What can China give to the West besides money? It’s a question we can no longer avoid given the country’s dramatic entrance onto the world stage. For the Chinese, of course, it’s important to note that this isn’t a story about a newcomer. For them it’s an inevitable and well-deserved return to power—over the past twenty centuries, in cultural terms China has been behind with regard to the West only in the last two.
Now that they’ve gotten back on board, after thirty years of steep uphill climb, the country is seen as both a threat and a potential savior for our ailing economies. But China hasn’t won our hearts, as they say. For most “democratic” Westerners, Beijing remains the capital of a dictatorship and the death penalty.
Still, in all of human history there’s never been such a dramatic shift of economic power without a corresponding cultural wave, a movement of the imagination and soft power. The US gave us the Marshall Plan and then also Hollywood—the first one fed our stomachs, the second our minds. So what can we get from the “Chinese model”?
In his book Adam Smith in Beijing (2008), Giovanni Arrighi, though not a China specialist, spoke of an Asian growth model that’s more balanced and equitable than what we have known in the West. He contrasted the British industrial revolution to a Chinese “industrious revolution” based on the gradual development of agriculture followed by the domestic market in place of the colonial model of trade imposed from outside. It may seem like a contradiction given the export-oriented nature of China, “the world’s factory,” but it’s also true that China has not gained markets by exporting “humanitarian wars.” Arrighi argues that the Chinese model has its roots in a tradition thousands of years old—a tradition that has been revived by anti-colonial movements and the end of US hegemony.
Today, Zhao Suisheng, an American political scientist born in China, rejects the possibility of universalizing the Chinese model since it’s based on a number factors that cannot be exported. As Suisheng points out in an article published in Chinafiles:
“In the first place, the size of China means that the country now has (and has had) the means to develop an enormous domestic market that promotes competition and attracts investment interest from abroad. Among developing countries, only the US in the nineteenth century and India in the twenty-first century have enjoyed a similar ‘territorial’ advantage. Secondly, thanks to the availability of labor, China has been able to follow a Socialist development strategy based on high concentrations of capital; when they transitioned towards a development strategy based on high concentrations of labor, the results were dramatic. Thirdly, as an economy in transition, China has maintained and reconstituted its hierarchical and authoritarian political system, which has been actively adopted in the new market economy. Each one of these characteristics taken on its own is potentially important and unique. No other country is as vast, with such a comparative advantage. No other country has a political system even remotely similar to the Chinese.”
But is it actually an economic model that we’re looking for in China? The Chinese themselves are trying to rediscover aspects of their own traditional culture in an attempt to mitigate the de-stabilizing effects of economic growth—cultural elements that were shoved aside first by Maoism and then by turbo-capitalism. The clearest example of this is a renewed interest in Confucianism—an eminently political and moral system created with the intent of reestablishing order in a time of chaos. Apart from certain popularizations promoted by the Chinese government (such as “Harmony”), today Confucianism is central to the ideas of many intellectuals both Chinese and foreign, such as Canadian Daniel A. Bell, whose China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society was a best-seller.
In an era when the failure of neoliberalism is evident along with the idea of the market as the only social regulator, works by students of Confucianism might be useful—such as Shen Hong’s work on the family as the basic unit of economic analysis, or Fan Ripling’s work in medical ethics on the importance of process within the family when it comes to making treatment decisions.
We’re not entirely unfamiliar with this sort of teaching. Nevio Capodagli, an Italian China scholar, has recently explored the connection between the Confucian idea of “ren” (humanity) and Dante’s concept of virtue. Underlying it all, a familiar phrase rings through: love your neighbor as yourself.
Translated by Gary Cestaro