China and the 21st Century: Collision or Convergence?

Article excerpt

At the end of the eighteenth century, an envoy was despatched to Beijing by King George III for the purpose of establishing a formal diplomatic relationship between Britain and China. The mission was not a success, and the emperor of the day was reminded by a senior counsellor that: `Although these barbarians have all the characteristics of human beings, they are unusually cruel and cunning and depend only on the strength of their ships and the superiority of their cannon.' On the other side of the divide, incoming Westerners were as dismissive of their unwelcoming hosts, who they saw as `uncivilized,' `antediluvian,' and worse.

At the dawn of the 21st century, one wonders how much, if any, of the divide has been bridged.

Witness, for example, the growing popularity of the clash of civilizations theory, which posits that there are irreconcilable differences between Asian cultures and Euro-atlantic cultures. These divisions, we are told, are so deep and primordial that increased exchanges and expanded trade will produce unavoidable disputes, increased confrontation, and, quite possibly, armed conflict.

The clash of civilizations theory suggests that we are on the road to a fundamental shift in the world's order, with tomorrow's great fissures likely to last half a millennium. For those who expound the theory, the correct policy prescription is to be found in a Euro-atlantic alliance based on individual rights and liberal democracy, positioned to confront an Asian alliance based on authoritarian power and collective rights.

On the other side of the Pacific, the theory has a very powerful resonance and many unwitting devotees. Some Asian leaders look down from positions of new-found wealth and high rates of growth and see in Western countries societal and cultural flaws which they can use to validate the superiority of `Asian values.'

Respect for family, community, hard work, honesty, order, and education may be more in evidence today in Asian societies than in the decaying centres of some North American cities. But they also happen to be values that I was brought up to respect, that are prized in most societies, and that have been crucial to our own efforts at nation-building.

As a science, predicting where China will fit in the 21st century has been about as accurate as medieval alchemy. But let us look at the current dimensions of change in China, and examine whether or not its path is convergent with our own.

Economically, since the beginning of the reform programme some 18 years ago, the China of today bears little resemblance to the country of 40, 30, or even 20 years ago.

We know that the China of tomorrow will be economically great - current and probable growth rates suggest an economy in 2010 sixteen times the size of the economy in 1978. Its weight will shift the global centre of economic gravity. We also can surmise that the coastal cascade of chrome and glass and increasingly conspicuous consumption will spread, in the coming decade, to the next tier of cities and produce a market of 400 million consumers. But none of this tells us whether the China of tomorrow will emerge as a threat to our economic well-being or as a partner in shared progress.

In looking at political change, especially in 1997, a year of party plenums and party congresses, China observers love to guess who is hot and who is not in the Beijing leadership sweepstakes, especially with the death of Deng Xiaoping. I suggest that this preoccupation is largely a hangover from another time, when Sinologists poured over photographs to see how close Lin Biao was standing to Mao Zedong just as Kremlinologists watched to see who stood next to Leonid Brezhnev. Today, who stands next to whom on rostrums is not the issue. This is not 1963 or 1976. It is not about the transfer of power from one supreme leader to the next. It is about rearrangement in a largely collective leadership in which, I believe, there is a considerable consensus about the broad directions in which China is headed. …