In the west, we are use to thinking of ourselves as global powers. In our own terms, we have been the world’s major economic powers, and have proud colonial histories. In reality, those colonial histories are murky, and we have only had dominance because of widespread poverty. The rise in the economic might of China and India has gone with increased living standards: the only thing that could stop a major re-alignment is the sort of humanitarian catastrophe which we should see as morally repugnant.
But change is not just about economic might: it is also about how nations naturally do things. The western mindset that has been dominant is not the only way.
China has taken a very different path from the west. In terms of writing, we settled on a system which means that what a person writes down bears a close link to what they say. That works well in a small country. The Chinese took a different path: written ideograms that are said very differently in different dialects. The genius of that approach is that it allowed a rich sense of unity in diversity. Where western nations sought dominance by winning wars, the Chinese found an additional way to unite a people.
This is not to say that the Chinese have never had wars, but it has helped a different mindset to develop, with China as the “Middle Kingdom”, variously understood as a civilised nation, under heaven, surrounded by barbarians, and mid-way between heaven and the underworld. That’s a mentality that made it more natural to build a wall to keep barbarians out than to invade them. It’s a place where ideas around stability mattered, in many ways expressed in Confucianism.
With one dominant source of power, grounded in the Emperor, the Chinese developed a different understanding of freedom. There’s a freedom within filial piety. The Dhaoist text the Tao Te Ching says “A virtuous person is like water which adapts itself to the perfect place. His mind is like the deep water that is calm and peaceful… His governing is natural without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks”. That offers internal freedom in the face of what Westerners would see very differently. It’s a world where the important arts — cooking, calligraphy, music — are ones which don’t directly challenge those in power. Part of the Chinese genius for trade developed around government: trade needs stable government, rather than good government, and avoids the political activity that might destabilise government.
That genius for trade runs deep, but it is also apolitical. Singapore leaps to mind as a Chinese-dominated country which has prioritised “stable” government and “traditional values” as part of the route to economic stability.
From a western perspective, these are unfamiliar ways of working.
They suggest that an emergent China is more likely to seek dominance through trade than military might (it’s hard to do an exact comparison, but its armed forces already have more personnel than those of the USA). Stories of China gaining economic clout in Africa fit this pattern. At the time of the negotiation of the Hinkley nuclear deal a few commentators observed that this actually represented a far bigger loss of sovereignty than anything to do with the EU, but few people picked that up. It went beneath the radar. People have worried about sovereignty in relation to the EU, but that is possible because shared European values mean we think we know what this is. I suggest that it went with little critique because way of thinking was so different.
The globalised economy is reducing the power of individual governments. In part this is a powerful reason for supra-national bodies like the EU. But it also goes round the western systems of governance, which have developed over centuries to work within nation states. Instead we have an increasingly global economy, whose “governance” is around how markets work. There is a powerful parallel with the traditional Chinese approach where, at best, the government provides stability, and the art is to go round it. That is in stark contrast with a context where westerners would seek to control or influence government.
The upshot is that Western systems of governance struggle to engage. People get angry with politicians, not realising how little politicians can change. The charge is that all politicians lie, but people don’t warm to arguments beginning “it’s complicated” or “we promise X but couldn’t do it because of external forces”.
What confuses this is that political statements are never quite what they seem. There is always a layer of shared assumptions which shape how they are heard. We hear leaders from different parties outlining bright futures and understand these differently because of what we know if their parties. That is fine when things are moving slowly, but it breaks down in a time of rapid change. An example is that the traditional idea of the split between Conservatives and Labour being about who runs business and who is employed by it. That makes sense if it is essentially about the balance of power in one country between the to groups (and probably good best if it alternates between the two), but it copes badly if power is moving. For example, if a good deal for workers in the UK means business moves to China, or if too much wealth inequality, perhaps because manufacturing jobs have headed East, that destabilises society and means that the wealthy also suffer (which could be
one way to talk of Brexit).
A kleinian lens
Some of Melanie Klein’s language gives a hint about why this should be as toxic as it seems to be. A widespread idea in psychoanalysis is that a baby has a fantasy of omnipotence: “I am hungry, so I get fed”. Klein adds to that the recognition that the emotions are intense at that age, with real anger, mixed with survival fears, when food is not available. Descriptively, she coins the term “paranoid schizoid” for this. Part of that dynamic is that things from the bigger world are not understood, and get fantasies attached to them, which are all the more bewildering as that is not yet language to talk about them. We later learn more mature ways to cope with reality, but that primitive layer is always there.
A Chinese way
What we’re caught in now is a world where things are moving to a different way of being, emerging from Chinese culture, which is happening outside things we have a language to talk about and which evokes some primitive fears. The response is both intense and irrational.
Donald Trump’s infamous “make America great again” hats caught powerful emotions, but had a “made in China” label inside: the emotions being evoked were intense even though action of buying one contradicted the message on it.
Other parts of the East
China is the world’s largest country. Although a specifically-Chinese way of thinking may not apply in too many other countries, there is no reason to assume thwt countries like India and Indonesia will operate in a western way. The combined effect is to reduce the relevance of Western ways of thinking even more.
The snag for now is that we lack an alternative to the language of western political discourse that has served us well for years, even as it is being superseded. That makes it hard to talk about and to engage with the new reality, and even harder to work out how to address it. The fantasy language around Brexit seems a brilliant example of familiar language failing, so people repeated it but at higher volume, because other ways of thinking are hard to envision.
The tragedy for now is that both the US and UK could do a lot to enable a different way of engaging. Instead, Trump and Brexit means we have turned into parodies of ourselves, which only serves to accelerate the loss of relevance of the West.