Western Nonsense and the Rise of China
Reginald Little (nsnbc) : Racing Global Change: The rush of major Western nations to over-ride Washington’s objections and become founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has inspired much comment about a decisive shift in global financial authority from America to China. The AIIB is seen as the first direct challenge to the power of the international financial institutions (International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank) established by the Anglo American victors of World War II after 1945. These have long served as financial tools to supplement American military power in maintaining a global authority for the Washington led English speaking peoples.
China’s dynamic economic growth, mounting financial reserves, ambitious infrastructure construction and deft diplomatic alliances are relentlessly posing questions about Anglo American assumptions concerning their preferred global order. The West’s widespread economic decline, financial bankruptcy, dependence on inflated fiat currencies, troubled military technology and slippage in educational standards, leaving aside ill-informed and confused political leadership, are all contributing to a major shift of power from West to East.
The change driven by Asia’s and China’s rise has been given further momentum by ill-conceived American policies, particularly in relation to Ukraine. Sanctions against Russia are in the process of seriously alienating many of America’s European allies and raising serious doubts about the future of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Atlantic Alliance, potentially replacing them with a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Fundamental to a pace of change that seems beyond the understanding of any Western leadership group is the renaissance of Chinese classical wisdom, politics and strategy. This began in Japan soon after its defeat and occupation in 1945 and has spread throughout Asia, reaching a type of crescendo in China is recent decades. Yet the West has defended a type of ”intellectual apartheid”, which relentlessly reasserts the authority of a thought culture and a value system that has bankrupted and crippled it. Most seriously, it has obstructed any serious or effective study of this emerging rival, leaving itself strategically defenceless.
Mutual, Reinforcing Denial: Both West and East have, for contrasting reasons, long worked together to be discreet and minimise awareness about the full extent of this power transformation. The explicit defiance of express American wishes by European leaders like Germany, Britain and France has, therefore, focused attention in an abrupt, unprecedented manner on the depletion of American, and any sort of co-ordinated Anglo American, global financial authority. The IMF and World Bank seem fated to quickly become under-funded, poorly governed, ineffectual monuments to the past. Whatever the denials, this also poses immediate questions about the continuing viability of other institutions defined around 1945, such as the whole United Nations System with its five permanent members of the Security Council, where two of the five are less important European communities than non-member Germany.
There is a confusing tangle of interests at work here that make it easy to overlook relentless change and erosion of Western influence over recent decades. Beginning with Japan in 1945, Asian communities with leaders grounded in the Chinese classics have pursued soft and yielding strategies designed to gain advantage from Western corporate short term profit maximization. This has required the maintenance of mutually harmonious and desired relationships.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be the only leader outside Asia who has learned from this Asian example, even if his need to take a firm position in the face of American initiatives in Crimea has compromised his capacity to fully deploy soft strategies. American heavy handedness has, nevertheless, enabled him to use American actions to undermine American interests in Europe.
Just as Asians, and recently Russians, have worked hard to minimize the appearance of Western vulnerability, so the American led West tends to have sought to exaggerate its maintenance of financial, economic, technological and military superiority. Accordingly, both West and East have worked together to exaggerate Western power and downplay any sense of Eastern advance or challenge. In this environment, the explicit clash and resolution of conflicting American and Chinese interests over the AIIB represented a major shift in international awareness. Before long, this may raise the consciousness also of American vulnerability in military technology. Here its planned F35 fighter seems to be a monument to corporate corruption, its aircraft carriers to be obsolete in their vulnerability to supersonic missiles, its space innovation to be lagging behind Russian laser weapon capacity and its major cities to be within thirty minutes of nuclear obliteration.
While it is understandable that there is nothing to be gained from conducting a scare campaign on these issues, it would seem desirable that Western leaders displayed a little more educated awareness of the likely future character of the global community. Continued denial of reality only serves to advantage Eastern strategies and disarm any Western capacity to respond in practical terms.
The interest inspired by the prospect of foundation AIIB membership possibly marks the beginning of a new spirit of realism and recognition in Western capitals. Nevertheless, it is notable that no one seemed more confused about appropriate action than the leaders of Australia. It was hard to believe they were being adequately briefed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, perhaps emasculated and cowed by successive budget cuts. The Western nation most intimately integrated into, and most dependent upon, China’s geo-commercial energies seemed unable to move independently of major European communities, given the pressure exerted by Washington. That very pressure, however, now seems to have led to a more or less united and open recognition of the shift of financial power. Still, there is little understanding of the reality that Western strengths continue to be over-stated, while Eastern strengths are persuasively under-stated.
