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The readers of First Things , I know, are eagerly awaiting further reports by this writer from the wilder shores of American feminism and other battlefields of this country’s culture war. But I have just returned from visiting China, and at least for the moment, the shock has diverted my attention from our local disturbances. And the whole point of writing a column is for the columnist to share his nightmares, or so I have been told.

It is about seven years since my previous visit to the Middle Kingdom. The place is hardly recognizable. Then as now, I went from Hongkong to Canton by boat, though the boat has greatly changed. Then it was a sparsely furnished ferry, the sort where one anxiously locates the lifeboats as soon as one is on board. Now the boat was almost elegant, serving food and regaling the passengers with Hongkong-made sitcoms and science-fiction movies (the two, as far as I could tell, overlap). What has remained the same is the sensation, as one travels up the Pearl River, of sailing into the past. But, again, it is now a different past. Then it was going from Hongkong modernity into a timeless Chinese reality of underdevelopment. Now it is the bustling world of the early Industrial Revolution-the world of Charles Dickens, say, orientalized in a Brechtian Verfremdung . Wherever one looks, there is construction-roads, factories, vast blocks of apartment buildings.

China is undergoing a gigantic capitalist revolution-breathtakingly dynamic, raw, brutal. A Hongkong businessman observed (not necessarily disapprovingly), “They treat workers like cogs.” And another one says, “You know, what China could use now is a bit of socialism.” Ironically, a red flag still flutters over this replication of nineteenth-century Western capitalism. But the People’s Liberation Army owns luxury hotels and gambling casinos, and, it is rumored, so do the security services. Apparently there are members of the Communist party who find all this ideologically repulsive; most are successfully converting their political elite status into a commercial advantage. An economic giant is in the making. What will be the values that will animate this new society?

When I was in Canton the last time, it was just waking up from its Maoist stupor. Private enterprises were beginning to spring up here and there; there were a few cars. Now there are stores and businesses everywhere; the center of the city is one enormous traffic jam. The masses of cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and reckless pedestrians remind me of Mexico City and other urban explosions in the Third World, but then I notice a striking difference. There is almost no color, and there are very few children. The latter fact has two causes-the ruthless policy of population control (“one couple, one child”), which has been quite successful at least in the cities, and the migration pattern whereby men come into the cities looking for work and leave their families back in the villages. It is strange to be in a city that still looks like a place in the Third World, but where everything is colored gray and where there are few children. The effect is grim.

I returned to Hongkong by train and the sense of travelling through time is reversed. Now, one is travelling into China’s future. Shenzen is the city on the border. It is the center of a special economic zone, where everything has been done to facilitate foreign investment and industrial development. A decade ago this was a sleepy fishing village; it is now a city of about two and a half million people. It already resembles Hongkong, full of highrises and blazing with neon signs at night. The resemblance is not accidental. Much of this development is based on Hongkong capital, Hongkong firms, and Hongkong management.

The mood in Hongkong reflects this. It is already the economic capital of China. At least among business people, there is now much less anxiety about the takeover in 1997 (some intellectuals are worried, but they form a small group). One repeatedly hears the statement, almost a mantra by now: “China is not going to take over Hongkong; Hongkong is taking over China.” A comforting illusion? Maybe. But business is booming, and real estate prices in Hongkong are now higher than those in Tokyo. There are no signs of capital flight. In terms of per capita income, Hongkong is now the sixth-richest society on earth. The annual salary of a senior university secretary is about U.S.-$50,000. The chief executive officer of the Hongkong Stock Exchange tells how he is helping to set up new exchanges in several Chinese cities; he explains why, in his opinion, Shanghai is unlikely to win the competition for being the financial center.

I was in the region in connection with a research project on the role of business in processes of modernization and democracy. There can be little doubt about the modernizing impact of business. Democracy is another matter. In China, of course, it is not a good idea to ask people about democracy. But there still is reasonable freedom of speech in Her Majesty’s colony. In a week of conversations in Hongkong I did not meet a single person (Chinese or British, I might add) who had anything positive to say about democracy. Admittedly, most of my interlocutors were business people, but my impression is that their view may well be shared by the majority of Hongkongers. There is worry about various things that the Chinese government might do that would have negative consequences, including repressive measures, but democracy as such is not a focus of anxiety. There had been an eruption of protest at the time of the Tienanmen massacre in 1989, but this was more a matter of outrage about the brutality of the repression rather than of frustrated democratic aspirations.

One Hongkong businessman summed up his view of the matter in a rather elegant syllogism: “We know that every society that has a welfare state declines economically. We have to stop the welfare state. In order to stop the welfare state, we have to stop democracy.” One member of our project team was a South African, still flush with pride about the democratic transformation in her country; as these conversations in Hongkong proceeded, she went into a sort of political culture shock.

