The Untold Story of China’s Rise

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 9 No 1 (Feb 2015)

There are many untold stories about China’s rise. Initially, this story will begin almost four decades ago, but it will ultimately reach back as far as four millennia. It will close with the conclusion that we have today only witnessed the beginning of China’s rise.

We begin in 1976 when the Australian Ambassador in Beijing completed a Dispatch exploring the implications for Australia were China to emulate Japan at that time and grow its economy by 10 percent each year. In Mao Zedong’s last year and at the end of the Cultural Revolution, this seemed improbable to most foreign policy officers, but Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser liked the Dispatch and used it to shape Australia’s China policy.

The case for such rapid Chinese economic growth was based on a simple perception. After following Japan closely in the 1960s and as an Embassy officer who had studied economics at university, I was convinced that Japan’s unprecedented economic growth had little to do with the simple application of Western economic principles. Rather, it needed to be explained by distinctive cultural qualities.

Considering much of Japan’s sense of civilisation, including the characters used in its language and the nature of its administrative class, derived from China, it was hard to see why the vast home of East Asian civilisation, China, would settle for second best, behind its off-shore, smaller neighbour. Moreover, by this time other Asian communities with a strong sense of Chinese tradition and civilisation were beginning to show the potential for economic growth similar to Japan.

This line of thought poses many problems for the Western mind and for Western leaders. The implied irrelevance of ideologies like Capitalism and Communism has major implications not only for economic thought but also for political rhetoric and strategy.

Consequently, although there was an emerging interest in the relationship between ‘Asian values’ and economic performance in the 1980s and 1990s, this was effectively killed off by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis (AFC). A torrent of triumphalism about the failure of ‘Asian values’, Asian ‘crony capitalism’ and an associated unhealthy relationship between government and business seemed to discredit forever everything associated with the phrase ‘Asian values’. As a consequence, there has been little real follow up on the thought that inspired the 1976 Beijing Dispatch, although a public R G Neale Lecture in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2007, 31 years later, commended the foresight of the Dispatch.

Even that lecture neglected to mention three books informed by the same insight that had used experience in Japan to predict China’s future rise. The Confucian Renaissance (1989), The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997), and A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2007) were easily ignored as curiosities of no concern to men entrusted with practical commercial and political responsibilities.

A decade after the 1997 AFC and a year after the 2007 R G Neale Lecture, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis revealed Western ‘crony capitalism’ to be far worse than the Asian version. Moreover, by this time Asia had again grown stronger. China had deftly managed Western attempts to exploit the AFC and was becoming the flag bearer of an Asian economic miracle that was transforming the global order. With typical discretion, however, this was branded ‘China’s peaceful rise’ and even used the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to distract the attention of the West from its own rapidly declining economic power.

In retrospect, global order has been discreetly reshaped since the American defeat and occupation of Japan in 1945 by the astute utilisation of China’s ancient cultural wisdom. This wisdom involved a form of ‘conquest through service’. It was first executed by Japan, then by other Asian communities and finally, and most critically and definitively, by China. Most remarkably, this strategy has continued, unrecognised by Western communities and their leaders for almost three quarters of a century.

To a significant degree, this failure has been the unintended product of a political/intellectual strategy of ‘intellectual apartheid’ that marginalised and ridiculed in the Western mind all cultures but those shaped by the European Enlightenment and its ‘universal values’. By closing its own minds to the possibility of an alternative, more politically, administratively and strategically advanced culture, the West effectively ensured its own decline.

While it might be suggested Australia used the 1976 Beijing Ambassador’s Dispatch to fully capitalise on the Asian economic miracle, this would be an exaggeration. Despite much rhetoric over more than half a century about being part of Asia, Australian leaders remain totally uneducated in terms of the Chinese classics that define Asian wisdom and success, and have done nothing to introduce such education for younger Australians. In addition, they have mirrored the folly of other Western nations in allowing themselves to be ‘conquered by service’, that is, for Australia, by the service of easily accessible and lucrative export markets.

