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How China will -- and won't -- change the world

China's astonishing urbanization could bring a new era of supercities, but its cultural norms probably won't eclipse American dominance.

By George Yeo / July 14, 2010



Singapore

Charles Darwin, whose 200th birth anniversary was marked last year, understood that all life is a struggle with old forms giving way to new forms. And human society is part of this struggle.

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What is the new reality that is struggling to emerge from the old? History is not predetermined. There are, at any point in time, a number of possible futures, each, as it were, a state of partial equilibrium. And every crisis is a discontinuity from one partial equilibrium state to another within what scenario analysts call a “cone of possibilities.”

Considering the “cone of possibilities” that will unfold in the coming decades, the key relationship in the world to watch will be that between the US and China. The core challenge is the peaceful incorporation of China into the global system of governance, which in turn will change the global system itself.

The transformation of China itself is the most important development in this context. Much has been written about the reemergence of China, but I would like to focus on three points.

China’s sense of self

The first point is China’s sense of itself. Over the centuries, it has been the historical duty of every Chinese dynasty to write the history of the previous one. Twenty-four histories have been written so far. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, lasted from 1644 to the Republican revolution of 1911. Its official history is only now being written after almost a century.

No other country or civilization has this sense of its own continuity. For the official history of the People’s Republic, I suppose we would have to wait a couple of hundred years.

However, China’s sense of itself is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it gives Chinese civilization its self-confidence and its tenacity. Chinese leaders often say that while China should learn from the rest of the world, China would have to find its own way to the future. But it is also a conceit, and this conceit makes it difficult for Chinese ideas and institutions to become global in a diverse world.

To be sure, the Chinese have no wish to convert non-Chinese into Chinese-ness. In contrast, the US as a young country, believing its own conception to be novel and exceptional, wants everyone to be American. And, indeed, the software of globalization today, including standards and pop culture, is basically American. And therein lies a profound difference between China and the US.

If you look at cultures as human operating systems, it is US culture which has hyper-linked so many different cultures together, in a kind of higher HTML or XML language. And even though that software needs some fixing today, it will remain essentially American. I doubt that the Chinese software will ever be able to unify the world the way it has been because it has a very different characteristic all of its own – even when China becomes the biggest economy in the world as it almost certainly will within a few decades.

Urbanization

The second point to highlight concerns the astonishing urban experimentation taking place today. China is urbanizing at a speed and on a scale never seen before in human history. Chinese planners know that they do not have the land to build sprawling suburbia like America’s. China has less arable land than India.

Although China already has a greater length of highways than the whole of the US, the Chinese are keenly aware that if they were to drive cars on a per-capita basis like Americans, the whole world would boil.

Recognizing the need to conserve land and energy, the Chinese are now embarked on a stupendous effort to build megacities, each accommodating tens of millions of people, each with the population size of a major country. And these will not be urban conurbations like Mexico City or Lagos growing higgledy-piggledy, but cities designed to accommodate such enormous populations. This means planned urban infrastructure with high-speed intra-city and inter-city rail, huge airports, forests of skyscrapers, and high-tech parks containing universities, research institutes, start-ups, and ancillary facilities.

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