We know that China is important. It is important enough for Donald Trump in the US to want to wage a trade war on it. It is important enough to send a space ship to the dark side of the moon. It is important enough to be the world’s largest exporter, and the holder of the largest stock of foreign currency. It is important enough to say no to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and not worry. China however is more than just that place that makes so many of the daily goods in our supermarkets across Europe and America for budget conscious shoppers. It is much more than the space covered in darkness on the map of global Facebook users! China is not just the world’s second largest economy, and the world’s second largest army, the world’s largest purchaser or luxury brands and the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. There are three reasons why China presents the world outside with a set of challenges that it has never faced in modern history. And through these three issues, the world, like it or not, will change – is changing – far more profoundly than most realise.
The first is that China’s recent rise fundamentally challenges our mindsets. In modern history, from the time of the industrial revolution two centuries ago, we, the Western world, in Europe, the US and its set of political and economic alliances, have only ever known a weak China. Weak China is a place we are intensely comfortable with. A place of colonial adventure by imperial powers like the British in the 19th century, of exotic strangeness, of backwardness during the era under Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976 when the country was closed off to much of the world. It is a place of marginality. This is the place that managed to sleep through the first century of the era of steam power and mechanisation while enjoying none of the benefits of these new technologies, nor showing much desire to do so. It is a place that figured in western narratives as a victim, the sick man of Asia as it was called in the early 20th century when most of its people lived in rural places and its poverty seemed endemic and shocking. It was the tragic object of Japanese cruelty during the Second World War when the sole modernised industrialised power in Asia threw its might against a country still undeveloped and with nothing but its massive population to defend it. In very different ways, even after the so-called `liberation’ of 1949 when the People’s Republic was founded, the country became victim of Maoist excesses and policy failures like the terrible famines that saw so many tragically die in the 1960s, and then the catastrophe of the decade long Cultural Revolution from 1966. .
But that China has disappeared. It happened quickly. From 1978 soon after Mao died China has been reforming, and developing its economy. But far quicker than was ever expected, and in ways which almost no one foresaw, the world is now, for the first time ever, presented with a strong China – a China that sounds strong, and that has massive influence over global markets, supply chains, and geopolitics. Under current leader Xi Jinping, strong China is not a notion. It is a reality. And this has left many in the outside world struggling to catch up, and change their mindsets. Their eyes see a strong China; but their hearts still think the place must be weak. Strong China is a novelty – not just for Chinese people, but for us. No wonder we are all disorientated.
Secondly, we are finding out what Chinese power is through another novelty. Throughout the last five hundred years, from the brief period of adventurism under the Eunuch admiral Zheng He in the early 16th century – the China the West knew and dealt with was a land power. It had no ships. It did not appear at all on the great seaways around it. But since the 1980s, the era of China as a naval power has been upon us, buying not just civilian ports in places like Piraeus in Greece, but also slowly expanding its military capacity. Now, in terms of sheer vessel numbers, the People’s Republic has more capacity than the US. For sure, in technological terms, it lags far, far behind. But that does not change the fact that China is now an authentic sea power. And that means it has the ability to project power way beyond its coasts. Into the South and East China Sea. Into the Pacific Ocean. Towards the coast of Africa. Even into the seas of Europe. This is also unprecedented.
Naval China is the issue that raises the question of how do we, outsiders, interpret this. Do we see it as a sign of aggressive intent – a gambit for China to control under a new Pax Sinica the sea ways around it, by threat and force? Are we going to see naval battles in the 21st century that pit the US ands its might against China, the new player on the block? Are we, as Prime Minister Abe of Japan complained some years back, seeing a scenario in the Asia Pacific reminiscent of that which existed in Europe on the eve of World War One where a dense network of different alliances spread across Asia means that one small clash could bring everyone else in to fight it out against each other because of their pre-existing defence and security commitments? Or is this Chinese sea power a mirage – a sign, once more, of the ways that Chinese power is very different from other kinds of power in the way it haunts, and does not act. This is, after all, a country that has not seen combat experience despite its vast military since 1979. France, Italy, the UK, all of these powers have had more field experience in the last two decades than China since 1961. In the end, are we just seeing a phantom, something that is there to bring psychological pressure on us. In the end, the fights and conflicts of the future are more likely to be in cyber space. In many ways, this new kind of great virtual space battle has already begun. Even while we gaze at the busy seas around China nervously, we are looking the wrong way. And while Russia has been the one so far accused mainly of infecting the social media of the west with misinformation and discord, China has been accused of undertaking extensive forays, accused of hacking into government IT systems in places as far afield as Canberra, Berlin and Africa. It has been accused too of stealing vast amounts of intellectual property. In this `war’ in virtual space, China seems to more than compensate for its vulnerabilities in the real world. Its navy in this context figures as a decoy, while the real action is taking place elsewhere.
