A decade ago policymakers and opinion formers were supremely confident that globalisation meant the spread of Western institutions and values throughout the world. Political leaders and international institutions looked forward to a time when "democratic capitalism" would be accepted everywhere.
This confidence was not based on any rational assessment of facts. The mania surrounding globalisation was the latest incarnation of the Enlightenment faith that the advance of science and technology would create a universal civilisation, and predictably it was not long before it gave way to anxiety and foreboding. Islamist terrorism and the emergence of Russia as an authoritarian great power, together with American troubles in Iraq, have shattered the certainties of the 1990s. Yet the faith they expressed has not been destroyed. If anything, it is more fervent than before. For many people the Enlightenment has become a magic amulet clutched to the heart as a talisman against fear. In its most influential forms the Enlightenment has always been an ersatz religion - think of Marxism, for example - and in response to the shocks of the past years it has undergone a fundamentalist revival in much the same way that other faiths have done.
The other end of that particular observation is - of course - the sight of some very strange bed-fellows at anti-globalisation demonstrations. It also gives rise to fervour of the religious right singing the same hymnal as the corporate capitalist.
But enough already because Gray makes some important points in here which are expressed far better than I could ever have assembled...
Will Hutton in The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century asks: "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 our English language would be challenged.
"If the next century is going to be Chinese, it will only be because China embraces the economic and political pluralism of the West in general, and our Enlightenment institutions in particular, modified … for the Chinese experience." The caveat is worth noting. There is nothing about accepting China on equal terms with the West; rather, "our" Enlightenment inheritance must be modified to ensure that China becomes Western.
Regular visitors will be aware of my apposition of Dave Justus with the "consoling illusion" and I respectfully submit this quote from Hutton as another instance; another case in point.
If China tries harder it can achieve what Hutton sees as the supreme prize - it can become like us. Instead China has renounced Maoism without becoming like us, and its astonishing record of economic growth over the past quarter of a century is a result of that. The largest economic expansion in history has occurred without any of the institutions many would argue to be universally necessary - such as the rule of law and property rights. Can China's economic success be maintained without the freedoms supposedly integral to the "knowledge economy"?
Now there is the opening here for the argument that, in fact, China is starting to follow the Capitalist model. I agree, that does seem to be so. But at the same time there are very important differences that must be borne in mind.
The first is the obvious role of the State, and the implementation of their command economy. That that is still an imperative is beyond question - one need look no further than the Three Gorges Hydro scheme for immediate confirmation. It is not just in that macro decision to proceed, the State is in full control at the micro level as well with the "distribution" of labour from the cities now under the Three Gorges Lake being moved to other industrial areas.
The second is the current development of the all-important "middle class"; the consumers of national production. This is perhaps the strongest prop for the "China is Changing" supporters. To have such a "middle class" is (to them at least) a strong signal that China is change "to western ways".
And that is where Gray's conclusion comes in...
Behind the stale debates about human rights and cultural relativism looms the fact that Western power is in decline. No longer backed up by invincible military might or unchallengeable economic primacy, Western institutions are now only one way of realising universal human values. Having rejected Maoism and retaining Marxism only in name, China has set out on a path of development that owes few of its ruling ideas to the West. The outcome is uncertain, but in the end what Hutton and others like him fear most is not that the Chinese experiment will fail. It is that China will succeed.