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The Crucial Question about China’s Rise to Power

For Americans: You have to pick between two scenarios.
1. America is no longer a world power, but the other countries are mostly democratic with stable legal systems that ensure the carrying out of each consitution’s human rights principals.

2. The world remains as it is right now, with America forever the strongest country (perhaps with a late-90’s economy). Everywhere else is what it is.

For Chinese: You have to pick between two scenarios
中国人:请您选择下列一项选项
1. China becomes the strongest power in the world, but loses most of its culture to Westernization.
1. 中国变成世界上最伟大的国家,可是为了西方化而失去了所谓“中国文化”。

2. Chinese culture remains forever intact and preserved, but China is weak in the world scheme.
2. 中国文化永远保留下去,可是中国是个较弱的国家。

Key question: What does China have to offer the world if it became the greatest power?
关键问题:如果中国变成世界上最强烈的国家,它的强大会给世界带来什么贡献?

I have never before heard a question that more clearly illuminates the ideological conflict between China and the “Western world. ” I was part of a discussion of about ten Chinese students in their twenties and thirties, and three Americans. This was the question posed to the class: What does China have to offer the world?

The responses included:

Diversity (more Chinese people in the world)
A peaceful rise to power
China’s experience (meaning China’s “experience” in itself is an inherent contribution to worldwide improvement)
Confucian values of self-reflection, obedience to order, and perfection
A legal system that is situational (i.e. suing Dunkin’ Donuts for its coffee being too hot would probably be too ridiculous get off the ground)

None of these answers actually speak to the question of what values China has that are distinctly different and applicable to the modern world. Diversity is not a value in this sense. A peaceful rise to power is not a value; nor is it original, distinct, or really that peaceful, if you consider how many minority groups suffer in China on account of its economic rise. Confucian values have potential, but the discussion group wavered on if Confucian values still exist in modern Chinese society. As for the legal system, well, we’ve all seen what can happen when a society does not have a unanimous moral code or constitution on which to base its decisions.

Thinking in this way helps illuminate the Chinese manner of using nationalism and economics to explain things in a way that Westerners might not. For instance, Chinese media representations of the US in Libya uses the rhetoric of imperialism, invasion, and bullying. CCTV was swift to cite Western politicians who said, “Libya is its own country and should therefore be able to decide its own future for itself” – thus inherently bolstering China’s own claim to ultimate sovereignty and independence (sovereignty and independence of values, in my opinion). Whereas in America, we would say that Qaddafi was an evil dictator, America has a responsibility to defend democracy and human rights, and sure there are a lot of other factors and America has a sometimes embarrassing tendency to be a moral policeman, but that’s the basic tenet.

The discussion ended with no conclusion on what China has to offer the world other than ease of consumerism. It is exactly this point that Professor Adam Webb damns in his enlightening book, Beyond the Global Culture War, saying that China has sold out its traditional values to modern consumerism (in his defense, which I must explain, otherwise he’ll raise an eyebrow at the last sentence, China’s consumerism was not the point of his book, it was just one of hundreds of examples).

I invite all interested people to read his book, which goes far beyond China and the US and the modern era. I also invite any and all comments on the issue of China’s potential worldwide contribution in the valuable and ideological sense.

This entry was published on December 19, 2011 at 2:59 am. It’s filed under China, China politics, 中国特色 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “The Crucial Question about China’s Rise to Power

  1. China brings…i dunno, thats a good question to keep in mind. As a perceived moral vacuum of oppression and social/environmental irresponsibility, China doesn’t have the soft power that most globally relevant and influential nations (eg, the US, and even two of the villains of WWII, Japan and Germany) have. I don’t think a country can become a super power on the back if its economic power alone. China needs to possess a certain charm and respectability that will cause it to be welcomed with open arms by the people and governments of other nations. So in a way the global collective consciousness that watches China wary eyes will set a ceiling to its rise. Unless it learns how to be cool and develop some character/creativity that appeals to the human spirit, instead of sacrificing it for short-term economic gain, i dont foresee it ever reigning as a legit superpower.

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