New century, New patterns

Very shortly the world will be witnessing simultaneously a new year, a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. The Vatican, the media, politicians and others are of course preparing for, indeed heralding, the event. When hearing over and over again speeches, commentaries, homilies, exhortations, about the new century and millennium, one cynical temptation is to say ‘so what?’

The World Today Published 1 January 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 7 minute READ

The first of January 2000 surely will be just another day. So, will it make a difference, or, as in the French saying, will it be ‘plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they are the same)?

Centuries tend to convey an aura, to be de?ned by certain characteristics, even though the aura may not be precisely synchronous with the century. For example, the ‘nineteenth century’ in the West is generally reckoned to have begun at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and lasted until the outbreak of the First World War (1914). The ‘twentieth century’, on the other hand, was much shorter. The prevailing view dates it from 1914 to 1991, from the outbreak of the First World War to the end of the Cold War. If that is the case, the twentieth century is over and we are already in the twenty-first century.

From a contemporary perspective, what are the more relevant defining characteristics of the nineteenth century? In the West, it saw the culmination of the industrial revolution and the triumph of the bourgeoisie – and hence of bourgeois values. Power rested more securely with wealth, and both could be achieved through merit and energy, as opposed to simply by birth.

The nineteenth century was a period of great rising prosperity and relative peace – a few wars, Crimea, France-Prussia, but nothing like the frequent repetition that Europe had witnessed previously, nor on the dramatic scale of carnage it was about to experience in the twentieth century.

It was also the period when the nation-state emerged and consolidated, including the uni?cation of Germany and Italy. In the latter part of the century compulsory mass primary education was introduced and, in many countries, military conscription. These policies were linked to the state building exercise.

Pleasant life

For the Western bourgeoisie, life was pleasant. There was virtually no inflation, hence wealth was secure, and many people could live simply off the income earned from their capital – the rentiers. Such bourgeois pursuits as the opera, the modern novel, ballet, travel for leisure and modern gastronomy, were all creations of this century, or were developed during the era.

The Western bourgeoisie was able to live very well also because lots and lots of people were working to serve them. In households, the upstairs and downstairs populations cohabited. There was the proletariat in factories, sweatshops, and mines, churning out goods and resources for low wages over long hours. There was also the enormous range of service providers: seamstresses, hatters, cobblers, gamekeepers, private tutors.

And there were the colonies!

The colonies produced food, raw materials, precious metals, etc. They also provided career opportunities for the gilded youth of Western countries, means to make yet more money, and to have fun in exotic places.

It was above all the Atlantic century: the period when Western Europe, and gradually the East Coast establishment of the United States, dominated the planet. But this Atlantic dominated bourgeois society was shattered by the guns of August 1914.

The twentieth century began with the gunshot in Sarajevo and was swiftly followed by the revolution in Russia.

Nineteenth century liberalism derived from the Enlightenment was challenged by extremist totalitarian doctrines of communism and fascism. The historian Eric Hobsbam has called this century ‘the age of extremes’, reflecting the violence of the doctrines, the wars, the political movements and the revolutions that punctuated the decades.

Forces eroding Western bourgeois power included servants deserting households, workers and miners mobilising in unions to demand better pay and conditions, colonial people rising in nationalistic revolt.

The dominant ethos in the age of Western bourgeois hegemony was elitism on the one hand and a sense of privileged leisure on the other. Among the wealthy classes, even among those who had a profession, hardly any would work for any extended period of time. If the terms leisurely and elitist vividly encapsulated the nineteenth century, the equivalents for the twentieth century would be mass and instant.

Mass and instant

The age of the Model-T Ford and the plethora of products that were churned out from the factories of America, Europe, then Japan and East Asia were the result of mass production, reflecting mass consumerism, promoted by mass advertising and sold through mass distribution.

Furthermore, in contrast to the leisurely pursuits of pleasure of nineteenth century elites, the dominant trend of the twentieth was the search for instant gratification: instant coffee, instant (fast) food, instant music, instant travel, instant clothes, indeed instant sex, enshrined in the ‘Playboy Philosophy’ and made possible by the pill.

Mass consumption and instant gratification were driven by social and political developments, but also of course by technology. Without the pill it is difficult to conceive how the instant sex revolution and feminism would have come about. Without the transistor, the age of mass consumption, which is re?ected more in consumer electronics than possibly any other sector, may also have been slower to develop. Mass global tourism, also a striking feature of the twentieth century, would not have taken place without the development of the jet engine and aircraft design technology.

Mass production was also, of course, developed and driven by new technology. This technology, in turn, had as a chief characteristic its transferability. Japanese attempts to make artisan-style mechanical watches led to risible results – and earned a terrible reputation for the Made in Japan label. The mass production of electronic watches, however, was very different, leading, among other things, to world market dominance of mass production timepieces by the Japanese companies Seiko and Citizen.

The combination of mass production and rapidly increasing international competition forced upon the managerial classes – the ‘fat cats’ of earlier times – a far more intense work schedule. Leisure gave way to hyper-activity.

