As the tide of history turns, China may yet save capitalism from the capitalists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am


This summer holiday, I finally read the book Thirty Years River West, Thirty Years River East, written by the grand old man of Chinese cultural linguistics, Professor Ji Xianlin. The title is the summation of his view that culture and civilisation are like a river that flows east for 30 years and then west for the next 30.

His main theme is that, even though the tide of economic dominance and intellectual thinking has been Western since the Industrial Revolution, it is turning. By extension, he is telling this generation of Chinese intellectuals who are infatuated with Western technology and science not to forget their Chinese cultural roots.

At a time when the world is preoccupied with the possible decline of the West and the rise of the East, the thinking of an intellectual giant on Eastern culture, who is relatively unknown in the West, is particularly relevant.

Ji cannot be accused of being a parochial Chinese nationalist. Born in 1911, he studied Western language and culture at Tsinghua University and from 1934 to 1946, pursued research on Indian languages and culture at the University of Gottingen in Germany. On his return, he became the first lecturer in Eastern languages at Peking University. Zhou Enlai and other leaders often consulted him for his insights into the importance of cultural exchange, particularly with India.

Ji's view is that Chinese culture is like a long river that is sometimes full, at flood, or low in a drought, but never dry. The reason is that it is always replenished by fresh water. Chinese culture has been profoundly replenished twice in history, once by Indian/Buddhist culture and more recently by Western culture and technology. Such rejuvenation depended critically on effective translation between cultures.

Ji does not see culture as static, but a dynamic exchange (or mutual borrowing) between civilisations, even though each has kept its own original character.

According to Ji, there is one key difference between Western and Eastern intellectual traditions: Eastern culture is distinguished by its comprehensive nature, whereas Western culture is analytical. The Chinese classical thinking of 'Man and Nature is One' is the essence of Eastern comprehensive thinking, which looks at systems as a whole and its complete connectivity and interrelationships. Western analysis is the opposite.

Where does sustainable development come into the framework of Eastern thinking? In the 1990s, there was a trend among Chinese reformers that only the development of science, technology and the economy could solve the growing environmental problem. Ji takes the opposite view; he thinks the systems-wide approach should drive the search for sustainability. Ji revived the debate over how to integrate environmental sustainability with economic growth within the Chinese cultural tradition.

Readers will know I have increasingly advocated systems-wide thinking in the study of current financial and economic problems. We have become aware that today's financial problems are inseparable from the world's ecological problems - both stem from the same root of human overconsumption of limited resources, funded by leverage.

Yet, the mainstream economics profession is still using fiscal and monetary tools and concepts first developed in the 1930s to solve problems of the 21st century.

We have failed to see our global economy and ecology as dynamic, interdependent systems. The biggest blind spot has been the assumption that man, through science, has conquered nature. The current debate in China over our obsession with gross domestic product highlights the social costs of blindly pushing for growth as a solution to all social problems.

The financial and ecological crises we face are the result of a failure of mainstream economic thinking: our national income calculations almost completely ignore natural resource depletion costs and have underpriced pollution and other externalities.

A new paradigm is necessary, and it will be built on the old. Thus, irrespective of whether rivers flow east or west, when they meet the sea, they will form new water.

The evolution of a new paradigm will come from a blend of Eastern and Western thought. In other words, Eastern scientists trained in Western technology should not forget their own value systems. Western philosophers and ecologists are increasingly aware that their present paradigms should change for a more complete, comprehensive view of the world.

My Indian friend, Rajiv Kumar, made a perceptive comment that 30 years ago, when China embarked on market reforms, only capitalism could save China. Today, at the height of the Western financial crisis, only China can save capitalism. This may be a poetic exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the rise of China has posed unanswered questions for the global geopolitical balance, and also important questions about whether the Chinese model of growth is ecologically sustainable.

In my view, Ji has contributed greatly to this important philosophical debate.

My translation and interpretation of his ideas may be faulty, but surely the wider availability of his work in English and other languages would help the important discourse between the East and the West.

Andrew Sheng is author of the book From Asian to Global Financial Crisis