, you should not completely subvert the existing mindset. You want to change the outlook as little as possible to minimize opposition to a new ideology and to create a sense of continuity.

Chinese history also offers many examples of this strategy: the Manchu rulers who invaded China and took over from the Ming emperor presented themselves as the defenders of the Ming and upholders of traditional Chinese values.

In fact, all of Chinese history stresses the notion of continuity, showing that a new dynasty takes over only when the old dynasty has become thoroughly corrupt and the new dynasty can impose a new mandate of heaven.

A Chinese dream then has to start from the American dream and the traditional of Western notion of salvation that has shaped the world for the past 500 years. To do that will require traveling a long and difficult path, but the first steps should perhaps be taken now.

Part of this will be the reform of the political system, which seems close to Xi's heart. In the past days, the Hong Kong-based pro Beijing Ta-kung-pao reported Xi had taken a taxi in Beijing. Official Xinhua news agency later denied the report and Ta-kung-pao apologized.

True or false, the news was credible because in line with the radical approach Xi is taking to reforms. In this case, he will not be China's Gorbachev, the one who destroyed the USSR, but could possibly be China's Chiang Ching-kuo, generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's son who set in motion the democratic reforms in Taiwan. Young Chiang made Taiwan stronger and richer, didn't break it up.

Differently from then, however, there are many forces, in China and abroad, who may have an interest against democratizing China. At home, many interest groups will lose power and money in a more transparent political and economic system; abroad a more liberal China would be more difficult to demonize and stem in its economic and political growth.

An unholy alliance of conservatives in and out of China could be up against Xi, yet for many reasons both China, but also America and the world could have an active interest in the positive transformation of China. All other scenarios (see also It is the world or nothing for China (, Asia Times Online, October 10, 2012 and The China challenge: War or peace (, Asia Times Online, November 15, 2012) are far more scary and could imply a decimation of the world population.  (2013-04-23 Asia Times)


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