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Beyond East and West: the change unseen in a century and remaking civilizations

LIU DEBIN | 2022-09-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The world is undergoing changes unseen in a century, which impacts the balance of power between Western and non-Western countries and the historical foundation that underpins Western domination: the core-periphery world system. However, the rise of non-Western countries will not repeat the hegemonic history of Western countries. Rather, it will go beyond the historical divide between East and West, reconstruct human civilization’s system, and move human society towards a community of shared future. 

Western scholars have been studying the profound changes, among which the most representative one is “the rise of the others.” World history is entering a new stage, “the rise of the others” after “the rise of the West” and “the rise of the United States.” The concept of “others” clearly expresses the mentality of Western countries as “masters of the world,” the West is the “us” while non-Western countries and regions are “others” who ought to be assimilated. Such a mentality took shape in the 17th to 19th centuries, while Western dominance over the non-Western world was not established until the end of the 19th century. 
Despite the continuous shocks of WWI, WWII, the Cold War, and “Third World Revolution,” the world system with Western countries as the “core” and non-Western countries as the “periphery” remained. Three decades after the Cold War ended, a number of non-Western powers began to rise, and more emerging market countries began to integrate into the world system, changing the balance of power, and the West’s world domination truly encountered challenges and crises. 
Both the “West” and the “East” are constantly in flux through history. The West’s initial and most durable core is now Western European countries. As European countries began to colonize the world, the division between East and West within Europe gradually became irrelevant, and subsequently “Europe” became a synonym for the West. After WWII, the United States, which had been avoiding European disputes, became the Western leader and formed the modern sense of “the West.” 
However, when looking back in history, “Western civilization” is indebted to the “East,” in particular North Africa and the Middle East for many constituent elements. In fact, most ancient civilizations in human history originated in the geographical East. Before the rise of the West as the dominant power, the world was “Orientalized.” Nevertheless, the “Orient” as an academic concept, is the “other” imagined and constructed by Westerners for their own needs, and its reference range gradually extends from the Eastern Mediterranean to India and East Asia. 
The Cold War shaped “the East-West conflict” marked by competition between two social systems, and Eastern countries constituted an important part of the “Third World.” With the Cold War’s end, the world seemed to have returned to its old pattern of “the West and the Rest.” Yet many scholars point out that the West has actually come to an end with the spread of the “secret” of Western modernization’s success, the loosened relationship between the U.S. and Europe, and the rise of non-Western countries. 
The changing world system is about both the change of the status of non-Western countries in the system and the process of deep economic integration between non-Western countries and Western countries. This process connects the world more closely via industrial chains and supply chains, and transcends the boundary of “core” and “periphery.” It further optimizes the allocation of resources for productivity and promotes the economic transition from “great divergence” to “great convergence.” Still, Western leaders continue to see non-Western countries as “the other” in need of enlightenment, they try to “regulate” the already changed world based on a Western standard of civilization or “new standard of civilization,” and re-divide the already converged world. Such a disregard for reality will not help Western countries avoid the widening wealth gap, shrinking middle class, and polarized social conflicts. Instead, it will trap growing emerging market countries in a hard situation. The changes are reshaping both the balance of power and the global civilization system. The civilization system, based on a new world reality, no longer has the core lecture the “periphery,” or denounce non-Western countries’ successful experiences, or divides the East from the West. Instead, it promotes commonly cherished values of all peoples of the world as a prerequisite, and strengthens the human community of a shared future. 
Liu Debin is the director of the Institute of International Relations of Jilin University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.
Edited by WENG RONG