In the late nineteenth century, Europe viewed Asia mainly as either a source of inspiration for its artists or a focus of imperial ambition. Asians, for their part, viewed Europe as either a model of modernity, as in Meiji Japan, or a barometer of decay, as in China. A century later, the Japanese economic miracle had transformed the image of at least a small part of Asia in European eyes into a place of rapid technological and industrial progress. Now, in the first years of the twenty-first century, the perception of Europe in Asia and of Asia in Europe is changing dramatically, as Asia’s economies boom while the European Union finds itself mired in a crisis of identity and confidence.
Prominent Asians, such as former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, are now warning Europeans that if they continue on their current course, Europe will rapidly become irrelevant for anything other than tourism and high-end real estate. A prominent Chinese businessman who divides his time between Hong-Kong and London was even more specific. At a private gathering of top business and political leaders in Paris a few weeks ago, he said, “You Europeans are becoming a Third World country, you spend time on the wrong subjects –the constitution, the welfare state, the pensions crisis – and you systematically give the wrong answers to the questions you raise.”
Europeans’ views of Asia in general, and China in particular, are more complex and swing from lucid adjustment to a new and respected competitor to pure ideological rejection. In May 1968, in France, the students – or some of them, at least – who took to the streets to invent a new world were dreaming of Maoist China, a China in the midst of the brutal and senseless Cultural Revolution. Their absurd and baroque infatuation was as much the product of ignorance of Mao’s crimes as it was the result of boredom in a prosperous society where unemployment was virtually nonexistent.
Today, by contrast, their heirs are openly criticizing the Asian capitalist model. Yesterday China was an anti-capitalist lodestar for utopian revolutionaries; today it has become an ultra-liberal nemesis for a new generation of utopian reactionaries – the defenders of the status quo in Europe. The student demonstrators in the streets of Paris recently don’t want to become like Chinese and Indians; they reject the logic of globalization and refuse to surrender hard-won social guarantees.