America and Europe knew how to dream with their humanistic values. Today, it is the dream of the Chinese, that of prosperity, that prevails. In passing from the West to the East, “the dream” has taken on a more materialistic and “restrictive” dimension, no doubt more in keeping with the spirit of the times.
”The Chinese were everywhere and everyone spoke of their new silk road.” The person I’m talking to is Japanese. He is back from Amman where he, like many big bankers, took part in a joint meeting of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the AIIB, the infrastructure investment bank. He described to me, almost with longing, that new reality, “the Chinese dream,” which, with the unwitting aid of the United States and the member nations of the European Union, is replacing the American and European dream. Are we not closing our hearts and our borders at the very moment when the Chinese are building roads and canals and expanding their ports?
In the Danish film “Pelle the Conqueror,” winner of the Golden Palm award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Swedish peasants who left to find success in Denmark at the end of the 19th century are confronted by the severity of their living conditions. At the end of the film, one brother left for the United States, another stayed in Europe to start a revolution. Following the end of the Cold War, this film seems to carry a simple message. The socialist revolution failed in Europe – the USSR is on the brink of collapse – the American dream prevails. The brother who crossed the Atlantic made a good choice, but the one who stayed was not completely mistaken. In 2018, the film’s message seems to belong to such a far away world.
The Chinese Don’t Have a Colonial Past
Today’s Chinese dream is of a completely different nature than the American and European dream of the past. It is no longer about joining a welcoming land, synonymous with liberty and respect for individual rights. To get right down to it, we went from “I’m coming to your country to survive and realize my potential” to: “Come to my country with your money and your energy. You are my last hope.”
For Africans and Middle Easterners — as well as Europeans from the south, the Balkans and the central and eastern regions — China, by virtue of its money, is becoming the ultimate model. But not only for that reason. For Africans, Chinese workers (unlike Westerners) are not only free of a colonial past; they also live in communities and conditions very similar to those of local workers. For Greeks or Bulgarians, the Chinese are able to be negotiators but, unlike the Belgian authorities, they don’t set any conditions, don’t give any punishment. With them everything is easy; “they have the durability of a diamond.” They only pursue their interests that coincide with yours.
In fact, it exists as a phenomenon of communicating vessels, between the American and European dreams on one side and the Chinese dream on the other. The more the first dries up, the more the second one fills up. In closing themselves off as they are – plainly speaking, more from selfishness than fear – the U.S. and Europe are directly contributing to China’s efforts. How can we showcase values that we impose on others while we ourselves no longer practice them at home?
A New World Geography
“Marco Polo’s Trip around the World,” to use the title of Robert D. Kaplan’s recently published collection of essays, doesn’t only correspond to the appearance of a new political geography of the world but also to a new map of tendencies. If the start of the 21st century brings to mind the end of the 13th century it is quite simply because, across time, China is driven by the same ambition – to consolidate its empire by means of commerce, by the establishment of two routes: land-based and maritime, tying China and Europe, via India, Persia and Russia.
The expression “silk road” is not Chinese. It was coined at the end of the 19th century by the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richthofen, who was the first to talk about “Seidenstrasse.” The Chinese more willingly spoke of “One Belt, One Road,” but were happy to encourage Westerners to dream by using a catchphrase that corresponds with their imagination, since it was created by them.
A Restrictive and Centralized Dimension
If “the new silk roads” retrace the steps of the old ones, the comparison with the end of the 13th century is still too simplistic. Kublai Khan, unlike Xi Jinping today, was not motivated by a spirit of collective (or individualistic) nationalism; China had not been humiliated by a Western invader. It was exporting products, its refined civilization, its superior technology – brilliant in certain fields – simply to expand its influence abroad and consolidate power at home. Globalization, in particular, didn’t have the same meaning that it does today in the age of a dual transportation and information revolution.
A blend of disappointment, if not bitterness with regard to the Western world, and desire for the resources coming from China, “the Chinese dream” cannot disguise the system’s flaws when it comes to respect for fundamental rights. In its total centralization, the Chinese model can be an effective method for profoundly transforming a society, to build infrastructure and advance a scientific and technological plan. In passing from the West to the East, “the dream” has taken on a more materialistic and “restrictive” dimension, no doubt more in keeping with the spirit of the times.