From the middle of the 19th century and for more than 100 years, China went through a period of decay and alienation. The Chinese world's marginalization can be partly explained by the concomitance of two opposite dynamics: at the time of the French Revolution when Europe was preoccupied by the future, the 145-year-old Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), full of glorious remembrances, was already reaching a point when indolence has to follow a long period of rise, and, at the contact with growing Western techno-economic power, stagnation degenerated into the slow but painful disintegration of the Manchu regime.
For German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, China was simply in the 19th century "outside the world's history," and "the fixedness of its character which recurred perpetually took her out of what we should call the truly historical." One can debate Hegel's position exposed in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837) since they ignore the Chinese history's discontinuities or Chinese philosophy's internal contradictions, but two years after the book's publication the Qing Dynasty fought the First Opium War and was forced to accept in 1842 the first unequal treaty. China was de facto losing control over its destiny and retracting from the world's history.
The imposed opium trade, a series of unequal treaties, the territorial concessions, the destruction of the Summer Palace, the transfer of Shandong, Confucius' native province, to Japan, are all tragic moments of China's humiliation. In 1937 the country's weakness and the Imperial Japanese Army's barbarism led to what Iris Chang called the "Rape of Nanking," an absolute horror in which 300,000 lives were annihilated.
It is in reaction to this collective fall that the Maoist epic can be interpreted. Mao incarnated and formulated the Chinese will to recover dignity, respect and sovereignty. Forced to withdraw from history, the Chinese people lost confidence; able to re-conquer independence and a voice in the concert of nations, they rediscovered faith in themselves. The largest segment of China's elites supported by the vast majority of the Chinese population will avoid the complacency and the arrogance, which caused the decline of imperial China and brought disasters to the "central country."
The cognitive operation in which China's legitimate confidence is perceived by the West as arrogance is more a statement on the West's anxiety than an observation on China's objective reality. More generally, the West should try to look at China as it is and not speculate ad infinitum on its own perceptions, magnified by the media. The "immobile and inward-looking empire," the "coming collapse of China," the "China's threat," the "irresponsible player," the "arrogant China" and other fantasies yet to come, are more Western projections than true reflections of Chinese dynamics.
By being attentive to China's conditions and to the sentiments of the Chinese people, by recognizing the economic, socio-political and intellectual dimensions of the Chinese renaissance, the West would put itself in a position to transcend all forms of sinophobia and China would then appear as a co-architect, a co-designer of the 21st century world order. Indeed, China has not only re-entered the world stage but she is also co-writing the play she is performing with other historical forces.
In an era of global interdependence, the Chinese renaissance does not have to entail Western decline. For the world's statesmen, business leaders or thinkers, China's renewal is a source of inspiration, a catalyst for creative synthesis and an invitation to go to a higher level of practice and understanding.
When Chinese and Western cultures meet in broad-mindedness and generosity, they cross-fertilize to enrich world civilization: I. M. Pei's architecture, Tan Dun's compositions, Xu Bing's design or Lin Hwai-min's choreographies illustrate the unique value of Sino-Western synergy. The West's marginalization would not be an effect of China's metamorphosis but the consequence of its elites' parochialism and complacency, of their incapacity to embrace what the Chinese renaissance has to offer.
The common discourses on the notion of a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, of a transfer of power from the West to the East are misleading and, to a certain extent, counterproductive. The West is not the loser of a zero-sum game—China's renewal enriches globalization, in a world of global and intense interdependence, and the progress of a fifth of mankind does not deteriorate the living conditions of the developed countries but benefits the human family.
A certain Asian exaltation corresponding with the West's depression derives from the same incapacity to comprehend a complex global system. Unfortunately, its catchword, "the Asian century," misses the point—an "Asian century" would be as incomplete and imperfect as the European century or the American century. Cosmopolitanism has to define the 21st century. The vision of a harmonious world balancing tradition and modernity, identity and interdependence should guide our collective efforts.
In the "invisible pavilion" of the World Expo in Shanghai, the human family had a dream: dignity for all in an everlasting reconciliation and truly universal renaissance.
The author is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at the China Europe International Business School, Shanghai & Beijing, and founder of the Euro-China Forum
(Viewpoints in this article do not necessarily represent those of Beijing Review)