China vs. the West: Who has conquered whom?

How Chinese is China's success story?

4 minute read
Funny thing— they look just like Western executives.
Funny thing— they look just like Western executives.
"China Wrests Supercomputer Title From U.S.," reported a New York Times headline in October. Not long before that, a Fox News website announced: "China Shows Off World's Fastest Bullet Train." For many Americans who used to believe that Asia's economic "tigers" were only capable of copying from the West, this is depressing news: Not only are the Chinese ahead of us, they seem to be out-creating us in very Western terms: high tech, engineering and infrastructure.

Yet that lament misses the key point. Certainly Asian nations like China and India can beat us at our own game of building a vast economy based on technology, manufacturing, and service industries—if they work hard, save and invest in infrastructure, as Americans used to do.

But in becoming "advanced," all these nations have really done is become "Western." Almost without exception, they've rejected any indigenous model of what it might mean to be "modern"; instead, they've completely embraced the Western model.

This Western model, of course, is at its root simply consumer-driven capitalism, with a heavy emphasis on technology and a fixed materialistic definition of "progress." Not only have countries like China adopted the model in its entirety, they've even accepted, of course, the fundamentally Western idea that one must become modern.

So has China really "won" in this great battle between East and West? In one sense, the Chinese have lost— at least in regard to the damage that modernity has wreaked upon its natural environment as well as certain traditional aspects of their society, especially the extended family structure.

But in a subtle way China also has lost something else: its identity.

"'My heart is still Chinese'

As an American professor and business consultant living in Taiwan, I've often raised this point in academic and business conferences. The reaction is always the same: Typically, a well-dressed young man or woman from a place like China (or India or Japan) will tell me (in English far more articulate than mine), "Even though I wear a Western business suit, my heart is still Chinese," or words to that effect. Then the speaker will check her iPhone for messages.

Ironically, many Westerners accept this argument that the cultural identity of these people is still intact, despite the intense "technologization" of those societies. Some Asians I see at these conferences go so far as to wear some piece of "ethnic" clothing to indicate that their identity is indeed intact. But it's a token gesture.

Is it wrong for people from Asia and other developing economies to become Westernized? Don't these societies deserve to seek a better material standard of living?

Of course they do. But imagine that history had played itself out differently.

Imagine this role reversal

Suppose China never lost its emperor in 1911, and that before that it had never been colonized by Britain, France and other foreign powers. Imagine a China that grew in power and influence from, say, 1780 to 1950, much the way the U.S. did. Picture at the same time a weak U.S., a country pervaded by Chinese colonists, inundated with Chinese culture and with Chinese officials and businessmen meddling in our affairs.

After a while, we Americans would have adopted that Chinese model, since it seemed so successful. We'd adopt the imperial bureaucracy, the use of the Chinese language as the language of business, even Chinese clothing. Picture Americans wearing Qing Dynasty robes, hats and shoes to conduct our daily business from the 1920s right up to the present.

Sounds ridiculous, right? But it only sounds ridiculous when we talk about it this way— moving from East to West, but not from West to East. That is, we accept a kind of tacit Western colonization of places like China as "normal": We accept China's widespread adoption of capitalism, commercialism, technology and Western attire. We also accept China's rejection of virtually any alternative model that the Chinese might have developed were the West not around.

So here's my question: Where is the Chinese success story?♦

To read responses, click here and here.


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