China’s Contribution to Humanity in the 21st Century
Over the past decade, “China rising” has been one of the (if not the) hottest phrases in the world media. For thirty years, Chinese economy has experienced double-digit growth in GDP measure; Chinese society has undergone the largest modernization and urbanization process in human history; Chinese people have led the world’s largest poverty-and-illiteracy-reduction effort. The transformation has been so dramatic and so profound that it has left most of us in shock --- our understanding of China lags way behind China’s development. There’s nothing in the recorded human history that can provide a model for understanding today’s China and for predicting its potential. As a result, China’s development has attracted attention, admiration, as well as suspicion, hostility.
The dominant Western narrative about China’s rise has been one of the two: China is going to fail sooner or later; or China is a threat that must be contained or eliminated. Many people believe that China is going to fail because almost all other communist states have failed. They say that China is a threat because China is different from the West and is a challenge to the established world system. These suspicion and fear resemble the “Yellow Peril” narrative. Westerners might still compare today’s China to the Mongolian army that swept across Eurasia, or Mao’s Red Guard or the overwhelming image of “Blue Ants”.
If we use these distorted lenses to see today’s China, then we are out-of-date by decades, if no by centuries. In this essay, I will attempt to provide a 21st century perspective to understand China and to predict its future. This is the “Yellow Fortune”: China will make tremendous contribution to humanity in the next one to two hundred years.
How to understand today’s China
In order to predict China’s future, we first need to identify China’s unique characteristics today. As we try to understand China, the first difficulty we encounter is that there’s nothing that we can compare China to. True, that both China and the United States are geographically huge and geopolitically powerful, but the two countries have totally different history and culture. True, that both China and India have over one billion population and enjoy exponential economic growth, but the two countries have the opposite political system and industrial base. True, that today’s China has inherited the core values from the ancient Chinese dynasties, but today’s China is undertaking innovations that are totally unthinkable for the old empire. Can we then see China as a nation-state? Not really, because China has 56 official ethnicities and numerous unofficial cultural and linguistic groups; because Xinjiang, Inner-Mongolia and Tibet, three of the largest provinces in China, are “autonomous region” for ethnic minorities. Can we then see China as a civilization? Not completely, because China does possess most of the qualities of a modern state, and Han-Chinese nationalism has been repeatedly utilized to unit the country.
So, today’s China is something else. It is not America, not India, not merely a nation state or a civilization, not even comparable to its old self. We must see China as it is. We should not use a Western vocabulary and value system to interpret and evaluate today’s China. We shouldn’t fit China into existing models because China is a model on its own, based on more than two thousands years of written history and one fifth of the current global population.
After discussing how we should not view China, I would like to suggest a way to understand China. China is a civilization-state, a full overlap of a continuing civilization and a modern state. Today’s China is also the reincarnation of the ancient Chinese civilization in the body of a youth. For two thousand years, Chinese civilization has gone through a full cycle of birth, growth and decay. The ancient Chinese society has remained static for thousands of years, staying comfortably in the dynastic cycles. Such comfort and close-mindedness have led to the fall of the civilization. The deadly blow came in early 20th century, and the old empire was defeated by the emerging industrial nations from the West, as well as Japan, China’s former student. Most cultures or nations would have perished under such destruction and humiliation. However, the resilience gene in the Chinese culture and the thousand-year inertia have helped China to go through its painful nirvana in less than half a century: the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911; the nation went through colonization, separation, foreign invasion and civil war. And 38 years layer, in 1949, the new People’s Republic of China has stood up among the nations in the world.
Therefore, today’s China has the character of both a teenager and an ancient soul. The People’s Republic is only sixty-two years old, so China is displaying all the traits of a youth: energetic, restless, adventurous, insecure about its own identity and future, sensitive to other people’s opinion, strong self-awareness and dignity, fragile self-esteem, etc. By looking at China’s diplomatic reactions to foreign governments and media, we often see a typical teenager attitude. At the same time, today’s China is the direct continuation of the longest civilization on the surface of the earth, so China displays the mentality of an old man with unparallel wisdom and knowledge. The long history of China has given the nation strong confidence in its future and potential. Thousands of years of accumulation of wisdom provides inspiration to any challenge China is facing today. China sees the cyclical side of the history, and is not concerned with immediate gain or loss. China is the only civilization that has been at both the top and the bottom of global hierarchy, and therefore, China understands the life on both ends.
This double-personality has left many observers confused; it has also confused China itself. Sometimes, China is torn between the eager teenager and the wise old man. To put it another way: during the day, China is the youth who is busy with building high-speed railways and develop new industries. At night, when people return to dinner table with the whole family, traditional culture becomes the strongest bond. Often, China is so busy with its economic development that only at night or in dreams does the wise old man surface to the ground, and wander in the sub-consciousness of all Chinese people.
