West is least cosmopolitan

Development Policy18 Feb 2011Frans Bieckmann

In one of his last blog posts, Duncan Green pointed to Martin Jacques’ fascinating TED talk : Understanding the rise of China, which offers some confrontational and thought-provoking glimpses of China and its future role in the world.

China will become the biggest economy in the world by 2020, Jacques states. ‘It is a widespread assumption in the West that as countries modernize, they also westernize. This is an illusion. It is an assumption that modernity is a product simply of markets and technology. It is not. It is equally shaped by history and culture.’

Then how to understand China, if not in western terms? Jacques offers three ‘building blocks’.

One: China is not really a nation-state. ‘What gives the Chinese the sense of being Chinese?’ This does not come from the last few hundred years, when indeed it was a nation-state, but from being a ‘civilization-state’ for more than 2000 years. With its 1,3 billion inhabitants, China is not only geographically enormous, but it is also extremely diverse and pluralistic, and in many ways very decentralized. What does this ‘civilization’ inspiration – contrary to the western nation-state as the foundation of political identity – mean? First, Jacques argues, ‘the most important political value for the Chinese is unity and the maintenance of Chinese civilization’. Second: within that civilization, many systems are possible, as the Hong Kong example shows.

The second building block is not a comfortable one: there is a very different perception of race. In China 90% of inhabitants consider themselves Han-Chinese, while for example India, US, Brazil, Indonesia are all multiracial. And there is a strong exclusionary perception of superiority to that identity.

Third building block: the relationship between state and society in China is very different. The state is the guardian of civilization in China. It has had no serious rivals in history, unlike in the west. The Chinese view the state not as an intruder, but as the head of the family.

So we see a new kind of paradigm, Jacques says. It is not market or state, but both: the market in China has always been very developed – except in the Mao period – but state is also very powerful, and able to realize for example, huge infrastructural projects.

Very rapidly the world will be driven by former developing countries. This means that ‘the world will become increasingly unfamiliar to the West, because it will be shaped by cultures and histories and experiences that we are unfamiliar with’. Europe especially, is lagging behind, Jacques states.

He implies that the way forward for the global future is to really learn to know these other civilizations, which have long been ignored by the West. ‘The West thinks of itself as being the most cosmopolitan of all cultures, but in many ways it is the most parochial’. The West has never really tried to understand other cultures. Other cultures that have been less powerful during the last 200 years of dominance by the West have been forced to understand western culture, and are therefore much more cosmopolitan nowadays. For example, East Asians are far more knowledgeable about the West, than the West is about East Asia.

This blogpost is also published in his ‘editor’s blog’ and in the blog ‘Global current affairs’.