Confucius meets John Wayne

China won’t impose models on the West: far from it. By opening up yet sticking to its own ways and traditions, it is aiming to transform itself

Two Chinese policemen, on duty at the Yuncheng station, watch President Xi Jinping address the Communist Party Congress on television. REUTERS/Stringer
Two Chinese policemen, on duty at the Yuncheng station, watch President Xi Jinping address the Communist Party Congress on television. REUTERS/Stringer

If the second economy of the world sees its GDP grow by 6.6% in 2018, should we worry? Is adding "another Turkey" or "another Australia" to its economy every year a matter of concern? Seen from Brussels, let alone Rome, these questions would seem to verge on the ridiculous. Those toiling to achiee GDP increases resembling to telephone prefixes or trying to avoid recessions – when time passing makes us poorer – can only be envious of the Chinese Dragon. Increasing one's wealth over the last and coming years by 6 or 7% - from a very starting absolute value - is unthinkable for any industrialised country.

Yet, its slowing does raise questions, both in Beijing and among western chancelleries. When world forecasts are uncertain of their own accord, any slowdown adds to the pessimism. The controversial idea of decoupling, the anticyclical role played by China – which has in any case helped balance things out during the Asian crisis and in 2008 – could be thwarted if the economy slows. So it would be reckless to hope for a joint crisis, unless one hopes for one for strategic rather than accounting reasons. But if global demand declines, who will buy Africa's raw materials, China's computers and Germany's cars? Or will the United States revive productions they'd abandoned in the 20th century?

In reality, a slowdown in China may be viewed as a sign of weakness, but also of maturity. Double figure growth is now a thing of the past, but no country can keep growing forever at that kind of pace. It could be just a matter of a physiological reduction that will stabilise the entire society, allowing it time to come to terms with the sweeping changes it has experienced. The statistical exception is not this growth, but the forty years' worth of growth, a result that has never been recorded before in economic history.

 According to a more analytic assessment it's not just the economy that arouses the interest of scholars, as much as the relative weight that China now holds within the entire global society. It sets records, determines the international agenda, and makes sure it plays a role in every crisis area. Yet it is still little known, and its image is still overrun with stereotypes. Its size should grant it more visibility, but that's not happening. A country that hosts 20% of the world's population could expect to be just as famous. Theoretically 1/5 of books read, of films viewed, concerts attended and leading sports figures should be Chinese, at least at international level. Instead the percentage is very low. We can hardly remember their writers, their film directors or their most famous brands.

The last report by the prestigious Portland research and communication company ranks China 27th among the countries with the most 'soft power', meaning the ability to obtain favourable results for its country with non-conventional coercing methods. Joseph Nye, the man who came up with the concept, considers three different aspects: political values, foreign policy, culture. Only the latter is a Chinese strong point. It's more political and ideological values are viewed with concern by global public opinion. China is charged with intimidation, nationalism, a failure to respect human rights or engage in constructive dialogue. In the ranking China is preceded by Western democracies (the United Kingdom is ranked 1st, the United States 4th, Italy 12th). If these and other previous reports confirm these results, can one surmise that China's power is not matched by a similar appreciation, and that therefore Beijing has not built a worthy and replicable social model?

In actual fact China is admired more than it is loved, it is respected because it can hardly be otherwise. And even those who acknowledge its undoubted achievements and the suffering they've weathered, certainly doesn't covet those political and social values. They may admire its ethical aspects, but they wouldn't exchange them for their pluralist viewpoints. However, there is an entrenched prejudice which becomes antagonism when China is no longer subdued and wants to have its say. The powerful Dragon, that has vanquished underdevelopment but has not relinquished its hold on society spreads unease because it grows without allowing the individual freedoms which were believed to be essential to economic success. It is criticised because it won't accept different models. It refuses them because they don't belong to its tradition, it finds them inappropriate for the path it intends to follow, and believes they could endanger its political stability. Is parliamentary democracy a universal standard? China has never posed itself this question in the past. While it was weighed down by with poverty and backwardness, no one expected it to open up to democracy.

Perhaps the right question that needs asking is a different one: does China intend to impose itself as a model? Does it truly want others to embrace its style, values and results? Is it an imperial power or simply a regional or even Sino-centric one? Asking these kinds of questions helps one to understand that there will never be a Chinese John Wayne to embody the epic days of the western, that sports the mythology of the blue jeans and roams free among the endless prairies.

Pragmatism – no so much the narrative, and even less the legend – has been the linchpin of Chinese success. No dangerous individualist deviations, or global artistic productions, or hugely successful teenage idols were ever contemplated. Defeating underdevelopment required a merciless recipe, with standard ingredients: discipline, stability, low wages, compressed consumption. They would have been very hard to stomach for any industrialised country, but China, by swallowing them, has won out. The very definition used - "market socialism with Chinese characteristics"- explains why its social experiment is unrepeatable. The theoretical acrobatics that enjoin a communist management with individual initiative is supported by these "Chinese characteristics", by the country's extreme ethnic and cultural uniformity. Allied with a habit of obedience, the Stalinist tradition of the CCP and its national pride, it has created a unique, original, profitable and non-transferable model. The accusation that it has failed to come up with a universal plan falls flat: a country that builds walls to protect itself is only intent on defending its own territory. Its foreign policy is instrumental to its internal one, growth is also a show of muscle, the China of the past – however exotic and weak – is a thing of the past. No explanation need be provided to foreigners. Oderint dum metuant; Lucio Accio said this not Confucius, but it works just as well: they can hate me as long as they fear me.

Yet this strength could turn out to be a weakness, owing to a lack of experience in handling complex situations, and being able to show flexibility without fear of appearing yielding. China's most urgent challenge is not with foreigners. Its management is charged with guiding it without too much turmoil towards a new change, towards a more prosperous, demanding society, open to outside influences. This means moving away from the spiral of labour and self-sacrifice, being able to buy a home without putting oneself in debt for the rest of one's life, of being able to rely on an efficient and non-corrupt bureaucracy, seeing welfare reintroduced, being allowed to have  numerous families. It would be naïve to classify these requests as the yearnings of western democracies. Yet the demand for a fairer and more open society remains. It can be channelled, repressed and surrogated by blowing the nationalist trumpet. The company's vast reserves can be used to engage in a tug-of-war with the United States or used to address internal requirements (homes, schools, health). Dynamic thinking can either be fostered or instead be sidelined, the minorities imprisoned, tolerated or exploited.

Xi Jinping finds himself facing a historic task. He must calibrate an incisive yet not divisive reform. He faces a paradoxical situation: the past gives him strength in numbers and demography, yet he's weighed down by the throwbacks to a quantitative, stiff, inflexible model, which worked but could no longer be effective. He must soon confront the issue of a pyramidal society which entrusts its base to a solitary and all-powerful vertex. If he manages to then the Chinese model may gain greater consensus and inspire less fear.

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

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