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 Daily European Weekly - - Cover Story - By KERRY BROWN and CARLA DE UTRA MENDES Kerry Brown is a pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese stud­ies at King’s Col­lege London and di­rec­tor of its Lau China In­sti­tute. Carla de Utra Mendes has a PhD in global stud­ies from the Univer­sity of Saint Joseph in Ma­cao and is cu

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.

ZHANG CHENGLIANG / CHINA DAILY

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