Today's date:
Summer 2012

China: From the Great Wall to the Global Bridge

Nicolas Berggruen is chairman of the Nicolas Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council. Nathan Gardels is senior advisor to the group. He is also editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media. Their forthcoming book is entitled, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.

LOS ANGELES—There are two central implications of China’s emergence on the world scene as the hegemony of the West recedes.

First, China’s geo-civilizational paradigm of relations with others, rooted in its ancient history, will likely supplant the Western geo-political paradigm and become a key influence on the conduct of world affairs in the 21st Century.

Second, for the first time in its history, the Middle Kingdom will be obliged by its own self-interest to become engaged globally, not just in its Asian neighborhood. In an interdependent world China and the West alike must cooperate where interests converge or harm their own prospects for peace and prosperity.

As China and the West build a new bridge of understanding based on convergent interests, an inevitable cross-pollination will occur in which the West learns from the East, and vice-versa.

From the geo-political to the geo-civilizational paradigm | As the West rose to dominance during the modern period of the last several centuries it put its universalist stamp, rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview, on the global order it created.

The Western mind has tended to see contradiction between irreconcilable opposites that can only be resolved through conflict that results in the dominance of one over the other. Following the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, this was the approach adopted by Francis Fukuyama when he argued that the “end of history” had arrived after the Cold War with the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets. In the universalist, geo-political mind of the West, territories and ideologies are either won or lost.

This contrasts with the traditional Eastern mind that has tended to see complementary aspects of a whole—yin and yang in Taoist parlance—that must continually seek harmonious balance on a pragmatic basis according to concrete circumstances, not universal idealist abstractions.

As Peking University scholar Zhang Xianglong has argued, this non-universalist way adopted by Confucian civilization has sought pragmatic discourse with others following their own path rather than seeking to lord it over them. In this geo-civilizational mindset what is incommensurate can co-exist, just as Buddhism and Taoism did for millennia in China.

As Zhang further argues, in this non-universalist worldview that seeks harmonious coexistence, neither of the contemporary Western narratives—“the end of history” nor “the clash of civilizations” could occur. They can only occur when universalisms seek to dominate each other.

All this has relevance today as the world has shifted from American-led Globalization 1.0 to what we call Globalization 2.0, which is characterized not by the hegemony of any power, but by an interdependence of plural identities. As the emerging economies from Brazil to the Islamist-tinted secular democracy of Turkey to China claim an ever larger share of global income and production they will naturally reassert their own cultural foundations against the ways of the north-Atlantic West, adapting what works for them and shedding what doesn’t.

The geo-civilizational paradigm which seeks harmonious co-existence among more equal powers necessarily suits the world we have entered far better than the divisive and conflictive geo-political mindset of the world we are now leaving behind. Respect for different cultures and ways of life is the sin qua non, or essential foundation, of the coming world order.

A globally engaged Middle Kingdom | National interest is a highly elastic and overlapping concept in the age of interdependence. Global trade, investment, financial and information flows tie hearts, minds and pocketbooks—and even the natural climate—together in a web of mutual dependence that transcends the territorial boundaries which once defined sovereignty.

Sovereignty in our time means protecting and enhancing the well-being of one’s people within this global web of mutual dependence. China’s challenge in preserving its sovereignty today is to leave the Great Wall mentality behind and build the Great Bridge of the 21st Century where its self-interest converges with that of others to whom it is linked.

The remarkable success of China’s opening up and reform policies over the last 30 years has pushed the Middle Kingdom onto the center stage of globalization. A reawakened China has spawned so many links with the outside world that its own fate is now bound to the interconnections it has created, from African or Latin American commodity markets to the American consumer market to the financial stability of Europe to the warming atmosphere that we all share. China, like the rest of us, can only help itself by helping others. And it can only help itself and others by stepping outside its historical comfort zone to actively shape the rules and norms of the post-American world order.

This point was well illustrated in a talk by Henry Kissinger in June, 2011 which opened a conference in Beijing hosted by CICEE (China Center for International Economic Exchange).

After the Napoleonic Wars, Kissinger observed, Britain emerged as the top world power and stayed that way for over a century. But by the end of World War II in 1947, Ernest Bevin, British foreign secretary in the waning days of the empire, felt compelled to tell his American counterpart that, “as the largest creditor, the US must now take the lead in shaping the new order.” Hence the Marshall Plan launched by the Americans to rebuild after the war, the dominant role of the dollar, and America’s ascendant path for the rest of the 20th century.

As the world’s largest creditor, China is now, in this respect, where America was in 1947—on the cusp of the next world order. Kissinger told his hosts that while this transition from one system to another will likely take another 30 years, China’s role will only grow because it is obliged by its own self-interest to shape the global system that has shifted away from its “North Atlantic pole” toward China and the emerging economies.

In Kissinger’s view, China will be drafted into leadership at an accelerating pace because of the ongoing paralysis in the West. America, he put it politely, “is absorbed in a debate over the role of government and the sources of vitality in the United States; over how much government we should have and who should pay for it.” Europe is gripped by both “a financial and conceptual crisis, suspended between a national framework and its substitute.”

