It is difficult to underestimate the significance of the recent transformation in relations between the UK and China. There are many examples in recent years of countries moving towards a closer relationship with China: the distinctiveness – and significance – of the British case lies in the fact that the UK has regarded itself – and been seen as – America’s closest ally ever since the Second World War.
Illustration by Matt Kenyon
The west’s bears have always well outnumbered the bulls when it comes to the Chinese economy. A new problem is all too often seen as an intimation of impending crisis, a hard landing, consequent social instability, and perhaps the eventual collapse of the regime. Dream on.
The bears, it goes without saying, have a dreadful record. After 35 years of extraordinary economic growth, China is still growing at 7% annually. True, that is lower than before, but still at a rate that dwarfs anything in the west.
One of the great weaknesses of so much western economic commentary is that it fails to look much beyond the next quarter’s, or even month’s, results. In contrast the Chinese understand where they have come from, where they are and where they need to go. Nor are they complacent: the Chinese leadership readily admits it faces quite new economic challenges.
There is an overwhelming assumption in the West that China’s Achilles heel is the state: that it lacks legitimacy. This is the underlying reason why Westerners believe that China’s transformation is unsustainable: that the political system cannot survive. It would be wrong to suggest that attitudes have not shifted: the endurance of the reform period, now over 35 years old, and the scale of its achievement have bred a growing if still grudging respect, and a less apocalyptic view of Chinese political change. Few now regard it to be imminent and many have extended their time horizons somewhat into the future.
Nevertheless, most Westerners still regard China’s present political order as lacking legitimacy and as ultimately unsustainable. In the post 1945 period, Westerners have come to believe that Western-style democracy – essentially universal suffrage and a multi-party system – is more or less the sole source of a government’s legitimacy. This is a superficial and ahistorical position. Western-style democracy does not ensure the legitimacy of a regime in the eyes of its people: Italy is perhaps the classic example, with successive governments over a long historical period experiencing a chronic lack of legitimacy. And what of China? Although it does not have Western-style democracy, there is plenty of evidence – for example the Pew Global Attitude surveys and the work of Tony Saich at the Harvard Kennedy School – that the Chinese government enjoys high levels of support and legitimacy, much higher indeed than those of Western governments.
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The UK’s decision to become a founder member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a major historical event. Until then no Western country, with the exception of New Zealand, had signed up to join, not least because of intense American pressure. The UK, moreover, cannot be counted as any old Western nation; on the contrary, ever since 1945, it has been the US’s closest ally. For British politicians, Conservative and Labour alike, the ‘special relationship’, as it has been known, was sacrosanct. A decade ago, the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So how do we explain Britain’s about-turn?
The UK is certainly not what it was. Along with the other major European nations, its relative strength in the world has declined precipitously, accelerated in the recent period by the western financial crisis. Today its economy is barely bigger than it was in 2007. Unsurprisingly in such circumstances, economic and commercial considerations have loomed ever larger in the public mind while foreign policy concerns have come to be seen as something of a luxury. This shift in priorities has been accentuated by the dismal failure of the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the more recent one in Libya.
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Martin Jacques is the author of ‘When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’ (Penguin, 2012), and a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University.
To all intents and purposes, Europe – including the UK – is more or less frozen. It is still living in the dark shadow cast by the financial crisis. This is the era of stagnation, and it may last for another decade or more. So we can expect that not too much will happen in 2015 – except, of course, in terms of the political fallout from such a condition. While the US is clearly more dynamic, this is overshadowed by its tumultuous decline as a global power. Which brings us to China.
The preoccupation of the western media and financial analysts with China’s reduced economic growth rate has served, once more, to divert attention from the continuing enormity of the changes taking place in China: from the anti-corruption drive and judicial reforms, to the Shanghai free-trade zone and the rise of consumption. However, as 2014 drew to a close, what began to capture global attention was China’s growing dominance in east Asia.
The reforms that count tend to conform to the western model, writes Martin Jacques
In the west there is an underlying assumption that the Achilles heel of China is its political system. Since the country lacks western-style democracy, its system of governance is unsustainable. Ultimately, China will be obliged to adopt our kind of political system.
Yet China’s governance system has been remarkably successful for more than three decades. It has presided over the greatest economic transformation in modern history.
Hong Kong’s chief executive says he is willing to hold talks with the demonstrators who have camped out for days now in the city’s financial center. This came as a response to a request from the protesters.
Students are demanding more freedom on choosing the candidates for Hong Kong’s next leadership election in 2017. They also want the Chief Executive, CY Leung, to resign. Leung has said he will not resign. Beijing has called the protests illegal and has supported the Hong Kong leadership. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the protest was illegitimate when he met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Yi also urged protesters to withdraw.
Martin Jacques, a senior fellow at Cambridge University and author of “When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order”, joins CCTV America to discuss the latest developments in the demonstrations.
“For 155 years, the British ruled Hong Kong but they never gave universal suffrage. So, Hong Kong under the British was never a democracy. It became an issue only during the handover of Hong Kong from the British to China. For the British it was not important to give universal suffrage when they ruled it,” Jacques said.
Gaiko is the leading publication in Japan on foreign policy issues
Gaiko is the leading publication in Japan on foreign policy issues
In April this year the World Bank’s International Comparison Program projected that during the course of 2014 China’s GDP (measured by ppp) would exceed that of the United States. Although widely anticipated to happen in the next several years, hardly anyone expected it to be this year. But, it should be noted, the West has consistently underestimated the speed of China’s rise. As a result, it has been, and remains, consistently behind the curve of China’s rise, with the consequence that it constantly underestimates the extent to which the world has changed because of China’s transformation.
Of course, economic power does not translate immediately and directly into political power. On the contrary, if we look at the rise of previous hegemons, notably the UK in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth century, there has always been a significant time lag between their emergence as great economic powers and their subsequent arrival as major hegemonic powers enjoying broader political, cultural and military as well as economic influence. That said, however, economic power was the fundamental pre-condition for, and prelude to, their emergence as global hegemons. The same will be true of China.