Conversations on the Future

How will the tussle between 3 ancient civilisations shape the future: Historian Wang Gungwu

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WASHINGTON - If you repeat something often enough, more and more people will believe it because, in this age of social media with constantly competing narratives and diminishing interest in books, they do not have the capacity to think about it or find out what is really true, contends Professor Wang Gungwu.

The eminent historian and author of multiple books in English and Chinese was speaking to The Straits Times on competing narratives, and the challenge to the West of the rise of one of the three ancient civilisations to have survived till now - China.

"If you don't know the past, you are a victim of any story that comes along, and you don't know what to believe - and you just believe something that is said more often than others," warned Prof Wang.

"The past does not guarantee anything; but not to know it is far more dangerous than knowing it."

The 91-year-old is a professor at the National University of Singapore, as well as emeritus professor at the Australian National University.

He was speaking to ST as part of the new "Conversations on the Future" series, which starts on April 28.

On the geopolitical competition between the United States and China, Prof Wang underscored that China represented a civilisation rather than a country - with a particular fundamentally different view of the role and function of the state.

While some 80 per cent to 90 per cent of China today is modern - as in the West - its leadership had decided that liberal capitalism with its emphasis on individualism, and liberal democracy of the kind that the US stands for, did not suit China's society and "certainly did not suit the Communist Party, which had become the emperor, replacing the emperor".

"They like the capitalism part, but they want the capitalism to be in the traditional Chinese way, in the historical Chinese way, to be under the state," Prof Wang said.

Economic development and political responsibility could not be separated, and capitalists cannot be allowed to run the state.

"The state must ultimately be in control of economic development," he said.

This is a very serious challenge to what had been the dominant western discourse, Prof Wang noted.

"Because the dominant discourse was not satisfied with teaching neuroscience and technology and finance and money making," he said.

"They also want you to be like them in believing in individualism, human rights, liberal democracy and liberal capitalism. And if you don't believe in that, because it's a universal, as they have decided, universal and the most important part of... a modern civilisation... you are heading in the wrong direction."

Prof Wang added: "Of course, the two conclusions could be made: You will fail, or, in case you might succeed, we will make sure that you fail. And... I think what we're looking at today is actually something like that."

  • The "Conversations on the Future" series focuses not on current news but on broader, and larger, long-term issues and trends. Among the interviewees are Yale law professor and author Amy Chua, Harvard professor Graham Allison, Chinese science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, and Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh and retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan.

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