The Inscrutable - the rise of China and the integration of east and west

Sunday, October 09, 2005
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of occasional YARGB essays. I would like to thank my fellow Yargbies for allowing me this space, but in order to avoid taking over this page, only the Introduction to the essay is posted here, along with any comments. Please follow the link at the bottom of the post to finish reading the essay at the YARGB - Continued blog.

The historian Niall Ferguson is just back from China:
The change in China is so vast that it makes the lead stories in the Western media - the Labour Party conference, the appointment of a new chief justice in the United States - seem almost comically parochial. Did we really kid ourselves that 1989 marked the "end of history" and the "triumph of the West"?
Ferguson is of course referring to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that with the collapse of Soviet communism, liberal market society was proven to be the most creative and powerful social form. It now has no more serious competitors and history, in the sense of competing social theories, comes to an end. But whatever the Chinese communists or Caliphascist jihadis may think of Fukuyama’s belief, “liberal market society” itself is not a stable form; whatever it is, it is surely always changing in response to history. It changes primarily in response to the discontents - local, national and international - which it inevitably creates.

The free market ever encourages us in new desires - as consumers, producers, or even destructive terrorists - and simultaneously works to provide the means for the realization or cultural mediation of these desires, thus creating again new desires, resentments, and security needs. We are all aware of the paradox that it is the system that the terrorist wishes to destroy that provides both the tools of his trade, as well as the means to defeat him. Another oft-mentioned paradox is that the market system makes certain “radical” professors, journalists, and artists who are skilled (and sometimes not) at criticizing capitalism into some of its leading beneficiaries.

Similarly, “liberal market society” creates environments hospitable to organizations like the Hell’s Angels (here in British Columbia, they control what may be the province’s second largest industry, marijuana cultivation and trafficking), organizations whose illiberal ethics, and possibly corrupting influence on society at large, may appear to be at odds with either the freedoms, or the productive disciplines, on which liberal market society variously depends. And yet there are all kinds of individuals and organizations that contribute to the growth of liberal market society by resisting aspects of it. Just ask the economically and demographically successful Mormons what they think, for example, of the pornographic culture the market endlessly produces.

Organizations and individuals that strongly oppose market freedoms, or (in the case of gangs or religious sects) that engage people in seemingly archaic, or violent, sacrificial behaviors in isolation from the main networks of the marketplace, may, paradoxically, provide people with means to stay productive (whether in lawful or criminal work). Opposition to the market can help us in the marketplace if it helps us resist the all- consuming desires that the free market produces and trades when selling us things and culture: consumption of the market’s own products often compromises the market’s own needs for productive workers.

So what about the Chinese Communist Party and state? Could whatever paradoxes that are making the illiberal Hell’s Angels a successful social form in today’s global marketplace be similarly at play in the workings of a complex state governing perhaps as many as 1.4 billion people? From one perspective, surely not: if British Columbians were to attempt to extend the Hell’s Angels model to their state and society as a whole, they would destroy the basis for their present free market-oriented society and would end up being governed by someone like, well, Saddam Hussein. Yet China’s corrupt, and some might even say gangster, state is in fact part of a society presently doing quite well in the global marketplace. Conservatives might appreciate that this is perhaps because the Chinese state is less an imposition of modern communist ideologues, as it is an organically evolved, and locally well-adapted form that has existed in China for two thousand years.

To put it more plainly, what China’s recent economic success forces us to ask is whether some new mix of western freedoms and Confucian order will not prove somehow superior to “liberal market society” as we have recently known it in the west. Do the Chinese yet have something to teach us about what it means to be human and historical beings?

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MeaninglessHotAir said...

Fantastic essay.

The most important fact of the modern (post 1492) world is the contact between disparate cultures. In some places, such as North America, indigenous peoples who remained frozen in the hunter-gatherer state were overrun. While this may have been tragic (I doubt it), it was not historically terribly significant. The clash of cultures is something else entirely.

A "culture" is an advanced civilization. This need not mean technologically advanced in the sense of having computers, or even guns. Rather it connotes an organized body of civilization founded on agriculture with centuries of cultural and intellectual development behind it. At the time of the "expansion of the European peoples", as the Japanese style it, there were perhaps eight cultures worthy of the name: Western, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, Aztec, and Inca. These cultures did not all possess unified states and were in various stages of development when they were assaulted by the Western culture. Some, but not all, were unified states.

