BEIJING - The West in recent decades has been attempting to change China
through criticism and apocalyptic predictions. These help China to avoid traps,
to prevent possible stumbles and to be careful about the direction it takes and
the decisions it makes. For instance on human-rights issues, all the criticism
helps the Chinese Communist Party to be on its toes, and in this way we
Westerners help to make China a more harmonious society.
Yet while we help China to change, we overlook the fact that we
should change ourselves, because China's growth has brought a systemic change
to the world at large. As it spearheads the general growth of Asia,
particularly Southeast Asia and India, it foreshadows a different world, where
for the first time in at least two centuries the West will become an economic
It is as if we were facing a huge climatic change, as if we went from the
glacial era to a temperate era, or vice versa. In this climatic change, we are
going to die if we don't change our habits. It is not because China is a
threat, that it is malevolently planning an attack on the West. It is because
there is a change of climate, and those who do not adapt to the new environment
will inevitably suffer.
Failing to perceive change is common in history. In the late 16th century,
William Shakespeare thought Venice was the most advanced country in the world,
and this was the main reason he set some of his best plays in Venice, for
instance The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Romeo and Juliet
is set in Verona, near Venice.
Yet the reality was that England was the country leading the changes in Europe
and Venice was in decline. But England still looked up to Venice, and while the
example of Venice drove England to change, Venice itself failed to perceive
what was happening. One can argue that if the Venetians had recognized the
changes in England, they might have considered England a threat, as the one
country taking away the old Venetian supremacy. But in fact the situation was
much more complex. The strong presence of the Turks made Mediterranean trade
with the Far East more complicated and costly. At the same time, the new
Atlantic routes brought into Europe the wealth of America, its gold and its new
crops, while at the same time providing access to Asian goods and spices.
In a nutshell, the whole historical environment was changing, yet people not
only in Venice but also in England, as Shakespeare proves, failed to see it
Perhaps this has also to do with our psychological defense mechanism whereby we
rule out things we don't like: often when it's too painful to accept our
reality we misread it. This is a natural process, but one that can be
structured to serve specific motives and goals. Then it becomes an ideology.
A similar process is at work with the Western approach to China. We often fail
to recognize the climate change heralded by China's growth. However, this
psychological and ideological process in the West does not harm China much
because China is discreet in taking our criticisms, accepting those that help
it improve itself while rejecting those that are not useful. But while this
process helps China, it hurts the West because it hides the climate change,
robbing us of the time we need to prepare for the new environment.
Randy Peerenboom in his book China modernizes: Threat to the west or model to
the rest? argues that the present authoritarianism is good for China.
Of course there are excesses; there are cases when a forceful reaction of the
police is unnecessary and unhelpful. He argues that perhaps 20% of the
authoritarian regime could be dispensed with without endangering the country,
and actually improving the situation. But overall, he claims, authoritarianism
as practiced in China is helping the country to develop, and the whole world
benefits from this development.
Peerenboom backs this view with statistics and data, but his findings also ring
true on another level. They are easy to believe because people in the streets
of Beijing or Shanghai look optimistic - they smile, they seem happy, while
people in New York or Rome don't.
Peerenboom's findings should be a stepping stone toward consideration in the
West as to how we should change to cope with China's change. But the book is
bound to be controversial, because it says to the Venice of our times that
England has a different model and if we don't change they will overtake us.
This realization changes the focus of attention, from China to the West.
We are the ones who should consider making important changes while looking at
the Chinese reality and studying it in a very cold and non-ideological fashion.
Thus ideological attacks against China and the Communist Party seem part of a
larger misreading of China. They lend credence to the theory of a clash of
civilizations. In fact China can be hardly called communist. Yet the calls to
the Chinese communists to convert to democratic rule sound very similar to the
past attitude when the West was saying to the Chinese and other non-Western
people: You heathens must convert to Christianity and Western values or we'll
send you to hell.
It is true that this approach worked with the poor native Americans in the 19th
century. But even back then it did not work in China, which was too big and too
complex to be completely overtaken by the West. In fact we had the opposite
experience, for any power that has taken over China ultimately has become
Chinese itself. It was true for the Mongols of the Yuan Empire, the Manchu of
the Qing Dynasty, and could be also true of the Westerners: if they were to
rule China, in a few decades they could well become Chinese. More important,
after being sinicized the conquerors were upstaged by Chinese rebellions, which
eventually took over the former victors and expanded the Chinese borders. For
instance, the Manchu have become a de facto integral part of China with both
their culture and their territory. The Qing in the Chinese modern imagination
were not a foreign power winning China, they are part of Chinese history, fully
digested in it.
A similar phenomenon has happened to the West already. Rome, which conquered
Greece militarily, was itself conquered by Greek culture.
So we have two situations. First, it is very difficult to take over China. The
West did not succeed in its attempt a century ago when China was weak, and is
much less likely to succeed now when China is stronger. And second, if the West
were to take control of China, it could be worse for the West, because China
could sinicize the West and take it over.
Therefore if we want to preserve ourselves and our differences, we have to
preserve China. And to preserve ourselves before this massive transformation,
we must change many things. But how?
We should tell China: We need you to be democratic because the world needs to
be mutually politically transparent; we are transparent and you should be as
well. There should be something like the World Trade Organization agreement, a
World Political Agreement (WPO).
But if under such an arrangement China were to change, an even bigger change
would be in store for us.
Our democratic structures seem out of sync with the present world. They were
coined and groomed in a much smaller and less interconnected world, and now we
find that our political structures are at the same time too democratic and not
For instance in the European Union, many rules are dictated and imposed by
bureaucrats who are not elected and possibly are less accountable than Chinese
mandarins. There is a huge deficit of democracy in the EU. Why can these
bureaucrats impose rules on milk or the content of my chocolate bar? What is
their legitimacy? What is their interest, their goals? These notions are fuzzy
in every single EU country, where lively domestic politics, with its tempo of
lively, fierce political campaigns, draws more attention than distant and murky
dealings in Brussels.
At the same time, for instance in Italy, a country that is part of the European
Union, every small town is rich enough to send a representative to Miami.
Having done so it feels the right - and there is no legal obstacle to it - to
establish direct political relations with Florida, often without even knowing
that Florida's capital is Tallahassee and not Miami. But in a national
agreement maybe the issues of foreign policy should be the responsibility of
the state. In one case there seems to be too little democracy, in the other
case too much. Neither can work - they both make the West weak vis-a-vis the
climate change brought about by China.
Thus it is essential that we understand China as it actually is, and not as it
appears through some ideological lens. And perhaps we should start thinking of
Jared Diamond in his latest book Collapse speaks about civilizations
that took a wrong turn and collapsed. It sounds as if he is speaking of us, the
Western world: there is a huge change, and we fail to recognize it and adapt to
it. As Diamond says, those who do so perish.
Francesco Sisci is Asia editor of the Italian daily La Stampa.