Why the West must learn from China, not try to change or destroy it

Time magazine’s cover on November 13, 2017 stated in both Chinese and English, “China Won.” Ian Bremmer wrote in the cover story that, “As recently as five years ago, there was consensus that China would one day need fundamental political reform for the state to maintain its legitimacy and that China could not sustain its state capitalist system. Today China’s political and economic system is better equipped and perhaps even more sustainable than the American model.”
In its 70th Summit in December 2019, Nato issued the London Declaration. It said, “China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an alliance.” This was the first time in the organisation’s history that its summit listed China as an independent topic in the joint declaration.
In February, the 56th Munich Security Conference took place with a peculiar topic ” “Westlessness”. It suggested a crisis of identity and existence in Western countries and a sense of uncertainty about the extent of the West’s global relevance in the age of a rising China and multipolar world order.
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While the world witnesses China-US conflicts across a range of domains, America’s fear of China’s economic competitiveness and technological advance is not the essence of the problem. Rather, it lies in the fact the outcome of China’s economic success and modernisation does not conform to a set of beliefs in the West derived from the historical evolution of Western modernisation.
These beliefs assume several presumed causal relationships in which economic modernisation eventually leads a country into stages of secularisation, a plural society, political competition and electoral democracy.

US ruling elites have never really made any effort to study how the Chinese political system is constructed and how political meritocracy, party-state dual leadership, the policymaking process, civil servant selection and evaluation, the party-population linkage, and more, actually function.
It is wrong to assume that authoritarian political systems and governance models are static by nature. On the contrary, China’s history since 1949 shows its party-state system has had to adapt to survive.
The Chinese system has a certain resilience after decades of learning and modifying. It is historically shaped and culturally unique, and is not meant to replace the Western model of liberal and electoral democracy. We should neither romanticise nor demonise the Chinese model.
China’s success does not have universal relevance, but it shows that non-Western alternatives to development and modernisation do exist. Indeed, the Chinese model is a tempting option for many developing countries.

Does Westlessness also imply restlessness? Restlessness, here, refers to a sentiment of deep disappointment over the loss of a “West-like” China. It can also be called the “China syndrome”, characterised as a mixture of psychological anxiety and emphatic demonisation.
In recent decades, either fascination or irritation with China has influenced Western scholarship and journalism. It often produces abrupt sentiments, from excessive approval and unqualified optimism to unwarranted revulsion and deep pessimism.
Will China be a destructive or constructive world power? A status quo or a revisionist one? A force for continuity or change? China has long been a source of fascination and opportunity, as well as uncertainties and disturbance for the US-led world order.
Early Western missionaries failed in their efforts to convert China into a Christian nation. In its own history of civilisation, China was once conquered and ruled for centuries by powerful minority groups such as the Mongols and the Manchus.
They tried to change China’s fundamental character but were themselves later changed and Sinicised. Those in the West must learn to deal with China’s rise outside the frameworks with which they are familiar and comfortable.
How will the West meet the challenges ahead? Much of the answer can be found in Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide’s remarks to the Leangkollen Security Conference in February. Her speech was titled, “The China Challenge: Remaking the Landscape of Transatlantic Security.”
She said: “We should not overestimate China’s influence on transatlantic cohesion. But nor should we underestimate its impact on international peace and security. Power shifts bring both opportunities and challenges … In line with its size and power, China will seek to shape international norms and institutions in its image, just as other great powers have done before it. And as a result of its economy, size, military power and technology, it will continue to evolve as a serious contender to US and Western power.”
She added: “These and a range of other examples show the benefits of coexistence and cooperation with major rising powers. Inevitably, there will be competition, disagreement and also the potential for conflicts. But I firmly believe that vigilance and engagement within the framework of a strong multilateral system is the answer. Containment, confrontation and decoupling are not.”
If the West can be guided by this kind of spirit and mindset, Westlessness will be a false consciousness and there will be no need to feel restless.
Professor Li Xing is director of the Research Centre on Development and International Relations, Department of Politics and Society, at Aalborg University, Denmark
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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