Understanding the China phenomenon

According to post western financial crisis projections, by year 2020 China’s economy will be bigger than that of the U.S.. How can  this situation be explained? How will China change the world? It is possible to identify key points to explain this and to imagine the future of the world which is coming.

According to BNP Paribas estimates, 2020 will be the year when China’s economy will be bigger than that of the U.S.. This presents two fundamental changes to what society was used to: the world’s largest economy will be that of a developing nation, something that had never happened before in history. The second aspect is that, for the first time, the world’s largest economy will not be that of a Western society, but that of an oriental civilization with completely different roots.

Martin Jacques states, in his presentation  Understanding the rise of China for Ted Talks (www.ted.com), three concepts that will help the West to overcome their own limitations when trying to understand China: to analyze China from a Western conception is wrong, as China is essentially different from Western societies.

Nation state vs. civilization

The first step is to understand that, unlike Western nations, China is not really a nation state. Despite that for as long as 100 years China has been considered a nation state, the sense of being Chinese comes from much before, thousands of years before when the Chinese civilization began. We must add to this the huge geographical and demographic extension and the cultural diversity which makes China, despite the general notion that everything is handled from Beijing, a decentralized nation based on civilization over state. This results, according to Jacques,  to make of unity the fundamental value for the Chinese: one civilization, multiple systems.

Racial diversity

The next step is to understand the concept of race according to the Chinese point of view. Despite the large number of ethnic groups that compose China, more than 90% of the population belong to the Han. This contrasts with other nations with large populations like India, USA, Indonesia, all of which are multiracial nations. This is the reason why China can remain united despite such diversity, since the Han don’t believe in cultural diversity, they feel superior and dominant, with the consequent harm to the other ethnic minorities in China.

The concept of state

The third point is the Chinese State. The Chinese State enjoys greater legitimacy and authority among the Chinese than any western state. Unlike the West, where society understands the authority and legitimacy of the state as a function of democracy, in China the state is considered the be the representative and protector of the civilization. The other significant difference is that in the western state power is constantly questioned by different sectors such as religion, markets, etc.. In China, over the past 100 years, the Chinese state has had no significant opposition. You can see then that which represents the state of Western society differs greatly from what is in China. In the West, the state is almost like an intruder to be controlled, limiting their power, questioning their actions. In China the state is understood as a component part of civilization, is their protector, their patriarch.

This results in a new paradigm. The Chinese state is very strong, it is present everywhere. Several leading companies are still state-owned, many private companies also have strong state influence, the objectives for the economy are defined by the state. This is a situation that comes from ancient times.

To understand China we have to learn to set aside many Western paradigms, we will have to learn to assimilate completely new concepts for Western society. The western societies have dominated the world during the past 200 years. During all this time were the other cultures which had to adapt to Europe and the United States, representing a minority of the population.

The world is changing: China, India, Brazil represent a huge portion of world population, which now has voice and command. Western minorities who enjoyed the domain before will have to adapt to this new present, so different from what is known so far. How much do we really know about China? Eastern societies have about 5000 years of history. What happened in China when the first Western civilizations arose?

Here are some facts showing a bit of what we will have to assimilate:

  • Through a process called “cofusion”, transmitted to the Arabs in the eleventh century, and Europe in the sixteenth century, in 1078 China produced over 114,000 tons of cast iron. During 1788, Great Britain produced 68,000 tons.
  • We were taught that Gutenberg invented the printing press, when in fact the book has been reproduced in China since six centuries before Gutenberg, by a process known as xylography.

Are we mistaken if we think that we have major social and global cultural change coming, if we project a Western Easternization?