To grasp the reality of today’s China, the first step is to recognize that China is a unique civilization-state, and China’s personality is the combination of a teenager and an old man. With this notion in mind, it becomes much easier to understand China’s seemingly contradictory behaviors and values.
To further analyze today’s China, we should discuss how the people is being divided. The “race-gender-class” trinity does not apply to China’s situation, and I would propose that we use the “rural-urban dichotomy” to study the Chinese society. China’s rural-urban divide has its root in recent economic history, and I call it the “colonization with Chinese characteristics”. Most Western countries accomplished their accumulation of original capital by colonization and slavery. One western country’s rise is done at the cost of the misery of many colonies and of the life of the colonized millions. When it comes to China’s development after World War II, there was no possibility to colonize or to exploit other less-fortunate countries. China has to find the first bucket of gold within its own border, hence the “colonization” of the rural population by the urban, the colonization of agriculture by industry. China has to “colonize” itself and squeeze the surplus value out of the farmers for further modernization of the nation. The rural population in China has become the second class citizen in their own country: they are tied to their land, have poorer schools and hospitals, enjoy less benefit of the social safety net, have less access to material and political resources. The Chinese farmers provide endless cheap labor for urban centers, for manufacturing and for construction projects. They build the national highways, international airport, skyscrapers and subways; they sleep in slums in the cities and they send most of their income back to the countryside where their parents live and their children go to school.
Chinese economic miracle is based on the internal extraction of its own people’s labor, by depriving the farmers of their fair share of the profit and using that profit to jumpstart strategic industries and urban centers. This strategy is essentially a form of colonization, creating a second class citizen --- the “others” among “us”. The second class citizens work more and get less, which explains China’s fast capital accumulation. This strategy has been extremely successful economically, but not very satisfactory ethically and socially. This “internal colonization” has created a lot of tension and instability after thirty years in practice.
As a derivative of this rural-urban divide, there is another way to put China’s socio-economic diversity into perspective: developed bloc vs. developing bloc. The developed bloc includes major urban centers like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, etc, while the rest of the country constitutes the developing bloc. Any “average number” in China makes no sense because the different between Shanghai and an inland province is greater than the different between Germany and Romania. Therefore, when we compare China to the rest of the world, we should distinguish between the developed and the developing regions in China.
The two blocs in China create the effect of “1+1 > 2” because the two blocs form organic interaction, complement each other and generate dynamic growth. For example, the rural, developing bloc in China provides labor and land; the developed bloc provides education, capital, innovation and opportunities for the rest of the country.
Above is just a brief sketch of China’s complex and contradictory characteristics. These unique qualities form the basis of our prediction on China’s future.
China’s future contribution to humanity: a few prophecies
I am fully convinced that China will make enormous contribution to humanity in 21st century. This confidence does not come from nationalist fever; it comes from careful reflection and observation on China, Europe and the United States.
Prophecy 1: Chinese culture will provide a new philosophy for the 21st century and will lead humanity into greater wellbeing, characterized by harmony between human and nature, and between nation and nation.
Chinese culture is the product of the longest civilization in the world today; it is the result of thousands of years of trial-and-error, distillation, and integration; it is sustainable, renewable and resilient; it values harmony, tolerance, coexistence, and unity; it is a distinct philosophy that is different from the West; it has a much larger historical “sample size” and thus provides a more accurate picture of the nature of human and society.
By 2050, the number of Chinese food chain restaurants will surpass McDonald’s and KFC combined, bringing healthy and authentic Chinese food to all communities; Chinese tea house will be more popular than Starbucks or alcohol-consuming bars, promoting a green and calm beverage consumption; Chinese medicine will be covered by all insurance plan, and the traditional herbal medicine will revolutionize the notion of health and medicine. I am confident of this prediction because of the 1.3 billion Chinese on the mainland, as well as the millions of Chinese around the world --- they are the best ambassadors for the culture and constitute largest market for the products. With an increasing mobility of Chinese people worldwide, they will take with them the best of the Chinese culture.
(I am fully aware that the very word of “China” rings alarm in many people’s mind. They will think of the spread of Chinese culture as an invasion or cultural genocide. There’s probably no easy way to convince the suspicious by words; China will have to prove to the world by its behavior that it aims to promote exchange and harmony, not expansion or take-over.)