The main story of the last several hundred years can be viewed as the impact of the Western culture on these other cultures and their attempt in turn to survive and defend themselves against the Western onslaught. This onslaught has not been solely confined to the use of duress and by no means does the cessation of colonialism imply the cessation of the assault.

A culture represents a static culmination of centuries of philosophy and conflict. It has taken it some time, but over the course of centuries, isolated in its geographic enclave, it is able to come to certain conclusions about the nature and meaning of life. All of this is completely upset when it is brought into face-to-face contact with another culture which has made different choices and come to different conclusions.

For example, during the Middle Ages there were writers who noted that European nations never used poison-tipped arrows against each other in wartime. It was considered an un-Christian way of killing one's enemy. This notion, that there is a civilized way to fight wars, has evolved through the centuries into the Geneva Convention. An essential part of this notion of civilized warfare is the distinction between civilians and combatants. This assumption about the nature of warfare is not necessarily shared by other cultures. All assumptions, while not completely arbitrary, almost always have an arbitrariness about them. The Muslim culture seems not to share this particular assumption about warfare--view it as a sign of weakness in fact--and the jihadis are happy to use civilians and mosques as shields when attacking our troops.

The main problem which occurs when one civilization is confronted by another is loss of faith. A system which is certain of its unique place in history, of its superior choices among life's puzzles, is now confronted with a differing set of solutions and assumptions, a set which is more successful than one's own in some ways. For the West, the loss of faith is increasingly devastating. It is hard to believe that billions of human beings in India and China are faced with eternal damnation for not having heard the appropriate Word of God. For the Chinese and Japanese and Muslims and Eastern Orthodox, the direct example of the success of the Western culture is extremely difficult to deny or to cope with. None of the affecte societies seems to have worked out an appropriate response. Communism was meant to be the vaccine which could innoculate against the Western bacillus. It has failed. Russia has fallen into despotism by warlords, Islam is reduced to the most impotent response conceivable (suicide bombings), and China continues to struggle.

What is happening in China today was presaged to some extent by Japan a century ago. The first response to the Western onslaught was the modernization of industry. This is the sine qua non. The alternative, as the Incas and Aztecs learned to their dismay, is extinction at the hands of the Westerners. But what follows material modernization, what is the proper response of the spiritual part of the culture, is far from clear. The Japanese response was to emulate the emerging ethnically homogeneous expansionist fascist states of Europe; such an approach fit in well with their underlying cultural ethos of ethnic homogeneity, even though later studies have proved this to be a myth.

The final response to the Western onslaught within Japan remains elusive. Japanese households maintain two parts, the modern "consumer" part, and the traditional part.

Will China follow the path of Japan as a nationalist imperialist aggressor? Will the Chinese diaspora alter the decadent and demographically meager Western states so as to innoculate them partially against Chinese domination? That's an interesting possibility. Is it even possible within the traditional Chinese weltanschauung for the Chinese diaspora to exist, spiritually speaking? Will China be given sufficient time to work out its destiny vis a vis the West before it is swamped in its turn by the rise of India?

End of history? Pfui.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

This breaking story doesn't bode well for the future.

Syl said...

I'll never think of China quite the same way again. Thank you for this.

Though markets have been around since man started bartering--the game of getting what you want for the least in return being universal--and sub-markets, wheels within wheels, can pop up in any society, China's system still seems a bit feudal to me.

Not in the definitonal sense of feudal of course, but even though commerce and manufacturing are booming, capital reinvestment, including private property, and the freedom to innovate are still quite limited.

Yet if the system remains static, keeps the safety valve of dissafected people leaving, whether out of disgust at the corruption or simply to guard their riches, and maintains a mostly homogenous society (the rub), I think this system could last a while.

A steady increase of wealth for everyone.

However, to maintain that stability dissidents are murdered, the internet is censored, and the western culture they seem to crave will only be superficial. Thus the influence won't have the deep affect some in the West are hoping for.

