Tang Dynasty Redux

This Bystander’s eye was caught by an assertion that modern-day China aspires to be a latter-day incarnation of the Tang dynasty. It was made by a serious figure. David Daokui Li is a worldly and respected academic economist, well-known in the U.S. and now a professor at Tsinghua University. He is high enough in policy-making circles to be one of an elite group of academic economists advising the central bank on monetary policy. In an article published by Insead, a European business school, and titled How China Is Managing Western Hostility, Li writes:

Our aim is the revival of our great civilisation. We are not looking for retribution against the West and we are certainly not interested in dominating the world. Instead, we would like to see the revival of a peaceful, confident, open-minded civilisation similar to that of the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang dynasty lasted from the seventh to the 10th centuries and is seen as a high water mark of Chinese civilization, especially in its first 200 years and particularly in the arts. It was a period of stability and innovation. It created a powerful, centralized bureaucratic elite, introduced Buddism and woodblock printing. Its capital, modern day Xian, was probably world’s largest and richest city at the time. Yet the political and economic parallels are interesting. It was an empire of protectorates and tributary states that extended southwards into Indochina and westward along the Silk Road into Central Asia in rivalry with the Tibetan empire. It was a maritime power whose giant ocean-going junks traded across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Middle East. Its trade and commerce thrived even as a declining central government, eclipsed by the rising power of regional military governors, withdrew from managing the economy.

Past is prologue, but only up to a point. And we would not want to overegg this particular pudding, particularly with a selective reading of history. But the issue of how the West sees China’s emergence as a world and economic power and China’s response is an important one. Li lays out a clear and succinct exposition of how to understand China’s motives and objectives. For example:

China’s emergence gives us an alternative model for social and economic institutions, different from that of the U.S and other Western countries. A model where more weight is given to social welfare, well-being, and stability, rather than to pure individual liberties.

Whether you find that threatening or not, the piece is well worth the read.

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