Australia’s political leaders are not alone in their incomprehension and incompetence. At least three widely followed and generally highly reputed alternative commentators, two of whom are Westerners resident in Japan, have responded to this sudden recognition of China’s financial rise with alarmed warnings about the dangers of autocratic “Communist” Chinese power. The fact that they have all used an irrelevant Western ideological stereotype, “Communism”, to characterise China, illustrates the depth of Western ignorance. This response to the AIIB is a symbol and symptom of the inability of those using the English language to escape the crippling limitations of stereotypes like “Communism” and “Capitalism”, as well as most of the theoretical baggage of rational economics.
Sadly, for an uneducated West, the challenge posed by China has nothing to do with an anachronistic Western ideology but everything to do with the renaissance of Chinese classical wisdom, politics and strategy. With the exception of a handful of individuals this has never been seriously studied in the West. It is instructive that two alternative Western political commentators based in Japan seem never to have remarked seriously on the profound shared cultural roots that bond China and Japan and, in profound ways, set them apart from the West.
From a Western perspective, in one sense this is easy to explain. In another sense it is almost impossible to explain. It is, of course, much easier to hold onto the reassurances of the past. Yet, it is essential to prepare for the already identifiable future, where the English language certainties of the past are replaced by the imperatives of a world shaped by Chinese classics and history. Having risen discreetly from almost total subordination in less than half a century, China has the authority of a profound legacy of millennia of recorded experience and wisdom that remains a closed book to almost all outside Asia.
Western Ideological Stereotypes: The continued use of Western ideological stereotypes like Communism and Capitalism to address Asian situations could not be more misleading. Japan, China and other Asian communities have drawn on very similar forms of government organization and financial strategy to overtake Western economies. Moreover, China, while always explicable in a traditional context, has moved in terms of Western stereotypes from explicit, assertive Communism to discreet, dynamic Capitalism and then to a unique form of mixed Capitalism/Communism which is demanding a code of behaviour with few of the West’s familiar tolerances.
Yet, it remains common for Western journalists, politicians and others to speak dismissively of Communist China whenever it is felt there is a need to be disparaging. This may be emotionally satisfying but it is intellectually indolent and dangerously misleading.
In fact, these Western ideologies have done much harm in dumbing down political and economic analysis and distracting responsible academics and officials from necessary professional evaluation of unique Asian qualities in government, commerce and finance. It is even possible to sense that some government figures in China today see the use of the word Communist as having several beneficial qualities. On the one hand, it reminds Chinese that the revolution was not fought to benefit a small, privileged minority and strengthens the authority of the present leadership in its anti-corruption campaign. On the other hand, it confuses mainstream Western thought which is easily distracted from working to comprehend the economic competitiveness and financial sophistication of a “Communist” China.
Most importantly, however, the ideological stereotypes, Capitalism and Communism, sustain a type of irrelevant thought culture that only serves to ensure that people and governments in the West continue to deceive themselves about a type of civilization challenge that has already bankrupted a succession of Western communities that seemed to occupy positions of unchallenged superiority. As financial, technological and environmental standards and decisions are increasingly set in places like Beijing and Shanghai, failure to comprehend the cultural processes of decision making will incur an ever higher price. In this context, the Western usage of Capitalism and Communism is little more than some form of tribal ritualism.
Legal Confusions: The word “law” can also be the source of serious misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Put very simply there is Western “rule of law” and Eastern “rule by law”. Western “rule of law” has evolved through a process that has involved some form of process of negotiation between ruled and rulers, with deference being paid to notions of “justice” and observance of written legislation and recorded precedence. Eastern “rule by law” evolved more as a prerogative of the ruler, who used it to ensure proper behaviour and conduct in society and who could rightly expect the people to act in accordance with correct standards, even if these had not been codified.
For many with a Western background “rule by law” can seem somewhat barbarous. Eamonn Fingleton, a resident of Japan for more than two decades, referred in his book In the Jaws of the Dragon to its practice in China as “selective enforcement of the law”. This was intended as a pejorative description but it failed to reflect an understanding of both its historical and contemporary practice.
