Western Civilization has held on to its place as the center of gravity in the world for the past few hundred years. But this is changing now. Will the center of gravity of the world move east as some suggest?
The center of gravity of the world is determined by economics factors first, not politics, ideologies or societies’ values. As the wealth of the world continues now to shift east so power and influence will follow. The movement of the center of gravity eastward is being led by China. It has created this momentum on two levels: one is at a state or policy level where the government is committed to growth though investment and securing key natural resources abroad (through acquisitions by state companies and by negotiating procurement relationships with government in Africa, East Asia and Latin America). The second level is at an individual or family level where the belief that one can become richer has unleashed the Chinese entrepreneurial and trading energy. Coupled with an intense desire to make money and a deep rooted commitment to educating the next generation before all else, China is poised to grow even more than it already has.
Compare China today to the West where governments are saddled with the cost of welfare, healthcare, unemployment, entitlements and in the case of the U.S., war. Policies are focused on protecting what we already have versus investing in what we could have. Our youth live a relatively comfortable existence and will continue to regardless of education and employment because of the social safety net if they fail.
In China, the average person does not expect the government to support them if they fail. It never really has. The greatest risk however to China is corruption and the dissent it causes as well as the inefficiencies in the system. But even for this, the government has a solution: imprisonment or execution.
Ironically what will most likely facilitate the movement of the center of gravity may not be what China is doing, but rather what we are not doing. We in the west are willing to ask our governments to protect us from the inevitable. In so doing we do not face the realities of changing competition, resource availability and rules of engagement. We are not adjusting to it or thinking ahead to how we might change in anticipation of what is to come. After all, why should we change now, when it is all relatively comfortable, familiar and safe to keep things as we have known them to be? More importantly, we are not bringing up our next generation to be prepared for a world that will be a very different place than it is today. Frankly, we don’t know how to.
The reality is that the global system, to which we invited countries like China to join, is transforming into something we do not recognize. As such we are not prepared for it. Economic, political and social ideologies are colliding daily. Free market capitalism is being stung by itself as Chinese companies offer the highest price for publicly traded natural resource companies which were once assets of western nations. Rogue governments which the West would not touch for ideological reasons are being courted by the Chinese for purely economic reasons. Those new relationships are causing tensions and conflicts in the international order and they will continue to do so. Despite the fact that we might find China’s record on human rights and lack of democratic processes distasteful and a risk to stability this view will not necessarily be shared by the majority of people in the developing world. China’s internal contradictions might pose a risk to our systems of government and our societies, but not to China’s. We are looking at what is happening only through our own lens and prejudices. In fact it is precisely because China is not a democracy and that it does not treat individual and private property rights as the West does, that it has succeeded as quickly as it has and to such a degree. This has not been lost on a great part of the developing world who are finding that China has to offer an attractive alternative for their future. Democracy and human rights are luxuries if you are fighting to feed yourself one day at a time.
When the center of gravity shifts, as it most certainly will, we in the West will mostly likely be caught unaware. Certainly this will be the case if we keep telling ourselves that it will not happen.
This piece appeared on March 4, 2008 in De Standaard, a Belgian Newspaper. It was published in Dutch.