Watching the Greatest Show on Earth

November 25, 2018

“Confucius once said, “after studying change for five decades, I shall surely be free of serious flaws.”

There might be one nation where change is central to their underlying philosophical approach to life: China. One of its most famous texts is the Yi Ching, often translated as “The Book of Change.”

Last week I attended a book launch about China’s approach to change. It wasn’t just an ordinary book launch. My friend Hugh Peyman had attracted some of the top minds in London last week to introduce his new book “China’s Change: The Greatest Show On Earth.”  Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC, and Shaun Hargreaves Heap, Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London, were there to moderate at Bush House. There was truly an A star audience, and somehow I sneaked on the list. I’ve been transitioning back to the UK in recent times after 20 years shuttling between Asia (Japan, Korea, China) and the US and it felt so good to be back at King’s College where I embarked on my first degree in Law.

Hugh’s take on China is quite unique and close to my heart. There are 2 dominant narratives of China: either it is destined to rule the world or it is fundamentally flawed and ripe for collapse or fragmentation. Hugh doesn’t think that these overarching narratives are particularly interesting and is more interested in what we can learn from what he calls ‘the greatest show on Earth’. In particular he is interested in approaches to change, which is what I do for a living as a futurist, so I was fascinated to learn from him.

Certainly I understand why Hugh calls it the greatest show on earth. As he point points out in his book, China grew 107% from 2007 to 2016 whilst the US grew only 12%, UK 9%, EU 5% and Japan 3%. The UK, which was the first nation in the world to industrialise, took 154 years to double industrial output, the US took 53 years and China took 12 years!

Although his enthusiasm for China sometimes seems to be pointing to its uniqueness, he did explicitly say in his talk that his message was not about China’s exceptionalism. In fact, he acknowledged that the West has very successfully navigated change and uncertainty in the past with long term thinking. Hugh wold point to the reunification of Germany and the Post War Consensus in the United Kingdom. But there are plenty more such as Great Britain under Elisabeth 1 with visionaries such as Sir Francis Bacon and Jonathan Dee, where there was a clear direction to the country.  But currently Western civilisation doesn’t appear to have a clear direction.

There is absolutely no shame in learning from other nations and civilisations. Certainly China has learnt huge amounts from the West since it embarked on its latest incarnation under Deng Xiaoping and then after it joined the WTO in 2001. Japan actually embarked on one of the largest studies of foreign cultures and systems during the Meiji Revolution. Anthropologically speaking I am sure the Japanese broke records at that time for the speed at which they adopted foreign practices. And, of course, the West itself has had a long term interest in China. Hugh says that “we borrowed ideas for government, technology and philosophy, from bureaucracy to porcelain and human rights.” We forget that Britain was very influenced by China’s system of meritocracy in its civil service. When corruption and inefficiency was holding back the British Empire in the mid-19th Century, the East Asia Company and then the British government introduced a new level of professionalism and merit-based promotion, and hence the term ‘mandarin’ was born.

But when China had its dark night of the soul in the 20th Century, the rest of the world stopped listening to it. In 1800, China was the world’s leading economy but by 1913 it ranked 64th out of 65. In 1975, the year I was born, it was 65th and last! It was poorer than North Korea and according to Clinton Dines, young men in Nanjing competed to see who could wrap a belt twice around the waist they were so thin! Things were incredibly dark then in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and this is exactly when Hugh got his first glimpse of China. It’s remarkable that he has been studying Chinese societies for over 5 decades.

I met Hugh at the Tianfu Financial Forum at the end of last year.  I did a keynote at the forum in front of some senior members of the Chinese government, including the Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China. It was the first time in recent times I had been a little intimidated in doing a public talk, as I had to speak immediately after a senior Chinese General and had one of those “why the hell did they invite me?” moments. Hugh graciously said he thought the talk was good, and regardless of whether he was just being kind, it seemed that we agreed on many perspectives including long term patterns, cycles and change.

Early in Hugh’s presentation last week he quoted the science fiction writer Liu Cixin:

“Other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras….It is Morning but the Sun does not always rise. That is what a Chaotic Era is like.”

I’ve been warning for some time we were entering a Chaotic Era. It started in 2008 – arguably – and we moved into the second phase in 2016.

China certainly knows about change, and how to navigate Chaotic Eras. According to Hugh, they’ve experienced 8 of the 12 bloodiest wars.  “China has been the world’s largest economy three times in the last 1,400 years. Three times is has stumbled declined and then recovered.”

Hugh emphasises that for China in planning the future, the main goals are harmony, stability and moderation. And in crystallising this they have an especially long term and 360-degree approach. It is often said that recent Western politicians don’t have this long term focus, with Bush once famously saying “I don’t do the vision thing.”

Chen Danran wrote that “one who fails to plan for 10  generations is incapable of planning for one time. One who fails to plan for the whole situation is incapable of planning for a partial area.”

My mentors all taught me the importance of cycles and patterns in human history as well. But nowadays we teach history as if its just a linear progression. That wasn’t always the case; some of our greatest thinkers had a grasp of the ebb and flow of history. David Hume, a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, once wrote on the 18th Century that those ignorant of history will “forever remain children in understanding.”

Then in implementation of its vision, the Chinese focus on research and field work, pilot schemes and correct sequencing. You can see with with many projects like the Free Trade Zones they rolled out. Hugh suggests that pragmatism, flexibility, gradualism, restraint and constant renewal have been central to their success.

I am looking forward to more deeply delving in to the philosophical chapters of the book. Hugh defines Confucianism at the outset of his book to include many Chinese schools of thought, including the work of Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism. I’ve been profoundly influenced by the Tao and Zen in my life and wonder whether all these schools are in fact totally in alignment. In Korea, for instance, some suggest that Korea has been overly influenced by the rigidness and hierarchical nature of Confucius’ teaching and that to better embrace the new uncertain world we are entering, the more flexible and creative approach of Taoism might be crucial. Hugh says that Confucianism is a wide umbrella of philosophers and China’s leadership draws influence from different ones at different times. I look forward to reading the book more but I don’t want to take away from the central point; there is much within China and Chinese philosophy which we can harness in the West.