UCL European Institute


Learning from China

16 December 2013, 12:00 am

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What have we to learn from China and how they perceive us?
A recent visit proved to be an eye-opener.
Dr Daniel Siemens
December 2013

I recently got the opportunity of teaching a couple of days at the prestigious Peking University. More precisely, I was invited to speak about the last 200 years of modern European history in an introductory lecture and discuss some of its problems in a more focussed seminar. This endeavour struck me as an academic version of 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in 90 Minutes', although what I had to say was certainly less entertaining.

However, my days in Beijing were admittedly even more beneficial for me, the lecturer, than I suppose they were for my students. It was a unique opportunity to see a modern dictatorship in action and, to be honest, apart from the painfully high level of pollution in those days, the nation's capital city is in many ways an impressive modern metropolis, inhabited approximately by roughly twenty million people. When standing in the excellent Beijing tube, I looked pretty much as everywhere else in modern large cities I have been in previous years. No lack of the latest electronic devices, as more than two thirds of the people were busy of entertaining themselves by the means of modern communication technology. Sitting in a taxi, you were frequently overtaken by large and new luxury cars, be it BMW, Range Rover, Cadillac or Porsche. Just when connecting to the internet, you would realize that some web pages, like that of The New York Times or Youtube.com are banned in China. On the contrary, European Newspapers like The Guardian, Le Monde or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung are not. In one word, if you need a proof that a modern consumer society can work without democracy, present day China seems to provide a perfect example.

This, admittedly, is the picture of the capital today - and it might change quickly if the economic boom of the last two decades comes to an end. But even then, it is unlikely that China will transform in a western democracy, I was told by Chinese students and professors alike. They insisted there is a stable cultural kernel shaped in more than 3000 years of Chinese tradition and history, nowadays veiled under a relative thin layer of half a century of Communist rule. If Communist dominance comes to an end, a possibility nobody of those I discussed excluded, they insisted that it would in any case be replaced by a 'Chinese solution' - and not a copy of those Western models of the 19th and 20th century.

These responses indicate not only the growing self-consciousness of present day China that aims at reconciling tradition and modernity. They also point to the decreasing attraction of the Western world. The European mentality of crisis after the rather short-lived political and social hopes in the early 1990s did not go unnoticed. However, I would argue that we, the people in Europe, should listen very carefully of how those living in Asia and elsewhere perceive us Europeans. Arguably, they will take us more seriously again, politically as well as culturally, if we are able to provide compelling answers of what being European in the 21st century actually is. A vague reference to the heritage of the enlightenment and to the benefits of democratic procedures is not enough, if this appears more and more to be a standard argument repeated by our political leaders whose actions at times contradict their rhetoric.

Both, China's Communist government as well as most European ones unconditionally subscribe to the idea that creating economic growth is by far the most important goal of modern politics. Such a common ground is suitable for the exchange of products and technologies, but insufficient for any form of substantial cultural dialogue between these two important regions in the world. Learning from China therefore means to define more sharply what we mean when speaking so frequently about 'European' or 'Western values' and to engage in a more serious dialogue - a dialogue that is tolerant and at the same time self-confident.

  • Dr Daniel Siemens, DAAD Francis Carsten Lecturer in Modern German History, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.