April 2nd, 2015 Bridge Cafè (Wudaokou)
Francesco Sisci, Senior Researcher at Renmin University
Prof. XIE Tao, Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University
China’s recovery has reshuffled the flows of commerce and power from the West to the East and is now transforming the world with singular intensity and pace. This is however an interactive process: the world is also transforming China. Francesco Sisci’s new book “A Brave New China” endeavors to observe the direction of this transformational metamorphosis and describes the future societal, economic and political image of the world’s most populous country, whose tradition reaches back to the 2nd millennium BCE.
“Brave New China” is also trying to address the informational asymmetry between China and the West. News information about U.S. and European politics are abundant while information on the polity of China and its governmental modus operandi are scarce, thus making it even harder for aspiring China experts to reach a sound understanding of a recovering empire.
The metamorphosis of China is comprehensive and is not limited to the economic image of a country that moved from central economic planning to free market; from the work unit to global multinationals thirsty for capital investments around the world. The book also touches upon China’s polity and governance, which contrary to the West – where political change remains minimal, in China political change has been continuous and sometimes unpredictable.
When the author first visited China in the early 80s Mao style shoes and bicycles were the norm, today fashionable “made in Italy” shoes and high-end cars are gaining traction. Traffic jams now monopolize the once empty streets of the “Empire’s capital”. Change has been exponential as China moved from an agricultural society to an industrial society in less than a generation.
This impressive and unprecedented economic growth; these new advanced material conditions have however shaped a somehow “superficial” metamorphosis. The image of China may have switched from the hutong to high-rise buildings, however the real question that a sociologist needs to address is how this superficial material growth has affected the perception of life for the average middle class Chinese and how the society is adapting to these new material conditions.
To unravel such a perplexing question the point of reference should be “Historical China”. Historical China has been following a non-linear trajectory. A trajectory that does not comply to the laws of Newtonian physics but is closer to non-linear quantum models. It is constantly changing as if an invisible hand redirects its final destination. This is because China is becoming Westernized but at the same time the West is becoming less and less Western. China will emulate the West but it will never be the West. The West at the same time will evolve, as China’s size and global influence will lead to a “crowding out” of Western norms.
Following a more verifiable approach one could argue that China’s metamorphosis is clearly shaped by 3 key inputs:
China’s population is a Known Known. The “One China Policy” has significantly advanced the country’s standards of living, however if not handled carefully it can lead to an “aging trap” as China will “grow old before growing rich”.
China has already been the largest economy on PPP terms and it will be the world’s largest economy on nominal terms by at least mid 2020’s, however the GDP per capital will remain significantly lower to that of the US or the EU for the coming decades. This influences the quality of the economy and could perhaps limit China’s global expansion especially if the country is locked into a middle-income trap which World Bank economists have well analyzed in their 2014 report on China’s economy.
China to be sure is simply a large piece in a larger and more complex geopolitical puzzle. The undergoing global transformation, that has China at its center, is also shaped by other players like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico. Adding all these actors together we can draw one single and perhaps indisputable conclusion that today we are experiencing before our eyes the death of the West. The world which has been dominated for 500 years by the West is currently being reshaped by non-western powers. China, India and Brazil’s massive economic rise and their political resilience are transforming the global order.
To better understand the undergoing global transformation, we need to call Clio the muse of history; for history endows us with an exhilarating precedent: the fall of Rome in the 5th century CE. The 5th century signified the end of the Ancient world. The Greco-Roman forma mentis died out as Christianity and the Germanic tribes invaded Rome both ideologically and physically. However the Germanic tribes eventually got Romanized and Rome got reciprocally Germanized giving birth to the European civilization.
This historical precedent highlights the dialectic relationship of China and the West today. China has altered the West and the West has altered China. Hegelian convergence will ensure. Not of the type of Francis Fukuyama but of a new world that is beyond our imagination. When the Germanic tribes and Christianity annihilated Rome, a new European world was born. Rome changed the Germanic into Germans and the Germans changed Rome into Europe. This is the dialectics of history: out of destruction comes creation; out of death comes life.
The West will die and reborn into a “new West” as the ideational power of the East will reshape its psyche. At the same time the East will also change into a new East and both sides will converge ideologically into “Hegelian unity”.
No preliminary conclusion on the Metamorphosis of China and the world would be complete without however looking on the leader of the country who enjoys much more influence compared to his Western associates. Xi Jinping has been a new disruptive factor; a transformational factor that is moving China into Modernization but not Democratization in a way that is hard for Western commentators to comprehend.
According to professor Xie Tao, it is not a coincidence that an Italian literati has engaged in such a difficult endeavor to predict the “metamorphosis” of China. Italians and Chinese have perhaps a special destiny, as Marco Polo was the first Western scholar to introduce China to the West.
Sisci’s book has a purpose to raise questions and provoke debate rather than to provide final questions and this “Socratic” approach endows it with an even more important power to delve deeper into the chaotic and complex Chinese image which even Chinese scholars find hard to understand.
Some of the major questions that the book is dealing with are
Sisci’s book is marvelously complemented by Evan Osnos book, “The age of ambition”. We are entering an age of ambition, of unrivaled ambition. Thanks to president Xi every Chinese could have a dream and this is a clear characteristic of this new era.
China is a moving target whose moving trajectory outside observers fail to predict. When an outside observer captures a moving target and starts to analyze it s/he misses the timing. The observer is looking at a snapshot while the target is now at a completely different place and time. Think for instance of Tokyo and Beijing. Tokyo has combined modernity with tradition. China, at least until this very moment cannot combine both. For all the sake of modernity China has sacrificed her classical traditional culture and the government is now looking to re-inspire some of the older classical values of China because it has understood that material growth is not a panacea.
To make things more “scientific” and less abstract, as social scientists enjoy reading data, instead of abstract speculation, perhaps one can also look at Lian Xiaoshan’s introduction of the three faces of China:
The statistical China is CPC’s public diplomacy tool. The numbers about economic growth, disposable income, expectancy of life and literacy all attest to CPC’s successful governance. Online China reflects the worries of the people and shows much distress and discontent with reality. It also includes the ideological and political debates. Finally daily China is the “bread and butter” China. It is about the everyday life of the Chinese people.
However no analysis on the metamorphosis of China can be complete if we do not address the question of “Chineseness”. Who is Chinese? How can we define “Chineseness”?
What is Chinese? Answering to this question, Sisci The word in English has no correspondence in Chinese. In Tang/ Ming dynasties Chinese were called huaren. Civilized People. You behaved like a Chinese. You don’t necessarily look or speak Chinese but you behave with “Chineseness”. “Hu” named people have some kind of ancient Persian ancestry and thus the identity of Chineseness was cosmopolitan and cultural instead of ethnic and racial. Then the term tianxia – everything that stays under heaven – was used, again referring to the Civilized world. Then Matteo Ricci re-used zhongguoren. He was the first to officially re-introduce the term when he drew a map for emperor Wan Li. So China now is in search of identity, but historically this identity has been cultural and cosmopolitan, instead of national or ethnic.
Will this identity crisis drive China towards a revolution? Hard to predict. But we should keep in mind that this is the richest and most successful period of time in China’s history. Never before Chinese people have had so many opportunities. Huge changes happened in a few decades. How should we take China? As a problem or as a solution for the global order? In Sisci’s word, we should be optimistic: let’s engage with China as a partner, facing together the massive changes brought by globalization.