This may have been less insidious than in America and Europe, which have largely been stripped of their industry, technology and labour skills and left bankrupt and dependent on fiat currencies (printed paper serving as money) with less and less asset backing. Like Western communities in general, however, Australians have shown themselves to be incapable of understanding the irrelevance of their ideologies and, most importantly, their thought cultures in comprehending the transformation of the 21st century global community.

The Source of Asian & Chinese Wisdom & Strategy

It is critical to understand the sense in which Asia’s rise has been China’s rise. Everywhere in East and South East Asia, administrative and commercial elites are shaped and informed by Chinese tradition, classical wisdom and historical experience. This may be directly as in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Or it may be through elite minorities in the rest of the region, where Chinese traditions of education and thought set standards of excellence that other ethnicities must match to be competitive. Moreover, none of these peoples have been influenced in any comparable manner by their brief exposure to Western corporate and commercial intrusion and assertion.

Today, there is a robust revival of traditional Chinese classical education in China and these other regions of Asia. In academies defined by ancient practices, children from the age of three learn the classics by rote and can recite whole chapters word perfect by the age of five.

The best learning years of three to six are devoted to mastering texts in their original language from more than two thousand years ago. These texts are then effectively left in charge of shaping and guiding thought and life experience from a very early age. Early familiarity with classical Chinese language ensures ready access to China’s long, rich and continuously recorded historical experience.

When one reflects on the content of the Confucian Analects, the Daodejing and the Book of Changes, it becomes obvious that this thought has many qualities not found in the Western tradition. Moreover, it is also evident the habit and discipline of learning that is nurtured at such an early age can be easily focused on mastering Western thought and tradition, but as an alternative and mostly less profound option. Consequently there are many educated Asians who are truly bicultural and capable of thinking and acting alternatively in competing thought cultures. For several reasons, there are very few, if any, comparably skilled Westerners.

This poses a daunting challenge for most Western peoples. First, China has a thought culture that guides more than two billion people in East and South East Asia but that is little, if at all, understood in the West. Second, it also has deftly placed itself at the strategic and financial centre of new, potentially global initiatives like the BRICS Bank, an expanding Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and a transformative Eurasian trade zone. Third, it is becoming indisputably the world’s largest economy with the strongest financial reserves and almost certainly the global leader in educational depth and excellence as well as technological productivity. None of this fits comfortably with the mythologies that have guided the Anglo American powers over recent centuries in working towards a New World Order.

All this is the contemporary manifestation of the renaissance of the world’s most remarkable continuous civilisation. Despite almost unanimous denial in Western communities, and, it must be recognised, much of the rest of the world, it is already impossible to think about the future in an informed and positive manner without basing one’s thought on the central and authoritative role that will be played by cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Even more important, wherever one goes in China, most parts of Asia and many parts of the world, it will be most advantageous to understand the pervasive and definitive role being played in contemporary affairs by the Chinese classics, Chinese history and Chinese political and commercial culture. Yet this will be made difficult by a common modesty, humility and discretion that characterises the behaviour of the classically educated Chinese gentleman or ‘junzi’.

The Character of China’s Modern Rise

In a major sense, it is a mistake to speak of China’s rise. It is more appropriate to speak of China’s renaissance. Until the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, China had led the world in technology and economic production for much of human history. By the middle of the 20th century Mao Zedong’s revolution had begun to lay the foundations of China’s renaissance. This renaissance became apparent a little over a quarter of a century later when Deng Xiaoping took charge.

The major new feature of contemporary China is the fact that the Anglo American powers have constructed a nascent global order and that China’s renaissance must take place at the centre of this global interconnectedness. This is the truly unique character of China’s contemporary rise, or renaissance. It is something which other powers have made unavoidable and not something that China’s leaders have taken the initiative in bringing about.