“A sense of cooperation is critical,” said Kissinger, “because we have entered a new era of complexity and are looking for an overriding framework. We have to adjust to the entry of a whole series of new players” on the global scene. For Kissinger, the “principal instrument of adjustment is the G-20,” where each country must fit its national aspirations into an international arrangement “that avoids a zero sum competition for economic growth.”

Kissinger is right. In the past two centuries, Britain and then the United States were the hegemonic powers that provided the “global public goods” of security, financial stability, a major reserve currency and open trade. Today, the US and the G-7 advanced economies are increasingly unable to provide them. Yet, the emerging economies, with China in the lead, are not yet able to do so.

For this reason, the G-20, which combines both the advanced and emerging economies, must collectively provide these global public goods. In a truly multi-polar world, even one in which China will be the largest economy by 2050, this will be the “new normal” for the foreseeable future.

The challenge is whether global governance can be established without one dominant power or set of interests calling the shots.

One path forward for China’s more activist engagement has been suggested by Zheng Bijian, the former permanent vice-president of the Central Party School and author of China’s “peaceful rise” doctrine and confidant of the country’s leaders. China can only reach its goals of “qualitatively improving the life of the ordinary Chinese” and moving up the middle-income ladder “in the context of interdependence,” Zheng says.

Thus, China must move beyond the “peaceful rise” idea to “expand and deepen a convergence of interests with others globally. When there is an accumulation of converging interests, there will be a solid foundation for common interests.”

Those “convergent interests” amount to the global public goods of the 21st century. Zheng specifically mentions fighting climate change, and joint initiatives on low-carbon growth, especially with the United States.

There are others that the G-20 must take up, such as global financial stability, the phasing in of a multi-currency global reserve basket (including the RMB) to replace the dollar, a new governance structure for the IMF which reflects the power of the emerging economies, and a revived or reconfigured Doha trade round.

In many ways, China has been the chief beneficiary of Globalization 1.0, building its newfound power and prosperity on the global public goods provided by the now waning American hegemon. In the face of a rising backlash against the dislocations of globalization and technological advance in the West, China will be inviting its own demise unless it takes an active role in consolidating Globalization 2.0 in a way that works for everyone. For China now there are only two options: joining with others to build the Great Bridge or retreating from history once again behind the Great Wall.

Cross-pollination | Building a bridge that links convergent interests in this transition period from Globalization 1.0 to 2.0 holds out the promise of a new era of cross-pollination instead of conflict between East and West.

For us, certain principles are truly universal—respect for the dignity of the individual and restraints against the abuse of authority—and will be part and parcel of any interaction of the West with China. But we also believe how these are calibrated within a society and balanced with the common interest is not universal.

As China’s middle class grows more prosperous and educated, satisfying, not frustrating, its rising expectations through more personal autonomy, freedom of expression and institutionalization of the rule of law instead of rule by law will, in our view, be the key to stability. If the experience of upward mobility elsewhere is any guide, greater space for the rights of the individual will surely be demanded within the balance of the community. The accountability of authority and responsiveness to robust feedback of the people are universal principles of good governance.

What is not universal are the institutions of governance. The ideological insistence of many in the West that China must adopt the Western system of one-person-one-vote multi-party democracy at the national level is misplaced—especially since this system has become so dysfunctional in the West.

Multi-party democracy is only one means to the end of good governance, and probably not the best means. Contested elections may work well at the local or even provincial level where citizens possess the knowledge to make informed decisions. But at a national level, especially in large nations, they can lead to a nation divided against itself through partisan gridlock, populism and unintended consequences for the common interest—even if the self-interested choices taken by the individual voter at the ballot box seem rational. One-person-one-vote democracy as it has been practiced in the US, where money plays such a central role in electoral campaigns, has led to a political culture dominated by the short-term mentality and special interests.

The West needs to recognize that some combination of selection and election—of an experienced and expert meritocracy balanced by democratic accountability but insulated from electoral politics—is a perfectly legitimate form of good governance. As long as there is fair performance-based competition internally, much can be said for a system in which consensus is forged within the ranks of one party, or within a non-partisan governing institution, instead of battling outside by publicly mobilizing constituencies of the body politic against each other.

In any case, it is up to the citizens of China, the West and the rest to choose their own paths to good governance. To a certain extent what works for China may only work for China, and what works for the West only works for the West. As Singapore’s George Yeo observes, “deep culture is hard to change.”

Yet there is no question that East and West can enrich each other if we shed universalist ideologies and not only respect, but learn from, the paths of others rooted in their own culture and history.

At the turn of the 20th Century Sun Yat-Sen sought to blend the Confucian tradition of meritocratic government and Western-style democracy. With the rise of the rest in the 21st Century led by China, perhaps the political imagination of the West will once again be open to learning from the East.

When the West was on the rise in the 18th Century, Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire were deeply influenced by the meritocratic principles of Confucius. They in turn influenced the American Founding Fathers, who favored neither monarch nor mob and believed, like Confucius, that governing institutions should empower the natural artistocracy of talent instead of blood inheritance or class.

Building a bridge to the future among plural identities will once again require this kind of wisdom exhibited by the founding figures of both America and modern China. Like them, we must be pragmatically open to learning what works best for the well-being of one’s own people in a new world where we are all inextricably connected.