Chinese culture is not just a nice addition to the diversity of the world; more importantly, it provides a whole new paradigm for mankind to live in harmony with the earth, with other nations, cultures, and people. Over the past several centuries, the Western philosophy has led the exponential development of human capacity. From the Industrial Revolution to the American Dream, there is an underlying belief that human is chosen by God to rule the lives on earth, and individuals are the center of social relations. This individualistic, human-centric, and exclusive worldview has unlocked astonishing amount of energy and passion; it has brought our civilization to its peak of material creation and consumption. At the same time, it has created problems that itself can not solve: environmental degradation, materialism, global inequality, etc. Chinese culture will solve the problems that the Western culture has created, creating harmony between human and nature, between economic growth and social wellbeing, etc. Chinese culture will not subvert or destroy the western system; instead, East and West will complement each other, just as acupuncture works well with antibiotics. Also, China must avoid a cultural superiority: the stronger China gets, the more self-critical it should be. The core of Chinese culture is harmony and self-critique, not hierarchy or self-righteousness.
Looking at the current image of Chinese culture in the world, we find that it is still lingering at the stage of fortune cookies and Jackie Chen films. This is probably the biggest waste of human intellectual treasure. The reason for this lack of awareness of Chinese culture is that China itself is still recovering from the confidence-crisis that has been haunting the nation for more than a century. In late nineteenth century, accompanying the defeat of the Chinese empire came the loss of cultural confidence which was so essential for China’s psychological wellbeing at that time. The past century has been a century of reflection and rejection of traditional Chinese culture because of China’s economic and military humiliation. Now, with the rise of China’s hard power, there has been a revival of passion for ancient Chinese classics; Confucius Institute is also spreading across the globe. China should recover the confidence in its own culture, but be very careful not to be arrogant. This is a fine balance to maintain, just like the interaction of Yin and Yang.
Prophecy 2: China’s political innovation will provide an alternative model for the developing nations or authoritarian governments around the world, enabling a smooth transition toward greater openness and freedom.
Since the end of World War II, the world has been told that the only successful form of government must be democratic, with multiple parties, regular elections and direct voting by all citizens. Such form of democracy has been pitched as a part of the “universal value”. This “universal value”, together with the neo-liberal economic theories, is then forced upon many developing nations, sometimes as a condition for aids (or loans) from foreign governments or international institute. However, we could hardly find even one successful case of such implanted democracy. From Southeast Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa, such introduced democracy has often led to greater political instability. Uneducated voters usually vote along tribal, racial, regional or linguistic lines, worsening the social division. For many developing countries, such “direct election” has turned into tribal conflicts, linguistic nationalism, election corruption, and puppet government.
Chinese government rejects the paradigm of “democracy vs. dictatorship”, and adopts the paradigm of “good governance vs. bad governance”. The purpose of an government is to deliver good governance and social services. In many pseudo-democracies, people are told to vote for the sake of voting, as if voting will solve all problems in the society. However, voting is not an aim in itself; it is just one among many ways of decision making. For the past half century, the world has the illusion that voting is the only path toward freedom and prosperity. Now with China’s political experiment, we see that there are other ways for society to make collective decision without the messy voting, and that there is more than one definition of democracy.
Here I would like to point out some key elements in China’s political innovation that might be useful for other nations. Chinese politics is not ideological; it is highly pragmatic. “With Chinese characteristics” has become the best catch-phrase to avoid those meaningless ideological quibbles. Deng Xiaoping famously said, “Black cat or white cat, it is a good cat as long as it catches mice.” China also has a strong and active government. Such a government can make and execute long term, strategic plans for the nation, and protect the country from encroachment of outside interest groups. The recent rare earth battle is a good example where Chinese government uses its executive power to protect strategic resources from unreasonable exploitation and foreign control. Imagine if the rare earth is located in an African country: a weak (or puppet) government will be very glad to (or be forced to) sell off the national resources to foreign companies, and the politicians get their kickbacks. Chinese politics also favors gradual reform, not shock therapy, as a Chinese leader summarized, “crossing the river by feeling the stone.” Chinese politics gives foremost attention to improving the livelihood of the people: food, jobs, education, health care, etc. --- eating comes before voting. All these characteristics arise from traditional Chinese culture and from China status as a developing country. Instead of a top-down installation of western democracy, China has chosen a path of bottom-up economic development and gradual social reform. This model will provide great inspiration for developing nations around the world.
Prophecy 3: China’s economic innovation will provide a new economic model and contribute to a new round of global prosperity.
