China — why and how it is different

China, Zhongguo (Central States or Middle Kingdom), was and remain one of the oldest civilization of the world. A country that has performed many miracles, one of them lifting 800 million people out of poverty (almost 4 times the total population of Pakistan), is now en-route to achieving breakthroughs in the field of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Space industry.

China, with all its shortcomings and inherent problems, continues to surprise the world, especially West. There are so many developments the implications of which then spread in a plexus of directions that it is worth studying about it in detail. Her hefty contribution to world’s GDP (16 percent) and the size of its economy (second largest in the world, $13 trillion) along with the economic and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world only accentuates her significance and underlines the importance to learn more about it.

Hence, throughout 2019, I will be exploring different aspects of China as a country and society; its history, governing principles, its ascent as a global economic powerhouse, the spread of science and technology and the race to stand amongst the list of most innovative countries and much more.  While there are umpteen articles available on the internet, books will always be a better source for learning about anything. For this first article we will consider Martin Jacques’ ‘When China Rules the World’ and see what are the characteristics that make the country different from others.

When considered holistically hint towards the uniqueness of China; be it their government structure, familial values underlined by Confucian principles, the East Asian modernity fueling miraculous economic growth. All this together presents China as a US rival in the eastern hemisphere

The first thing that makes China different from others is that it should be considered more as a civilization than a nation-state that is to say the Chinese identity was formed before it became a nation-state. Even a taxi-driver there will start speaking about the millennial old dynasties and history if he is asked. This sense of historic superiority (which at times is not correct) gives way to the second factor that is differentiating them from others i.e. they consider themselves as a single race, Han, to be very specific. We will see in other articles that Han was, ironically, rather a recent creation. But still this sense of belonging to a single race, what Amy Chua in her book, Day of Empire, describes as a ‘glue’, seems to be a potent factor in China. There is an ‘ideological component’ to China’s attitude towards race which later on, and ironically, was bolstered by the ‘century of humiliation’ when the British and Japanese pillaged and robbed China.

The third factor that helps Chinese to stand apart from others is that of the centuries old ‘tributary system’. In ancient times surrounding countries, commandaries and regions used to, as a gesture of acknowledging Chinese suzerainty, present tribute to the Chinese emperor who helped them both, economically and diplomatically. With China’s ascent as an economic behemoth; we may see the above system reforming in a modern form. Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and others realize the extent, prowess and profundity of integration of China in the global economy and can be seen once again getting close to her.

The fourth and the most important factor is that of ‘unity’. The sheer size of the country, (sometimes called as a mega-state) and the largest population which is held together by centuries old notions of unity when rubs its shoulders with other Superpowers, namely the US, the impact may be greater and certainly different.

All of the above factors when considered holistically hint towards the uniqueness of China; be it their government structure, familial values underlined by Confucian principles, the East Asian modernity fueling miraculous economic growth. All this together presents China as a US rival in the eastern hemisphere. This being said the country, like all other countries in the world, has its fair share of problems, internal and external.

Published in Daily Times, February 23rd 2019.