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Chinese Society & Politics

Book Review: When China Rules the World

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59420-185-1. 550 pages, hardcover.

riting from England with a firm grasp of geopolitical realities, Martin Jacques has thrown down the gauntlet. Those who would dispute the thesis of this book, summed up in the title and sub-title, must marshal more evidence and more convincing arguments than he has.

Simply put, he states that the dominance of the West, led recently by the United States, will soon be over, to be replaced by the pervasive influence of China. He is aware of the controversial and, for many, frightening nature of his claim, so he backs it up with an impressive array of support from history, economics, and current events.

Jacques begins by announcing the end of the Western world order – or at least its two-hundred-year-long predominance. For him, the financial meltdown in 2008 signaled a decisive turn in world history. Not only were trillions of dollars wiped off investors’ ledgers, but the brokenness of the entire system was laid bare for all too see. He points out that the US National Intelligence Council report for 2009 “represented a 180-degree shift” from previous years by predicting a world in which America is only one of several important players.

Indeed, the decline of the United States, based upon its economic weakness, forms one important side of Jacques’ thesis. China is rising at precisely the moment that America is falling from the summit of world influence. The current Great Recession has no end in sight. The sovereign debt crisis of recent months, which many analysts predict will engulf the US after ravaging almost all of Europe, merely confirms and even strengthens his case, for China’s finances are basically sound.

But what about China? Will it really “rule” the world? Here the title is a bit misleading, since Jacques does not predict a time when Chinese troops will garrison the cities of a worldwide empire, as Roman legions, the British Army, and Russian soldiers once did. He does not even foretell a proliferation of Chinese military bases in far-flung places to replace those of the United States. Yet.

No, he is talking about a comprehensive dominance that will rival, and even surpass, that of the once-mighty West at the height of its powers. China’s economic growth forms the core of its strength and of Jacques’ thesis. Given its huge population and massive geographical expanse, China will become the most critical player in the world’s economy. Producers, buyers and sellers will have to make many, perhaps most, decisions with reference to China, just as dozens of nations have done with the United States in recent decades, only much more so.

Chinese investment in the economies of Africa and Latin America, along with East Asia’s dependence upon the China market for their exports, will give it a presence and power that not even the United States has possessed. Jacques’ predictions of a larger voice and vote in such institutions as the IMF and the World Bank have come true in recent months, as has his conviction that China would forge alliances with the other BRIC nations and bilateral monetary and economic ties with key trading partners. He foresees either the end of the current Bretton Woods system or the creation of a parallel one that will soon become much more important. It seems that his calls are being confirmed almost every week. The decline of the dollar and the euro (whose very survival is now in question) will enhance the value of the renminbi, which may even become a – or even the – reserve currency of choice.

With economic strength will come other forms of power. China’s military will, he says, gain theater supremacy in the Far East, South East Asia, and perhaps even South Asia, with India surrounded by Chinese clients and bases. Diplomatic clout will only grow, as China’s position as a member of the U.N. Security Council will be augmented by growing influence in capitals around the world as well as in international bodies like the WHO and WTO.

Drawing upon its long history and rich culture, China’s reach will extend to the visual arts, film, sports (think 2008 Olympics), and language. Despite its notorious difficulty, millions of students are seeking to learn Mandarin as an essential tool for success. Chinese universities already attract almost one hundred thousand foreign students annually, and are poised to join the ranks of the world’s top-rated institutions of higher learning. In science and technology, China’s advance has been equally dramatic, and Chinese scientists and engineers’ improvement in quality could soon turn their sheer numbers into an overwhelming force in the research world, where their publications are already impressive.

Chinese food, almost ubiquitous even now, and Chinese traditional medicine will penetrate even further into the daily life of the world’s population. Chinese tourists, flush with cash and eager to travel, are already crowding the most famous venues in Asia, and may soon have the same impact in Europe and the Americas, while the Great Wall and other sites will turn China into the most visited nation on earth.
“Central to the book is the contention that, far from there being a single modernity, there will in fact be many.” In other words, “modernization” does not entail “Westernization,” as many believed after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989. As Singapore and Japan have demonstrated, a country can be quite modern without losing its traditional culture or turning into a Western-style democracy (Jacques loves to point out that Japan only seems to be a full democracy).

Obviously anticipating strong objections to his argument, Jacques builds his case over hundreds of carefully-constructed and well-documented pages. Nevertheless, some readers will have reservations, for at least the following reasons:

Though he notes that slackening in economic growth, or an increase in the violent demonstrations that worry Beijing so much, could cause serious trouble for the Communist Party, and is aware that the problem of corruption “remains huge and elusive because its roots lie deep within the Party itself and the myriad of guanxi connections,” Jacques still assumes that the current leaders will retain a firm grip on their power for decades to come. Of several scenarios which he briefly canvasses, a very gradual transition to a system resembling that of Singapore seems to him most likely.

Others are not so sanguine about the Party’s future. What if there is another outbreak of SARS or its equivalent? Or another major earthquake? What if the Great Recession deepens and shrinks China’s exports to a level below what is needed to maintain consistent growth? What happens if the Korean peninsula explodes into open war, dragging in the United States?

The major renunciation of free-market economic policy under the present government, though highly effective so far, has introduced dislocations characteristic of planned economies. The history of socialism does not make everyone optimistic about continued growth in China’s economy. Many are already calling for China’s “bubble” to explode, while others lament the loss of efficiency inherent in a state-run economy.