Historically and ideally, “rule by law” was administered by highly educated “Confucian Gentlemen” who were expected to apply it in a manner that maintained harmony and productive cooperation in the community. Of course, as in the West, practice not infrequently parted from the ideal. Nevertheless, it is possible to observe in Japanese and Chinese historical stories a type of self-enforcing respect for unspoken forms of behaviour that make for pleasant and productive societies.
Contemporaneously, society functions gracefully without much legal formality and activity. More importantly, however, the “selective enforcement of the law” has a contemporary virtue and effectiveness largely lacking in Western “rule by law” societies. Fingleton notes that there are laws against almost everything but that they are rarely enforced. They are enforced, however, without process and terminally, when the elite administrators in charge (Confucian Gentlemen) determine that a party has become a disruptive and harmful force in society.
In recent decades, it might be suggested that elite administrators tolerated a wide range of behaviour as a necessary condition of China’s rapid economic advance, built on opportunistic relations with capitalist societies. When this purpose had largely been achieved the highest levels of government adopted new and more severe standards. Those thought to have been excessive and disruptive in their behaviour were confronted with the force of “rule by law’, not of ”rule of law”.
Any perceived injustice of this selective enforcement of “rule by law” needs to be carefully evaluated. It takes place in a social and administrative environment that is founded on a value culture effectively unknown in the West. Western protests can only be evaluated in the context of the almost total failure of Western “rule of law” in the face of widespread systemic corruption of Western democratic and legal processes. The capacity of corporations to take over democratic and legal systems by paying the going price for necessary politicians and lawyers has devastated Western societies and economies. While the Chinese “rule by law” system is not above corruption it has both historical and contemporary experience of effective anti-corruption campaigns, has deeply built into its educational ethos an observance of community virtue and has produced the most dynamic and competitive modern economies.
Administrative Spirituality and Strategy: Chinese tradition and culture is unique in being built around a form of administrative spirituality. It might be thought that this derives from forms of ancestor worship, whereby one’s worth is defined by practical contributions to the family (past, present and future), of which one is a member.
Moreover, the family can extend to include many bloodlines as one works to make a substantial contribution to the lives with which one interacts. This is not articulated in these terms but reading of the Confucian and other classics tends to nurture this sense of spirituality and fulfilment. Competition is not eliminated from life but it is refined by a sense of inclusiveness, a preference for soft strategies and a capacity to seek victory without destruction. In some ways it almost seems to lead to the Chinese being more demanding of themselves than of their enemies, who were not infrequently subdued by a tributary system where more was given than was received.
The highly educated Chinese Confucian administrator has long been a delicate master of complex situations who has preserved a continuous sense of civilization through many dynastic upheavals and given the Chinese people an unrivalled sense of cultural identity. While learning and culture are the distinguishing qualities of the elite administrator many historical stories display a quality of strategic genius capable of managing the most challenging of human situations.
This deep humanity of the tradition accounts for its preferences for soft strategies, its capacity for survival and its repeated ability to reinvent itself in new circumstances after seemingly terminal decline. Mao’s Communist revolution, Deng’s economic miracle, and Xi’s-corruption campaign demonstrate the manner in which the elite Confucian administrator responds to the human and community needs of his time. These reforms, including Mao’s, are best understood as those of administrators informed by classical teachings and historical experience and responding to political realities.
In all this, it is also noteworthy that Deng, Jiang, Hu and Xi have all mastered China’s earlier adversaries by peaceful commercial and financial strategies. During the same period and despite the earlier success of Capitalist Japan, no serious study suggested that the West faced a major challenge from a fundamentally different and in many ways more sophisticated administrative culture. There was even less reflection on the possibility of this being founded on a fundamentally different thought culture. The Western belief in the role of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of God” in determining desirable outcomes in the marketplace remained unshaken. Asian administrators knew better and got better results, displaying spiritual resolve and strategic wisdom.
Cultural Cripples: When compared with the vibrant economies of contemporary Asia, Western economies can seem like cultural cripples, so fixated on individualised profit maximization that they have ceased to see the world around them. Moreover, their lack of cultural and intellectual assurance nurtures only an ever more troubled clinging to a few certainties from a past that has long faded. Western education based on abstraction , rationality, theory and belief, whatever the particular educational discipline may be, does not equip the Western mind to understand the subtleties of the intuitive, fluid, holistic, practical and strategic Eastern mind, all packaged in disciplined, ritualized and courteous manners.
