I begin this blog in China, where I have just begun a sojourn of several years, so forgive me if some of the early posts in this blog ostensibly about the West discuss China. However, there is an incidental benefit to beginning in this way: in the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald or Langston Hughes had to escape the confines of their upbringings in order to truly understand the nature of such upbringings, perhaps it is only here in China that I can begin to contemplate what it really is I understand and care about with regard to the West.
What is the West?
Perhaps the easiest way to define something is to point out what it is not. Some people group the Arab World into the West; some put the former USSR on the list; Latin America, Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, are all, due to their long histories of Western colonial influence, blurry areas that are in some ways Western and some ways not. Many areas seek to attenuate Western influence and cultivate native traditions and cultures, but few areas understand themselves in stark opposition to the West. China is an exception.
In China, this is a Zhōng/Wài or 中/外 distinction. Things are of the Middle (often better translated as Central) Kingdom (中国, Zhōngguó)，or they are from outside (外面, Wàimiàn).
What is the West? Well, for starters, it’s not China.
These days it is common to think of the world in terms of the growing rivalry between the US and China, the looming clash of civilizations before the rising China, with its billion workers, omnipresent surveillance state, social credit system, and tightly controlled media apparatuses, overwhelming the world with a model antithetical to western social norms – valuing order, stability, tradition, and social harmony over traditional Western values like freedom of speech, inquiry, and criticism, disruptive problem-solving or avant-garde creativity.
I want to push back on that to an extent, and at least for now to say that the West is not going anywhere anytime soon. Though the West will no longer occupy the driver’s seat of global geopolitics that it has for the past 3+ centuries, the West will remain a distinct civilization that will have to be understood on new terms, without all the sinews of power and global hegemony. A post-omnipotent West; a post-hegemonic West.
The problem with the above model about the Chinese tide is that it blindly extrapolates China’s growth over the past 20 years into the future 20 years. The simple fact, however, is that this has already begun to change:
The 8-15(!)% annual GDP growth rates that shook the world economy between 1993and 2008 have been in the rear-view mirror for nearly a decade now. Just last year, China declared that it would be a global AI leader; then just last month, China walked back all such ambition, calling for an international approach to AI development. There is now renewed talk of China sliding into the so-called Middle Income Trap, which I will elaborate on in a later post, but which is in simple terms a status in which a country can lead middle-income industries like automobile manufacturing, but fail to accrue enough human and financial capital to spark a transition into a high-value, knowledge-based economy.
If I am permitted to make one very strong claim that I cannot prove, but would like to see if it plays out, I would say this: a culture which, like China, prides itself on order, stability, and respect for social harmony, and which limits disruptive speech and ideas, will inherently always struggle to make the transition to a creative, knowledge-based economy. The Chinese Film Industry is perhaps the most blatant example. Though the spark in Silicon Valley may have been lost, it was at one point the atmosphere of unabashed entrepreneurial creativity that led to the Digital Revolution. I shall not say that it is impossible, but from right now I struggle to see how the culture of stability, order, and harmony can push the envelope into a broad-based 21st century economy.
I recently attended a talk by Ted Plafker, Beijing correspondent for the Economist, in which Mr. Plafker noted that China’s Great Firewall and other media policies had a significant drag on economic and scientific growth, as Chinese researchers, businesses, and innovators in all fields had an ongoing struggle to acquire data and inspiration from the rest of the world (there’s another side to the Great Firewall which I will discuss in a later post).
Anyway, let’s see if I’m wrong.