The Chinese Renaissance and the Making of a New World

11/28/2012 07:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2013

After the long march toward the integration of Western Europe, following Europe's re-unification in the post USSR period, the European Union has now to adjust to a moment of intense globalization, to keep pace with an acceleration of history and to adapt to an era of geostrategic shifts.

While America pivots to Asia, Obama (second term) will certainly deepen in this matter the work of Obama (first term), an independent China strategy founded on a just appreciation of the Chinese world has to be one of the main pillars of the EU's diplomatic action. In an almost perfect balance taking into account history, geography and culture, Eurasia and the Pacific can harmoniously complement each other but there can not be any long-lasting Eurasian vigor without a Sino-European arch of understanding and cooperation.

The mutual attraction between China and Europe is proportionate with the depth of these two ancient civilizations, their dynamic bond even induced the first globalization: the Genoese Christopher Columbus sponsored by the crown of Castile discovered what is today the Bahamas and,therefore, opened the door of the American continent while searching to reach China sailing westwards on routes calculated by the Florentine Toscanelli.

However, the economic, political and strategic relations between the two regions are not commensurate with their reciprocal appreciation, a formidable potential for synergy between the two edges of the continent still awaits to be unleashed.

It is vital for the European Union to look at China with confidence and ambition for, at least, four reasons:

First, the Chinese reemergence is simply the world's major factor of change. In its first press conference as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping mentioned three times the word "renaissance" -- fu xing -- indeed a concept apt to describe a historical movement which is reshaping the global distribution of power.

2012 has been the year of foolish speculations and utmost fantasies about Chinese politics, and the contrast between the external babble and the reality of the Chinese power transition has been striking. One of the quickest way to end up as "the frog at the bottom of the well" -- jing di zhi wa -- is to take the footnotes for the mega-trends.

Since 1978 we have been constantly overestimating the risks associated with Beijing's governance while the facts are no equivocation: in 1980, China's economic output was only 7 percent of the American economy, it is 50 percent at this moment, around 2025 it will surpass the U.S. GDP, and, in 2045, the Chinese economy will be the double of the American economy.

The parallel with the U.S. entry on the world stage in the 19th century is obvious: in 1820 the American economy was only one third of the British economic output, in 1870 the two were equivalent, and in 1913 more than the double!

Second, one fails to take into account the notion that global interdependence will intensify in the foreseeable future, crises certainly affect globalization but de-globalization has become an academic hypothesis, connectivity and connectedness will increase with the advancement of technology. In this context, the West is a part of the solution of China's problems and vice versa, we share a common destiny on a planet with diminishing resources and an increasing population.

In his report to the 18th Party Congress Hu Jintao declared: "We should raise awareness about human beings sharing a common destiny."

The Chinese traditional understanding of universalism is a catalyst for globalization. While Europe has put historically great emphasis on the particular (cities, kingdoms, nation-states), China has often aimed at the universal, the rich notion of "tianxia -- "all-under-Heaven" -- whose political expression has been the empire or the dynasty -- wangchao.

As the great Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao remarked: "The Chinese people have never recognized the nation (guojia) as the highest form of mankind's organization, claiming always that a higher form must exist ... This type of broad-minded cosmopolitanism (shijiezhuyi) has been the nucleus of Chinese political thinking for the past several thousand years."

Third, China's reemergence does not have to be synonymous with the decline of the West, China's return to centrality and Western modernity are fundamentally compatible. The Sino-European commonalities outweigh their differences, their potential synergy is not a loss but a gain, for the two sides but also for third parties, the promising African continent included.

Fourth, one should not assume that Sino-Western relations have to vary on a scale which spans from mutually antagonistic to mutually beneficial while another paradigm can serve as both an engine and a compass of our actions: Sino-Western relations can also be mutually transformational.

The Chinese renaissance can not only be understood as a catalyst for globalization and an integrator factor, but it does also enlarge the global village by opening new economic, political, diplomatic, intellectual and artistic horizons. China's revival widens the Chinese people's representation of the world but it also expands a world-system which has been, to a certain extent, contracting for more than five centuries.

While 21st century China is still facing considerable internal and external challenges, it could be argued that for the very first time in the world history a process of globalization and a great economic convergence are creating the conditions for a more cohesive global village.

Contrary to what partial examinations can suggest, China is not an obstacle to a period of global enlightenment. China's traditional humanism and secularism have in the past inspired the West, the French intellectual Etiemble even wrote a stimulating essay entitled The Chinese Europe.

Diplomat and man of letters Zhang Pengchun whose brother Zhang Boling founded the prestigious Nankai University, served as vice-chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a pivotal role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and he rightly noted during the debates chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt: "In the 18th century when progressive ideas with respect to human rights had been first put forward in Europe, translations of Chinese philosophers had been known to and had inspired such thinkers as Voltaire, Quesnay and Diderot in their humanistic revolt against feudalistic conceptions."

As six centuries ago the Italian renaissance reaffirmed man's central position and opened a period of progress, creativity and innovation for the European continent, the Chinese renaissance can signal a 21st century world humanistic movement. In that sense, China's reemergence should not be perceived as a threat but as one of the major catalysts of a new axial period.

Jacob Burckhardt's classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy presents a chapter on "the discovery of the world and of man" whose opening is a powerful synthesis:

"Freed from the countless bonds which elsewhere in Europe checked progress, having reached a high degree of individual development and been schooled by the teachings of antiquity, the Italian mind now turned to the discovery of the outward universe, and to the representation of it in speech and in form."


Burckhardt's words are, mutatis mutandis, the outlines of the Chinese contemporary dynamics: economic development, emancipation of the person, re-interpretation of the Chinese tradition have created the conditions of China's journeys to the world.

While the first globalization has been triggered by European energy and curiosity, the engine of the second globalization is, to a certain extent, China's extroversion.

China's opening up has already enriched the global village but if the West opens itself to the possibilities that the Chinese renaissance offers, Sino-Western cross-fertilizations would not only be mutually beneficial -- the quantitative and objective win/win -- but mutually transformational -- a qualitative and almost limitless creative process of values and of a greater common good.

Communications and technologies have abolished distances, the planet has shrunk in the globalization process but simultaneously dialogues between civilizations have broadened our horizon and enlarged our world, and it is from these new immaterial territories, from these utopian terrae incognitae, that the vision of a better future can be imagined.

An expanding universe of ideas, possibilities and hopes on a compressed planet, this is the rich paradox of our new world.

In an era of renaissance, one has to return to the very possibility to transform ourselves, to recreate ourselves, a potential which has been the fulcrum of the greatest moments of the European and Chinese history. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola summarized the spirit and power of the renaissance :

"You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature ... To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life... and to you is granted the power contained in your intellect and judgement to be reborn into the higher forms ..."

And, in classical China, the wise Lao Zi, master of metamorphosis, pointed at our fundamental freedom and responsibility:

"He who has room in him for everything is without prejudice and in a community of feeling with all things, from this community of feeling comes a kingliness of character, and he who is king-like goes on to be heaven-like..."

One does not have to be petrified by the narratives on inherited cultures, the sediment of history or predetermined identities and even less impressed by predestined outcomes. As individuals, in our moral choices, our public statements, our entrepreneurial actions, we are free to opt for the lower or higher forms of life and we can always contribute to design, as work of art, the social, economic and political patterns in which we evolve.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum. The 10th Euro-China Forum, "The Chinese Renaissance and Its Global Impact," will take place this year in Bologna, Italy.