Western peoples now face a challenge that they have long assumed confronted only other, lesser peoples –studying and mastering a difficult and unfamiliar language and culture that nothing in their past has prepared them for. As John Hobson pointed out in The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, the West sought to consolidate its sense of superiority and its imperial and global order by working to capture all minds with a form of “intellectual apartheid”. Any thought other than that deriving from the European Enlightenment was inferior. In building an empire Western peoples crippled their own capacity for observation and thought.
This deep conviction of Western cultural superiority has been artfully encouraged and exploited by Asian peoples who are more than well qualified for the task by their superior social, administrative, educational, strategic and thought cultures. Caught off guard by the West’s corporate organization and aggressive use of fossil energy in the middle of the 19th Century, the Asian peoples have used the following time to master the West’s secrets while having to surrender few of their own.
As a result Western culture has become a type of rehearsal of stereotypes, like Capitalism and Communism, and a denial of the significance of the unfamiliar forces that please as they take over most areas of decision and responsibility.
The power of the Western corporation has played a critical role in this process. The ability of often contending corporate interests to dictate political and legal processes with their superior financial resources has led to the fragmentation of government policies and strategies.
In fact, it is almost impossible for Western governments to craft long term strategies. Corporate interests and pressures are too fragmented to permit a firm commitment over time if that fails to fully satisfy contending interests. The Chinese tradition of administrative excellence and authority being fundamental to both culture and government has in the West no presence and is almost unimaginable.
Western and Eastern Governance: Previous remarks all lead to difficult questions about comparative standards of governance. The West has much in the way of regulations, procedures, precedents and ideals but finds its capacity to maintain quality in its governance steadily eroding. In contrast, the East, under the traditional influence of the Chinese classics, tends to preserve an administrative authority that can assert itself effectively when the leadership decides it is necessary. In these instances, there is little of the formal process or protection enshrined in the “rule of law” that is deemed essential in the West.
The dominance of Western power in recent political memory has ensured that Western corporate and other interests have rarely been subject to Asian “rule by law”. It is most doubtful that this situation will continue, however, especially where China is concerned.
President Xi Jinping has given every evidence that he is prepared to be as relentless in China as Lee Kuan Yew was at an earlier time in Singapore in building a society that is noted for its freedom from corrupt practice. This will, of course, be much more important in terms of its ramifications beyond national borders than was the case in Singapore. Indeed, attracting the attention of Chinese authorities for corrupt practices seems likely to become much more serious than a similar infraction in the West.
The situation may become even more serious for Western corporations deemed guilty of contributing substantially to China’s difficulties with problems like polluted air, water, food and medicine. It may quickly become imperative for any Western corporation with an interest in commercial exchanges with Chinese, or other Asian, entities to undertake the serious education of its personal in the Chinese historical experience of “rule by law” and the delicate interaction of Confucian, Legalist and strategic imperatives. Of course, until there is a broader recognition of and consensus about the shift in global cultural authority, Western political, corporate and educational cultures will obstruct such practical initiatives.
The West’s Prison of Stereotypes: Political and corporate initiatives to prepare for the type of global order foreshadowed by the rush to become founding members of the AIIB are likely to remain extremely difficult for some time. For a complex of reasons, some skilfully disguised, the West has long been educated to imprison itself in abstract stereotypes. These will work to inhibit any easy understanding of Chinese classical culture and the history that has been informed by it.
Consequently, Western debate, analysis and evaluation of the rise of China, and Asia, and the emergence of new global financial centres will for some time rise little above the level of nonsense. The language and conceptual tools, and also the historical knowledge, necessary for insight, focus and purpose do not exist. Shocking as it may seem to some, the challenge may prove little less daunting than that facing non-Western peoples when confronted with the arrival of the English East India Company.
This time, however, it is the West’s own commercial energies and ambitions that have drawn a long reticent Chinese civilization into the inevitability of assuming global responsibilities. Western efforts to retain the privileges of the recent past now seem only to intensify its problems, whether in worsening political credibility, deepening bankruptcy, declining technological capacity, misleading diplomatic evaluation or counter-productive strategic initiatives.
The qualities that have informed China’s, and Asia’s, rise could, of course, come to the assistance of the West. For that, it needs to master and tame misguided habits of assumed superiority, intellectual apartheid and political assertiveness. These need to be replaced with the qualities of humility, self-discipline, rigorous education and soft strategies, which have informed Asia’s rise.