When old ideologies fall short

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2006, 12:00am

'Globalisation is a misnomer,' said Huang Ping, China's leading expert on social harmony. 'All nations want globalisation in technology trade. So a better phrase would be 'global integration of technology and science'.'

Mr Huang, director-general of international co-operation at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, continued: 'But when this means globalising Americanisation, it runs counter not only to China's political and economic structure - but to its historic culture and sociological structure as well.'

He noted that an 'us vs them - black vs white - attitude is the main problem in western thinking'. But it was always questioned in China, he said, where an inherent flexibility in responding to changing conditions made it possible to fuse various approaches - leading to the current economic boom.

Now, China's development model is being challenged. For Beijing's leaders during the 1990s, achieving a market economy was the overarching goal. For its current leadership, the hyper market economy poses new burdens: the mainland does not have the energy to support its own growth, the environment has been degraded and social order frayed.

Beijing's economic think-tanks are asking if a better model could be developed. Culture and values - the mainstays of Chinese society for two millennia - were bulldozed as infrastructure and property projects went up. Now a new trend could be emerging.

It can be seen in community rebuilding efforts among ethnic minorities and the rural poor, which involve more than the usual infrastructure and road development, Mr Huang said. It involves trying to understand 'how people communicate and share values, cope with problems, identify issues, security and solidarity'.

Places such as Lijiang and Zhongdian, in Yunnan province , are going against the national development trend. Rather than emphasising infrastructure and the growth of gross domestic product, their long-term interest is the preservation of culture and the environment.

'They have low incomes but are high in cultural diversity, so they know what life should be like,' said Mr Huang.

To a great extent, the central government has stopped lecturing rural ethnic minorities on how to develop. To the contrary, central think-tanks are now reconsidering their own approaches to development, trying to learn from the ethnic regions.

'Even when they have fewer resources, they work as a community as opposed to competing for the same resources,' said Mr Huang.

Mainland society today is not harmonious, so new ideals are needed to prevent future social collapse. A new national ideology is necessary to plan for the next 20 years. Globalisation and models associated with it are neither a goal nor a panacea. Globalising technology and trade is in China's - and most of the world's - interest, but globalising ideologies may not be.

Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism offer nothing of value to China. But going back to Marx is not practical, as China has shed that part of its past.

As for Confucian thinking, it's one of the Communist Party's biggest problems: the party is more a classical Confucian bureaucracy than an egalitarian body.

How about finding the new ideology in religion? Islam speaks to only a minority in China, although Buddhism has the potential to reach a majority.

Whatever its root, the hope is that a new ideological model might expand old boundaries and free up thinking. For some people in Washington, that may be the biggest challenge from China - a new ideology.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation