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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 16:43 GMT
The Writing on the Wall - Will Hutton

In The Writing on the Wall, Will Hutton looks at the uneasy relationship between China and the West in light of the former's phenomenal economic growth - seen by many Western analysts as a threat.

Hutton, author of The State We're In, argues that the West should embrace China as it moves toward becomnig a 21st century superpower and seek to promote better governance within the country by adhering to fundamental principles such as the rule of law as an example of progress.

Such principles, he says, have been undermined by actions such as the Iraq war.

The following extract comes from the book's preface.

The Writing on the Wall is published by Little, Brown.

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By Will Hutton

China boasts a civilisation at least three thousand years old. It is home to 1.3 billion people. It is authoritarian and formally communist. And, since 1978, it has burst back onto the world scene in a manner paralleled in scale and speed in world history only by the rise of the United States between the Civil War and the First World War in 1914. The open question is whether the twenty-first century is going to be the Chinese century in the way the twentieth century was American and the nineteenth century British. Is the baton of global leadership going to pass from Anglo-Saxon hands, which held so many values in common, to Chinese hands? If so, the implications could not be more profound. The world would have to accommodate a wholly different civilisation and values; the character of global institutions, our culture and the primacy of the English language would be challenged. If China remained communist there would be substantial implications for the organisation of Western economies and societies. The answer to this question is one of the most important of our age.

The central argument in this book is that if the next century is going to be Chinese, it will be only because China embraces the economic and political pluralism of the West in general, and our Enlightenment institutions in particular. [...] The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, the scientific and research processes in independent universities, or the very idea of representative, accountable, checked and balanced government - all these flowed from the great intellectual, philosophic and political wellspring that we call the Enlightenment. [...]

What I try to show is that these are not 'Western' but indispensable components of any well-functioning economy and society. Their lack in China is increasingly showing through in a myriad of dysfunctions and internal contradictions that will have to be confronted. The current Chinese economic model is unsustainable, which will have important implications for the capacity of the Communist party to run China as a single-party authoritarian state.

That is why the simple extrapolations of China's continued growth at current levels for the next forty or fifty years are misleading. And why it is wrong for so many Western politicians, business leaders and opinion formers to use China as an ominous threat before which the West must change or else wilt. This idea is normally code for the proposition that ordinary Americans and Europeans should accept stagnating living standards, diminished welfare states and fend for themselves, acquiring the educational and skill levels - more and more at their own expense - necessary to compete with China's advancing hordes. Those in the higher echelons of society, meanwhile, can continue to enjoy the trappings of growing inequality.

China is not such a threat. Rather, it is a sophisticated civilisation beset by profound and deepening problems that is making a difficult transition from a primitive and poor peasant society to modernity. It requires our understanding and engagement - not our enmity and suspicion which could culminate in self-defeatingly creating the very crisis we fear. China's vulnerability is not widely understood; Europe and the United States should stay open to China in both our trade and in the realm of ideas.

Above all we should be confident. The Enlightenment values and institutions that propelled the West past China in the nineteenth century remain no less important sources of competitive advantage and social well-being today. They lie at the heart of the emerging 'knowledge economy'. The problem is that they are being neglected and, in consequence, are fading. In the United States public institutions, representative government, the media, secondary education, corporations, investment institutions and, especially, general supports for developing the individual capabilities of its citizens are simply not working as well as they should. Britain is in a very similar position. In particular, we have an underdeveloped concept of the public realm that consistently makes the expression of public purpose - vital in a market economy and society - uncertain and weak. And both countries have actively undermined the system of international law and multilateral governance in their pre-emptive war of choice in Iraq. If we want to persuade China and the world of the virtues of pluralism, Enlightenment values and democracy, the United States and Britain have to practice what they preach at home and abroad. At present they do not. [...]

The relationships between the United States and China, and that between China and the rest of Asia are delicately poised. There are myriad problems - most tellingly, the environment and global warming which now threaten so many ecosystems that in the view of the bulk of the scientific community we are fast approaching a tipping point where humanity as a species is in danger. All require an international response and appreciation of our shared fate. China and the United States are an indispensable part of the response. My ambition for this book is that it will help tilt the balance towards international collaboration, contribute to a reappraisal of the so-called China threat and a recognition of the situation as an opportunity and, above all, reaffirm Enlightenment values and the importance of economic and pluralism.

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