Opportunities and challenges in new era
Perhaps the world should welcome China’s increasing prominence to learn and to see the globe from a new perspective
China is in a new era. That, at least, is what official announcements declare. But what should the outside world make of this declaration? Does it mean that we are seeing a power transition, a move into the era of Pax Sinica, and away from Pax Americana? Will it mean that we will see the world’s oceans policed by the Chinese rather than the US Navy, and the world’s finance system dominated by Chinese renminbi rather than US dollars? Will Mandarin, rather than English, become the world’s main common language?
At the moment, all of these things look either very remote or unlikely. Internationalization of the RMB is happening, but slowly. Even with steep rises in foreign currency trading for RMB over the last few years, it only accounts for less than 5 percent of global traded flows. In terms of naval power, too, while China has now acquired perhaps as many vessels as the United States, its Navy exists as a regional and largely defensive force. Chinese naval forays into the wider world are mostly for diplomatic purposes, or for trade route protection (the military installation China opened in 2015 in Djibouti, East Africa, being typical of these). Mandarin might be becoming more popular to study abroad, but the sad fact is that, while as many as 200 million Chinese have learned some level of English in the last decades, the numbers of Americans and Europeans who have bothered to reciprocate and learn Mandarin has been in the tens of thousands, if that.
So what can a new era mean for China, if the evidence so far doesn’t show a bid for dominance? After all, consistently in the period from Mao onward, China has said it resists and opposes hegemony. Presumably, therefore, it does not want a world where it replaces a dominant power and continues the old patterns. The clue is in the name — New Era. For that, there must be something fresh, not something duplicating what has existed so far, only in a slightly different way.
What we can say about the impact of China globally is that it has created different options, different scenarios and different potentialities. New era in this context above all means hybridity and complexity. China’s long intellectual traditions, reaching back to the pre-Han era over two millennia ago, have privileged this flexibility and diversity of belief systems. What were called the three great thought systems — Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism — have existed side by side, usually with high levels of mutual accommodation and tolerance, throughout Chinese history to modern times. That stands in stark distinction from the development, for instance, of Europe, where savage wars concerned with asserting one faith over another lasted from the 10th into the 20th centuries. These kinds of religious wars have largely been absent in China, or very infrequent. Perhaps the Taiping rebellion is the only real example. While there were clashes between political groups, these were about power rather than faith, and the human world rather than the next one.
That tradition of tolerance of hybridity in China’s heritage is important but little understood. It gives a clue as to what sort of power China today might be as it becomes increasingly important globally, and as it seeks to make a reality of the new era that is now unfolding. This is happening at the same time as confidence in Western universalist discourse is being questioned as never before in recent times. The period of US dominance after WWII seems to be coming to an end. Even within the United States, a rising number of voices are questioning why the US needs to be stretched across the planet, getting involved in issues from the Middle East to North Korea. Donald Trump is a new kind of more isolationalist president, demanding that partners like the NATO European allies and others take more responsibility for their own security. The US is now looking like it is about to become less zealous about being a “house on the hill”, inviting others to emulate it and share its values, and more entrenched behind its own borders, wanting to attend to its own social and political issues and the major challenges there.
China’s language about a new era is delicately poised between a country that, because of its size and economic achievements in the last four decades, is now a global force as never before in modern times, and one that does not feel it wants to take on broad and open-ended responsibilities, still needing to attend to its own growth and development. It does not wish to be exposed to the criticism of those, on the one hand, who say as such a major power it needs to play a greater part in global issues, and others who interpret its every move as a gambit for worldwide domination and control. In that sense, China’s current leaders are walking a tightrope. They have legitimate interests they wish to defend, as any country does, but they are also very wary of being sucked into the kind of interminable problems that, for instance, the Middle East has given America over the last half a century or so.
Inasmuch as the new era signifies greater hybridity, then this is a good thing. There were many cases where the US-led West failed to achieve its objectives, or ended up with outcomes that were not what it wanted. The second Iraq war is a good example of this. Perhaps an era of more modesty, and a scaling down of ambitions, is in order. Even long-established political systems like those in the United Kingdom and the US are now having to answer some tough questions about themselves and their future. A period in which this leads to greater mutual tolerance and respect would be positive. There doesn’t have to be, after all, a world where one player has all the answers. There can be more variety and tolerance.
China’s increasing global role and importance also offers, in the new era, something challenging but exciting — the first time in modern history where a power from an intellectual tradition completely different from the Enlightenment West is now able to contribute and have a more prominent voice. That, above all, is an opportunity to learn and to see the world from a new perspective. This is going to be a challenging task. Western commitments to universalist discourse and to normative values are being contested. But for those who are interested in understanding and getting a deeper insight into the truth, this moment of complexity is a good thing — a source of stimulation and dynamism. At heart, that is what new era should mean — a time, as (former leader) Deng Xiaoping’s invitation said when reform and opening-up started in 1978, to liberate thought. This above all is the appeal to everyone that the new era brings.
China’s increasing global role and importance also offers, in the new era, something challenging but exciting — the first time in modern history where a power from an intellectual tradition completely different from the Enlightenment West is now able to contribute and have a more prominent voice.