Consequently, there is much in the rise of contemporary China that can only be understood by examining the interaction of modern Western influence with the renaissance of traditional Chinese culture. Until now, the impact of Western influence seems to have been dominant. Yet China’s success is only truly explicable in terms of the way in which its traditional culture has equipped it to out-strategise and out-compete the West.

Equally, much Chinese activity has been dictated by imperatives imposed by the West’s modernity. Yet, as China becomes stronger, more independent and more Chinese in its choices, it is likely to expose many Western initiatives to profound re-evaluation.

One needs only to look at the harm done to the environment, water, air, food and medicine by Western corporate imperatives to see possible benefits in this development. Of course, China today is a poor advertisement, having embraced many of these corporate imperatives in its rush to build its economy, re-establish its own cultural autonomy and gain some control over its future. It has, however, now largely achieved that and has the capacity to address such issues.

China’s own traditions of law and government would seem much better designed to correct harmful corporate imperatives than common practices in Western democracies. Large corporations have increasingly demonstrated the capacity to write the policies and laws of elected governments through lobbyists, media influence, industry expertise and political funding, often with little regard to harm inflicted on the well-being of communities.

In fact, exposure to the Chinese classics, history and political culture highlights the reality that many features of contemporary Anglo American civilisation have derived first from the imperial adventures of British corporations like the East India Company and more recently from the related initiatives of American corporations within a global institutional order constructed after victory in World War II.

The rise of China and its Asian and other allies suggests that many Anglo American practices, values and priorities are likely to be reassessed from perspectives that have the capacity to surprise and marginalise today’s certainties. The failure of Anglo American strategists to understand vulnerabilities in their own culture and to explore the strengths of a culture with the world’s most outstanding historical record has led to both Western decline and Eastern rise. It is hard to see this situation now being reversed.

Western peoples now have a diminishing period of time in which to educate and prepare themselves for a predictable future where past certainties and comforts will be subject to re-evaluation. The existing global order has been constructed on assertions of the superiority of Western values but these have proven vulnerable before an Asian challenge. It is still too early to outline the likely outcome of this competitive interaction of competing cultures but an understanding of traditional Chinese culture will be essential if Chinese approaches to the West are to be evaluated with any hope of strategic insight, accuracy and success.

Classical Chinese Values

China’s 21st century rise can only be appreciated in the context of the teachings of its classics. As already remarked, these are undergoing a revival of popularity as the foundation for shaping life and thought from a very early age. It must also be understood in the context of learnings from the use of those classics across several millennia, copiously recorded as a continuous account of the achievements and failings of the Chinese people. It is also critical to recognise that the fundamentals of traditional Chinese social, legal, economic and political behaviour are often very different from those of the modern West. Moreover, Western values are unlikely to have gained in authority from their failure to defend and preserve a position that seemed beyond challenge only several decades ago.

It is also essential to appreciate that Chinese words and ideas rarely translate accurately into English or other European languages. The reverse also applies, as the respective cultures and histories are too different to allow simple verbal equivalences. Yet, even if one begins the examination of Chinese classics in translation, it is immediately apparent that the Western mind is entering unfamiliar territory. For instance, the first three lines of the Confucian Analects read in English translation:

Is it not a pleasure, having learnt something, to try it out at due intervals?

Is it not a joy to have like-minded friends come from afar?

It is not gentlemanly not to take offence when others fail to appreciate your abilities?

It is hard to deny that this seems immediately to be a strange way to commence perhaps China’s greatest classic text. A number of comments may be made. First, the Analects illustrate clearly the difficulty of translating Chinese, particularly classical Chinese, into contemporary English. Second, the Analects are best rote learned in the original language at an early age and then used as needed as a remarkable collection of guiding wisdom throughout life. Third, the Analects exude a type of practical, searching humility that contrasts starkly with the sense of intellectual or philosophical pride and superiority evident in key Greek classics.

