07 April 2006

A new world with Chinese characteristics

I've posted some excerpts from an excellent article on China from the Asia Times. I would suggest reading the entire article via the link above but if not please see the highlights below.

A new world with Chinese characteristics
By David Gosset

Not one single day goes by without news, debates and comments on China: business deals, trade negotiations, diplomatic summits, political events, state visits, financial ups and downs, societal trends ... the list goes on. Conferences, forums, seminars, provocative articles, new papers and the latest books keep China-watchers very busy; but confronting such a profusion, one risks taking short-term variations or insignificant fluctuations for long-term tendencies and losing any sense of pattern...

...In a process of unprecedented magnitude, one-fifth of mankind, different from the mainstream (the West), is entering the world stage. Czarist Russia's emergence in the 18th-century European system and the respective rises of Germany and Japan at the end of the 19th century were comparatively of far less magnitude. While Western scientific and economic modernity will continue to have influence on China - Beijing's overall strategic goal is modernization - the Chinese world will have considerable quantitative and qualitative impact on the global village - in its civilizational expression carried by the Chinese people, China cannot be diluted in the globalization process. ...

...True, the People's Republic of China is a developing country that is, as such, facing considerable challenges. China's population - more than 1.3 billion - is approximately the population of the European Union plus the entire African continent, or more than four times the US population. If one focuses exclusively on what has yet to be done to catch up with the developed world or on the various visible signs of Westernization within China, the idea of serious Chinese influence on the global village can appear illusory.

However, if one considers the scope of post-imperial China's metamorphosis (the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century was followed by at least 300 years of disorder in Western Europe) the speed of its transformation since 1978 - per capita income increased 10 times and foreign trade has boomed from US$20 billion to the current $1 trillion - while keeping in mind the Chinese empire's past cultural, economic and political centrality in Asia, the question of the Sinicization of the world makes sense. It is not feverish speculation or another version of 18th-century European "chinoiserie" - reconstruction of China disconnected from reality - but a phenomenon already at work in the global community. ...

...In January 2004, Parisians looked at a red Eiffel Tower in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit, which coincided with the "Year of China in France". The event "China in London 2006" is the largest celebration of Chinese culture ever seen in the British capital. In 2007, Russia will hold its "Year of China". It seems that the world is preparing for a Chinese century. French journalist Erik Izraelewicz can write a book titled When China Changes the World (Quand la Chine change le monde, 2005). China is succeeding in having non-Chinese framing the debate in a way that is advantageous to it.

Already 30 million non-Chinese are learning Mandarin. Beijing has opened Confucius Institutes (following the example of the Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institutes or British Councils) both to teach Chinese and to explain Chinese culture throughout the world. Chinese is already the second language on the Internet, with more than 100 million Chinese netizens..

...China's direct investment overseas is rising rapidly. Up to the end of 2004, China made $45 billion direct investment in more than 160 countries; in 2004 alone, China's direct investment overseas reached $5.5 billion, surging 93% over 2003. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo will reinforce this momentum. Almost exactly 100 years after of the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911), China will be once again at the center of Asia, and in a position to challenge US unilateral domination over a world system in search of equilibrium.

...The Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were established respectively by Mongols and Manchus (about 2 million Manchus took power over 120 million Han Chinese in the first half of the 17th century). However, the only way for the "barbarians" - non-Han - to rule the empire was to adopt largely elements of the Chinese tradition. Immutable China is a myth - the long history of China is a succession of clearly distinct periods - but absolute discontinuity from one time to another is also a narrative. Revolutionary discourse on a new regime for a new China was the most abstract intellectual construction; in fact, China's history is a continuity of relative discontinuities - it combines permanent (Chinese characters for example) and changing features. ...

The Chinese world is not only made of the 22 provinces - nine of them more populous than France, with obviously many subcultures - five autonomous regions, four municipalities, two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau) of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and the highly Sinicized Singapore - the city-state can certainly be considered a part of Greater China - but it also includes in its largest extension a Chinese diaspora active worldwide...

...For the West, necessary adjustment to the re-emergence of the Chinese civilization requires modesty and intellectual curiosity. Are we Westerners ready to learn from Chinese civilization as Chinese people are ready to learn from the West? This is the precondition of a genuinely cooperative relationship.

Seriously engaging China is to accept the very possibility of Sinicization. The West, in a position of scientific and economic superiority since the Industrial Revolution, is used to treating China as a product of orientalism. For the majority of Westerners, China is either a museum - hence the surprise of many foreigners in China: "I was expecting something else!" - or a classroom: one has to lecture Chinese people on more advanced standards. The West has to reflect on these prejudices and to look at China as a living matrix of a civilization that is already shaping our time. "

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