Atlantic era ends

As the twentieth century saw a metamorphosis in the world, lifestyle and power of the nineteenth century elitist Western bourgeoisie, it also brought to an end the Atlantic era. In the years following the 1914-18 war, the Japanese emerged to challenge Western industry in markets and industries that had hitherto been monopolised by European and American producers.

Following the Second World War, the Japanese were eventually joined by the newly industrialised economies (NIEs) of Asia, and in the last decade by China. As Britain, for example, seeks and increasingly depends on inward investments from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Asian countries, the colonial model is stood on its head. British labour works for Asian capital, rather than Asian labour for British capital.

As the world’s industrial centre of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Paci?c, so have the markets and the wealth. In 1968 the Nobel Prize winning economist Gunnar Myrdal published a three-volume treatise entitled Asian Drama, the subtitle for which was ‘An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations’.

In the 1990s East Asia has become a world model of how nations can escape poverty, while Asian tycoons feature among the world’s wealthiest people.

Despite the typhoon hitting Asian ?nancial markets, economic development there this century has been astonishing by any criterion. As Jim Rohwer has written, in the ?rst half decade of China’s reform programme alone, ‘half an America, an entire Japan, maybe two Germanies, that many people were lifted out of poverty’.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of capitalism. In the twentieth century it was challenged by communism and fascism. At the end of the twentieth century capitalism appears to have won a resounding global victory.

Looking back – sinocentrically

This account of history, especially in respect to the nineteenth century, is not one that would be recognisable, let alone acceptable, to the Chinese. If for Europe the nineteenth century was its apogee of power and prestige and the embodiment of liberalism, for China it was an abysmal aberration of impotence and humiliation and the embodiment of predatory Western imperialism.

The nineteenth century in China began with the Opium wars of the 1830s – as a result of which Britain ‘got’ Hong Kong – and ended with the victory of the Red Army and the Liberation in 1949. In Mao Zedong’s first speech after that event the key sentence was: ‘never will China be humiliated again’. The Liberation was from the combined evils of feudalism and imperialism.

The Chinese nineteenth century was an unending saga of civil and foreign wars. Although parts on the periphery of China – Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Manchuria – were colonised, China was not. The Western powers and Japan, howe v e r, carved up the country into ‘spheres of in?uence’, a practice referred to at the time as the ‘slicing of the melon’. Furthermore, abundant Chinese labour was used in British colonial mines in Malaysia and to build railways in North America.

In Chinese eyes, therefore, it certainly seemed that as the West rose, China declined to a state of decadent anarchy and poverty. Furthermore, as the ‘civilising mission’ of Europe spread across the world – including, of course, to China – Chinese civilisation was challenged, undermined, eroded, humiliated.

China had been the ‘middle empire’; by the mid/late nineteenth century it was hardly an empire any more. In 1911 the Xing dynasty was abolished and with it millennia of Chinese history and tradition. By 1919, in the so-called 4th May Movement of Westernised Chinese intellectuals, the entire canon of Chinese civilisation, notably Confucianism, was attacked. Humiliations of all sorts continued, though by the inter-war period primarily from the Japanese.

Earning respect

The Chinese twentieth century begins in 1949. There are two parts to it: part one is the decades of Maoist ‘idealism’ – with all its excesses – while part two is the years of Dengist pragmatism. Whereas in Western eyes there is a tendency to contrast the two eras, in Chinese eyes there is a greater degree of continuity. Mao built the nation, Deng built the economy: both earned China international respect. For China the twentieth century ended on 30th June 1997 and, consequently, the twenty-first century began on 1st July when Hong Kong returned to the motherland.

From a Chinese perspective, where the nineteenth century was the era of humiliation, and the twentieth was the era of struggle, the twenty-first will mark China’s return to its rightful and traditional position and role in the world.

The concept of a return to the past is not pure fancy. The World Bank and the Economist Intelligence Unit estimate that by the year 2020 China’s will be the largest economy in the world. It is pointed out, by the Oxford-based Italian economist Andrea Boltho and others, that this is a reversion to the status quo ante: until 1820 China was the world’s largest economy. The last 200 years, therefore, can be seen as a temporary interlude. The Chinese economy and China as a force in the world – in its many diverse guises – will be a prominent feature of the twenty-?rst century.

The impact of the Chinese economy, including its various ‘outposts’ – the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Chinese business communities, the so-called ‘bamboo network’ of South-East Asia – is already considerable and can be expected to increase significantly in the years ahead. The influence of Chinese culture throughout the developed world will also significantly increase as more and more ethnic Chinese students and researchers populate the leading centres of learning of America, Canada, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

‘Asian values’, the tenets of which are derived from Chinese traditions of social and political philosophy, have been used to challenge the dominance of Weestern beliefs. This phenomenon can be expected to become increasingly marked in the decades ahead. The former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Ye w, hitherto the most forceful advocate of such values, is being joined by the no less articulate Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Tung Chee-Hwa.