It really does seem like a third way. Well, not seem, it is...though history will give us the true answer in the end. But I'm simply too much a product of the West and too dependent on my independence to like it much.

I'd rather a parent ask me "What do you want to be when you grow up" than hand me a list of the (practial) choices available.

But it may very well work for the Chinese.

Really, a lot of food for thought in this article.

Syl said...


Excellent response.

Japan seems to have absorbed Western capitalism and politics yet still maintains its unique cultural identity.

Does China see Japan and understand that? I honestly don't know. But I suspect if she absorbs that, the future for the rest of the world vis-a-vis China won't be apocalyptic. However, I really have no gut feeling either way about China when it comes to aggression.

David Thomson said...

“To put it more plainly, what China’s recent economic success forces us to ask is whether some new mix of western freedoms and Confucian order will not prove somehow superior to “liberal market society” as we have recently known it in the west. Do the Chinese yet have something to teach us about what it means to be human and historical beings?”

The answer is no. Economic dogma 101 is not to be trifled with. One does so at their own peril. China’s current economic system can be compared to a boxer fighting in the ring with one hand tied behind his back. Decentralizing power is a nonnegotiable imperative. A more liberal society would be vastly more productive.

Rick Ballard said...

I remain unconvinced that China actually exists as a nation. If you keep digging at Confucianism you wind up with a philosophic model that is suitable for the governance of a well run extended family, a village or at most a county. It is essentially a filial ethos (the emperor as ruler is syncretic in nature) that leads to a static praxis. Ethical questions are resolved in a utilitarian manner with the advancement or detriment of familial interest being the highest determinant factor. If a question arises that contains a high level of uncertainty then a decision will be postponed or never taken. The Confucian model deals with unknowns by ignoring them - that's the pragmatism that is described. It is also a very brittle philosophy when exposed to external pressure. The Platonic model of searching for "answers" is better suited to man if one considers inquisitveness to be an inherent human trait.

The Chinese government has imposed a requirement that Mandarin be taught throughout the country as the "official" Chinese language. The program has met with indifferent results due to a number of factors, chief among them the fact that 85% of the Chinese people have absolutley no need to communicate with anyone outside their village. English is another matter. The ESL teaching companies (many state owned) seem almost intent on spreading English to the most backward corners of China with a higher degree of urgency than they applied to the problem of teaching Mandarin.

When the collective immiseration known as communism collapses in the area known as China I doubt that free market capitalism will arise from the ruins. Perhaps in a hundred or two hundred years but almost certainly not in our lifetime. The Europeans are still struggling to return to mercantilism (through regulation). Why would we assume that the peoples known as the Chinese will prove less intractable?

An excellent essay, Truepeers, my compliments. It raises questions concerning our policy in the ME that have not (to my knowledge) been fully explored. Lines on a map don't make a nation. Why are we struggling to maintain a fiction?

David Thomson said...

We should not be so awestruck by China’s economic progress. Why haven’t they accomplished more? The United States could even be wealthier if it pursued more freedom based policies. Americans have allowed their politicians to place obstacles in their way. Alas, too many people are easily seduced by the siren call of economic security. They fail to comprehend that they run less of a risk earning a living in a less restrictive economic environment.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


The United States could even be wealthier if it pursued more freedom based policies. Americans have allowed their politicians to place obstacles in their way.

It's convenient to blame the politicians, but generally they're just reacting to the pressure put on them by the pressure groups. Why do you think the country hasn't built a new refinery in 35 years? Why, before the building of DIA 10 years ago, had no new American airport been built in 30 years? Why are we unable to drill in Alaska?

The reason is that a large fraction, nearly a majority, of our population has reached a material state in which trees and birds and wetlands are more important than jobs. They don't have jobs; they don't need jobs because they are funded by monthly checks from New York. I live in a town filled with such people. The people have chosen to shut down industry for the sake of the environment. Let's lay the blame where it belongs.

vnjagvet said...


Great post. It will take me some time to absorb it. I have saved it in my articles file.

Having done business with Chinese folks in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I can testify that once freed from the tyrannical exploitation of the Maoist system, they are creative and practical partners who can be relied upon to deliver products of value.

Like anyone else, they have some cultural characteristics and traditions different from ours which need to be understood.

