What do we learn from it about where the world is going?
When I was young, in the seventies, the cold war was still raging. We told a lot of cold war jokes, some of them I still remember. One such “black” joke said that the optimists are learning Russian, while the pessimists are learning Chinese.
Don’t look from the windows!
There are many reasons to be pessimistic today. It is enough to see the massacre in Halab (Aleppo) and to know that there is nobody in the world today that is ready to act to prevent the mass killing of innocent civilians. But, looking back in history, this is how things were all the time.
But, from other aspects, the world is changing very fast. Technology is having a big impact. Today we can know at real time what is happening in almost every corner of our one and ever more connected world. Nobody has a monopoly over what we know. The Facebook revolution made ordinary people write and publish. Friends, as we are all friends now, can decide which writings deserve to be spread.
Changes in the world’s economy and politics are just as fast and profound. Just in 1990 the US emerged from the cold war as the single unchallenged world super-power. We were told that we enter a new area characterized by the end of history as political struggle. From now on human development will be driven by market forces. It didn’t take long for this supposedly blind driver to drive our small world into a wall. For ten years now we live through a seemingly endless economic crisis…
The world is changing so fast that it is hard for us to guess where we are going. Sometimes we close our eyes as if scared to look out of the windows. The political reaction in much of the “developed” rich world is pessimistic and reactionary. Many blame the immigrants, minorities or excessive liberties.
Does it mean that the world as a whole is going back? Not necessarily, as there are other amazing developments in other parts of the world. Now it is not only the optimists that are learning Chinese but also the opportunists …
The news from China
Suddenly news about China is everywhere… The most outspoken mouthpiece of capitalism, “The Economist”, can hardly say a good word about China. But now they dedicate to china a special section, just as they have a section dedicated to the US. Lately, as Trump was elected president of the US, and it seems that he will retreat from promises to limit climate change, they wrote that the rest of the world should anyway continue the effort to save itself. After all, it is China that leads the development of renewable energy sources and clean technologies like the electric car.
Chinese people, which you could hardly meet twenty years ago, are also everywhere. In 2015 Chinese people made 120 million trips abroad, spending 292 billion dollars. In the same year more than half a million Chinese went to study in other countries (just as 7.5 million graduate locally). Chinese companies are building infrastructure in many places around the globe, many times bringing with them Chinese workers. We have seen them in Haifa, as they built the Carmel tunnels.
In 2014 China became the biggest economy in the world, according to the most accepted criteria of GDP as measured by “purchasing power parity”. For most people in the rich west, China is still too poor to look at as an inspiration. But for the majority of humanity that lives in poor third world countries, the inevitable question is whether China can show the way out of poverty?
The Chinese way
For most of history, China’s economy was the biggest in the world. Chinese traditions, attitudes and institutions are very different from the European model for historic
development that we were taught about. The majority of Chinese people were not enslaved but free peasants. The civil service was not a monopoly of an aristocratic, hereditary class, but a meritocracy. Centrally administered exams were the key to jobs in the state apparatus, from the bottom to almost the top. Children from toiling families were studying in order to get up the social ladder.
While socialism became the official system in Russia it was painted by the local culture. The local elite, trained by the previous Tsarist rule, was happy to have modern justification for central control and totalitarian rule. China’s communist party, after the first upheavals, returned to concentrate on pragmatic development and the Confucian goal of “Social Harmony”. Relying on the centuries’ long tradition of a “serving elite”, the Chinese government succeeded to lead the biggest ever economic and social leap-forward in Human history.
The market and the plan
Adam Smith, the British economist, preached that it is the self-interest of people that make them cooperate productively. Neoliberal economists try to convince us that if we loosen the chains of the state, free market forces will drive the economy forward for the benefit of all. But when the inherent greediness of capitalist companies is let loose, they easily distort the free market for their profit and impoverish everybody else. The new Chinese model tries to harness market forces and capitalist initiatives to the service of society by keeping them away from political control.
On the international level China is also offering a new model of mutual development. It is now the main economic partner for many countries all over the world. The capitalist multi-nationals invest in third world countries with a single goal – to get as much profit as fast as possible. Because of political instability they tend to avoid long term investment that will not bring fast profits. China’s state-led economic cooperation is based on the notion that only through mutual development there can be long term profit. They invest huge sums (and expertise) in developing infrastructure, education and health.
Western powers always pose themselves as the great example that everybody should learn from, and try to dictate conditions to all their poor “partners”. China just cooperate with everybody and makes a point of not telling other people how to manage their affairs. Either they don’t want us to learn the secret of success or they think that deeds are louder than words.