Multipolar history is a lesson for rising China

Global Times |

By Wang Wen 

Among fellows of all think tanks, I admire British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889-1975) the most. He is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History, which contains more than 3 million words and about 7,000 pages. These tomes trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, most of which can be described as the most profound illustrations of human civilization.

Toynbee served as a diplomat for several years. He had been director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, one of the world's leading think tanks, for more than 20 years. But his creative peak took place on his global tour after retirement at the age of 64. He started the voyage with his wife from London and spent nearly two years in South America, the Pacific Rim, South Asia and the Near East, as he wanted to visit peoples and places which he had already known about from books.

I am luckier than Toynbee. Because of a fast globalizing world order, convenient transportation and opportunities brought by China's rise, I have been to almost 100 countries - and I am still far from my retirement age. I have been to the US and Europe tens of times, and I have repeatedly visited some countries that are rich in history. For example, I have been to Iran eight times, Turkey five times, and Kenya three times. But due to my busy work schedule, my visits to these nations were rushed.  

Fortunately, I had worked as a journalist for eight years. Even with a glimpse, I could feel the unprecedented collective rise in the world. At the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, upon entering the hall I saw a huge map of Kazakhstan's national territory. That map reflects the ambitions of this nation which owns a history of thousands of years but only declared its sovereignty on its territory as a republic in the early 1990s.

In Brasilia, I looked down from hundreds of meters at this city which was inaugurated as Brazil's capital in 1960. I could see the city was designed in the shape of an airplane, which reflected Brazil's desire to become a major power when the capital launched.

In Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, local African friends proudly shared with me their understanding of their big, new, beautiful capital and their vision that the country will rise to become the continent's largest economy.

At Tehran's Azadi Square, which can host hundreds of thousands of people, I was invited to the viewing stand and listen to the speech of then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who vowed to fight the US and Israel to the end.

It is sad to see that some established great powers are declining in recent years. I have been to Paris many times, and whenever I saw the Champs-Élysées surrounded with streets full of cigarette butts, street vendors, and rampant pickpockets, I felt somewhat desolate for this once powerful empire. In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia; Budapest, the capital of Hungary; and Warsaw, the capital of Poland, I saw graffiti and shabby buildings everywhere I went. I cannot help but lament the lapse of the old European powers and the difficulty and hardships the now face to survive in the fissures of today's greater powers.

The famous scholar Parag Khanna has mentioned in The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order that: "Second-world countries prove that history is less a seamless continuum than an unpredictable contest pitting material progress against resource scarcity, cosmopolitan globalization against tribalist traditionalism, political union against fissiparous instincts, and autarky against comparative advantage."

China has reached the "closest moment to the greatest rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." It is necessary for China to learn from the successful experience of the established great powers, regional powers, and emerging economies while understanding their current conditions.

For a long time to come, the multi-polarization of the world will be an unstoppable trend. The crevices between the US and Europe and the prosperity of regional powers will produce unexpected and complex results. We Chinese people are not over proud about our achievements, and leading the world is not something that we make as our aim in the multi-polar world where power is shared.

In this respect, we should follow the wisdom of historian Arnold Toynbee: Only equality between nations and mutual respect among civilizations can bring about a better future.

The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, and executive director of China-US People-to-People Exchange Research Center. His latest book is Great Power's Long March [email protected]

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