How can China grow?

Sitting on a park bench in Beijing, moved to tears by the memories that came flooding back to her as she watched an amateur opera, our reporter saw other core values expressed by a gentleman who sat next to her: harmony, civility, friendship.

REUTERS
PEOPLE DANCE IN A PARK ON A FOGGY DAY IN HUAI’AN, JIANGSU PROVINCE, CHINA , ON OCT. 10, 2017.

Eight years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made a prediction, of sorts. In the long term, he wrote, “China can’t continue to grow at this pace indefinitely by only permitting its people to have economic liberty without political liberty.”

The prediction was hardly unusual. It has long been the asterisk appended to China’s boom. Yet in her cover story this week, Ann Scott Tyson leaves little doubt: China is not backing down. If anything, it is doubling down. Ann’s story is punctuated by surveillance cameras, censorship, and, in one case, a plainclothes police officer trailing her though Beijing.

Still, China’s power grows. President Xi Jinping is now openly talking about China replacing the West as a global model, and a trillion-dollar plan to dramatically expand its trade routes to the rest of the world shows the financial muscle behind his vision.

Were Mr. Friedman and so many others wrong? Is China poised to replace the West?

The first question remains a matter of basic economics. At some point, China’s manufacturing boom will end, and like the West, it will have to grow by becoming more innovative. Authoritarian states do not excel at innovation. So score one for Mr. Friedman, it seems.

It is the second question that is far more interesting.

For the past 70 years, the United States in particular has pioneered a completely new kind of global power. Often dubbed “soft power,” it has been based less on military strength and more on cultural, economic, and philosophical influence. It has resulted in a network of alliances. It has championed the spread of free markets and democracy. It has made Hollywood and Silicon Valley global brands. Put simply, it has replaced the old modes of imperialism with a gospel of universal values.

When experts criticize the Trump administration for its “America First” policy, they worry that America is abandoning this remarkable legacy.

By contrast, the emerging contours of Chinese influence look more like Classic Imperialism 2.0. Maybe not the military “hard power” of the past, but a “sharp power” of bullying and coercion to achieve national aims. In other words, China isn’t going to browbeat you about becoming more democratic, but it’s also much more apt to treat you like an accountant. Its worldview trends more toward transactions than alliances.

It is, in some ways, what Ann saw within China, too – a country that, one man said, has become blinded by materialism.

Yet China is hardly without values. The government has actually identified 12 core values. From the outside, some – like “democracy, freedom, and equality” – appear far more aspirational than actual. But sitting on a park bench in Beijing, moved to tears by the memories that came flooding back to her as she watched an amateur opera, Ann saw other core values expressed by a gentleman who sat next to her: harmony, civility, friendship.

The question is not whether China can promote these values to the world. The question is when the Chinese government will realize they are among the nation’s most valuable assets.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.