The rise of China towards the second largest economy in the world in recent years and the great social progresses achieved at the same time remind one of a slogan attributed to Mrs. Thatcher, the conservative British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, “There is no alternative!” Shortened as TINA, this slogan is regarded as the typical expression of the then-prevailing neo-liberal confidence in the capitalist economy and Western-style liberal democracy.
A more sophisticated and well-known expression of this confidence is the thesis of “the end of history” advocated by the American political thinker Francis Fukuyama in the summer of 1989, several months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which was then widely regarded as a strong support for the prophesy that the underlying principles of the political and economic system in the West are something towards which all nations all over the world will reach sooner or later.
But just a little more than thirty years later, many people in many parts of the world are now enthusiastically talking about “China model” as a potent alternative to the Western model of development.
How should we understand this turn from TINA to CHINA, or this end of “the end of history”?
In some sense this change should not have come as a surprise. As far as I know, people in academic circles have been talking about “multiple modernities” for many years. The Israel Sociologist S.N. Einsenstadt, for example, used this term to criticize the “classical” idea of “single modernity”, or the idea “that the cultural program of modernity as it developed in modern Europe and the basic institutional constellations that emerged there would ultimately take over in all modernizing and modern societies”. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, moreover, argued that since different cultures will have significant impacts upon the process of change at the starting points of these changes, modernity is a product of a particular culture even in the West, and it is only natural that in various non-Western societies there will come various “alternative modernities” different from the Western type of modernity. The turn from “TINA” to “China”, therefore, is only a popular version of the change from “single modernity” to “multiple modernities” in academic discourses.
To say that the China model of development is an alternative to the Western model is not to say that the China model has only local significance. By itself “the China model” is only one of the particular models of development in the world, but the other side of its particularity in the positive sense is its universality in the negative sense: the vitality and success of the China model is a clear evidence for the universal truth that no particular model of development can be regarded as valid everywhere.
In principle any non-Western country, if successfully “modernized” in its unique way, can strengthen the argument for the idea of multiple modernities and against the generalization of Western modernity all over the world. Historically speaking, however, only countries like China and India, i.e., countries with huge populations and ages-long civilizations, can create real alternatives to the Western type of modernity that are of significance at the scale of world history.
Philosophically speaking, the problem whether a certain model of development has universal significance or not can be decided from two perspectives. On the one hand, we can ask whether it is universal as an embodiment of a Platonic “idea” which is universal in the sense of being typical of a group of individual cases. To many scholars, as is said above, this is no longer the case even with the so-called Western model of modernity and modernization. But we should also admit that the Western model can and should be understood to be universal in another sense, i.e., it is a model of development that has its impacts all over the world, and significant changes in contemporary world in non-Western regions are more or less reactions to these impacts.
Considering the size of its population and the history of its culture, China is destined to having great impacts in the world if it manages to find a successful model of development. Although no country other than China would develop itself exactly the Chinese way, there is a growing probability that changes in other parts of the world could and should be understood as reactions to what happens or what is started in China. In other words, although the China model is hardly universal as a type, it can be universal as a cause.
In our times characterized by uncertainties and risks at the global level, the universal or global significance of the China model should not be neglected. It can make important contributions, for example, to our tackling the two major risks started with the letter “s”, security and sustainability. These risks dismay even a once-optimist Fukuyama, who now says that “nothing is as certain as uncertainty in global politics”. Terrorism, consumerism and the blind applications of technological innovations, forces behind these risks, have their deep roots in the current West-dominated world system and its underlying ideologies. Survival as well as prosperity of humanity as a species on the Earth in the not very remote future lies in whether we are seriously seeking for real alternatives right now, and the Chinese experiments summarized under the name “China model” are for this reason to be continued with both a strong sense of urgency and a high sense of responsibility.
(The author is a research fellow of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.)