In 1942 Dr Joseph Needham was sent by the British government to China to study China’s universities and see what help they needed. Given the fact that the outcome of World War II was far from clear at that time, it suggests an amazing foresight by the British at a time when they had one or two more pressing issues to deal with.
Needham was fascinated by China and, for the next half century, his life’s work became a series of seventeen massive volumes under the collective title of Science and Civilisation In China. The results of Needham’s fifty years of intensive Chinese studies are enshrined in what is a unique study of Chinese civilisation. In his obituary, the Times Higher Education Supplement expressed the view that ‘no one could dispute that Needham’s original concept has developed into the major scholarly work of our time’. Many would add ‘or of any other time’.
Needham’s aim was to understand why the most technologically advanced civilisation for perhaps 1,000 years failed to advance from the 15th century when the West began the global ascendancy which it has held for the past 5 centuries.
What is known in academic circles as ‘the Needham question’ has never been definitively answered and some scholars have argued that the more important question is not ‘why did China, given its technological superiority, fail to prosper?’ but ‘why and how did the West achieve global dominance from the end of the middle ages?’.
Of course, both questions are two sides of the same coin, but for some bizarre reason it is OK for universities to study the rise and fall and rise of Chinese civilisation but serious academic study of the rise of the West can only be undertaken as long as it focuses on the slave trade, the era of colonial expansion, the destruction of traditional societies and the subjugation of other races by the perfidious whites.
The recent decision by the ANU to withdraw from an opportunity to host a centre devoted to the study of Western civilisation is an appalling error of judgment. Now, more than ever before, a detached objective study of the strengths and weaknesses of Western civilisation is required.
Throughout history, whenever a new power arrives on the scene, the existing dominant military group will fight to retain its control. When the contesting powers are equally strong, the struggle for victory is bloody and protracted as in the Peloponnesian wars between the Athenians and the Spartans. When one group has overwhelming technological or military capacity, then the war is short and casualties are relatively few as was the case with the 19th century Opium Wars.
The one thing that can be said about the rise of China’s military power today is that the consequences are unclear. Half a century ago scholars such as Daniel Bell and Francis Fukuyama saw the triumph of the West from what is obviously now an overly optimistic perspective. As Fukyama put it in his celebrated book, The End of History, ‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history; that is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’
No one today would subscribe to such views. It is beyond dispute that the West, led by America, is getting ever more deeply involved in competition with a resurgent China. We must recognise that we are at the beginning of what is going to be a protracted and intense period of economic conflict and competition the outcome of which is uncertain. The one thing that history tells us is that economic competition between powerful nations often leads to military conflict.
The world can currently be divided into four main political camps, namely the West, the Islamic world, Russia and China. This excludes sub -Saharan Africa and South America, neither of which have anything like the global importance of the other groups.
The Islamic world can also be dismissed as it is more focused on tearing itself apart in sectarian struggles than developing the sort of economic strength that is required to seriously challenge the existing global balance of power. Pakistan and Iran may have nuclear weapons but, until they are able to develop an Islamic silicon chip, or an Islamic fighter jet or even an Islamic television, they will remain economically and militarily irrelevant.
But the looming struggle between the West and an increasingly totalitarian China aided and abetted by a Russian gangster state is a terrifying prospect. In the fifth century BC, Sparta and Athens drifted into the savage and protracted Peloponnesian wars in a set of circumstances which has some parallels to the situation that exists between China and the USA today. Sparta was, and China is, governed by totalitarian militaristic forces which contrasted with Athenian and American democracy. It is easy to take such superficial similarities too far, but what cannot be denied is the way that history shows us how economic and military competition allow nations to drift into unwanted wars with disastrous consequences.
China exercises a subtle but powerful degree of control over the right of its citizens to closely examine its recent past. The absence of a free media and strict limits on academic freedom give most Chinese citizens a distorted view of world affairs. Many of those Chinese who know anything about the Tiananmen Square massacres believe that the student protests were instigated by agents of foreign powers in the same way that many Muslims believe that the 9/11 World Trade Centre atrocity was instigated by Israel.
And this is why we need to look as closely and honestly at ourselves as we do at nations which are opposed to what we believe in. In the coming decades, Western civilisation will face its greatest threats and challenges since WW2. We must understand our strengths and weaknesses. A clear understanding of how we got to where we are today is essential if we are to control our future. The universities should be fighting tooth and nail for the right to participate in the discussion about what we can do to shape our future.
Before someone else shapes it for us.
Tony Letford was the winner of the 2015 Thawley Essay Prize