Beijing has also announced that it intends to play a more forceful role on the international political scene and in the regional military theatre. Whether China ultimately proves to be a benign or a malign force in world affairs remains to be seen. The outcome will depend, of course, on Beijing’s policies, and on Western policies vis-à-vis China. What is certain is that it is a force in the new emerging era.

Just one century

The question about whether we are entering, more than in a strictly chronological sense, a new millennium, may best be left to theologians. It is clear, however, that we are de?nitely entering a new cent u r y. The decades ahead will not be a ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ situation.

It seems clear that there will be only one twenty-first century. The former patterns, especially of the nineteenth century, with countries or regions following parallel courses, are not likely to be repeated. European, American, Chinese, and everybody else’s twenty-first centuries will be the same; globalisation implies a convergence of chronologies.

The most profound paradigm shift in the way people live and work is being brought about by the massive transformations of information technology. While the ‘information revolution’ has been likened to the industrial revolution, Peter Drucker (among others) refutes this view and argues instead that whereas ‘the industrial revolution was wholly in the material sphere, the changes in the information revolution are intellectual’. Drucker compares current developments in information technology with Gutenberg ’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

Just as leisurely and elitist de?ned the nineteenth century, and mass and instant defined the twentieth century, the twenty-first century is being defined by the terms: global and knowledge.

New actors

If the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of the nation-state, the transition we are experiencing is bearing witness to its retreat. Already the major actors in the script of decision making in world affairs are no longer only or even predominantly governments. Markets are taking over, with different agents – primarily, but not exclusively, the form – as key players.

This applies increasingly everywhere. Thailand, for example, is a country where the military coup d’état occurred with regularity for decades. When the government was overthrown in November 1996, as the Thai economist, opinion leader and former Minister of Industry Narongchai Akrasanee commented, ‘the government this time was overthrown by market forces, not by armed forces’. The same applied again a year later.

With the sustained rise of the multinational corporation and the continued spread of worldwide investment, national economies, national markets, national ?rms and certainly national statistics will become increasingly meaningless.

This is not to say that the nation will disappear, or that governments will become obsolete. However, it is abundantly clear that the nature of national boundaries will change, that the concept of national culture will undergo considerable metamorphosis, and that national economies are and will become dependent parts of an ever-integrated whole.

These patterns are fundamentally different from the past. Yes, there is a new paradigm. And the new paradigm is determined both by the force of globalisation and by the revolutions in the generation, and especially the diffusion, of knowledge.

Dialogue across civilisations

Although China may occasionally appear as an embodiment of the old nationalist ideas of the nineteenth century and in pursuit of atavistic policies – mercantilism in foreign trade, irredentism in regional territorial claims, absolutism in respect to Taiwan and Tibet – there are other perspectives.

In many respects the realities – as opposed to the ideologies – of Chinese economics and business correspond to a very considerable degree to the global era. Business ‘sans frontières’ is arguably as much, if not more, part of the Sino-centric East Asian scene as it is in Europe or North America. Furthermore, the Chinese have embraced the new information technologies with enthusiasm.

Global elites

In the immediate years ahead the consequences of the knowledge revolution will accelerate the demise of the old guard Communist Chinese cadres. The diffusion of information and communication across borders is altering in dramatic fashion. This in turn is changing to a considerable extent the con?guration of the world. New global elites are emerging.

Thus now and increasingly in the future there is and will be greater communality between a computer-savvy young professional in Shanghai, Xiamen, or Chongqing, etc, and her/his counterpart in Boston, Lausanne, Manchester and Bologna, than between the Shanghainese and a peasant or small shopkeeper in the remote province of Shanxi, as indeed there is between the Parisian and a peasant or small shopkeeper in the Vendée .

One of the really striking things about Asian development in recent decades has been the emergence of a booming well-educated middle class. These are the people who have been created by the wealth generated in the past and who will be the ones generating the wealth in the future. These are people who are internationally minded, with considerable communication skills, combined with strong Chinese cultural conservative instincts.

Thus the ideas espoused both in current popular and some scholarly literature in the West that there is an inevitable ‘clash’ between the civilisations, and indeed the societies and armies of China and the West, rest on nineteenth and twentieth century paradigms. In the twenty-?rst century, a more con?dent China should be one driven by a new class of global internet-ised entrepreneurs, officials and intellectuals, more assertive in affairs of business and state, but also in matters of culture and politics.

These are the people who will be the interlocutors of the Western elites. Between the two there is ample scope possibly for commonality of wavelength, but certainly for mutual respect, and with the technological capabilities to engage and enhance dialogue.

Perspectives for the twenty-first century are far from perfect. Social groups, regions, some countries, possibly an entire continent (Africa) may be initially at least excluded from globalisation and the knowledge revolution.

Between a resurgent China, however, and a responsive West, two centuries of animosity could, certainly should, be coming to an end. China and the West, as two of the world’s greatest civilisations, will not converge, but they should communicate and engage in learning from each other. This could be a de?ning characteristic of the twenty-first century.