Nevertheless, having recognised those stumbling blocks for the Western reader in a foreign language, it is clear the text places the highest authority in life on a lifetime of practical education, on the cultivation of diverse and far-reaching friendships or networks and on the ultimate virtue in human life of humility. These qualities are readily identifiable in Asian elites and, as will be explained further, are fundamental to Asian strategic wisdom.

It should also be remarked that the Analects and the Book of Changes constantly use the family and its continuity over time as a central organising theme that illustrates intuitively the importance of the group over the individual. This echoes the distinctive character of China’s flood story four thousand years ago. This does not show God’s preservation of a virtuous man but rather the virtuous man’s preservation of his community, through the practical construction of canals and embankments.

This family and group focus serves to highlight something strange, even corrupting, about the contemporary West’s prioritising of the individual, freedom and equality. It is possible to see this fragmenting both family and society and working to reduce much of life to a quantitative calculation among contending individuals. Certainly, the group coherence of Asian economies seems to have played a central role in their success.

The first two lines of the Daodejing also reward reflection, reading:

The Dao which one can explain is not the unchanging Dao.

The Name which one can name is not the unchanging Name.

From personal experience, I know that it is possible to struggle with these words for twenty years and still be bemused by their meaning. Yet, then, in a flash they can assume a meaning that changes the whole character of one’s thought. For me, this was to conclude that while words, ideas, concepts, rational structures and theoretical frameworks can be critical in organising the thoughts of the human brain and in communicating between human beings, they do not capture the full organic complexity and dynamism of the natural world. In my experience, the Western tradition with its central role of belief, whether in Plato’s transcendent forms, the Church’s God, the Enlightenment’s ‘universal values’ or the economist’s marketplace, nurtures a type of rigid attachment to abstract ideas and theories which impose limits on practical opportunities if they do not fit established thought patterns.

The Six Secret Teachings of Jiang Taigong, a strategist and general who helped King Wen establish the Zhou Dynasty three thousand years ago, needs to be mentioned here even if it is not one of the more commonly referenced classical or strategic texts. It contains Twelve Civil Offensives that detail how a weaker party can overcome a more powerful adversary, simply through disciplined humility. This explains the provision of a service that conquers, first through cultivating dependency and later vulnerability.

Once familiar with East Asia and with the contents of this text, it becomes almost impossible not to conclude that it has been this strategic thought that made Asia rich and the West bankrupt since 1945. In particular, Japan’s behaviour in the face of defeat and occupation seems to have followed meticulously the prescriptions of this work as it built the foundations of its economic rise. Other Asian communities familiar with the work, and ‘conquest through service’, did not find it hard to follow Japan’s example.

A comment on the importance of historical literacy and awareness also directs attention to an area where China has a strength that is little understood in the West, where end of empire talk often refers back almost two thousand years to the Roman Empire. The more recent Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman ends of empire are rendered irrelevant because of the fragmented character of Western experience and consciousness. In China, however, the sense of history embraces at least six major and a number of smaller end of empire experiences over the past two thousand years.

A television series on the mid 19th century Han General Ceng Guofeng, who saved the Qing Dynasty and its Manchu aristocrats from the Taiping rebels, can be revealing. It shows Manchu aristocrats whose sense of privilege and certainty does not allow them to address the mounting challenges to their world in any coherent or strategic manner. It is remarkable how this invites comparison with contemporary Wall Street bankers and their neglect of the mounting challenges to their political certainties, all defined by the incestuous preoccupations of New York and Washington.

It should also be noted that Chinese language and history are enriched with thousands of words and expressions that simply do not translate into English. One example is the opposing expressions ‘junzi’ (gentleman) and ‘xiaoren’ (small or petty man). Neither bracketed translation is adequate. ‘Junzi’ might be said to refer to those humbled and refined by classical knowledge and suitable for administrative responsibility. ‘Xiaoren’ refers to those with an eye to a quick, and possible nasty, profit. It is not difficult to raise a laugh with a Chinese friend by saying that an American MBA qualifies one to be a ‘xiaoren’, making an easy target for a ‘junzi’ aware of Jiang Taigong’s civil offensives.

