By Lanxin Xiang
With the prospect of China’s GDP surpassing the United States’ in less than 20 years, a great debate has started in the West. But it is in the rhetorical framework first promoted by Edward Gibbon and Oswald Spengler and later revived by Arnold Toynbee and Paul Kennedy. Discourse on “rise and fall” is an Anglo-American penchant, as the concern is over whether or not China will integrate into the existing (i.e., West-dominated) liberal world order or seek to destroy it. Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers argued that the Chinese leadership “seems to be evolving a grand strategy altogether more coherent and forward-looking than that which prevails in Moscow, Washington, or Tokyo, not to mention western Europe.”
Kennedy’s insight at the early stage of the Chinese reform period was impressive, and it proves more enduring than the views of authors who are enjoying the advantage of observing China’s reform with hindsight. In the 1990s, predictions of China’s collapse abounded; titles such as “The Coming Collapse of China” became instant best-sellers, but none of these predictions has come to pass. Why? Because their teleological fantasy that all regimes will become liberal democracies proves to be wrong.
After the “China collapse” fashion wave in publications, the “China superior” fashion is taking over. Many intellectuals in the West, the Leftists in particular, have launched a feisty defence of the Chinese economic and even political system. The Chinese are rather bemused to see a stream of hilarious titles such as “When China Rules the World,” “The Beijing Consensus,” or “Why Chinese Communists make better capitalists than the Westerners do.”
Neither approach seems relevant to Chinese realities. The truth is, China is not on the path of “rise,” but of restoration. China has seen the movie before: huge trade surplus and reserves. As late as the 1830s, Chinese GDP comprised 32% of the global total and the Chinese had sucked in most world silver reserves. The real challenge posed by China to the world is not what it does, but what it does not do during its restoration process.
China will not want wholesale Westernization, and it will not abide by some existing “rules of the game” originated from the West. But it is absurd to assume that the Chinese will establish a new “model” to replace the Western one. The Chinese never have urges to become missionaries and model-building is not part of the culture. A model requires either ontology or teleology. But the Chinese concern is neither. The key expression in Chinese tradition is “where is the way? (or Tao)”, but never the Cartesian ontological “What it is.” In other words, politics is by nature a contingent act, and one should not harbor any ambition for influencing the future — however “scientific” the prediction may seem.
The “Rise and Fall” rhetoric aims at discovering a universal pattern of behavior of the great powers, but China is not a typical one. China will not challenge the liberal order for ideological reasons, because of the belief that an order could only be brought down by its own faults. No doubt the liberal order has weakened. This does not mean the Chinese system has been strengthened as a result.
The paradox is that the Communist Party of China has engineered one of the greatest social and economic reforms in human history; but the population has become restless and angry about the regime itself. It is Confucian political logic, not Western democratic theory, that has undermined the party’s legitimacy. At the present stage, the failure in “rule by virtue” threatens the party’s Mandate of Heaven. China’s future will be determined by internal factors – as will that of the liberal order. If the West understands this, it will interact with China more effectively than following the “Rise and Fall” logic.
Lanxin Xiang is Fudan Chair of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai and Professor of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.