Could the rise of China eclipse the enlightenment

Jun 9, 2024
This picture means that a city's economic prosperity and rapid development

According to the dominant Western narrative, the history of the entire modern world has been prodigiously shaped by Western historical turning points beginning with the Renaissance and running through the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the science-driven, first Industrial Revolution. A recent, US-published book, “China’s Age of Abundance: Origins Ascendence and Aftermath” by Professor Wang Feng, from the University of California, argues that the Rise of China needs to be added to this revered Western turning-point list.

This book is favourably reviewed in an extended essay entitled “What Produced the China Miracle”, by the prominent writer and academic, Howard W French (from Columbia University) recently published in the journal Foreign Policy.

Professor French’s review, drawing on the book, documents the astounding dimensions of China’s modern rise which surpass anything seen before in human history. A range of explanatory factors are also considered, including: the demise of Maoism; the rise of globalisation; and the long-term momentum of Chinese history. Wang (says French) does not simply dismiss these factors but, rather:

“Lays out a series of interlocking causes that contributed in complex and unanticipated ways to the country’s takeoff”

Repeated effort is applied in this essay, however, to downrate and denigrate the role of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in achieving the extraordinary, positive documented outcomes, which have unfolded since the death of Mao Zedongin 1976. Much stress is placed on how the Chinese people rather than their leaders produced the Chinese miracle. 

One cannot but agree that the Chinese people have been fundamentally vital in building the Rise of China but to imply that this role arose despite the intense constructive work of the CPC with its 100 million (Chinese people) members looks like it is shaped in this way in order to set up a platform for American-pulpit advice to abandon “outdated economic and political models” (and adopt 2024 American models?).

The essay itself highlights that this reasoning is contorted, when it notes that a key factor in the earlier takeoff period was the high levels of literacy and basic understanding evident in the mass-migrating peasant workforce taking up millions of new jobs across urban-China after 1978. It was the CPC, after all, which fostered mass education as a primary need after the PRC was established in 1949, when the overall literacy rate in China was 20% and a staggeringly low 5% in rural areas.

Far more recently, we have just witnessed a further extraordinary Chinese landing on the far-side of moon – another product of exceptional long-term planning and application fostered by the CPC.

Intriguingly, certain topics, which are of pivotal relevance for a review like this, are not discussed. First, there is the immensely corrosive problem of generalised corruption at all levels in China which was graphically apparent as President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 (which he vowed to tackle). Next, the still more important rapid escalation of the US-led Western campaign to stem (and, if possible, reverse) the Rise of China. This endeavour dates back to the Obama-era. It was greatly intensified by President Trump and subsequently magnified by President Biden. One of the most concrete examples of how damaging this project could be was the way the US-led West (with comprehensive Western media assistance) materially and politically urged on the devastating insurrection (which spun-off from a series of protest marches) that began in Hong Kong in mid-2019.

Another relevant factor barely reviewed is the extraordinary level of societal high understanding that applies across most of China’s 1.4 billion population, backed up by the fact that it is the only large nation (let alone one of this size) which retains a single written language, which all in China learn and adopt. One way to grasp the significance of this is to recall that the EU, with around 33% of China’s population, has 24 official written languages.

Notwithstanding these reservations, this engaging, provocative essay ultimately argues that we are witnessing a phenomenal turning point in World history, in China, as it actually happens. It repays careful reading.

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