For the past half-century, the neo-liberal economic thinking has dominated the international development circle, and created the illusion that in order for a nation to develop, the only solution is to privatize all industries, to limit the role of the state and to open up the whole economy and finance. There hasn’t been one success story among countries that adopted such a recipe. Privatization has given the multi-national corporations the best chance to gobble up a country’s strategic industries. Lack of necessary economic protection has exposed the vulnerable domestic companies to the fierce competition from outside; and global financial giants and hedge funds have cause great economic turmoil. Such drama has occurred repeatedly over the past few decades in South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, etc, usually under the arrangement of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. The neo-liberal policy has often been used as the cover for new imperial expansion of a group of powerful nations and corporations. These “global elites” have gained control of the essential resources of the world like food, water, land, minerals, energy, etc.
China has come under vigorous attack of neo-liberalism many times during the past thirty years, but has successfully resisted the outside pressure. Instead, China has figured out a “mixed economy” where the “invisible hand” of the market and the “visible hand” of the state coexist and work well together. The state plays an active role in developing core industries domestically, and supports their global endeavors. As a result, Chinese economy is able to grow with strong government support, and the domestic industries have gained the precious time to gear up for the coming global competition.
As China continues its economic success and political stability, more and more developing nations will have the confidence to part with neo-liberal thinking, to design their own development blueprint, to take back their core industries from foreign companies and to contain the imperial expansion of multi-national corporations.
I am confident for the future potential of Chinese economy for another reason: the human capital. China has one fifth of the world’s population, and the general education level of the nation is rising very fast. Still, most of the people in China today are being used as cheap labor; a person is being regarded as a pair of hand that works and a mouth to feed, instead of a creative entity. I would argue that the current labor market in China has only activated 10% of the nation’s intellectual capacity. Imagine the 1.3 billion Chinese people engaging eagerly in entrepreneurial enterprise and creative activities, what great energy we will see! Such human capital shift will certainly bring another round of innovation and prosperity to the world.
Prophecy 4: China will be a very different type of great power --- different from other great powers, and different from China’s own past. It is inevitable that China will become the biggest economy in the world sooner or later because Chinese population is four times that of the United States. With its growing economic radiation, China will have stronger military and wider geopolitical influence, hence the status of a “superpower” --- but not the mentality and behavior of a “superpower”. I am certain that China will not become another America. For one thing, the world doesn’t have room for another America, either resource-wise, or psychologically or militarily. More importantly, Chinese culture will not allow China to become another America; nor will it be in China’s best interest to behave like the Big Brother of everyone else.
China will be a great power that is self-contained, instead of expansionary. Expansion is not in China’s cultural gene. Even when China was at the peak of its global influence in Tang Dynasty, China did not send out preachers or try to tell other countries what to do. China is happy with sharing, not converting. China will not force its own values upon other nations because China knows all too well the frustration of being preached at. Nor would China claim any superiority in its culture and model because each country has their own “best solution”. One of the oldest and most famous Chinese idioms says “harmony, with diversity”; another says “to seek common ground, and to accept divergence.”
China will be a great power that respects its neighbors. Good neighborhood is very important for the stability and wellbeing of a nation. China will not extract psychological superiority by making others feeling inferior. Instead, China will gain from equal exchange and harmonious coexistence. To achieve mutual understanding with its neighbors, China should award scholarships for student exchanges between China and neighboring countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Korea, etc. For each Vietnamese student in China, Chinese government should sponsor at least one Chinese student to go to Vietnam, studying the language, culture and politics. This way, we can make sure that the exchange is two-way, and that China is sensitive to Vietnam’s needs. China should learn from America’s mistake that “everyone speaks English, but Americans speak only English”.
China will be a great power that is defined not by race or nationality, but by culture. This quality arises from China’s long history of integration and multi-ethnicity. Today’s Chinese people are the mix of thousands of years of national and tribal integration. China will gradually decrease the Han-Chinese nationalism, and increase the cultural bond, eventually eliminating nationality as a barrier of entry into Chinese culture. The bottom line is that if you can read and write in Chinese, you are a part of the family. The Chinese character (the written language) has been the bond in Chinese history. No matter where you live, which dynasty you are from, or which dialect you speak, you can always read and write in the same character that has been used for two thousand years. I believe that the Chinese character will continue to play the bonding role for the Chinese communities around the world.
Some final words
China will contribute to the world its culture, its new political and economic thinking, and its different philosophy of a great power. China will consider such contributions its fortune and honor, but not its leverage against the world.
When I make such predictions, I am not just fantasizing. I am actually writing a guideline for my own future. I am confident about my prophecies because I myself will be the one of those who make these prophecies come true.
Today’s China is far, far away from my description. China has a long, long way to go. It’s going to be a hard and bumpy road. It might take a week to overthrow an old regime, but it takes generations of hard work and sacrifice to build a better system. I have no excuse not to partake in this great construction.