When China Rules the World

Perhaps, but not before its poverty and corruption disappear and who knows how many decades that will take?
Constance Kong | Jul 5 2010 | comment  



There are three problems with When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order by Guardian columnist Martin Jacques. The first is the title and its two central theses. The second is its length – at 435 pages before you even reach the appendix, bibliography, and end notes, it is quite a tome. And the third is the amount of economic minutiae into which the book dwells to try to prove its absurd point.

This is by no means a light read for a Sunday afternoon or for the flight from Washington to Beijing. Even for die hard historians, economists, political scientists and other academic types, this book is heavy going. Unless you enjoy picking through economic data and mulling over the meaning of the “nation-state” in Western and Eastern philosophy there are probably better books to be read.

But the main reason to not bother with it is because it is fundamentally flawed on its two central theses.

The first is that China will rule the world. Indeed even Jacques points out that this statement is wrong. When he says China will rule the world, he doesn’t really mean that China will rule the world. He means it will be one of four or so new hegemonic powers – the others being the other BRIC economies, Brazil, Russia and India. To support the point he does assemble quite an array of economic data and he points to the fact that until the 17th Century just two countries – India and China – contributed two-thirds of global GDP.  He boldly states that “By the middle of this century, when the West will be responsible for a great deal less than half of the world’s GDP, the Age of the West will have passed.” 

This is old hat. Investment bankers and economists have long been telling us that China will be the world’s largest economy by 2025 or 2050 (depending on which one you trust). But this economic inevitability – is it inevitable? – does not necessarily translate into world dominance. What kind of political leverage would the BRIC economies have over the rest of the world when most of them – sorry, all of them – are crippled by endemic poverty and systemic corruption? Isn’t it more likely that as their economic stars rise, that their political stars will wane as they come under internal pressure for reform?

Unfortunately Martin Jacques doesn’t consider this because central to his thesis is that China is what he calls a “civilization state” and that this makes it fundamentally different to the nation-states that have hitherto ruled the world or exercised hegemonic influence over it (the European powers and the United States). Jacques expresses it thus:

“For the Chinese – and the same can broadly be said of the other Confucian societies – the state is seen as a natural and intrinsic part of society, as part of the wider common purpose and well-being. The state, like the family, is subject to neither codification nor constraint. The Chinese state has never been regarded in a narrowly political way, but more broadly as a source of meaning, moral behaviour and order. That it should be accorded such a universal role is a consequence of the fact that it is so deeply rooted in the culture that it is seen as part of the natural order of things.”

While much of what he points out about the Chinese civilization-state is true, the fact is the same can also be said of Western nation-states. Although we are not given to quoting Aristotle and Plato as much as the Chinese like to reference their ancient philosophers, the fact is that Western democracy owes a good deal to the Roman State and Greek concepts of democracy and citizenship, and even to Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the Enlightenment and the Treaty of Westphalia. (You can’t discuss this without getting into heavy stuff.) The sad thing is we have forgotten the central tenets that make our concept of a nation-state also civilizing. In this very sense ours too is a civilization-state.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s concede for a moment that Jacques is correct; that China is a civilization-state and the West is something altogether different. What does it mean? To Jacques it means that the Chinese will want to rival us and will want to see the world function according to their conception of the state: “In fact, the challenge posed by the rise of China is far more likely to be cultural in nature, as expressed in the Middle Kingdom mentality.” 

In other words, China (and the Chinese) believing itself to be the centre of the universe, the Middle Kingdom, will expect the rest of the world to pay homage to it.

However, the fundamental flaw with this conception is that many educated and well-to-do Chinese question the reality of the concept of China as the “Middle Kingdom”. They wonder, if the concept is true, why China has fallen so far behind the West over the past 200 years – indeed, why was it failing even before Communism came along and really messed things up?

Educated and affluent Chinese even wonder what is fundamentally wrong with their education system that stifles creativity and innovation. And those that can afford it send their children abroad – to the West, primarily to Europe and America – to receive educations that will better equip them for the modern world.

The reality that Jacques has conveniently overlooked is that many Chinese – despite a growing sense of nationalism – still see much about Western civilization, of Western democracy and tolerance, as more attractive than what is offered by their own morally bankrupt system. Indeed, the Chinese refer to the Fourth of May Movement that brought about the First Chinese Republic under Dr Sun Yat Sen as “China’s Enlightenment” – it was heavily influenced by Western concepts of parliamentary democracy. And the Tiananmen protesters of 1989 constructed a mini-statue of the lady that adorns New York Harbour as the symbol of what many of them laid down their lives for. Most recently, more than 8,000 people, primarily Chinese dissidents living inside China signed “Charter 08” calling for greater political freedom and democracy in the country. (Notably, Chinese living inside China cannot read about these because the Internet is so totally censored.)

But Jacques overlooks all of this because, to him, “In the Confucian view, the exclusion of the people from government was regarded as a positive virtue, allowing government officials to be responsive to the ethics and ideals with which they had been inculcated.”

However, this is a monumental oversight and very sloppy academic work, indeed, from a Cambridge PhD who is currently a professor at the London School of Economics. Jacques simply fails to discuss the concerns of the countless Chinese who question an officialdom that is systemically corrupt and which denies the people a voice. Consider, for example, the parents whose children perished in collapsed school buildings when the Sichuan earthquake struck two years ago while government buildings stood firm.

These Chinese don’t look back to Confucius for a response but forward to western-style democracy for a solution. They are left out of the book because they do not fit Jacques’ worldview. (Did I mention that Jacques used to edit Marxism Today and was the co-founder of the left-leaning think tank Demos?)

Proof that Jacques’ thesis is entirely flawed is that the successful Confucian cultures of East Asia – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore – are the very cultures that have embraced Western-style democratic systems, at least to some extent. These nation-states are civilization-states in the Western concept and their successes are based on open economies and political systems that, if not entirely free, are more open than the mainland Chinese system; and they all certainly aspire to greater democracy along western lines.

While Jacques may be right that the peoples of East and South East Asia might be rushing to learn Chinese because of the mainland’s economic pull, he is entirely wrong that they are looking to China for political leadership or a model for government. Even the historically Chinese regions of Hong Kong and Macau had to be dragged into reunification with China. Taiwan is resisting until it sees fundamental political change on the mainland.

Recent history notwithstanding, democracy and open economic systems still have much going for them. But Jacques’ book is not entirely a waste; my copy now serves as a totally functional doorstop.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.


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