Any outline of Chinese classics, history and culture can hardly scratch the surface of this world. Many Chinese today understand it poorly, but all of China’s leaders since 1949, including Mao Zedong [see ‘Mao’s Communism’ on page 58], were deeply educated in it and this is unlikely to be any different with future leaders.

The Challenges Inherent in the Untold Story of China’s Rise

A recent American response to the challenge of civilisation posed by China’s rise has been remarkably misguided. It involves ramping up a campaign of misleading allegations against the Chinese attempt to share their understanding of civilisation through the expert and financial support of Confucius Institutes. This suggests that a continuing denial of obvious realities will characterise much of the Western response to China’s economic and cultural renaissance.

In some ways, the challenge that confronts the West is comparable with that which confronted distant peoples colonised by the European people’s use of corporate organisation and aggressive technology to enhance their wealth several centuries ago. It is less violent but it is just as incomprehensible in terms of the familiar mythologies that shape Western certainties.

History suggests that the Chinese custom of tributary states is much more benign and enriching than the West’s colonising or ‘civilising mission’. Yet this is dependent on an acceptance of reality in a peaceful and constructive way. Despite a widespread continuing assumption of Western pre-eminence, there is already much evidence there is little prospect of reversing established trends of growing Chinese strength and declining Western capacity. This seems true, whether in terms of political, military, technological or economic influence. Moreover, there is growing evidence that we have only seen the beginning of China’s rise, or renaissance.

Any realistic assessment of the challenges ahead now needs to address questions related to the movement from the certainties of an Anglo American global order to the probabilities of a reborn Chinese civilisation that influences events in all parts of an interconnected global community. Policies that are already publicly understood, although minimally reported in mainstream Western media, make it clear that China is taking the lead in the construction of major infrastructure like very-fast trains, in the transformation of Siberia and Eurasia through unprecedented initiatives, in investing globally in previously undeveloped natural resources, and in acting independently of institutional forms long established and reinforced by Anglo American authority.

The continued denial or distortion of such realities will only compound mistakes and misjudgments that have already damaged Western interests. Despite major failings in Australia’s response to China’s rise, its experience and that of other Western peoples offers evidence there can be as many opportunities as challenges in this rapidly changing environment. Political, commercial, educational and other leaders need to take the initiative. After all, Anglo American corporate and commercial culture has proven uncompetitive in a world where it made the rules. It is unlikely to do better in a world where it no longer makes the rules.

An expectation and insistence that China conform with the often self-serving Anglo American norms of recent history can only prove increasingly counter-productive. In contrast, rewards will be won by those who display humility and initiative and commit to the arduous toil of mastering, if only in a limited way, the untold story of China’s remarkable economic and cultural rise, or renaissance.

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About the Author

REG LITTLE (1936-2019) was an Australian diplomat for 25 years, during which time he received language training for 18 months in Japanese and 15 months in Chinese and served as Deputy or Head of 5 Australian overseas diplomatic missions. In Canberra he headed Divisions concerned with North Asia, International Economic Organisations and Policy Planning, and directed the Australia China Council. In 1976 in Beijing, while Mao Zedong was still alive, he foreshadowed China’s future 10% growth. For the past three decades he was active in China and other parts of Asia in conferences addressing the renaissance of Confucian traditional values, about which he has been involved in writing three books including the important and far-sighted A Confucian Daoist Millennium. From 2009 he was a vice president of the Beijing-based International Confucian Association, a discreet organisation which has been shaped, informed and led by key leaders who have guided and overseen China’s peaceful economic rise. Reg's profound and informative book Chinese Mindwork: A Primer on Why China is Number 1 can still be purchased:

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