Living through historically unprecedented times has strengthened the Toynbee Prize Foundation's commitment to thinking globally about history and to representing that perspective in the public sphere. In this multimedia series on the covid-19 pandemic, we will be bringing global history to bear in thinking through the raging coronavirus and the range of social, intellectual, economic, political, and scientific crises triggered and aggravated by it.
Dominic Sachsenmaier, the President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, is Chair Professor of Modern China with a Special Emphasis on Global Historical Perspectives in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Göttingen. His expertise centers on global and transnational Chinese history, with a focus on Chinese concepts of society and multiple modernities, among other topics. He is co-editor of the Columbia University Press book series “Columbia Studies in International and Global History“ and an elected member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.
We have a crisis that has become global in scope; there is no world region unaffected by the COVID-19 crisis and the impending economic and sociopolitical crises that emanate from it. What global historians have done in the past decades is try to understand regional theaters in a global context and in the light of their global entanglements. In the case of COVID-19, it is obvious that there are significant factors and forces connecting the events in China not only to the world at large but also, very specifically, to other world regions. To understand those, China-centered and global perspectives will hardly be enough. What we have to find are perspectives that mediate between these two levels of analysis and take all kinds of translocal, transnational, and transregional dynamics into the picture. That leads to a range of topics that have not yet been sufficiently studied.
In many parts of the world, the majority opinion assumes that China is poised to become the world’s dominant power, and that this trend will accelerate because of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet it would be wrong to resort to determinism in this question. China’s domestic position before, during, and after the crisis is not as strong as it may seem, for various reasons. Since the early 1980s, China has had a spectacular economic upswing, probably the fastest and most sustained in the history of the world, surpassing even England during the Industrial Revolution. Yet if you look at the structural challenges that the country faces on various levels we get a very different image of China and its place in the world. We can give three examples.
The first is economic: the Chinese economy has had decelerating growth for a long time and it might even contract this year and the following. It is unlikely that China will continue to play its role as the global economic growth engine in the same manner it did during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Second: connected with that, the debt-to-GDP ratio levels have now exceeded three hundred percent (including private and corporate debt), which will hamper the infrastructure project-driven economic growth that China has relied on, especially during the past few years. The Chinese government will run short of funds to finance many of its domestic and global economic development programs, yet these programs were buying much international influence. That is something we need to observe: there are already some indications that Chinese investments in entire world regions—Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—is decreasing rather than increasing.
Third: in contrast to the United States and other great world powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China doesn’t have a strong regional alliance basis—certainly not comparable to the US’s firm and historically rooted regional position and partnerships in parts of Western Europe and elsewhere. Give or take North Korea, China has only a few solid and historically rooted international partnerships that do not rely solely on economic gain and political support and are rooted in close societal interactions. For instance, the local elites in many parts of the world are not closely wedded to China in their personal biographies.
There has been a lot of talk about the question of Chinese soft power, less so among global historians and more so among international relations scholars, but global historians would do well to enter the debate with attention to more complex contexts. The second half of the 20th century has shown that realpolitik, hard-power-based politics cannot succeed alone. We have seen this with the US’s experience in the Middle East and the Soviet Union’s experience in Central Asia, and of course we see it again now with China. Even in its neighboring countries, China’s growing economic and political presence hasn’t really translated into a massive endorsement and appreciation of China as a society or political system. In countries like India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, and parts of Central Asia, there is no broad societal basis of identification with China, and instead lots of concerns and resistance movements can be found.
Moreover, China has not been able to break through a Western-dominated global education system that has long been based on international hierarchies favoring Western universities. When people in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa study history, study politics, and consume popular culture, they mainly look to local or western examples. That remains an unbroken pattern. It has not yet happened that people, on a mass base, would be familiar with the latest Chinese movies, pop culture, or geopolitical debates. To undo these global hierarchies of knowledge in the global education systems is a process that cannot unfold as quickly as China can launch infrastructure projects around the world.
