05/01/2020 No. 155
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Can China Provide the World with Another Cultural Paradigm?
By Yongnian Zheng Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
June 1, 2013

Editor’s Note: This paper is the first part of the abridged edition of the speech entitled "Can China Provide the World with Another Cultural Paradigm?”, given by the author in December 2011 at  the Zhejiang Humanities Lecture Hall.  We thank Professor Zheng for giving us the permission of translating it into English and publishing both the Chinese and the English versions on www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. This paper first appeared on www.zaobao.com (12-13-2011).


The development of Asian countries made them become more and more like Western countries. This is of course the victory of the West and the rise of the West, rather than the rise of Asia. Asia rises through the study of the West. This is the interpretation by most Western scholars. It is also agreed by most people in Asia. In this context, Asia is certainly not an alternative in addition to the West, but just an extension of the West.


Not long ago, I participated in Taipei in an international seminar on the Chinese model. During the meeting, a professor from the University of Southern California raised this question: "We are talking about the rise of China, but what is the sign of China's rise? Can China offer to this world a choice of another culture?"


This raises a very simple question, but forces us to think for a while. It involves at least three related issues: first, does China need a cultural rise? Second, does China need a culture different from the West? Third, will China be able to create a culture different from the West? Recently, prodded by the Chinese government, discussions of the cultural rise and innovation have once again become popular in China. Discussions of the three issues raised here may be able to deepen people’s understanding of the difficulties in the cultural rise and innovation.


The first question is relatively simple. While most people talk about the rise of China, their emphasis is on its economic rise. But many people have begun to address the cultural aspects. The ruling party of China has just held in September of this year the Sixth Plenary Session of the Central Committee, the theme of which was culture construction. More and more people realize that without cultural rise, the unidirectional economic rise cannot be counted as the real rise. The economic rise is mostly based on the calculation of the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP of a country is important, but it is only one of the key indicators and does not cover other areas. For example, according to the estimate of the British economist Angus Maddison, in the 1820s the GDP of China accounted for more than a third of the world GDP. From the present point of view, this is a symbol of great power. But unfortunately, two years later China was defeated by Britain in the famous first Opium War. At that time, the combined GDP of the eight countries in Western Europe including Britain, France, Germany and Italy accounted for only 12% of the total world GDP, while Japan provided 3% and the United States 1.8%.


Ancient Chinese Power System Is not Authoritarian


China is a country with an ancient civilization and a tradition of thousands of years. Why was it vulnerable to an emerging country? On the surface, the British victory was due to its largest naval and foreign weapons in the world of that time. But looking only at the issue of military weapons would be too superficial. Taking one step further, people can see the different national systems of China and the United Kingdom. Long before the historical time when the West came to China, China had a very advanced political system. Despite having an imperil regime comparable with the rest of the world empires, the civil service system/bureaucracy of China was the most advanced. However, this system became vulnerable as soon as it met the modern state system of the West. Although, theoretically speaking, the traditional Chinese imperial system was very centralized, in reality its power was much separated; namely, it was "governing by doing nothing" or "reigning but not governing." China often used the phrase “The sky is high and the emperor is far away" to describe this system. In other words, the Chinese political system did not have a lot of institutional improvement and there was no capacity for mobilization (military and resources). The mobilization capacity of the imperil power was designed to maintain the imperil dynasty, especially to serve the imperial household. Thus, even though China had such a high proportion of GDP, these resources were not effectively organized to become a government power, in particular a military capability. How was this in Britain? What Britain then had was a new form of state power, namely, a sovereign country. This was a highly centralized state power. Prior to this, Britain had extremely decentralized castle politics. Since the monarchy eliminated castle politics, the national political power could become centralized. Although at the time Britain's GDP was not high, the state was able to effectively mobilize resources and make use of the resources. Britain was a maritime nation and it also had the world's most powerful navy at the time.


