If I am allowed one question about China, it would be the following – “How did China do it?”
How did this amazing Asian country, representing an entire ancient civilization, achieve so much in such a short period to reclaim its old position of greatness in the modern world?
Despite a huge population, its deep rooted, traditional culture values, its strict adherence to its own ancient language and all the traits that the Western world taught us would keep third world, Asian countries and cultures forever backward, unless we become “more like them” that is the West.
China has emerged in a single generation, as the world’s leading power on the global stage today that has all Western countries kneeling at its doorstep. How did China do it? There is a lesson here for other ancient cultures and Eastern civilizations overwhelmed in modern times by the West.
The MTV culture
As a kid growing up in the 1980s in the Middle East and in South Asia, I remember watching a tremendously popular, British pop band WHAM’s, music video on the American music channel, MTV, titled Freedom.
The video shot on the pop band’s visit to communist China (perhaps the 1st Western pop band allowed to perform there) showed me images of China, as a repressed country, full of poor people riding on their bicycles. People afraid to smile and afraid to generally seem happy.
Everyone looked serious, lots of people in military uniforms, old-fashioned buildings, drab clothes and depressing looking, huge state owned buildings fed me images of what China was like as a kid. The only shiny, smiley, glamorous faces & well-dressed people in contrast in the entire video, were the 2 Western pop stars (WHAM) who were touring the ancient country and spreading their message of youthfulness, happiness and freedom.
Nothing was shown of the beauty of the country, its traditions, art and craft, its ancient musical and dance traditions or of any positive aspect of its culture. Instead the video was full of rather stupid images of the pop band doing crazy antics on a world heritage monument, the Great Wall of China, one of the ancient world’s greatest engineering and architectural marvels.
The Chinese people watching them in stunned silence as photographers clicked the pop star’s photos. The members of the pop band behaved almost as if they had no sense of the noble historical wonder, where they were casually roaming around, acting crazy for the camera.
The only happy, enthusiastic and energetic Chinese people shown in the video were the ones at the WHAM concert toward the end of the video, who were dancing and aping the carefree, hedonistic manner of their American and British teenage counterparts of that decade.
The video left me with a depressing view of what China was like and increased my love of the freedom, the happiness, the style, the glamour, the prosperity and joy that everyone seemed to possess in the West, MTV being my main source of information at that age.
Thankfully, I grew up to be a better informed adult, as the following decades unfolded making me and the rest of the world realize the actual position of China as the leading nation of the planet, not just in economic terms but more recently in technological, political and military terms as well.
I realized that old faded memory of that MTV music video from the 1980s was nothing short of a piece of Western propaganda insulting Chinese civilization.
Since time immemorial, China has held a very special place in the world, recognized for its refined culture, its ancient wisdom, knowledge, system of government, and its contributions in science, industry and the artsFaraz Waqar
How did China do it? The answer to that question, I feel, holds the solution to the problems of every country and other equally ancient civilizations around the world today.
It applies to all those suffering from poverty, under-development, illiteracy, over-population, struggling with industrialization, scientific & technological progress, and overcoming a sense of cultural inferiority – all the seemingly, unsolvable problems that China has miraculously overcome today.
Since childhood, I was raised with the popular Islamic quote “Acquire knowledge, even if you have to travel to China for it.” A saying of the Prophet Mohammed (peace & blessings be upon him). Every child in my country and in most of the Islamic world must be familiar with this ancient quote of the Prophet.
Today China has emerged like a country for the world to learn from and a standard to match. Nations all over the world from America to Russia, from Africa to Europe are amazed at China’s progress and want to learn the secret. How did China do it?
My search for the answer to the above question led me to study a bit about China’s story – not just the statistics regarding its current economic miracle & transformation, but its story as a civilization.
I started realizing that perhaps the answer, that I sought, lies in China’s past and its faith in the capability of its own civilization, its values and traditions, that had helped it solve all the problems that other countries & cultures are still trying to overcome. A past that China, unlike many other great civilizations of the East, never forgot.
I started realizing that since time immemorial, China has held a very special place in the world, recognized for its refined culture, its ancient wisdom, its knowledge, its system of government, and its contributions to the world in science, industry and the arts.
As I studied I realized that for centuries China’s inventions, its unique culture, its great economy and system of bureaucracy led the world. Its inventors gave the gift of paper to the world that spurred on literacy and development in the far corners of the globe.
Its silk industry and other products formed the ancient world’s famous, global silk route that stretched from one corner of the world to the other, spreading China’s inventions, products, trade, prosperity and civilization across many cultures.
