With the world in turmoil, many developing countries are studying the Chinese system, wondering whether it might not offer them lessons on good governance. For the first time in a long time, the Western model has a serious competitor.
- From: rst0wxyz <rst0wxyz@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 15 Jul 2010 17:04:32 -0700 (PDT)
How China will -- and won't -- change the world
By George Yeo – Wed Jul 14, 8:49 am ET
Singapore – Charles Darwin, whose 200th birth anniversary was marked
last year, understood that all life is a struggle with old forms
giving way to new forms. And human society is part of this struggle
What is the new reality that is struggling to emerge from the old?
History is not predetermined. There are, at any point in time, a
number of possible futures, each, as it were, a state of partial
equilibrium. And every crisis is a discontinuity from one partial
equilibrium state to another within what scenario analysts call a
“cone of possibilities.”
The transformation of China itself is the most important development
in this context. Much has been written about the reemergence of China,
but I would like to focus on three points.
China’s sense of selfThe first point is China’s sense of itself. Over
the centuries, it has been the historical duty of every Chinese
dynasty to write the history of the previous one. Twenty-four
histories have been written so far. The last dynasty, the Qing
Dynasty, lasted from 1644 to the Republican revolution of 1911. Its
official history is only now being written after almost a century.
No other country or civilization has this sense of its own continuity.
For the official history of the People’s Republic, I suppose we would
have to wait a couple of hundred years.
However, China’s sense of itself is both a strength and a weakness. It
is a strength because it gives Chinese civilization its self-
confidence and its tenacity. Chinese leaders often say that while
China should learn from the rest of the world, China would have to
find its own way to the future. But it is also a conceit, and this
conceit makes it difficult for Chinese ideas and institutions to
become global in a diverse world.
To be sure, the Chinese have no wish to convert non-Chinese into
Chinese-ness. In contrast, the US as a young country, believing its
own conception to be novel and exceptional, wants everyone to be
American. And, indeed, the software of globalization today, including
standards and pop culture, is basically American. And therein lies a
profound difference between China and the US.
If you look at cultures as human operating systems, it is US culture
which has hyper-linked so many different cultures together, in a kind
of higher HTML or XML language. And even though that software needs
some fixing today, it will remain essentially American. I doubt that
the Chinese software will ever be able to unify the world the way it
has been because it has a very different characteristic all of its own
– even when China becomes the biggest economy in the world as it
almost certainly will within a few decades.
UrbanizationThe second point to highlight concerns the astonishing
urban experimentation taking place today. China is urbanizing at a
speed and on a scale never seen before in human history. Chinese
planners know that they do not have the land to build sprawling
suburbia like America’s. China has less arable land than India.
Although China already has a greater length of highways than the whole
of the US, the Chinese are keenly aware that if they were to drive
cars on a per-capita basis like Americans, the whole world would boil.
Recognizing the need to conserve land and energy, the Chinese are now
embarked on a stupendous effort to build megacities, each
accommodating tens of millions of people, each with the population
size of a major country. And these will not be urban conurbations like
Mexico City or Lagos growing higgledy-piggledy, but cities designed to
accommodate such enormous populations. This means planned urban
infrastructure with high-speed intra-city and inter-city rail, huge
airports, forests of skyscrapers, and high-tech parks containing
universities, research institutes, start-ups, and ancillary
The McKinsey Global Institute has projected 15 “supercities” for China
with an average population of 25 million, or 11 “city-clusters” each
with combined populations of more than 60 million.
Unlike most countries, China is able to mount massive redevelopment
projects because of the Communist re-concentration of land in the
hands of the state. The great Chinese revolution was fundamentally
about the ownership of land. This is the biggest difference between
China and India. In India and most other parts of the world, land
acquisition for large-scale projects is a very difficult and laborious
As the world looked to the US for new patterns of urban development in
the 20th century with its very rational grid patterns, we will have to
look to China for the cities of the 21st century.
Urbanization on such a colossal scale is reshaping Chinese culture,
politics, and institutions. The Chinese Communist Party, which had its
origins in Mao’s countryside, faces a huge challenge in the management
of urban politics. From an urban population of 20 percent in Mao’s
day, China is 40 percent urban today and, like all developed
countries, will become 80 percent to 90 percent urban in a few
decades’ time. Already, China has more mobile phones than anybody else
and more Internet users than the US.
A meritocratic mandarinateMy third point is about China’s political
culture. Over the centuries, a political culture has evolved in China
that enables a continental-size nation to be governed through a
bureaucratic elite. In the People’s Republic, the bureaucratic elite
is the Communist Party. When working properly, the mandarinate is
meritocratic and imbued with a deep sense of responsibility for the
Interestingly, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, there was a rule
that no high official could serve within 400 miles of his birthplace
so that he did not come under pressure to favor local interests. This
would mean that for a place like Singapore, it would never be governed
by Singaporeans. A few years ago, that rule was reintroduced to the
In almost all cases today, the leader of a Chinese province – neither
a party secretary nor governor – is not from that province unless it
is an autonomous region, in which case the No. 2 job goes to a local,
but never the No. 1 job.
Although politics in China will change radically as the country
urbanizes in the coming decades, the core principle of a bureaucratic
elite holding the entire country together is not likely to change. Too
many state functions affecting the well-being of the country as a
whole require central coordination. In its historical memory, a China
divided always meant chaos, and chaos could last a long time.
China’s evolving democracy
China is experimenting with democracy at the lower levels of
government because it acts as a useful check against abuse of power.
However, at the level of cities and provinces, leaders are chosen from
above after a careful canvassing of the views of peers and
subordinates. As with socialism, China will evolve a form of
“democracy with Chinese characteristics” quite different from Western
liberal democracy. And, certainly, the current world crisis will
convince the Chinese even more that they are right not to give up
state control of the commanding heights of the economy.
With the world in turmoil, many developing countries are studying the
Chinese system, wondering whether it might not offer them lessons on
good governance. For the first time in a long time, the Western model
has a serious competitor.
Like biological species, human ideas and systems are also subject to
selection – through wars, revolutions, elections, economic crises,
academic debates, and market competition. Those that survive and
flourish should, we hope, raise civilization to a higher level.
China today is a key presence in this process of geo-civilizational
George Yeo is the foreign minister of Singapore. This essay, adapted
from a recent talk at Cambridge University, will appear in the
forthcoming fall issue of NPQ (www.digitalnpq.org). © 2010 GLOBAL
VIEWPOINT NETWORK/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES.
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