The rise of modern form of state was first in Western Europe. This was related to the rise of European culture. The rise of the modern state in Western Europe was the product of the rise of a rational culture in Western Europe in the late Medieval. Simply put, this was a culture that originated from the Mediterranean region and later gradually accommodated and integrated other cultures including the Chinese culture. The end result of this bottom-up rise of culture was the political form of a modern state. Of course, this culture also had a wider and deeper content that covered various fields. Therefore, we can see that since the 15th century Western European countries continuously produced a political culture conducive to the construction of a centralized system. In particular, since Britain was a maritime nation, the United Kingdom developed according to its own experience a "free trade" theory. To a large extent, if at the time British ships and armament were its hard power, then "free trade" was its soft power.


No matter from what point of view, we should not underestimate the importance of cultural rise. From this perspective, it is the right direction for today’s China to stress cultural rise and cultural innovation.


Concerning the first question, namely, the importance of cultural rise, people will not have a lot of different opinions. But for the next two questions, it is not easy to give answers. The second question is whether China needs to create a culture different from the West. Once this question is posed in China, Chinese society will immediately divide. To a large extent, since the May Fourth Movement, China has been trying to destroy its own culture. At the time of the May Fourth Movement, people saw that the rise of the West was due to the rise of Western culture so that if China were to become strong, it must learn the culture of the West and remove its own culture. In Asia, Japan was an example. The Meiji Restoration of Japan was de-Japanization and Europeanization, namely using the European countries (mainly Britain and Germany) as models for nation-building. China's elite also wanted to follow the Japanese practice. However, the modeling of West European culture or Western culture disappeared with the rise of the Chinese Communist movement. What the Chinese Communist Party accepted was Marxism and Leninism. This choice was in accordance with historical reality at the time. Western Europe consisted of developed countries; their socio-economic and political aspects had been developed to a very high level. People could aspire to such a culture but it was difficult to borrow it into backward developing countries. The communist culture represented by the Soviet Union rose in poorer countries and was more adaptable to China. It should also be noted that at that time the First World War started in Europe, which had a great impact on China's intellectual and political elite. The Chinese Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party both accepted the Soviet culture, especially in politics.


Japan Is Not a True Western Country


The approach of accepting Western culture to transform China has not disappeared after the reform and opening up of China. The TV series River Elegy in the 80s of the last century was a typical representative. After the 1980s, although people did not directly talk about the transformation of Chinese culture through Western culture, the question actually existed. In recent years, the most discussed theme has been the universal values. Some people regarded the Western values as universal and believed that only after China would accept universal values (or Western values), could China become stronger. Obviously, for these people the question of whether China needs to create a culture different from the West itself is already a false one.


It is too simple to regard cultural re-innovation or cultural rise as cultural Westernization or Western values being universal. The rise of modern Western culture itself has absorbed many non-Western elements. Since all cultures or civilizations are created and accumulated by the human societies, there exist universal values in them. Indeed, in the modern times, Western culture has dominated the scene, but this does not mean that Western civilization and other civilizations are not related or Western civilization is universal. Many elements in Chinese culture and civilization can be universal.


Japan is generally considered as one of the Western countries. But Japan is not a true Western country. Japan accepted the Western form of industrialization and democratization. But whether it is the economic system or the political system, its operation still retains strong Japanese traditions. We can say that Japan is a country that has nicely combined a Western form and traditional Japanese contents. Similarly, the success of the Chinese Communist Party in China was also not a direct copy from the Soviet model, but a Chinese-style reform of the Soviet model, which was then referred to as "Marxism in China." The Japanese political system was the result of Japanization of the liberal political system of Western Europe, while the Chinese Communist regime was the result of Sinicization of Marxism in the more backward country of China. In other words, no matter what kind of foreign culture it is, to be successful, it must be combined with the local culture. And any kind of culture is the product of a long historical evolution, which can be changed, but cannot be replaced.


Returning to the earlier question, people could say that China needs a culture different from the Western culture. If China simply accepts the Western culture, it cannot be regarded as the rise of China. A variety of popular "isms" of today in China are all imported Western goods. Although they are modified in China because of the added Chinese elements, it is difficult to produce impact upon the West. The West may be happy because China has accepted its culture, but this is not to say that Chinese culture has its appeal. Many years ago, an American correspondent James Fallows wrote a book on Asia with the title More Like Us, meaning that the Asian countries increasingly resembled the Western countries as they develop. This of course was the victory of the West, the rise of the West, rather than the rise of Asia. Asia rose through learning from the West. An interpretation of Western scholars, this view was shared by most people in Asia. In this context, Asia was certainly not an alternative in addition to the West, rather than its extension.


