China’s rise and changing patterns of civilizational influence

By COLIN MACKERRAS / 09-01-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The title of my paper is  “China’s rise and Changing Patterns of Civilizational Influence.” The paper is going to be about the two great civilizations of the world, which are at the moment, China and the West. And I think that’s been the case for a long, long time. They’re not the only ones, but the ones I’ve chosen here for consideration. You could also take into account India, Iran and various others. I’m here to discuss the big picture of history, and I hope to make a bit of sense out of that. I want to know how did China and the West rise and fall and what are the prospects for the future, how should one interpret the contemporary world, and the civilizational influence within it. 
The global balance of power between the West, especially the US and China has changed, and continues to change in favor of China. Meanwhile, China does not seek dominance but a multi-polar world in which it is at least co-equal. What is more, recent developments such as the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, will accelerate the trends. It’s too early to be sure about that, but it will certainly not stop them, and the balance between China and the West will continue to move and change in favor of China.  
China never dominated the world, but was culturally dominant in its own region. The Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road took commodities, ideas, and culture across the great Eurasian continent for many, many centuries. Chinese civilizational influence reached several peaks, including during the early part of the Tang Dynasty that went from 618 to 907 before the An Lushan Rebellion, which went from 755 to 763. During the early Ming Dynasty, the Chinese government sent out voyages under Zheng He (1371–1433). But these stopped, and no attempt was made to conquer other places or to leave troops there. Chinese civilizational influence declined in the late 18th century, just as the West was rising with its industrial economy and imperialist thinking. This was succeeded by a century of humiliation, then by the rise of China, especially under the rule of the Communist Party of China. 
First this was gradual, but later much more rapid and gaining momentum, and that’s the situation we find now. The features of the rise include rapidly growing economy, rising influence in the world, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and rising cultural influence. In addition, there has been a stunning technological rise, including that of Huawei in the telecommunications area, as well as space research and high-speed railway networks. 
Now let’s turn to the West. The Roman Empire and all those were very great periods. I want to begin in the 15th Century, because that was when the intercommunication between the American and European continents began to be facilitated. We hear of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. I don’t think he discovered America, but he did begin the facilitation of intercommunication between the European and American continents and that has turned out to be extremely important in world history. 
Why was it so important? The reason was because those discoveries were followed by conquest, and that is so different from China in the case of Zheng He. The Spaniards conquering the Aztec Empire in Mexico and then later the Incan Empire in Peru based on what’s now Peru. And there are other conquests. The French and the British got involved, and all the time they wanted to conquer. They sent in troops, making sure that their cultural and political influence was permanent, which is quite different from China. 
Then the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain in the 18th Century. These led to modernity, rise of the bourgeoisie class, imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacism. 
We can’t ignore that part of the economic rise that has happened. That was made possible by all these developments, based on the slavery of black people by whites. That’s not the only example of slavery in history of course, but it is a very important one, and it had a very big influence on world history. For example, the British gradually conquered India and made it a full colony, first by commercial means, and later by armies owned by private companies. And then later, the British state took over and established a supremacy and an idea that they were the top ones. 
The US also rose in the 20th century, and it did so because it got involved in both the world wars.  Of course they were involved against Japan, but only at the end of 1941. But as for Europe, they were not involved until 1944. They came in to those wars and took all the credit for it. At the same time, their homeland was hardly affected. You can compare that with Russia (the Soviet Union), France, Europe, China, and Britain. Britain was bombed. It wasn’t occupied, but it was bombed during the war. The Americans were able to come out of that war on top of the world and they thought it was their God-given right that they should be the top nation. And there are still a lot of people who think this way. 
Of course, they were the technological leader. They remain the technological leader in some ways. But they started to yield technological supremacy to China. That’s the situation we find in the world now. 
Now let’s look at the big picture of contemporary development. The United States is fighting to remain number one. For example, in the Ukraine crisis, they’ve gone out of their way to make sure that they are number one, and they have been quite successful. They’re trying to block China’s rise. There’s a fact sheet on the 2022 US National Defense Strategy which was issued in the version provided to US Congress on March 28th, 2022. It says “the Department of Defense will act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our most consequential strategic competitor” ahead of Russia. Note, ahead of Russia! Even though there was already an event in Ukraine and the Americans were already sanctioning the Russian economy with a view to destroying it, yet, China is rising fast technologically, and in space research, economy, and cultural influence. Its civilization is becoming more influential throughout the world. 
There is another important point about globalization. The United States wants to remain the only superpower in a unipolar world. It does not want to share any kind of power, except with people that it feels exactly the same as itself like in Europe for example. And even that it wants to be superior. China, on the other hand, does not seek dominance. However, it wants to be in a multi-polar world, while maintaining its kind of globalization through the BRI. 
The West seems to want to have its kind of globalization. Although people have argued that the United States is rather withdrawing from the idea of globalization recently, especially under Trump, but I’m not sure about it. I think they want to maintain a global, their global influence and their global economy in their sort of terms. China is being more specific. It has the BRI which does seek influence of course, and it seeks economic benefit for all, but it does not seek dominance. And I know there are a lot of people in the West who say it does, but that seems to me to be untrue. 
What about the impact of Covid-19 and the Ukraine crisis? Up to March 28, there have been 480 million or so confirmed cases worldwide, including 6,124,396 deaths, so it’s had a very big effect. Its effect on the world economy has been severe, but especially in the US. It had effects on equality of various kinds, so economic, racial, and gender inequality seemed to have got worse during this time. 
Of course, it had very severe effects on world travel. The global power structure has also been affected. Some countries have dealt with the pandemic much better than others. China is one of those who dealt with it very well. When we think of the US, how many cases there are and what the effect is on its economy, as well as on its political system. It’s been quite considerable. 
As for the crisis, I think it’s too early to say what’s happening. NATO has regrouped, but it’s still divided. The US is very divided politically, but it has gone out of its way to make sure that it uses that conflict in order to regain its own power politically. And I even think that it doesn’t mind seeing the conflict continue because it thinks that that will be to its benefit and against Russia’s. 
Meanwhile, the world is suffering. The dollar pre-eminence is declining. Several other currencies are on the way up. Exactly how to interpret that? It’s still too early to say. But there are very big problems, such as the climate and the ecology of the world are more dangerous than ever. But all those people can do is to fight against each other. And I think it is extremely tragic and extremely unfortunate!
Professor Colin Mackerras is an officer in the Order of Australia, fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, professor emeritus at Griffith University in Australia. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.
Edited by WENG RONG