The present [essay] discusses three questions regarding the “Great Changes Unseen in a Century.”
1. An important change in world politics - the [global] shift of wealth and power.³
At the beginning of the second industrial revolution in 1840, Western and non-Western nations each accounted for 50% of industrially manufactured goods. At that time, even though China and India were very backward, non-Western countries such as these still accounted for half of the world’s industrially manufactured goods. By 1980, Western nations supplied 90% of all industrially manufactured goods, while non-Western countries, including China and India, accounted for 10%. By 2010, non-Western nations, including India, had become the greatest beneficiaries of globalization and the free flow of capital. China in particular was an unexpectedly big winner out of this process. As of 2010, Western nations accounted for 60% of manufactured goods and non-Western countries accounted for 40%. By 2050—or perhaps even earlier—these [relative] proportions may be reversed, with non-Western countries accounting for 60% and Western countries for 40%. This transfer of wealth and power [away from Western nations] is advantageous to non-Western nations [such as China].
Wealth and power are concepts of major significance. In the course of their development, Western nations used a strategy of “one step in, one step out” to resolve their domestic contradictions. Class contradiction is both an old concept and a reality. In the process of industrialization, each and every country experiences a keen contradiction between social classes. What methods can resolve this contradiction? To “step in” refers to the use of strategic pillaging to resolve this problem—[for example], in 1905 Japan and Russia went head-to-head in war.⁴
What does “step out” refer to? People who can no longer make ends meet have the option to emigrate. In the 200 years between 1800 and 2000, over 80% of the population of Edinburgh emigrated, leaving less than 15% of the [original] local population—over 85% of people upped and left. In the 20 year period from 1900 to 1920, approximately 6 million people—that is, around 20% of Italy’s population of 30 million—emigrated elsewhere, creating [the conditions for the rise of] Fascism under Mussolini.⁵
The present shift of wealth and power proves the general rule that hegemonic nations [are bound to] decline. From [the historical experience of] the Spanish [Empire], to the British[Empire], and now to the United States, the common rule is that the industrial economy moves from real to intangible; for example, the Spanish Empire’s adoption of “silver capitalism” brought about the decline of its manual industry and the rise of neighboring countries, such as France and Germany.⁶ At the end of the 19th century, the British Empire essentially ceded [its domination] of [global] industry to the United States and Germany. This is [a case of] a shift in wealth precipitating the decline of a hegemon, a process that cannot be reversed.
2. Changes in cultural power brought about by shifts in wealth
Why did Western nations flourish after the Second World War? Among the ideological explanations for this are those meant to legitimize liberal democracy as a political ideology. We can observe the scenario when wealth and power are absent—this is what has transpired since the shift in wealth and power that followed 2008 [the global financial crisis].⁷ Be it in Europe, the U.S. or non-Western nations the power of liberal democracy to rally supporters has abated.
Newly apparent is the spontaneous resurgence of [two] ideologies: one is ethno-nationalism, the other is populism. These two phenomena have not been constructed [deliberately], but have burst forth naturally, appearing in response to changes in the environment. The term ethno-nationalism describes a political nation that takes race as its primary unit. In 16th century Europe, if you asked someone what type of person they are, they would not say French or German. They would say Protestant or Catholic—which reflects a religious frame of reference. Today, following the decline of politicized ideology,⁸ The original ideological ecology has begun to revive. [Resurgent] ethno-nationalism is rousing a great rabble. The other [resurgent ideology] is populism, which in its left-wing form is equivalent to socialism, and in its right-wing form is effectively ethno-nationalism.
Therefore, world politics has suddenly taken on a drastically different appearance. There is [now] no unifying ideology. Universal values have failed. [Their failure] gives rise to an era in which diverse [political] cultures co-exist side-by-side. There are two phenomena here: one is a material, the other is cultural.
Where goes the world?
To summarize my present answer to this question: “no man’s land.” Those [of us] who study politics maintain a cautiously optimistic attitude towards China. We are aware of what our domestic problems and domestic tensions are. For a fairly long time in the future, the party and government must confront and resolve the dilemma of settling the tension between power derived from wealth and power derived from political authority. If this problem is managed poorly, there will be trouble. On the assumption that it is managed well, what will the prospects be for China's future position on the world stage?
Let us cast aside the talk of domestic problems, as we [at this gathering] are only discussing world politics. Some famous scholars, such as Samuel Huntington, repeatedly use Lee Kuan Yew’s 1994 judgment that China is one of “history’s largest scale participants” in their work.⁹ Pretending one can’t see the significance of [China’s] scale is nonsensical. [China’s] arrival raises many issues; [indeed], the arrival of “history’s largest scale participant” may potentially contribute to the reordering of the world order.
What is this world order? You can say it took 300 years or 500 years to [take shape], or that our present world order took shape from 1700 onwards. As the world order took shape, there were many wars within the West that arose because Western participants were vying for predominance. This is the Westphalian system of nation states formed in 1648; the present world order is [based on] this same Western-dominated Westphalian system.¹⁰ It was once dominated by Britain and now is [dominated] by the U.S.
