Saturday, 14 January 2012

Re-enter the Dragon

In the global age it’s not sufficient to learn just the history of one’s nation. We must deepen our knowledge of other countries, especially those with a major role to play on the world stage. So how well is China understood today?

China has an exceptionally long historical identity, and any snapshot analysis which takes in only the last 20 years, or even the last 200 years, could give rise to serious misunderstanding. This is a particular problem with those commentators who talk blithely about the ‘clash of civilizations’ and pit China against the West as an inherent antagonist.

From around 200 BC on when the Han Dynasty was established, China became one of the most prosperous and powerful countries in the world and remained so for the next two thousand years. Observers from across Europe, the Middle East, India and the rest of Asia marveled at its resilience, resourcefulness and longevity. Right down to the 18th century it was often cited as a model civilization: deeply moral without religious factionalism, culturally rich as well economically vibrant, and governed with a civil service to which the military was subordinate.

Yet the 19th century witnessed China’s eclipse as it came to be cowed by the guns and troops from Europe and Japan. Britain, embarking on one of the most extraordinary export drives, launched a war to secure the sale of narcotic drugs to a country which had sought to eradicate the spread of addictive opium. After losing the Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s, China’s decline was further exacerbated by protracted civil wars, heavy losses in the two World Wars, not to mention the disastrous social and economic experiments in the 1960s.

But the growing embrace of modernization and equality had by the 1980s shown signs that women as well as men could have new opportunities to attain a better quality of life. The rejuvenation of China at the beginning of the 21st century has brought two questions to the fore. First, should China’s economic power in relation to its trading partners be more directly constrained? Secondly, should China’s use of its political power within its own jurisdiction against those who dissent from the ruling regime be more openly challenged?

These questions can only be answered properly if one has thought through what kind of country China is and therefore what would be an optimum relationship to cultivate with such a global partner. China’s psyche is fixed on two perennial points: aspiration to peaceful prosperity, and aversion to violent divisions. It will pursue policies in support of worldwide economic stability, not because these are demanded by Western governments which have switched between free trade and protectionism as it suited them, but from its being treated as a key partner in securing a stable world order which is indispensable to China’s own peaceful prosperity.

It will accommodate dissent, not by being criticised by Western regimes which have to varying degrees supported regimes with atrocious human rights records all over the world for their own geo-political advantage, but from the constructive sharing of ideas between countries on how a diversity of views can, far from fueling violent divisions, strengthen civic solidarity.

It is not through the clash of civilizations but the cultivation of mutual understanding that our global future should be shaped.

[Note: Year of the Dragon begins on 23 Jan 2012]

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