The more we understand, the better we can forge lasting relationships.

Syl said...

rick ballard

"If you keep digging at Confucianism you wind up with a philosophic model that is suitable for the governance of a well run extended family, a village or at most a county."

This is one of those statements that you run across that shifts the earth a bit under one's thinking. It's so obviously true that you slap yourself for not having it reach your consciousness earlier. An aha moment, I guess.

I really really need to study more before I opine on anything concerning China.

BTW, I love their art. And the new 'Peasant Painting' phenomenon has been quite commercially successful.

Knucklehead said...

The world as it is cannot be the world as it will be. There is just too much change underway. This is at both the international and national levels for countries both large and small.

Here is a small book, Sweden After the Swedish Model that covers a mere century in the life of that small nation as it changed from a peasant society to the world's model socialist state and the subsequent "collapse" of the folkhemmet notion of the welfare state to it's current attempt to transform itself to an "enabling" welfare model.

Thomas P. M. Barnett, in his The Pentagon's New Map talks about the breakdown of old "rule sets" and the building of new ones in the world at large. But these things occur within nations also. We are seeing some of this in our own political transitions now.

The breakdown of old rules and the creation of new ones is an enormous issue that China faces internally as well as externally. And the same is true for India and, for that matter, much if not all of Asia.

We live in interesting times. Allegedly there is a Chinese proverb which states, "It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a man in chaotic times."

China will have to deal with many, many repercussions of her transformation, or partial transformation, from a peasant society to a modern one.

Rick Ballard said...


I find it interesting to do "compare and contrast" studies. If you read the Analects and Machiavelli concurrently you begin to wonder what Marco Polo had hidden in his saddlebags. Of course, apologetics written by courtiers would have some commonalities no matter where they were written.

truepeers said...

Thanks for all your comments.

Rick and David seem to have the most doubts about the possibilities for Confucian cultures to fully adapt to a global economy. So how do they explain the success of Korea and do they consider Japan Confucian? MHA perhaps can tell us more about the mix of Confucian, Buddhist, Shinto thought there. Of course there are Buddhist, and i think more importantly Daoist traditions in China that I did not touch on except in my vague allusion to "wisdom literature".

Singapore and Taiwan would suggest that small Chinese nations are very viable. Whether the empire of 1.4 billion can similarly succeed, well it's clear I don't know but have my doubts.

Syl, do you have a link for the Peasant painting phenomenon? I'd like to hear what that's about.

Knucklehead, re Barnett's new rule sets, do you think that the world community will generally find it acceptable that Chinese state-owned companies buy up privately-held western companies, in their search to guarantee supplies of natural resources?

Finally, regarding Rick's comment about Iraq and nationhood. I find it interesting to hear Muslim spokemen increasingly referring to a "Muslim nation". I don't know how that translates in Arabic or other Muslim languages, but I find it curious that they are referring to themselves as a nation, what I consider to be a quintessentially Judeo-Christian social form. The Caliphate, as I understand it, is not a nation, but rather a political and religious authority that transcends any kind of clan, tribal, or national difference.

Anyway, my point is that Islam may be in some ways more antithetical to the national idea than are the east Asian countries, simply by dint of the fact that Islam is entirely defined by its emergence in reaction to Judeo-Christian forms of mononotheism and political organization. Of course when Islam first emerged the national idea was not yet well-defined beyond the Jewish world, since it awaited a further entwining of high and popular cultures - e.g. the translation of the Bible into local dialects - for it to fully develop in the Christian world.

Anyway, while it is impossible to imagine Iraq becoming a western-style nation any time soon, that does not mean it is not in our interest to not encourage political structures that can transcend the level of the tribe. If the ME is ever going to join the global economy in any sense beyond providing the energy, the various peoples there are going to have learn how to co-operate in mutual self interest. Maybe they could emulate the Chinese, with each tribe running export factories or providing the workers, but why do I find that tough to imagine? Maybe they really do need a Caliphate with an iron grip.

Syl said...

Chinese Peasant Paintings...

I can't put the link in here, you'll have to view comments from the main article page to see the whole line to copy and paste.

Knucklehead said...


