[The themes in this post will be explored in my book, Small is Powerful: Why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing). I'm crowd-funding for the book, so you can pre-order and help make sure it gets published here.]
China is a grim relic of the Twentieth Century. The Chinese revolution happened in 1949 - a time when the love of the big state, big corporation and big, conformist culture was at its peak both in West and East. China, as a result, is big not just in land mass and population but in its profound attachment to big power.
Modern China was founded in an era when it was widely assumed that big was more efficient, more stable and more fair. Of course the Communist countries took this claim to absurd extremes but the belief that a better world could be created if only well-educated bureaucrats and technicians could seize control of vast resources and shape behaviour was at its height across the world. It is hard to believe now but many in the West genuinely feared that Stalin's Russia and Mao's China would ultimately outstrip the democracies precisely because their bureaucrats and technicians were so all-powerful with few limits on their capacity to shape populations and plan economies.
A Fractured Consensus
However, this 'big consensus' has now fractured. The capacity of the state to exert its power has declined as deference towards government bureaucracy has grown. Even the biggest corporations quake as upstart start-ups, restless consumers and sceptical citizens disrupt their treasured business models. The social and cultural conformity that enforced hierarchies around race, sexuality, gender and other characteristics has now been challenged and weakened for over forty years.
More recently, the internet has been added into the mix allowing a world of creativity to open up. Millions are launching their own social, political, business and cultural initiatives at high speed and low cost. These are the creative times in which we now live.
In short, a vision of a much better world is slowly emerging. One where individuals, communities and networks take responsibility for their own well-being rather then being dependent on the largesse of politicians and corporate leaders. It's a world where the small creative choices of millions of ordinary people might one day count for more than the big power of a few dozen bureaucrats and tycoons.
It is undoubtedly a more chaotic and unpredictable world but it could also be a fairer, freer and more interesting one. It's a world that would be a mix of small free market business, social enterprise, on-line collaboration and community innovation that aligns with no conventional economic, social or political model.
Big Power Clings On
But big power still exerts huge control. In the West, big government and big business work hand in hand to shore up each other's position. In China, the economic changes of the last four decades have given rise to a system where cronyism is even more blatant than in the West and challenge to the power of the big state is met with systematic abuse of human and civil rights. Just as China swallowed the big consensus more fully than most other countries, so it is proving much harder (and dangerous) to pull that consensus apart.
This is why the Umbrella Revolution is so important. It is twenty-first century small power taking on the creaking hulk of twentieth century big power.
We can see this in the way Occupy Central - a diffuse, flat, leaderless movement of individuals and networks - is scaring the centralised, wealthy Hong Kong state and its Chinese and corporate backers.
But, more importantly, this is a clash of values. The immediate cause of the conflict may be the issue of whether the Chinese government gets to screen candidates for Hong Kong's Chief Executive but there are even bigger issues at play.
There is disgust at the exceptionally high levels of inequality in Hong Kong. Big concentrations of political and economic power ensure a few billionaires effectively run the island. A recent study by The Economist concluded that Hong Kong was blessed with the most crony capitalist system in the world.
And many fear the way China, through its sheer size and power, is gradually eroding the identity and uniqueness of its much smaller neighbour.
So this is a battle between small and big both literally but also in terms of different sets of values: one which is about elites clinging on to self-serving visions of order and control cooked up many decades ago and the other which wants Hong Kong to join a new world of self-determination, creativity and freedom.
This is why a victory for the umbrellas would be such an important step forward for this still young century. It is also why Beijing is so unsure about its response and so terrified of the consequences of its defeat. Anyone who values small power must hope this battle on the streets of Hong Kong Central goes the right way.
Adam Lent is on Twitter here.
(HT to @tax_free who inspired this post. All views and errors are my own.)