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Cultural confidence plays vital role in China’s further development

Zhang Weiwei

Zhang Weiwei

IN a recent forum, Zhang Weiwei debunked some assumptions about prevailing Western socio-political concepts, and stressed cultural confidence is vital to China’s further development.

Zhang is a professor of international relations and Director of the China Institute at Fudan University, as well as a board member of China’s National Think Tanks Council.

The forum, titled “Discourse Confidence: A review of the debate with Francis Fukuyama, six years ago,” was sponsored by and China Institute, Fudan University.

In June 2011, Zhang had a well-publicized debate with Fukuyama on the merits of China vs Western model. Zhang thought it was now a good time to give a mid-term assessment. Fukuyama made quite a stir with “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992). In the book, Fukuyama argued that the advent of Western democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government. In this sense it signals “the end of history.”

“Before debating with Fukuyama, I examined some previous dialogues between some Chinese scholars and Fukuyama. To be honest, these ‘dialogues’ were more like reporting to the boss,” Zhang observed, adding that in humanities and social science studies in China, the dominance of Western discourse had been considerable, whether in politics, economics, journalism, or legal studies.

As a result, some Chinese scholars were chiefly concerned with issues like “when China can aspire to the kind of democracy and rule of law seen in America.”

“Given this mindset, some Western scholars made easy conquests in China. They were deemed authorities in any field, and their views were widely publicized and quoted,” Zhang observed.

Five predictions

Zhang then reexamined some of the predictions made in that heated exchange in 2011.

The first concerned the so-called Arab Spring, with Fukuyama predicting that the rise of the middle class in China will lead to an aspiration to democracy and freedom, while Zhang believed the problem was rooted in economy, and predicted that the so-called Arab Spring would turn to winter soon, significantly compromising Western interests in that region.

“Why did I make a better prediction than Fukuyama? Because I believe in the Chinese adage ‘Read ten thousand volumes of books and travel ten thousand li.’ I also believe in Deng Xiaoping’s observation that ‘a soldier who has heard the gunshot is totally different to one who has not,’” Zhang said. The biggest headache today, the Middle East refugee crisis, could have been avoided if Chinese views like his were heeded then.

The second prediction concerned the American political system. Fukuyama recognized then there were many problems with American democracy, but insisted it was a very mature system capable of self-correction, while Zhang believed American democracy is a pre-industrialization product and, absent of substantial political reforms, would produce presidents worse than George Bush Jr.

The third prediction concerned populism, or what Zhang called simple-minded populism, which would get worse with the rise of new social media tools. Citing Lincoln’s famous line about “You can fool some of the people some of the time,” Fukuyama believed that given the maturity of Western democracy, people will come to the correct choice in the long run.

Black Swan events like Brexit and American election all suggest that with the rise of Western populism and growing power of money and new media, this simple-minded populism can wreck the future of the West.

“Lincoln’s observation is correct theoretically, and poetic in its wording, but the reality is more skeletal. Politics has a temporal, spatial and cost dimension. Imagine you lost your mobile phone, and someone comforting you by saying, ‘don’t worry, the phone is still on earth,’” Zhang said.

The fourth prediction concerned Fukuyama’s statement about the “End of History.” Zhang disagreed, adding it looked more like “the end of the End of History,” for from the macro-history perspective, the Western political system might be just a flash in a pan.

Zhang cited several problems with the system. First, it does not entail a respect for talent, thus the country can be governed by whoever is elected. Second, the welfare can only keep growing. The kind of reforms in the banking and state-owned enterprise sectors in China is inconceivable. Third, social cohesion is at stake, when those who have lost the vote, rather than listening to those who have won, the 51 percent, as was the case in developed countries in the past, would continue to obstruct. The fourth is that, in what Zhang called simple-minded populism, the people are incapable of thinking long-term for the interests of the state and society as a whole.

Oriental wisdom

The fifth prediction concerned cultural homogenization, with some mainstream Western scholars predicting that with globalization and liberalization, cultures will homogenize, from dietary habits (coke and KFC) to political aspirations (quest for freedom and democracy).

But Zhang believed that regardless of the degree of modernity, the cultural core of a nation would remain the same. Nor should it change, for otherwise the world would become very boring.

“I subscribe to Edmund Burke’s view that change in institutions should be an extension of tradition. At the back of cultural root is wisdom. Wisdom does not equate knowledge. Today a primary school pupil might beat Confucius or Socrates in terms of knowledge, but not in wisdom,” Zhang observed six years ago.

Zhang cited an anecdote a German economist told him. German Chancellor Angela Merkel once asked the economist, “Why did Germany fail to produce first-rate, Nobel Prize-winning economists?” He replied that there is no need to worry, for with first-rate economists, there would be no first-rate economy.

Something is clearly wrong with economics, even though among Western social sciences economics is probably most akin to natural sciences, for it lends to characterization by mathematical model.

“I think it takes the effort of all humanity to meet the challenges confronting us, from poverty alleviation, conflicts of civilization, to climate changes, and the all and sundry problems resulted from urbanization. Since Western wisdom is ill-equipped to deal with these problems, oriental wisdom should make its contribution,” Zhang observed.

Zhang said if Chinese culture is the eight major types of cuisines, then American culture is McDonald’s. Instead of being conquered by McDonald’s, we should try to influence it, and this is what is meant by cultural confidence.

“McDonald’s is strong in terms of its standardization, unified central kitchen, bright and gay colors, but it simply cannot compare with the eight Chinese cuisines in depth, and scope,” Zhang concluded.

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