Clearly, it is even harder to answer the third question. That is, based on Chinese culture, do we have the ability to create a different culture from the West, which can still become an alternative to it? It is easier to produce a different culture [than to become an alternative to the Western culture]. There exist different cultures in this world; some cultures have relatively stronger influences, while others are disadvantaged. A culture that has a strong voice is accepted by more people whereas a weak culture seldom has the right to speak or may even have no right to speak, and is not accepted. In other words, it is a difficult task to create a culture that is different from other cultures, but at the same time can be accepted by people from other cultural circles. In history, religious cultures including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism were such cultures. The traditional Chinese culture was also of this kind; at least this was the case in the cultural circles of East Asia.


The East Asian Model Is Different from the Western Model


Creating such a culture is rather difficult but not impossible. Here we use the example of the "East Asian model" to address the East Asian experience. In 1994 the World Bank published a book entitled The East Asian Miracle that affirmed the Asian development model and pointed out that the East Asian model was different from the Western model. The launch of this research project was a very difficult process. At that time the Western mainstream economics did not recognize the "East Asian model", because they thought that the East Asian model was of no great value since East Asia learned it from the West; it was the West that brought about the East Asian model. Of course, the East Asian economies including Japan and the "four Asian Tigers" all thought that their developments were different from the West. The success of these economies enabled them to begin to speak and to establish their own voices. Despite opposition from the Western mainstream scholars, this research project was finally launched with the strong support of the Japanese banks. Today, although some still do not agree with the "East Asian model", it has been accepted by the Western mainstream. More importantly, the East Asian model is imitated by many developing countries as the accepted model of economic development. In fact, in the intellectual strata, people have developed a relatively complete system of knowledge around the East Asian development model, which consists of a variety of Asian elements including the Confucian culture, the economic role of state and government, and social factors such as high savings rates, emphasis on education, role of the family and so on.


Compared with the economic voices of East Asia, the political discourse of East Asian countries and regions did not achieve much success. In this regard, even the mainstream discourses of Asia are imports from the West. Asian countries and regions do not have their own political voice. Even though the actual operational processes of many of the political systems are very different from the West, they are disguised as Western political systems. Japan is a typical example and South Korea is similar. In fact, the Asian and Western countries are very different even in their organization of the democratic system of government apart from the regular election formality. For example, Japan is seen as a Western-style democracy, but the one-party dominance of the Liberty Democratic Party (LDP) is very different from the Western democratic model. Of course, there are some Western scholars who have noticed this kind of difference. It can be said that the organization of Asia's political parties, governments, societies, etc., have their own rules. Although they have adopted the form of Western politics, they have not changed the nature of their culture.


Although China is also part of East Asia, and underwent a development that was similar in many ways to that of East Asia, it has shown more of its own culture in comparison with Japan and the "four Asian Tigers." The East Asian experience has shown that, although a strong possibility exists for China to create a cultural voice different from the West, the task of creating such a voice will be long and arduous. This will not happen overnight.

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Yongnian Zheng is Professor and Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He is Editor of Series on Contemporary China (World Scientific Publishing) and Editor of China Policy Series (Routledge). He is also a co-editor of China: An International Journal. He has studied both China's transformation and its external relations. His papers have appeared in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Political Science Quarterly, Third World Quarterly and China Quarterly. He is the author of 13 books, including Technological Empowerment, De Facto Federalism in China, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China and Globalization and State Transformation in China, and coeditor of 11 books on China's politics and society including the latest volume China and the New International Order (2008). Besides his research work, Professor Zheng has also been an academic activist. He served as a consultant to United Nation Development Programme on China's rural development and democracy. In addition, he has been a columnist for Xinbao (Hong Kong) and Zaobao (Singapore) for many years, writing numerous commentaries on China's domestic and international affairs. Professor Zheng received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Beijing University, and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He was a recipient of Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995-1997) and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2003-2004). He was Professor and founding Research Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Tel: (65) 6516 5067; E-mail: eaizyn@nus.edu.sg
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