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Eric X. Li: A New China Looks at the West

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BEIJING -- In the decades since the end of the Cold War, American-led globalization has so thoroughly transformed the world through the freer flow of trade, capital, information and the spread of technology that it has given birth to a new phase: Globalization 2.0.

Far from a flattening of the world, in Tom Friedman's memorable phrase, globalization has yielded to an interdependence of plural identities. That is because economic strength leads to political and cultural self-assertion.

Nowhere is this clearer than in China.

One of the most articulate and provocative voices of Globalization 2.0 is that of Eric X. Li, a scholar-entrepreneur from Shanghai and president of Chengwei Capital, which owns YouKou, the Chinese version of YouTube.

As Eric Li sees it, the once pragmatic American spirit has turned ideological -- even religious -- in its promotion of one-model-fits all modernity while China has reverted to the practical wisdom of its civilizational roots and turned its back on ideology.

Here is a talk he gave recently at the 9th Euro-China Forum held at UNESCO on June 27:

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PARIS -- A little more than 200 years ago, in 1793 AD, a fateful event in
Chinese history took place in the Forbidden City. The great
emperor Qianlong reluctantly received the visiting Lord Earl
Macartney representing King George III of the then emerging British
Empire. Lord Macartney presented a seemingly simple idea: Let us
trade. To that, Emperor Qianlong replied, and I quote: "Our
dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under
Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute
by land and sea... Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in
view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance... Strange objects
do not interest me."

Emperor Qianlong certainly had good reasons for his position. At
that moment, China represented 33% of the entire world's GDP and
was the most powerful and prosperous continental power on earth. A
stable society built on Confucian values developed and refined over
2,000 years placed the Middle Kingdom at the seemingly unassailable
apex of human civilization. Indeed, to Qianlong, his empire was at
the "end of history". Little did the emperor know, merely four
years before his meeting with Lord Macartney, a revolution happened
right here that was to shake the world. Little did he know Lord
Macartney's simple request was anything but simple. Behind it were
Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant, men whose
ideas were about to dominate intellectual discourse for
centuries to come. Little did he know a brand new republic based
on these ideas was being launched in a far-away land from sea to
shining sea. The rest was history. After only one and a half
century of wars and famines, China's share of the world's GDP was
less than 5% in 1949.

In 2011, the world faces a different moment.

The modern West, led by the United States, sees itself as standing
at the "end of history". The ideas given birth by the
Enlightenment have over the centuries been sanctified into a
religious faith: namely liberal democracy is the perfect form of
government, the individual is the basic unit of human society and
is endowed with unalienable rights, and capitalism is the only
viable economic system. They constitute a new religion called
Modernity. Some may take exception to calling these ideas
religious. But of course they are. "All men are created equal",
but by whom? "liberté, égalité, fraternité", but from whom?

The religion of Modernity today possesses the most powerful
military might man has ever seen. Its disciples control a dominant
share of the world's economic resources and activities. Its
coteries occupy the highest offices of international institutions.
Its priests and their sermons fill TV screens and newspaper pages
the world over. The religion of Modernity, they say, must be
universalized to encompass all corners of humanity. Its success
proves that it is the only path to the "good society". It is
indeed a matter of good and evil and no ideas contrary to it, no
cultures different from it, can be exempt, let alone challenge it.

From political capitals to NGO headquarters, they seek to direct
how every country should be governed. From central banks to
corporate board rooms, they try to regulate how goods and capital
must flow around the globe. In Oslo they beatify their saints. In
the Hague they sit in judgment of those they say are criminals
against all of humanity. In editorial rooms they propagate it all
24/7. Rarely in human history have we seen grandeur so total.

Yet, history hands us another interesting moment. China, with a
quarter of the world's people, has in half a century modernized -
at a pace and scale no one ever dreamed of. Though many problems
remain, its accomplishments are beyond dispute. Its modernization
is occurring outside the holy temple of Modernity. It does not
hold elections, yet its government enjoys popular consent that is
among the highest and most sustained in the world. The individual
in this society does not profess to have God-given rights and is
part of a holistic society, yet he possesses personal liberties as
wide as any in Western societies. Its economic success derives
from effective use of capital but not Capital-ism.

Outside the Western world, with a few notable exceptions, Modernity
has failed to deliver its promise. Many long suffering peoples of
the world have subjugated their cultures to adopt Western values
that were sold as universal values. They hold their elections and
build their parliaments and write their laws, and yet, are still
mired in poverty and civil strife. The Arab Spring? Don't hold
your breath.

In the Western world itself, the ideologized version of the
Enlightenment is proving to be the undoing of the success the West
has achieved based on these very ideas. The US armed forces are
trying to transform thousand-year-old societies from half ways
around the world into its own image, while the state of California,
the world's sixth largest economy, is mired in complete political
dysfunction. Its middle classes are languishing. Here in Europe,
20-year-olds are rioting on the streets to protect their retirement
pensions.

Two hundred years ago, in an inward looking China, Emperor
Qianlong's hubris was only harmful to China itself. Today, we have
an inherently expansionist and self-righteous West, with universal
moral claims and in a headlong pursuit of an inextricably linear
future for all of humanity, its hubris has entirely different
consequences.

Two hundred years ago, we had a rising West bravely putting forth
to the world what it stood for. Today in the face of an incumbent
that still claims universality, we have a rising China that is
fearful and insecure. It is so successful by most if not all
objective measures, yet it is so afraid to tell its own story.

Our task today is to try to say something about China's story.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the real China story is not its
economic success, not its military implications, but the
intellectual and moral challenge it poses to long-held Western
ideas that have dominated the world.

Today we live in a globalized world in which threats to human
existence on this planet are of global proportions. There is no
need to list them because we know them too well. Yet, the
underlining threat of them all is the nature of the structure of
ideas prevailing in our world. An incumbent ideology that insists
on universality with a singular vision for the future of mankind
and an ascendant alternative that is too timid to be heard is a
combination that is incommensurate to the problems at hand. For
the first time since the Enlightenment, peoples around the world
are in the market for new ideas. Are they forthcoming?

There are two paths before us, and two outcomes. A still powerful
West finds in itself the wisdom that eluded Qianlong and shifts
from a worldview of universality to one of plurality. It recognizes
the fact that no truth is forever, that Modernity is indeed a
product of cultural developments unique to the West and are not
universal; and perhaps the Enlightenment is no longer enlightening,
and perhaps Modernity is not so modern any more. A China that
marshals enough courage from its ancient heritage and recent
accomplishments articulates not just what it is NOT but what it
stands FOR. The narrative is there and it is credible. Will China
tell it? Will China debate it?

Or, an incumbent West insists that its ownership of THE Truth is
perpetual and indefinite. The individual is indeed God himself;
liberal democracy is an end in itself not a political system that
works for some peoples some of the times and not all peoples all of
the times. A rising China that is defensive in the face of such
overwhelming intolerance that is religious in nature finds itself
unable to justify its development to its own people or to the
world. It is intellectually frustrated. It protests. It reacts.
This is indeed the likely path on the current trajectory.

We ask today at the birthplace of Modernity, what's it going to
be? This young century of ours shall bear witness.