China’s economy in centuries past was superior, more productive, more advanced in industry, technique and the arts to that of any other civilization in the world. Gunpowder that transformed military warfare around the world, the art of printing that spread books and literacy worldwide, the compass which enabled ships and caravans to navigate on sea and land across the planet sparking discoveries of unknown continents, the invention of paper money, the water clock, and countless other inventions and contributions to human civilization that changed the world forever, are all China’s gifts to human progress.
Till the 18th century, living standards for the common people, the size of economy, production volumes of most industries in China were much more advanced than in Western Europe. Renowned European philosophers and social commentators such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau from the 18th century, considered China a model of development for the cultures & states of Christian Europe.
Sadly, in more modern times in the 19th and 20th centuries China faced the threat of Western imperialism and lost out to the European colonial powers. Like many other Asian countries, China was a victim of cruel British and European colonialism.
The West in the 19th century, for the first time in history, armed with superior military technology came to plunder the riches of the East. China temporarily seemed overwhelmed. Its industries destroyed, its ancient culture suddenly regarded by Western imperialists as backward, its population ballooned to outstrip its current natural resources due to the advances brought about by Western medical science and its people impoverished & oppressed by alien Western powers.
For a brief time in history, it came to be regarded as a poor, overpopulated, backward, traditional, opium addicted, third world country that would remain a slave of its past, chained by its ancient traditions, subservient to the West like other former oriental empires and civilizations like the Ottomans, the Persians, the Indians and the countries of the Middle East.
Unlike many other Eastern countries and cultures, China found strength in its own self. Its people mobilized under strong leadership, with faith in its own history, its ancient values, its own cultureFaraz Waqar
But I found out that unlike many other Eastern countries and cultures, China found strength in its own self. Its people mobilized under strong leadership, with faith in its own history, its ancient values, its own culture. The country rose like a phoenix from the ashes and surprised the Western world.
Through meticulous planning, hard work, commitment and faith in their own destiny, China’s people today are admired around the world. It is important to note that on the path to their unprecedented growth and current progress to the very top of the world leadership ladder, they did not loose touch with their traditional culture, give up their own language or abandon their cultural identity.
China’s economy in real terms today, is already the world’s largest economy, ahead of the United States in terms of production of actual goods and services. It is spending and contributing more than the United States today to non-military scientific research & innovation.
Countries around the world today from Africa, Asia, to South America and even Europe look towards China to counter an unjust world order, for trade opportunities, for investment, for development programs, for economic and political support of their stance at the United Nations.
What an admirable achievement. China is now a model for countries & cultures around the world to learn from and a standard to match.
So after all this study, what answer did I arrive at to my question ‘How did China do it?’ The answer to every country, and every civilization (including the Arab & the larger extended Islamic civilization) that is looking up to China today as the most successful model of development and progress in the world, lies simply in looking inward.
Adopting Chinese costumes, fashions, language, culture and copying Chinese arts and media, their education system and teaching their books will not revive other civilizations of the East, including the civilization of the Arab and Islamic world. Just like adopting and copying European languages, fashion and culture in the past has not helped us either.
Looking and learning from our own past, by valuing our past contributions to the human story and building upon them, realizing our own cultural dignity, the importance of our own language, our traditions and values and being sincere to our people’s future through hard work, proper planning, building long term strategy and having faith in our own capabilities is the key to success and emulating the model of China for all countries, cultures and other civilizations.
For decades, indeed for the past couple of centuries, countries of the Middle East and other nations in the East, thought that becoming a sort of a photocopy of the Western world was the only route to progress and prosperity. That model miserably failed everywhere and the proof is there for all to see.
China has once again revived its great civilization and led the world in the 21st century and shown us the alternative. An alternative of success that can be realized without being a photocopy of some far away Western country…..By believing in one’s own cultural dignity, one’s own history, one’s own values and traditions, and in one’s own capabilities, …..success is possible. Modern day China is proof of it.
Ancient cultures that are inspired by China’s success should now learn the path to that success as well from China’s journey. The answer in short is “be yourself, stay true to yourself, believe in yourself and find your own inner strength to move forward…..Stay original, do not become a photocopy of someone else”.
Faraz Waqar is a business management, media & advertising professional of Pakistani origin. A business school graduate from the IBA Karachi and a filmmaker who graduated from the New York Film Academy. Faraz has lived, traveled to & worked in several countries of the GCC & South Asia over the last decade.