I don't know what the new rulesets will be. I couldn't even begin to guess about how the US in particular, or modern western nations in general, will go about protecting their own, or preventing China's access to, natural resources.

For years China was a "dumper" of some resources (such as wood and steel). She can't continue to do that. Last I saw she was a big importer of steel and concrete and, of course, oil.

The new rule sets for international relations will, apparently, favor "free" trade among nations which do not threaten the international security environment. I would suspect that China's need for resources would encourage her to "play nice".

BTW, regarding those "rule sets". The fact that we still see large amounts of emmigration from China is an indicator that her own internal rule sets are out of whack. If they weren't people wouldn't be leaving such promising economic growth.

Rick Ballard said...


The transformation of Japan required 100 years and ignominous defeat. They really did succeed in dividing economic life from family life for quite some time. I believe that it was the occupation and imposition of a western constitution that had the largest impact.

My argument is not that some sort of either synthesis or more probably the pragmatism to which you refer is not possible. It is very probable - but it will occurr along the littoral first and spread to the interior very slowly. I simply doubt that China will retain its integrity as a nation state during the transition.

We'll know that the transition is actually occurring when the Chinese start respecting intellectual property laws. The Confucian 'pragmatism' still has much the upper hand in that area and I would also note that one very big reason why you don't see wealthy Chinese plugging their dough into investments in China is precisley because they understand that 'pragmatism' much better than do many westerners. They leave investment to the central and regional banks - which are all carrying very suspect portfolios.

truepeers said...


There are some very attractive pictures there. And the esthetic is quite different from classical Chinese art. As best as I can tell, the specifically Chinese (not western-inspired pop) culture in China remains quite classical, or as here, folk. In other words, they are not yet far along in mixing up scenes, of having art with scenes within scenes, with Chinese classical culture mixing with a Chinese folk or popular culture (though there are hints of that in some of the paintings at your link).

I'm not sure if I'm right, as there is certainly highbrow Chinese literature familiar with western esthetics, and so the neoclassical and romantic appear in Chinese. But, as for ordinary Chinese, I wonder if they are yet very accustomed to thinking of their society in terms of competing and contrasting scenes. Or whether the contrast is still largely one between the classical Chinese, and the western-influenced pop culture. Perhaps this kind of folk painting that you are pointing to will have an urban audience in China? one that will feel nostalgic and romantic and begin to think about China like western romantics and nationalists did in the nineteenth century?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Perhaps this kind of folk painting that you are pointing to will have an urban audience in China? one that will feel nostalgic and romantic and begin to think about China like western romantics and nationalists did in the nineteenth century?

Or, to follow up your earlier idea, perhaps it will capture a nationalistic audience in Vancouver or Singapore? Much as an idealized version of Islam has become popular among restless urban second-generation youths in Europe?

David Thomson said...

“Rick and David seem to have the most doubts about the possibilities for Confucian cultures to fully adapt to a global economy”

All cultures must “adapt to a global economy.” It is a fantasy to believe that you can successfully defy economic reality. Once again, the Chinese are competing with one hand tied behind their back. Their accomplishments are far less than what they should be. We Americans could also be doing better. Both countries are hindered by their restrictions on human freedom.

truepeers said...


I meant to suggest that a culture must adapt to the global economy, or slowly die. So far much of the world has not adapted - much of the Muslim world, Africa, Russia, etc. It seems only some major changes in culture - unless you believe (and i don't) it is all a question of cultures being oppressed by those who dominate the market, or of environmental factors beyond peoples' control - will save them. Far be it from me to tell those in very tough situations what they must do. Inevitably they have to find their own way, and to forget about fighting with those who may appear to be "blaming the victim", etc.

Can China develop much further, economically, while remaining a political colossus of 1.4 billion? You and I believe in decentralization but how are we going to convince people around the world that decentralization is the key? Well, first, I think it's not simply the decentralization of power we need (it's no good if every local neighborhood is run by its own gang of Hells Angel's) but the centralization of power in the free individual that matters. And that is not simply a question of market freedom but of the disciplines that make an individual a capable member of a "decentralized" society. I am not yet convinved that some Confucian values cannot contribute to these disciplines.

Rick Ballard said...


