“Professor Wang, you told me in the class that if China has 5000 years of history, why are we celebrating the 60th anniversary of P.R China?” This was the question I got in 2009 when the Chinese Mission hosted the national day reception. A student, daughter of an EU officer, raised such a question to me, who attended my lecture in Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) before.
I was puzzled watching her serious and naïve face. Actually her question touched upon a basic one: what is the relationship between traditional China and modern China? The People’s Republic of China is modern China, 60 years old, while Chinese civilization is 5000 years old.
Lucian Pye, one of the foremost American scholars on China studies, argued famously, “China is a civilization while pretending as a nation-state.” Moved by such an argument, many Chinese describe the Chinese dream as a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, viewing tomorrow from yesterday, not from the day after tomorrow; while some describe the Chinese dream as surpassing the USA as the No. 1 great power in the world.
Hu Angang, president of Tsinghua University’s National Conditions Institute, concluded in a recent research paper that Chinese comprehensive power has passed the US from now on, which is generating hot debate in the Chinese media. Most Chinese worry that this is anti-Chinese feeling, and will place China as the adversary of the USA. Even some Chinese worry that a new great leap forward is coming back.
Actually, China is redefining modernity and even socialism not being defined by former modernization or socialism. The US is not the reference point of the Chinese dream. The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is not aiming to replace the US as No. 1 great power in the world, but to shape global China is new identity.
Liang Qichao, a great scholar at the end of the Qin Dynasty, has classified Chinese history as “China’s China”, “Asia’s China” and “the World’s China” which also reflected China’s three identities. In today’s world, China’s identity is struggling for the trinity of “Traditional China”, “Modern China” and “Global China”, which are embodied in different cases and circumstances:
- “Traditional China”: Cultural China which is based mainly on Confucian culture with strong continental and agricultural characteristics;
- “Modern China”: Political China which is based on the revolution experience struggling for independence and prosperity since the Opium War;
- “Global China”: Economic China which is based on the opening and reform process with globalized interests and mentality by initiating Chinese versions of universal value, described by Chinese president Xi Jinping as “community of shared future”.
When Chinese identity is shifting from “traditional China”, “modern China” to “global China”, we should also understand the China model in diverse and dynamic perspectives. There is no pure China model at all, just like People’s Republic of China, China is only from a traditional Chinese concept, with people’s and republic imported from Europe in modern times. Even China is given by Europeans, just like the Silk Road, so China uses the Belt and Road Initiative, not a Chinese new Silk Road project. The China model is learned from the West and reflecting the success of the West, but goes beyond the western experience.
Concepts like GDP, comprehensive power, coming from “total war” after World War I or Cold War confrontation, are difficult to understand Chinese power or the Chinese dream. The theme of the 21st century competition is about who can solve the problems that every country is facing. It is the smart cell phone, not Canon defeated Nikon. There is no so-called Thucydides’ trap but a mentality trap between China and the USA.
The Chinese future is to be herself, not another America.
The author is a Jean Monnet Chair Professor at Renmin University of China.