A derivative question is: what would be the basis of Chinese soft power? American and European soft power, for a very long time, rested on embodying not only a certain political system or economic might, but also some promise for the individual. Outside observers of the West could imagine a certain affluent lifestyle undergirded by mass-based capitalist consumerist society—with icons such as the blue jeans associated with a particular lifestyle but at the same time also representing in some regards the West as a geo-cultural and geopolitical reality. There is no parallel Chinese icon yet.
"What would be the basis of Chinese soft power? American and European soft power, for a very long time, rested on embodying not only a certain political system or economic might, but also some promise for the individual. Outside observers of the West could imagine a certain affluent lifestyle undergirded by mass-based capitalist consumerist society—with icons such as the blue jeans associated with a particular lifestyle but at the same time also representing in some regards the West as a geo-cultural and geopolitical reality. There is no parallel Chinese icon yet."
I think much of the field of global history in the early 2000s was at least loosely wedded to ideas of transnational or maybe even global governance. It is not that all global historians postulated this form of governance, but the expectation of a postnational world certainly informed our field. What this crisis has shown is that there is no real authoritative political body able to act immediately and forcefully outside the nation-state. The corona virus has thrown us back onto the national; even inside the European Union (EU) the mainstream public debates have been decidedly national. For a while, it seemed as if the EU didn’t matter and the outside world didn’t exist when it came to finding correct ways of handling the crisis. Elsewhere we have also seen an erosion of the authority of transnational governance structures—the recent attacks on the World Health Organization (WHO) are just one example. Nevertheless, at the same time it has become very clear that nation-states are ill-equipped to handle crises of such a global magnitude.
Trying to be a little bit more optimistic, I could imagine that this dilemma could turn into almost a cathartic moment for political decision makers who are forced to realize the importance of—and need for—transnational collaboration and institutions that can act in sync with nation-states. It has become clear that we have to mobilize forces to handle this crisis and prepare for other crises to come—not just other epidemics but the major global economic crisis that is in the making.
The question is if this crisis can be likened to any moment in history at all. There have been global moments before, and of course there have been global crises like the world wars or the Great Depression. But this one really differs because there is no actual or imagined escape. There were some economies that did fairly well during and after the Great Depression, and during the world wars, much of the American continent was in some ways a safe haven. So, there was an imaginary or real part of the world where the crisis wasn’t present in an immediate manner—there was a better land, giving us hope. I don’t see that right now. Our pandemic is genuinely global; it affects every place in the world, every country, rich or poor. This will also be the case, I think, with the coming economic crisis.
The concept of ‘deglobalization’ has been gaining currency during the past five years, and already before 2020 there was a corresponding pressure on some aspects of international academic life, particularly the humanities. For instance, Sino-Western collaborations in the academic sector came under much pressure—both from an increasingly authoritarian government in China and from a Western public that increasingly felt threatened by greater Chinese academic influence. What I observe right now is that there are a growing number of voices that see any kind of collaboration with China as highly problematic, if not altogether endangering the academic ethos and a supposedly intact academic community. What I am concerned about is that if this type of deglobalization—of which Sino-Western collaboration patterns are only one element among several—continues, we could potentially witness a return to regionalism in the humanities. There would be less cross-continental academic migration and fewer international students, internationally hired faculty, and international exchange programs. Intellectually speaking, this might lead to a resurgence of Western-centric narratives in Europe and the United States and Sinocentric paradigms in Chinese history department. I am afraid to imagine how, in some cases, such a new localism could be connected with the wave of right-wing populism that we can observe in different parts of the world.
This danger is very much present, alongside the more general danger of budget cuts, for which the less immediately economically relevant fields—i.e. the humanities—will be the first cut. So, taken together, these two risks portend badly for the humanities. What we should do to reflect on and debate these issues and questions at global and transnational levels—and develop some kind of counter voice and new imaginaries to stand up against these worrying trends.