The Western world is abuzz with talk of managing China’s rise. How can China be ‘moulded,’ ‘socialized’ or ‘coerced’ into becoming like us? How can we make it safe for a world of multilateral institutions, democracy and the rule of law? These questions, which diplomats and statesmen compulsively debate, are designed to reassure; to make us all believe that China’s development is ours to shape. By framing the problem in this way, we can talk ourselves into thinking that, with skill and consideration, a new China can be built in our own image. But few Westerners realize that their anguish about China’s rise has its mirror image in Beijing. A debate is stirring among Chinese scholars and officials about how to manage the West’s decline; how, they are asking, can they best shape the behaviour of Western powers to advance Chinese interests and values?
This controversy burst into the open in 2006 with a provocative newspaper article by Wang Yiwei, a young scholar at Fudan University, who asked, ‘How can we prevent the USA from declining too quickly?’ Wang Yiwei’s question generated heated responses from neocons and liberal internationalists alike. One of Wang Yiwei’s colleagues at Fudan University, Shen Dingli, has framed the challenge even more sharply: ‘have people asked themselves what would happen to the world if America declined?’ he asked. Could China, Russia, the EU, Germany or Japan deliver public goods as America can, or build international political or economic institutions?’ For Shen Dingli, who believes that Beijing is not yet ready for prime-time, the goal should be to ‘shape an America that is more constrained and more willing to co-operate with the world’. China should use a mix of engagement and containment to shape the USA so that it becomes a responsible power: which, of course, is the exact mirror image of the US approach to China.
What these debates show is that China’s rise will not be a mechanical process that can be delicately ‘managed’ by Western policy-makers. China will actively try to ‘manage’ the West even as it attempts to manipulate Chinese behaviour.