Facing the modernization challenge

Updated: 2011-07-01 10:41

By Eric Li (China Daily)

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Facing the modernization challenge

A little more than 200 years ago, in 1793 AD, a fateful event in Chinese history took place in the Forbidden City. The great emperor Qianlong reluctantly received the visiting Lord Earl Macartney representing King George III of the then emerging British Empire. Lord Macartney presented a seemingly simple idea: Let us trade. To that, Emperor Qianlong replied, and I quote: "Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance. Strange objects do not interest me."

Perhaps Emperor Qianlong had good reasons for his position. At that moment, China represented 33 percent of the entire world's GDP and was the most powerful and prosperous continental power on earth. A stable society built on Confucian values developed and refined over 2,000 years placed the Middle Kingdom at the seemingly unassailable apex of human civilization. Indeed, to Qianlong, his empire was at the "end of history". Little did the emperor know, merely four years before his meeting with Lord Macartney, a revolution happened right here (Paris) that was to shake the world. Little did he know Lord Macartney's simple request was anything but simple. Behind it were Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant, men whose ideas were about to sweep all of humanity. Little did he know a brand new republic based on these ideas was being launched in a far-away land from sea to shining sea. The rest was history. After only one and a half century of wars and famines, China's share of the world's GDP was less than 5 percent in 1949.

We gather here because the world is at another such fateful moment.

Now the modern West, led by the United States, sees itself as standing at the "end of history". The ideas birthed by the Enlightenment have over the centuries been sanctified into a religious faith: namely liberal democracy is the perfect form of government, the individual is the basic unit of human society and is endowed with unalienable rights, and capitalism is the only viable economic system. They constitute a new religion called Modernity. Some may take exception to calling these ideas religious. But of course they are. "All men are created equal", but by whom? "libert, galit, fraternit", but from whom?

The religion of Modernity today possesses the most powerful military might man has ever seen. Its disciples control a dominant share of the world's economic resources and activities. Its coteries occupy the highest offices of international institutions. Its priests and their sermons fill TV screens and newspaper pages the world over. The religion of Modernity, they say, must be universalized to encompass all corners of humanity. Its success proves that it is the only path to the "good society". It is indeed a matter of good and evil and no ideas contrary to it, no cultures different from it, can be exempt, let alone challenging it.

From political capitals to NGO headquarters, they seek to direct how every country should be governed. From central banks to corporate board rooms, they try to regulate how goods and capital must flow around the globe. In Oslo they beatify their saints. In the Hague they sit in judgment of those they say are criminals against all of humanity. In editorial rooms they propagate it all 24/7. Rarely in human history have we seen grandeur so total.

Yet, history hands us another interesting moment. China, with a quarter of the world's people, has in half a century modernized at a pace and scale no one dreamed of. Though many problems remain, its accomplishments are beyond dispute. Yet its modernization is occurring outside the holy temple of Modernity. It does not hold elections, yet its government enjoys popular consent that is among the highest and most sustained in the world. The individual does not profess to have God-given rights and is part of a holistic society, yet he possesses personal liberties as wide as any in Western societies. Its economic success derives from effective use of capital but not Capital-ism.

Outside the Western world, with a few notable exceptions, Modernity has failed to deliver its promise. Many long suffering peoples of the world have subjugated their cultures to adopt Western values that were sold as universal values. They hold their elections and build their parliaments and write their laws, and yet, are still mired in poverty and civil strife. The Arab Spring? Don't hold your breath.

In the Western world itself, the ideologized version of the Enlightenment is proving to be the undoing of the success the West has achieved based on these very ideas. The US armed forces are trying to transform thousand-year-old societies from half ways around the world into its own image, while the state of California, the world's sixth largest economy, is mired in complete political dysfunction and bankrupt. Its middle classes are languishing. Here in Europe, 20-year-olds (and 19 and 18) are rioting on the streets to protect their retirement pensions.

Two hundred years ago, in an inward looking China, Emperor Qianlong's hubris was only harmful to China itself. Today, we have an inherently expansionist and self righteous West, with universal moral claims and in a headlong pursuit of an inextricably linear future for all of humanity, its hubris has entirely different consequences.

Two hundred years ago, we had a rising West bravely putting forth to the world what it stood for. Today, we have a rising China, in the face of an incumbent that still claims universality, fearful and insecure. It is so successful by most if not all objective measures, yet it is so afraid to tell its own story. Our task today is to say something about China's story:

Today we live in a globalized world in which threats to human existence on this planet are of global proportions. There is no need to list them because we know them too well. Yet, the underlining threat of them all is the nature of the structure of ideas prevailing in our world. An incumbent ideology that insists on universality with a singular vision for the future of mankind and an ascendant alternative that is too timid to be heard is a combination that is incommensurate to the problems at hand. For the first time since the Enlightenment, peoples around the world are in the market for new ideas. Are they forthcoming?

There are two paths before us, and two outcomes. A still powerful West finds in itself the wisdom that eluded Qianlong and shifts from a worldview of universality to one of plurality. It recognizes the fact that no truth is forever, that Modernity is indeed a product of cultural developments unique to the West and are not universal; and perhaps the Enlightenment is no longer enlightening, and perhaps Modernity is not so modern any more. A China that marshals enough courage from its ancient heritage and recent accomplishments articulates not just what it is not but what it stands for. The narrative is there and it is credible. Will China tell it? Will China debate it?

Or, an incumbent West insists that its ownership of the truth is perpetual and indefinite. The individual is indeed God himself; liberal democracy is an end in itself not a political system that works for some peoples some of the times and not all peoples all of the times. A rising China that is defensive in the face of such overwhelming intolerance that is religious in nature finds itself unable to justify its development to its own people or to the world. It is intellectually frustrated, it protests, it reacts. This is indeed the likely path on the current trajectory.

We ask today at the birthplace of Modernity, what's it going to be?

The author is founder of Chengwei Capital; and Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. These are excerpts of a speech delivered as part of the panel discussion "The European Union and China in the 21st Century" at the 9th Euro-China Forum held at UNESCO, Paris.


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