To understand why and how China has emerged as a great power, we have to look beyond what experts usually point to. The Chinese have opened up the economy, they have invested heavily in R&D, goods made in China flood stores in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, they are a patriotic bunch. They are industrious. These are good reasons. But what are the real ones? Why can't other nations do the same? The United States used to be a major manufacturing country. Now it's a consumption economy with an astounding number of obese people. Why?
What drives the way the Chinese do things and conduct themselves at the personal as well as national level? I have seen Chinese graduate students in the US who kept quiet in the classroom when the Professor asked a question, but at the end of the semester, managed to score all A's. They have no intention of showing off. They are advancing slowly but surely without making a lot of noise.
Despite all its strength and ambition, China is not bent on global domination. Although its influence is undeniably rising, its engagement is transactional, not imperial. Its interest beyond Asia is mainly in countries that can provide it with raw materials and markets. Talk of China's “big footprints” in Africa, for example, is overstated. Its stock of direct investment in the continent still lags far behind that of Great Britain and France and amounts to only a third of the United States'. In Africa and Latin America it is concentrating more on taking stakes in local companies, not just buying up land and resources.
China likes to mind its own business. It wants to have as little involvement abroad as it can get away with. Instead of acting for the “greater good of humanity” it responds pragmatically when its own interests are at stake. Its navy has begun to participate in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and in UN peacekeeping in Africa. In 2011 it sent a ship to co-ordinate the evacuation of 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya. The world may anticipate more such actions as its companies get more deeply involved around the globe. It is also making inroads into the use of soft power through Confucius Institutes all over the world that try to demonstrate that China and its culture are benign.
What China is against is easier to comprehend than what it is for. It opposed Bush's incursion into Iraq in 2003, vetoed the interventions Western powers sought in Syria and Darfur and took no position on the Russian annexation of Crimea. Chinese leaders are not great fans of the existing system of alliances but offer no alternative system of collective security. They talk about sharing resources in the South and East China Seas, but have offered no definite proposals to this end.
Disappointed by what it sees as its lack of influence in international organisations, China led the establishment of the Shanghai-based New Development Bank in 2014, of which all the BRICS countries are members and which looks like a tenderfoot to the World Bank. It has also set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the ADB.
A late appearance is not unusual for a great power. It took a world war to draw The US irreversibly onto the world stage. Over 200 years, through much pain and suffering, China has transformed the very centre of its identity, changing itself from an inward- and backward-looking society to an outward- and forward-looking power. Since 1978, it has shown both flexibility and firm resolve in its continued pursuit of wealth and power.
Many countries around the world respect, and would like to imitate, the undemocratic but efficient way that China has managed its decades of growth. But how exactly to go about it? What do they know that the rest of the world doesn't? Well, for one thing, they don't believe that they are superior to others or destined by the Divine to be great. They know they have to work for it.
They are honest with themselves. More importantly, they know how. While the Western culture teaches people to be 'themselves'—there could be no advice more hollow than this— Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and other Chinese thinkers, more than 2,000 years ago taught that we shouldn't be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, absolute self to begin with. As they understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional beings, a tangle of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world. We are who we are by constantly reacting to one another. It's no wonder that the Chinese leadership is turning to ancient philosophy for support.
That's something to learn from China.
The writer is a member of the Editorial Team of The Daily Star.