The following article by Martin Jacques was a contribution to the debate ‘Should the West worry about the threat to liberal values posed by China’s rise?‘, part of Economist Debates. It was originally published on the Economist website.
For long the West has thought that history is on its side, that the global future would and should be in its own image. With the end of the cold war and the implosion of the Soviet Union, this conviction became stronger than ever. The future was Western; nothing else was imaginable. Of course, already, well before the end of the cold war, in 1978 to be exact, China had started its epic modernisation such that, in the annals of history, 1978 will surely prove to be a far more significant year than 1989. During China’s rise, hubris continued to shape the West’s perception and understanding of China. As the latter modernised it would become increasingly Western, it was supposed: Deng’s reforms marked the beginning of the privatisation and marketisation of the Chinese economy—its political system would in time become Western, otherwise China would inevitably fail.
China’s political system did not turn Western. The state continues to be a very powerful force in the country’s economy. China remains very distinctive from the West—and has gone from strength to strength in the process. China never had the long-predicted economic crisis that so many Westerners forecast, nor the great political revolt that was destined to deliver Western-style democracy. Instead economic crisis and political crisis befell the West. The Western financial crisis in 2007-08 was the worst since the early 1930s. By 2015-16 its political consequences were upending Western politics, sounding the death-knell of neo-liberalism, undermining the governing elites and weakening governing institutions.
The West—both the United States and the European Union—is, in historical terms, in precipitous decline. The developing world, led by China and India, now accounts for just under 60% of global GDP, compared with around 33% in the mid-1970s. The great story of the post-war era has been the rise of the developing world, representing around 85% of humanity, and the decline of the old developed world, accounting for around 15% of humanity. The developing world has learnt much from the West but it is not, and will not be, Western. China is the classic case in point. It is not even mainly a nation-state. It is, first and foremost, a civilisation-state, a concept that the West has not begun to try and understand. The relationship between state and society is profoundly different from that in the West, and so is its tradition of governance. It was never expansionist in the manner of western Europe and America. China has a very different culture and history to that of the West. We should not expect it or require it to be Western.
The rise of Europe transformed the world. The rise of America did the same, though enjoying strong lines of continuity with Europe. China will likewise transform the world, but probably on a much greater scale than either Europe or America, mainly because it is that much larger. To think otherwise is both unrealistic and ahistorical. Western hegemony has left a huge imprint on the world, but it was never destined to last for ever. Hegemons are never eternal. To expect China to become a Western-style country in an American-shaped world was always an illusion. But nor should we expect China to delete that world and replace it with something entirely different.
That would be the antithesis of the Chinese tradition. China has an essentially hybrid view of the world, yin and yang. Unlike the Western tradition, which majors on singularity, Chinese thinking values plurality. In this, it also differs profoundly from the Soviet tradition, which had a Manichean and monolithic view of the world. The Chinese are highly pragmatic. There are many things that they greatly admire, and draw from, in the Western tradition, and will continue to do so. Unlike the West, they do not consider themselves to be a model for anyone else and have therefore not sought to impose themselves on others in the manner of the West. It is noteworthy, for example, how few wars China has fought. That is one reason why, for many centuries, East Asia was far more peaceful than Europe. Do not expect the Chinese to behave in the same aggressive military fashion that Europe did in its days of imperial pomp, or as America still does.
But equally we should not expect “Western values”, masquerading in this debate as “liberal values”, to survive pristine and unaltered. There are many traditions and many civilisations that inform the world. The West comprises a very small minority of humanity. The future will not be singular in the manner that the West has long believed it should be, but plural and hybrid, no doubt with a strong Chinese flavour. The East Asian tradition, China included, for example, is far more communal, collective and familial than the individualism of the West. Do not fear the future: it will be different, in some respects it may be worse, in many others it may be much better. Bear in mind too, that there is not much liberal, and nothing that is democratic, about the American world order, or the European one before, which was in fact much worse. In both cases a small minority of humanity in effect ruled the world. Internationally, the age of the West has been highly authoritarian.
The greatest danger is not the rise of China but how the United States will react to China’s rise and its own consequent loss of primacy. The rise of illiberalism in America is not an accident. It coincides with the dawning recognition of American decline and a desperate desire to prevent it. It should be remembered that the heyday of Western democracy corresponded with the zenith of Western hegemony. But can the West’s democracy survive the decline of Western global dominance? If the West is able to retain and renew its best values, in a world in which it enjoys a much diminished role and China is predominant, such a world will be the better for it.