Though I hesitate to speak for Jacques, my guess is that he would counter these questions with a re-statement of his overall contention, which is that the continuation of certain trends seems almost inevitable. The Shanghai faction could return to power and push for less government control of the economy. Though Jacques does not mention such scenario, even if the Party is overthrown by massive popular disgust over corruption, others have suggested that the Army might be able to step in, form a “national salvation government,” and restore order. A military regime would only intensify the distinctly nativistic strains of Chinese society which Jacques considers central to its future attitude towards both other nations and its own proper role in the world.

Many will not readily accept the idea of America’s dramatic demise, but some believe that its demotion from superpower status may be far more precipitous than even Jacques says, though his book contains dire warnings of traumatic times to come for Americans, who he properly notes are almost totally unprepared for what is about to happen to them. The virtual bankruptcy of the West, including the United States, presages a huge and potentially sudden loss of power that would significantly shorten the time-lines which Jacques proposes.

Though he acknowledges the endemic corruption that pervades Chinese society, Jacques does not seem to grasp the debilitating effects of this upon people’s morale, nor does he say much about what Chinese themselves see as a corrosive moral rot that has eaten away the core of the civilization. At what point does such a country become almost ungovernable?

The growing role of younger leaders who have returned from the West, especially the Unites States, with significantly-altered perceptions and expectations, does not seem to count for much to him, either.

Another major problem with this otherwise powerful book is its utterly secular focus. Like most analysts, Jacques totally ignores the religious component of Chinese society, though he repeatedly refers to its Confucian moral basis. For him, the stunning growth of Christianity, especially among Chinese business and intellectual leaders, possesses no importance, if he is at all aware of this major trend. In the long run, however, he might be right even at this point, for Christianity has not been noted for muting nationalistic and imperialistic urges in previous eras and other areas of the world. A highly-supportive Chinese church could, indeed, provide fuel for the kind of worldwide reach that Jacques foretells, especially if some future Chinese “Constantine,” hard-pressed to hold his empire together, cleverly co-opts a church that by then might be only too eager to “influence” the government.

That brings us to what seems to be Jacque’s second main point, which I think he makes with almost irresistible force: Whatever happens in the future, China will not become a Westernized, neo-liberal nation, but a thoroughly Chinese society, with certain characteristics inherited from its long history and remarkably-powerful culture.

Thus, he concludes his book with a re-statement of “differences that define China” and which will largely color its future position in an increasingly Sino-centric world:

  1. China is not a nation-state in the modern sense, but a civilization-state. It finds its identity not in arbitrarily-defined boundaries (though these are important) but in its ancient culture and history. It will “search for inspiration, nourishment and parallels in its past,” both the millennia of glory and the “century of humiliation.” As before, the state will be “pivotal in society and as sacrosanct as it was in imperial times.”
  2. “China is increasingly likely to conceive of its relationship with East Asia in terms of a tributary-state, rather than nation-state, system,” in which the profound inequality of power (with China the undisputed leader) brings stability. Other countries, notably some in Africa, may be treated in the same way, not as equals, but as inferiors acknowledging the superiority of China.
  3. Chinese people possess a “distinctively Chinese attitude towards race and ethnicity.” Though history would indicate otherwise, Han Chinese believe that they are all derived from a common ancestry; that their race developed parallel to, and not derivative of, other races; and that they are superior to all others. Charges of racism will be angrily denied by Chinese themselves, but Jacques believes he has the evidence to demonstrate that “this is ingrained in the Chinese psyche.” Its “middle kingdom mentality” will cause China to “remain aloof, ensconced in a hierarchical new of humanity, its sense of superiority resting on a combination of cultural and racial hubris.”
  4. China will continue to operate on a “quite different continental-sized canvas to other nations.” It is really a combination of several, even many, different countries.” This unique character allows China to conduct experiments (like market reforms) in one area without necessarily applying them elsewhere.
  5. Chinese polity will remain distinct: The state has never been obliged to “share power with anyone else,” or to be accountable to the people. It has always “presided over society, supreme and unchallenged.” Of course, the Confucian morality which upholds the state, with its concept of the Mandate of Heaven, does include an implicit compact with the people. If the government fails to provide essential material sustenance, or allows corruption to go unbridled, it may forfeit its legitimacy and be replaced.
  6. “Chinese modernity… is distinguished by the speed of the country’s transformation.” For decades to come, it will contain both modernized urban areas and undeveloped rural regions. The past and the present will be juxtaposed upon each other for a protracted period, meaning that the force of history and tradition will make its influence felt for a long time.
  7. The Communist Party has ruled China since 1949. Characterized by flexibility and pragmatism, it constantly re-invents itself and thus has a good chance of remaining in power.
  8. China will, “for several decades to come, combine the characteristics of both a developed and a developing country,” with the sense of grievance shared by all formerly-colonized nations coupled with the power of an independent giant.

As a result of these “differences,” China will impact the world in ways and to an extent largely unanticipated by most Western thinkers. It will exercise influence more massively than the West, and in a manner distinctly Chinese.

“The greatest concern about China as a global power lies… [in] its deeply rooted superiority complex…If the calling card of the West has often been aggression and conquest, China’s will be its overweening sense of superiority and the hierarchical mentality that this has engendered.” (At this point, one is reminded of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and perhaps even more of the words of a Galilean peasant girl recorded in Luke 1:51-52.)

Here again, my only major question has to do with the growth of Christianity. If this faith takes root in Chinese culture, over several generations it could have a profound impact. Would it – perhaps for the first time in human history – nurture a spirit of national humility and gentleness? But that lies far in the future. For now, Jacques seems to have made a powerful case.