A new world with Chinese
characteristics By David Gosset
With China's economic, social, political
and cultural renewal, a five-century period of
Western domination of the world has ended. One has
to make sense of China's complex dynamics to
apprehend a new world with Chinese
misconceptions caused by a combination of
distance, ignorance and arrogance stand as serious
obstacles to a better understanding of the reality
of China. In this perspective, unlearning
misperceptions about the Chinese world is an
important step on the way to
One often assumes that
China is just another relatively homogeneous
nation-state, a part of Asia like Japan, Korea or
Vietnam. In fact, China is, mutatis mutandis,
the Europe of Asia. In other words, China is a
highly diverse and heterogeneous continent whose
complexity calls for nuanced analyses, diplomatic
approaches, or focused business strategies.
There is certainly not one Chinese market.
To maintain equilibrium between the different
components of the Chinese world and to ensure that
one-fifth of mankind lives in decent material
conditions are the two main tasks of China's
leadership. These are also two major contributions
to global stability.
As China opens to the
global village, one believes - and often expects -
that Western influences will change China.
However, if it is true to say that Western
practices and theories are influencing Chinese
people, China is fundamentally in a process of
absorbing foreign elements by translating them
into its own context. From Shanghai to Chongqing,
from Dalian to Hong Kong, techno-economic
modernization does not mean Westernization. The
Chinese world is not a passive entity but a living
matrix of civilizations.
in the Chinese mega-society help to define, by an
effect of sharp contrast, some of the permanent
features that make the essence of the Chinese
identity: an extraordinary, rich corpus of Chinese
characters, a quest for harmony, and a strong
belief in renewal - provided it is substantially
self-renewal, as noticed by the late Robert van
Gulik at the very end of his magisterial Sexual
Life in Ancient China (1961).
years after Deng Xiaoping's "reform and
opening-up", one goes on to discuss "China's
integration into the world system". This is a
misleading expression. One cannot integrate China
as, for example, the European Union system
integrates its new members. Because of its
continental size and nature as a living
civilization, China will be the co-architect of a
new world order. The West will have to adjust to a
new world with Chinese characteristics.
One commonly fears China's rise as a
source of instability. Such an assumption contains
two inaccuracies. First, one should not speak
about China's rise - even a "peaceful rise" -
without reflecting on the re-emergence of the
Chinese world. Second, one should remember that
China has been for centuries a structuring pole in
Asia and beyond.
In fact, China's
renaissance is, potentially, the source of a more
stable Asia, and of a more harmonious global
system. Will a re-emerging China and the United
States clash in the 21st century? Let us not
forget that during World War II Chinese and
Americans were allies against Japan. Thirty-five
years after the Shanghai Communique, China and the
US are de facto interdependent. More and more
people both in Washington and in Beijing realize
that a genuine cooperative Sino-US relationship
could open an unprecedented period of peace and
prosperity around the Pacific.
debate China's modernization but tend to
acknowledge only its economic dimension. However,
post-imperial and post-Maoist China is also going
through a process of political modernization.
Democratization with Chinese characteristics will
enrich the vocabulary of Western political
scientists. The level of individual freedom
enjoyed today by its citizens has no equivalent in
China's past, and the effort to establish the rule
of law will bring more social, economic and
Western media are constructing a "Chindia" myth,
but putting China and India into the same category
is an intellectual imposture. China and India are
two very different civilizations. Moreover,
discourse on India's formal democracy hides a
paradox: Chinese citizens - male or female - have,
on average, more opportunities to be educated, to
find a decent job, and to enjoy genuine social
pluralism than do India's citizens. In China,
invisible metaphysics does not constrain
individual emancipation, so socio-political
reforms have a real impact on the people's lives.
The West is assuming that it will continue
to be at the avant-garde of the world as the
unique source of material and moral progress. It
should realize that if China is already enriching
the dynamics of the global village, then, one day,
it could also possibly lead by its capacity to
innovate and to co-design a modernity in which it
would have once again a central position.
The West takes the China factor seriously
now, but can it look at the dragon without bias
and misconceptions? Can we, the non-Chinese, look
at the dragon without fear?
associate the dragon with the idea of evil, which
has to be tamed or even eliminated. The legend of
"St George killing the dragon" is recurrent in
Western art. In the Chinese context, the dragon is
a ubiquitous and highly positive symbol. In the
magnificent Sorrow after Departure, the
great poet Qu Yuan flies with dragons to have a
taste of heaven's perfection.
One does not
need St George to fight indiscriminately all the
dragons or, at the opposite end, to forget about
one Western image of evil to be aware of the
difference between the two representations.
Concluding his book To Change China: Western
Advisers in China, Jonathan Spence wrote: "At
least - if each partner in the equation has
attained a new level of self-awareness - there is
a chance that the old misconceptions will not be
repeated." In any case, one should rejoice that
the Sino-Western encounter is inviting us to a new
level of comprehension.
Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica
Europaea at the China Europe International
Business School in Shanghai and founding director
of the Euro-China Forum.