But the third issue is the most profound. No one – neither inside or outside China – knows the answer to the simple question of what a world run on Chinese values looks like. The `v’ word has become very politicised. And yet Chinese leaders, particularly under Xi, have been clear. Their view of the world is not that of the West. They do not accept western liberal values. They have a unique set, informed by thousand of years of different culture, philosophy and thinking. But because of China’s economic power, and its influence across the rest of the world, for the first time ever these internal values are of huge importance to the world around. Chinese values, because of the Chinese economy, are also becoming global ones – despite the very significant differences that they have to enlightenment ones of the West.
This is not an ideological issue, but a structural one. The simple fact is that whatever their content, Chinese values are hybrid. Unlike the Judaic Christian unifying belief system in the West from over a millennium and a half ago, in the same period of time Chinese culture has been shaped by radically different views or reality, values and humanity – Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. These are the three great changes. In modern times they have been joined by Marxism Leninism, Maoism, Capitalism, and now Xi Jinping Thought. All of these exist on a Chinese market place of ideas. All survive alongside each other in a space where there is no imperative to demand one singular idea of Truth. The hybridity and flexibility of the Chinese view of the world is perhaps the most singular thing that differentiates it from the Western, Enlightenment world view. It is also, at heart, perhaps the biggest stumbling block between any convergence between the US and China. One believes in Truth. The other in truths. And while the former can accommodate the latter, this is not reciprocated. Chinese values are more humanist, relative and not absolute, and reside in a form of hierarchy and family collectivism that seems to stand against the western love of individual freedom and concrete rights.
What we think about a world where there is greater space for Chinese values is a massive, and profound issue. In this New Land, hybridity and the accommodation of radically different world views under one pragmatic system of engagement will be the order of the day, with China at one end and the US at the other, and other powers ranged in between needing to be careful they look both ways and don’t get trapped in any fights between the two major players. In this world, there will be no US house on the hill, ready to take anyone in, offering some grand shelter for all and sundry. Instead, China, exclusive and excluding, will set up its own place just across the valley, proposing a different kind of relationship, more transactional, more based on self-interest, and for many other powers perhaps more respectful of their differences and desire for autonomy. That’s at least how it will seem. Its aim, China will say, is simply to coexist, respectful of everyone else. But of course, that won’t be straightforward as the two start to move slowly into each other’s spaces. Hybridity is fine in the world of ideas. But hybrid ownership of land or physical property is not so easy. There, the limits of the tangible start to hit home. And there will be many places where China will start to make demands and use its economic levers in ways every bit as demanding as the US.
We really are at a huge crossroads. The three structural changes that China’s rise brings could be a liberation for all of us – the creation of a new, looser, more diverse world, with space for radically fresh thinking as, like never before, all of us expand our horizons and accommodate and look at things in a way we never had to, or needed to before. But it could also be a period of deep cultural clash – one which is seen as threatening, creating insecurity and instability, as people feel their identity and values are being undermined, and eroded by this new, very different, player in their lives. The great Sinologist Simon Leys wrote that an encounter with another culture also ends up being changed to some extent by that culture. In the era of China’s rise, we are moving beyond globalisation in the abstract to a form which is far more intimate, more deep seated, and more confronting – with a power who was weak, but now is strong; who once existed just on land, and now manifests its prowess on the high seas; and who has values that recognise, but do not wish to join those, of the Enlightenment West. Navigating this will take patience, imagination and courage – not qualities that international leaders currently have. But ones, we hope, that people in these two great spaces – China and that outside of China – do have, and can use in the new ere we are moving in.