Battle in Print: West versus East: the dangers of premature extrapolation

Bill Durodié, 5 October 2010

Many commentators assume that China will become the next world superpower. This may be a premature assessment. As Judo players know, size can be a weakness rather than a strength. It is the spirit of freedom that made America great historically, and it is this that will determine to whom the twenty-first century belongs.

A global power shift?

Much recent debate on whether there is a global power shift from the West to the East takes the conclusion for granted. But whilst writing off the United States of America as a spent force appeals to those who dislike all things American, it is not an objective assessment. Like the words attributed to Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution on history, the fact may be it is ‘too soon to say.’

We should recall that not so long ago it was Japan that was held to herald the eclipsing of the West. Since then, and until recently, the country has been in a near permanent recession. Assumptions about the future are often wrong, especially when dealing with long-term horizons affected by countless variables, many of which have yet to manifest themselves.

Anodyne assumptions

When it comes to China, a synthesis of the available literature about its development reveals a series of inane platitudes, as well as wishful thinking, apocalyptic doom-mongering and displacement activity. On the one hand, China is held to save us from the world economic crisis. On the other, it is perceived as a major threat to the West.

China, we are advised, is taking off, but still faces numerous contradictions and challenges. These concern all manner of issues: environmental, social, economic, demographic and political. Its hinterland is poorly developed and without an internal market it remains overly dependent on global demand for its goods.

So, despite tremendous progress, and the supposed advantages offered by its centralized command-and-control hierarchy, China is nowhere near ready to replace the US as global leader. Much remains to be done and it may never get there.

Others assume that if China is to succeed, it will have to adopt what are held to be ‘Western values’ pertaining to human rights and democracy. The problem is that such presumptions are moral, rather than rational, much like those who announced that the advent of the market would destroy China because it was held to be an ‘evil system’ waiting to collapse.

What many such models have in common is a tendency to inflate the importance of China’s rise and then exaggerate the potential consequences of any possible decline. And, by focusing attention on the possible problems caused by China in the future, we fail to debate the actual issues in the world today, both political and economic. The key question is not whether we are for or against China or the US, but what are we for?

Size is not everything

Optimists rightly point to the shift that will result from the 88% of the world’s population who do not live in the West only now acquiring the benefits of modernity – material, intellectual and spiritual – for the first time. These changes will be dramatic. A cursory glance at numbers suggests that all the biggest ones are in Asia. The fastest growth rates, the most rapidly expanding economies, the largest exporters, the holders of the most foreign reserves, as well as most of the biggest cities, the tallest buildings, the majority of the world’s PhDs in science and engineering, the largest infrastructure projects on earth and, of course, the most people.

But, as we all know, size is not everything. The truly remarkable aspect of the UK’s and US’ domination of the world in each of the preceding centuries is that they achieved this with such small populations. Even today, America’s population is only half as big again as Indonesia’s. And from the time of the Pilgrim Fathers on, it was a lack of manpower that forced the advance of innovative technical solutions in America. China’s ability to throw labour at problems may yet be a disadvantage.

China and India will find that it is easier to take off than to take over. Putting toilets into homes and building railways and airports is relatively straightforward when all these things have been invented before. Latecomers to development always move faster than earlier players. Whether these countries have what it takes to push the envelope further once they reach maturity remains to be determined.

Lessons from history

Much can be learnt by examining previous power shifts amongst the great powers. It is often extraneous circumstances that accelerate change rather than a conscious push. Distractions can be more significant than intentions.

The US became independent when Britain was preoccupied by a war with France. It took over from the UK as the preeminent world power – not when it achieved economic supremacy at the dawn of the First World War – but once all of the European powers had effectively destroyed themselves over the course of the Second World War. China too has advanced during such periods. The First World War in the West allowed it to industrialize and overcome the delays to its growth caused by the Opium Wars. The Second World War witnessed its revolution and emergence as the People’s Republic.

Most recently, the end of the Cold War in the West and the associated moralizing of liberals there subsequent to events in Tiananmen Square further advanced its cause. As Western investors pulled out of China, so the dominant backers of its industry became the Chinese communities of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore. And as Westerners balked at maintaining relations with the supposedly ‘rogue states’ of Burma/Myanmar, Iran and the Sudan, so these offered new development opportunities to China.

The point is though, that world leadership may still be more for the US to lose than China’s to win at this stage. Above all, the success of the ‘free market’ was a consequence of the wider spirit of exploration and freedom of expression that reached its apogee in ‘the land of the free.’

Down on the West

That phrase, first drafted by Francis Scott Key, and then famously immortalized in The Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, was born of a more confident and purposive age. This was an age that, through its tremendous changes and upheavals, liberated a generation and beyond to understand themselves as being potentially equal and autonomous agents.

Though published many years later, the onset of similar developments in France had similarly encouraged a young and enthusiastic William Wordsworth to exclaim, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!’ It was only the later setbacks there that led him to prefer writing about clouds and daffodils instead. The Russian Revolution too, despite its own weaknesses and failings, produced a tremendous flourishing there of the arts and sciences, as well as galvanizing and inspiring countless postcolonial movements beyond its own borders. People, in all places and at all times it seemed, were prepared to risk it all in order to be free.

It is easily overlooked, or forgotten, not least by many of the beneficiaries themselves, that some of the most progressive elements of societies in the East date back to this period. But just as these developments and ideals, as well as the scientific revolution centuries before them, were products of an aspiration for social change – of people wanting to lead their lives, not simply live them – so a loss of social dynamism could readily circumscribe those advances too.

The high point for the United States may well have been reached in the run up to the moon landings in 1969. Today, it would seem, many Americans would rather be safe than free. The US appears to have lost its sense of mission in the world, other than to protect us all from terrorists. For many there, as well as elsewhere, freedom is increasingly portrayed as a fiction, ambition as arrogant, development as dangerous and success as selfish.

Restraint is advocated on all fronts. But this is not a product of Eastern success, but rather of Western failings. Little wonder that many Western analysts, critically examining developments in the East, view precisely those remaining elements of older, more autarchic societies as the ones of which they are most jealous. The lesson for them, it seems, is it was our ideals that let us down, as supposedly evidenced by the malfunctioning democracies and disengaged electorates they see back at home.

In fact, if Asia in general, and China specifically, are truly to realize the potential of their evident capacities, optimism and dynamism, it may only be once they have discovered and captured their own spirit of freedom. For now, it suits the elites there to point to Westerners’ own critiques of the failings of freedom and democracy with a view to justifying the continued existence of their narrowly managerial and hierarchical systems. There is certainly no lack of success in their technical achievements, but quite how long this can last without a broader engagement of the people and their passions remains to be seen.

As that great Enlightenment advocate of freedom, John Stuart Mill put it in the final paragraph of possibly his most influential work, On Liberty: ‘…a State which dwarfs its men…will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.’


Bill Durodié is a Senior Fellow in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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