The China Effect in Asia and Europe

Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman of the East Asian Institute, University Professor, National University of Singapore

Why Asia fell in the 19th century may provide a clue as to why Asia is rising the way it is. The decay in the political systems by the end of the 18th century led to the failure to respond to the challenge of science and industrial capitalism. This was particularly obvious for the powerful centralized state of Qing China. The lessons that Asia learnt after that, led first by Japan after the Meiji Restoration and then by the national liberations after World War II, are restoring the ideas of better governance and new economic perspectives among Asian elites. The example of China is especially striking, partly because it has belatedly taken advantage of the most recent technologies of the late 20th century and partly the country is large and populous and its leaders determined to build a modern country that is different from what is represented by the United States as the sole superpower.

Why should Europe be anxious about an Asia (or China) that is seeking to return to an earlier state of being prosperous and strong? From an Asian perspective, two questions may be asked of Europe. Are Europeans able to adapt to a globalization process that is shifting the balance away from their region? Are their nation-states over-developed and therefore less able to respond to challenges to their well-established political and economic assumptions? Another two questions may be asked of Asia. Should Asian peoples seek the modernity that is inspired by the West? Are they able to reach beyond the modern to seek qualities that rise above region and locality?