It is possible by now to envisage a new brand of Asian capitalism, with China rather than Japan at its core. This is the vision evoked by the phrase “the Singapore model.” The model is of an unreservedly capitalist economy, its society highly efficient and meritocratic, its polity authoritarian and not overly concerned with the rights of individuals over against the collectivity. There is the question of how such a regime would legitimate itself. In all likelihood, the legitimation would be nationalism, buttressed by some form of Confucianism (scholars might call it pseudo-Confucianism, but that will not bother the political types in charge). Westerners and Asians with democratic convictions will, of course, characterize this model in morally pejorative terms. The advocates of the model are already reciprocating in the exchange of moral recriminations. The West, according to them, is decadent, enfeebled by mutually contradictory claims to entitlements, plagued by an individualism gone berserk and a political system that can no longer govern. Under this burden of cultural, social, and political pathologies, Western economies are bound to decline. The face of the twenty-first century will be an Asian face-or, more accurately, an East Asian face, since the plausibility of the model runs into difficulties in the parts of Asia untouched by Sinitic civilization.

The leaders of present-day Hongkong business probably provide a good picture of the future. To be sure, they have some attractive features. These are people who are smart, sophisticated, unsentimental, yet very much devoted to their families. Their self-confidence at first seems attractive too, especially when compared to the whining culture prevalent in America today, but it is also brash, aggressive, with a touch of brutality. Those features are captured in the joke told by an astute British observer of the city: “What is the Hongkong definition of a pervert? It is a man who loves women more than money.”

As a description, this is not altogether fair. These businessmen certainly love the women in their own families. In the larger society, though, they exhibit an ethos that has little use for extra-familial loyalties and that has little capacity to inspire the creation of a civil society. The acquisitive urge and the sheer passion for doing business predominate. There are important differences here between Chinese and Japanese culture, and it is conceivable that in the long run the former may discover that these differences put them at a disadvantage. Gordon Redding, the Dean of the Business School at the University of Hongkong and author of The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism , has argued in a recent article that China will not become the next Japan precisely because it cannot generate wider circles of trust and loyalty without which, supposedly, an advanced capitalist economy cannot function. Perhaps he is right. It is also possible, however, that China is creating a new model of successful capitalism that will differ from both its Western and Japanese predecessors.

Long ago Ibn-Khaldun, the great medieval Arab historian, distinguished between hard and soft cultures; he also theorized about the process by which hard cultures become comfortable and consequently softer. The assumption is that hard cultures win out in history and that they start losing when they soften. There is much to be said for this theory of history, though one might object that the theory weakens when applied to technologically advanced societies. Put alongside Western societies, the new Asian capitalism is indeed hard. The sixty-four-billion-yuan question is whether it too will eventually soften. Not only Japan but also the democratizing societies of South Korea and Taiwan would suggest a positive answer. Again, though, China may turn out to march to a very different drummer. Its sheer size might insulate it against the softening cultural influences, most of them Western in provenance, that have affected smaller Asian societies.

Claudio Veliz, in his new book comparing the economic cultures of North and Latin America ( The New World of the Gothic Fox ), has argued that Anglo-American civilization is now in its “Hellenistic” phase. When Greece had lost political power, its culture conquered the entire Mediterranean world and its language become the lingua franca throughout that world. The modern world was born in England, the home of both capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. The British empire is gone and American imperial power may also be in decline, but Anglo-American culture and the English language enjoy virtually worldwide hegemony. Veliz believes that this cultural hegemony must necessarily carry with it a set of institutions linked to it historically-including the institutions of democracy. China will provide a hugely significant test of Veliz’s theory.

We visited an Italian motorcycle factory in Guandong province, in a rather dismal town called Foshan. (The Italian manager, when asked about the size of the town, said, “Oh, it’s not big. Less than a million people.”) The Italian staff told us about their training program for Chinese skilled workers. We asked in what language the training was conducted. The Italians laughed. Another Italian company had tried to teach their Chinese employees Italian (not out of national chauvinism, but because Italian training manuals could then be used in China, perhaps also because Chinese workers whose only foreign language was Italian could not so easily be lured away to work for other foreign companies). The Italianization experiment failed; the Chinese refused to learn Italian. So now this Italian factory operating in China is teaching English to its Chinese employees. Needless to say, this also means that only English-speaking Italians are eligible for company jobs in China.

In Hongkong we met a businessman who distributes Hallmark greeting cards throughout China. The business is going very well indeed. Valentine cards are especially favored. The distributor explained: “You know, Chinese men have difficulties expressing their emotions. It is much easier for them if they can send a card to a girl that says, ‘You are my Number One,’ or ‘I love you.’“ We asked whether there were problems translating messages on the cards into Chinese. “Oh no,” said our interlocutor, “we don’t translate anything into Chinese. They want the messages to be in English.”

Is there a necessary link between English manuals of motorcycle maintenance, English expressions of romantic affection, and such historically English ideas as democracy and human rights? The answer will not be forthcoming for some time. Much will hinge on it. One way or the other, the new Chinese face of capitalism will impress itself more and more on the world’s consciousness. A few weeks after these conversations I was in Frankfurt. My German colleagues who were picking me up said: “You know, your hotel is full of Japanese.” They were wrong. The hotel was indeed full of East Asians, evidently businessmen with their families, loud, self-assured, extremely well-dressed, and giving peremptory orders to the hotel staff. But they were not Japanese. They were Hongkong Chinese. Germans, Americans, and everyone else will have to take note of the difference.

Peter L. Berger , a member of the Editorial Board of First Things , is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.