I would argue that there are many Confucian values that are very positive with regard to living in a 'decentralized' society. They just aren't extraordinarily useful wrt citizenship in a nation state nor were they truly conducive to being a loyal subject of the emperor. My impression of Chinese that I have known is that, although they may regard Han ancestry as slightly important, they give much more weight to their dialect group, their regional group, their village group and most important, their familial group. We westerners would give primacy to familial group but with less intensity and then to either religious affiliation or national identity. I may be mistaken but I believe that "I'm Chinese" means "I'm of Han descent" while "I'm American" means "I'm a citizen of the US" just as "I'm Canadian" bears the same intent in Canada.

I don't see any inherent conflict between Confucianism and market capitalism - I do see inherent conflict between the current melange of systems that coexist in China currently and market capitalism. China would function much better as three or four autonomous regions loosely confederated than as a unified nation state.

truepeers said...


your comments help unfold the paradox a little better. Yes, China would work better as a confederation, but confederation, while an idea that comes readily to western minds at a certain point in their historical development, asssumes, I think, that one first think of one's world in terms of nations, and I'm not sure the Chinese do. In other words, to form confederations, it surely helps to be part of a Biblical culture that draws on both the Old and New Testament visions of first, Jewish nationhood, and second, the larger Christian kingdom ("confederation") in which the nations are hoped to ultimately transcend themselves.

While it was a relatively simple thing for many of the nations of Europe to look favorably on confederation, first under Hitler or Stalin, now under Brussels, there is not a comparable cultural situation in China.

China is not presently highly centralized, in the sense that the many local officials have a fair bit of autonomy - they have much room for graft and corruption. Even the military, as you have mentioned before, is in good part regionally based and with regional loyalties, often involved in local industry. To my limited knowledge, Beijing, through its backroom deals among the regional players that gather there, is simply the final decision-maker when there are disputes, and a director of the larger geopolitical and resource allocation issues.

But if the center were to fail to hold, it would surely be the case that most of the regional lords would first think to simply reproduce the old order on a smaller, regional scale. THere would be more emperors and more capitals, but not yet any more nations in the western sense, and so no quick and easy way to Confederation.

So, while Confucian values surely do work very well in forms of government something short of a nation state, the average Chinese who shares our views has to ask 1)in the first place, if the choice is between smaller empires or one big one, aren't we better off with one big one that can throw more weight around on the world stage, scaring the Japanese, bringing in resources, even if these aren't always distributed how we might like? 2)if the ideal is to move one day towards a more western-style form of democratic nationhood, on the model of Taiwan, are we not more likely to get it if we stay politically united and slowly grow the appropriate national culture, like Taiwan did, rather than turn it over now to the regional war lords who are bunch of uneducated hicks? 3) Once we grow a strong culture of democratic Chinese nationhood, then we may well see fit to decentralize and move towards confederation, just as the Christian world had to become a Christian or Papal empire before it became a world of independent, secular nations.

The hitch, however, is that if the serious Confucian likes being a Confucian, would not trust all the regional interests to be able to make a confederation work unless there were an ultimate and single point of sovereignty in the land (i.e. not a a real "confederation" like, say, Canada's), and is not too comfortable with ideas of democratic nationhood in the first place, maybe then he will seek to find the best ways to adapt the current regime to the demands of the global economy, simply as the best of one's bad lot of choices. And the fact that the ordinary Chinese who thinks like us westerners also sees value in keeping his would-be nation together, out of fear of regional war lords, then this means that the serious Confucian has a lot of his would-be opponent's momentum on his side.

So it may well be that Confucian values imply the kind of state China presently has. I would not call it a nation state, but rather more of an empire in which the provinces have a certain amount of autonomy but must ultimately answer to Beijing, or war.

True decentralization first requires that everyone become an independent centre in his own right; and sharing in a strong sense of democratic nationhood may be the pre-requisite for this. In most countries that have a good sense of democratic nationhood, this first involved a fair deal of centralization in a national capital and cultural metropolis. Even the Anglophones, for whom this is perhaps least true, were at various times in their histories significantly centred on London, or other capitals, culturally and politically.

There may be other ways to get decentralized in this day and age; that's a question worth asking.