Over the past 300 years of Western [history], Westerners have been playing their own game [on their own terms]. Now China has arrived, a first for a non-Western nation. From the perspective of “the clash of civilizations,”¹¹ Islamic civilization does not have one core civilizational state, so does not pose a major threat to Christian [Western] civilization.¹² In this sense, we truly are facing “great changes unseen in a century.” In this sense the 'century' [of the slogan] does not [refer to] "great changes" that occur on a 100 year timescale, but rather on a 300 or 500 year timescale. On the one hand, these are major changes in a civilizational sense; on another level, they refer to a difference in institutions and systems, that is, the difference between the institutions of capitalism and the institutions of socialism.
One [aspect of the great changes unseen in a century] are found in civilizational systems and the other is found in institutions. Now that these [changes] have emerged, the present world order has entered a “no man’s land.” We do not know where it will go onto. Whoever can first extricate themselves from “no man’s land” will go on to lead this world.
³ The transcript of Yang's speech uses the two homonyms, 权力 and 权利, meaning “power” and “rights” respectively, in seemingly inconsistent ways. These may be a transcription error. The translator has used context to guide the choice of term throughout.
⁴ The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was fought between the Japanese and Russian Empires to settle their conflicting imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea; without victory in this war, Japan would never have established an imperial presence in northwestern China. Russia’s poor performance and ultimate defeat in the war also contributed to the First Russian Revolution of January 1905, an uprising of the working classes against the Tsar and the nobility that was a prelude to the October Revolution of 1917. Yang may be implying that the failure of Russia’s “step in” policy exacerbated its social contradictions and led to revolution.
⁵ Around the turn of the 19th century, Italians, especially in the south of the country, were facing dire poverty and unemployment. From 1901-1927, Italy pursued a nationalist policy of emigration under the Commissariato Generale dell’Emigrazione, guided in part by the belief that the problem of Italy’s unemployable masses could be transformed into a national resource. Yang implies that the rise of the Fascists under Mussolini—rather than the rise of a socialist party—was aided by the emigration of vast numbers of the working class Italians who might have agitated for socialist reform.
⁶ During the Age of Discovery, the Spanish Empire acquired vast amounts of silver from its New World colonies in America, notably the Viceroyalty of Peru and the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The large increase in the supply of precious metals as well as the Spanish Empire’s misjudged policies created problems with inflation and debt that ultimately contributed to the decline of the Spanish empire.
Yang’s description of financialization as prelude to decline Yang is neither original nor especially Marxist. For brief a literature review of this thesis (which was first articulated by American historians at the turn of the 20th century), complete with discussion of imperial Spain and Britain, see Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (New York: Crown, 2003) 171-2003.
⁷ Chinese analysts have referred to the 2008 financial crisis as the beginning of the end of American hegemony for more than decade. For a particularly influential example, see this 2009 essay by Yuan Peng, now President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the think-tank linked to the Ministry of State Security: 袁鹏 [Yuan Peng], “金融危机与美国经济霸权：历史与政治的解读” [“The Financial Crisis and American Hegemony: Interpreting the History and Politics”],《更新时间》[Renewal Times], available at http://www.aisixiang.com/data/88470.html.
⁸ The implication here is that the norms of liberal democracy, unlike the more ‘natural’ alternatives like populism and nationalism, are an artificial construct promoted by the West and imposed on other societies solely to legitimize its hegemonic power. Yang has stated this belief more explicitly in other pieces. In May of 2022 he argued that the financial cost of relying on “hard power” to maintain hegemony
is too high for a hegemon [like the United States], so it must supplement it with “soft power.” …[But] The rule of law, human rights, and the sacrosanct inviolability of private property are [in reality] just a thin veil that they draped over [their deeds] after the United States had already developed. America’s development process was full of slaughter and robbery. For the Indians who died in genocide, where was the rule of law and human rights? Where was the protection of property rights when the forces of the Eight-Power Alliance looted Yuanmingyuan?
杨光斌 [Yang Guangbin], “俄罗斯人的世纪抗争路与世界秩序的重组 [The Russian’s Century Long Path of Struggle and the Reconstitution of World Order],” 观察 [guancha.cn], 5 May 2022, available here.
⁹ Yang is likely referring to Lee Kuan Yew’s famous interview with Fareed Zakaria, published in the March-April 1994 edition of Foreign Affairs, in which Lee asks whether the world can accommodate “a country the size of China” into the management of international peace and stability. See Fareed Zakaria, “Culture is destiny - A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew,” Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr, 1994, p. 122.
¹⁰ The Westphalian system, traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended a catastrophic period of war within Europe, is typically used by Chinese thinkers as short-hand for the Western-led world order that benefits Western interests. The Westphalian system is commonly credited for the principles of sovereignty and non-interference that China uses rhetorically to contest U.S. and Western power politics and interventionism.
¹¹ Yang takes seriously the “clash of civilizations” thesis first published by Samuel Huntington in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs. Huntington observed a shift in power away from the West and predicted coming civilizational challenges from the Islamic civilization, unified by religion, and the Confucian civilization, centered on China and unified by common cultural roots. In the author’s view, then, the “changes unseen in a century” involve not only rising global wealth, but a clash of civilizations brought about by a rising China.
¹² In Huntington’s piece, the category of “Western civilization” is based on the older category of “Western Christianity”—in essence, the Catholic Church and its Reformation offshoots. Regions where these religions were historically the most important comprise Huntington’s “West.” Orthodox Christianity is considered to be the basis for a different civilization.
Yang describes this civilization with the term 基督教, which is generally used only for Protestants (with 天主教 referring to Catholics). However, in the context of Huntington’s piece, 基督教 maps onto the “Christianity” associated with Western civilization.