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.

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.

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.


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.

The McKinsey Global Institute has projected 15 “supercities” for China with an average population of 25 million, or 11 “city-clusters” each with combined populations of more than 60 million.

Unlike most countries, China is able to mount massive redevelopment projects because of the Communist re-concentration of land in the hands of the state. The great Chinese revolution was fundamentally about the ownership of land. This is the biggest difference between China and India. In India and most other parts of the world, land acquisition for large-scale projects is a very difficult and laborious process.

As the world looked to the US for new patterns of urban development in the 20th century with its very rational grid patterns, we will have to look to China for the cities of the 21st century.

Urbanization on such a colossal scale is reshaping Chinese culture, politics, and institutions. The Chinese Communist Party, which had its origins in Mao’s countryside, faces a huge challenge in the management of urban politics. From an urban population of 20 percent in Mao’s day, China is 40 percent urban today and, like all developed countries, will become 80 percent to 90 percent urban in a few decades’ time. Already, China has more mobile phones than anybody else and more Internet users than the US.

A meritocratic mandarinate

My third point is about China’s political culture. Over the centuries, a political culture has evolved in China that enables a continental-size nation to be governed through a bureaucratic elite. In the People’s Republic, the bureaucratic elite is the Communist Party. When working properly, the mandarinate is meritocratic and imbued with a deep sense of responsibility for the whole country.

Interestingly, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, there was a rule that no high official could serve within 400 miles of his birthplace so that he did not come under pressure to favor local interests. This would mean that for a place like Singapore, it would never be governed by Singaporeans. A few years ago, that rule was reintroduced to the People’s Republic.

In almost all cases today, the leader of a Chinese province – neither a party secretary nor governor – is not from that province unless it is an autonomous region, in which case the No. 2 job goes to a local, but never the No. 1 job.

Although politics in China will change radically as the country urbanizes in the coming decades, the core principle of a bureaucratic elite holding the entire country together is not likely to change. Too many state functions affecting the well-being of the country as a whole require central coordination. In its historical memory, a China divided always meant chaos, and chaos could last a long time.

China’s evolving democracy

China is experimenting with democracy at the lower levels of government because it acts as a useful check against abuse of power. However, at the level of cities and provinces, leaders are chosen from above after a careful canvassing of the views of peers and subordinates. As with socialism, China will evolve a form of “democracy with Chinese characteristics” quite different from Western liberal democracy. And, certainly, the current world crisis will convince the Chinese even more that they are right not to give up state control of the commanding heights of the economy.

With the world in turmoil, many developing countries are studying the Chinese system, wondering whether it might not offer them lessons on good governance. For the first time in a long time, the Western model has a serious competitor.

Like biological species, human ideas and systems are also subject to selection – through wars, revolutions, elections, economic crises, academic debates, and market competition. Those that survive and flourish should, we hope, raise civilization to a higher level.

China today is a key presence in this process of geo-civilizational evolution.

George Yeo is the foreign minister of Singapore. This essay, adapted from a recent talk at Cambridge University, will appear in the forthcoming fall issue of NPQ ( © 2010 GLOBAL VIEWPOINT NETWORK/TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES.

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