China

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.

Martin Jacques

The rise of China continues unabated. In a Western world that is constantly seduced by bearish sentiment about China’s economic and political prospects — and ultimately by the idea that its rise is unsustainable — this deserves to be constantly repeated. Otherwise we find ourselves diverted from the most fundamental geopolitical trend of our time, that China is in the process of changing the world as we know it.

This is not to ignore, or brush away, the many problems that China faces. The most important of these during the course of the last year has been the government’s twin struggle to reform the economy while maintaining its target growth rate of 7.5 percent. It is possible that the latter will prove unachievable and that the growth rate might settle down more in the region of 5 to 6 percent, but, especially in the context of what is clearly a major structural shift in the nature of the economy — which may already be rather more advanced than previously thought — this should be regarded as perfectly acceptable. What we should not expect is a hard landing, entailing a much lower growth rate, or some kind of implosion. This remains an extremely unlikely scenario.

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The term Chinese Dream has been used several times by President Xi Jinping since the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress in November 2012. The term has become a major focus of discussion in China. The paper below was given as a keynote speech at a major conference held in Shanghai last December.

The Chinese Dream is a new departure – both as a political idea and slogan. It is, for one thing, immediately accessible and, as a result, populist. Everyone knows about dreams, we all have them, whether in our sub-conscious or conscious state. Dreams belong to everyone. There is also a sense of freedom about dreams. When we dream we are not constrained by material circumstance or the real world, on the contrary we are allowed to escape from those kind of restraints. Dreams empower: they are highly personal, each and every one of us their author. The evocation of the word dream summons us all to be bold, to imagine the world not as it is but as it might be, how we would like it to be.

The term Chinese Dream is of the present: its moment has arrived. It would not have been appropriate in 1978. That was not the nature of the time. The term Chinese Dream urges the Chinese to move on, to think anew and afresh, to turn over a new page, to begin a new chapter. The Chinese Dream announces the beginning of something new but also the end of something: the end of the era of Deng Xiaoping.

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The following essay appeared in an edited, cut-down form on the China Daily website.

The challenges that China faces over the next decade are a product of changes in the country’s external environment together with the consequences of China’s home-grown transformation.

The external context has shifted in two profound respects. A decade ago, the Western economies still seemed in relatively robust health and were growing at a reasonable rate. Since 2008, that picture has changed dramatically. The Western economies are mired in a deep structural crisis which shows no sign of being resolved. This is the worst crisis of Western capitalism since the 1930s and it seems likely that the crisis has not yet even reached its halfway point. In other words, the Great Recession will last at least until the 19th Communist Party Congress, and perhaps even, in the case of Europe in particular, the 20th Congress in 2022.

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19/10/12 - BBC News Magazine and Radio 4

This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 26th, 2012, also available on the BBC News MagazineMissed the programme? Download it as a podcast or listen again on BBC iPlayer.

China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one annointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.

This week will witness an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. On Tuesday the next American president will be elected. Two days later, the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party will select the new Chinese president and prime minister.

The contrast could hardly be greater.

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26/10/12 - BBC News Magazine and Radio 4

This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 26th, 2012, also available on the BBC News MagazineMissed the programme? Download it as a podcast or listen again on BBC iPlayer.

I was on a taxi journey in Shanghai with a very intelligent young Chinese student, who was helping me with interviews and interpreting. She was shortly to study for her doctorate at a top American university. She casually mentioned that some Chinese students who went to the US ended up marrying Americans.

I told her that I had recently seen such a mixed couple in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman with a black American. This was clearly not what she had in mind. Her reaction was a look of revulsion. I was shocked. Why did she react that way to someone black, but not someone white? This was over a decade ago, but I doubt much has changed. What does her response tell us – if anything – about Chinese attitudes towards ethnicity?

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19/10/12 - BBC News Magazine and Radio 4

This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 19th, 2012, also available on the BBC News MagazineMissed the programme? Download it as a podcast or listen again on BBC iPlayer.

China is on course to becoming a superpower – but not in the way many expect, writes economist Martin Jacques.

Beijing these days is positively throbbing with debate. It may not have the trappings of a western-style democracy, but it is now home to the most important and interesting discussions in the world.

When I addressed an audience of young Chinese diplomats at their foreign ministry a year ago, it was abundantly clear that a fascinating debate is under way about what kind of foreign policy might be appropriate for the global power China is in the process of becoming.

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12/10/12 - BBC News Magazine and Radio 4

This is the script of the Point of View talk first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 12th, 2012.

China’s growing importance on the world stage means that the West needs to start speaking its language, says economist Martin Jacques.

My son has been learning Mandarin Chinese since he was five; he is now just 14.

It has not been easy. Learning Chinese has required a deep pocket and the determination of an Olympic athlete.

For nine years, he fed on the scraps of a veritable army of part-time tutors, each one lasting a year or so if we were lucky. The reason? Until 12 months ago it wasn’t possible for him to learn it at school – French, Spanish German, Latin, even Ancient Greek, no problem. But not Chinese.

Even now, alas, it is very much a second-class subject. His lessons take place during the school lunch break.

The reluctance of the educational system – public and private – to grasp the Chinese nettle is a metaphor for a much wider problem: our ignorance about China and our failure to appreciate just how much it will change the world and transform our lives. With unerring regularity, our predictions about China have proved mistaken. Take its economy. In 1980 it was one-20th of the size of the US, today it is half the size and closing rapidly. Throughout that period, the doubting Thomases were always in a large majority. It would not last, sooner or later it would all end in tears.

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There has been virtually no discussion or coverage of China’s intellectual debates in this country. Perhaps the assumption is that there isn’t one; or if there is, then it is of little consequence. This is wrong on both counts. There is an extremely vibrant intellectual debate in China on many questions. This belies the widely-held view in the west that because China is not a western-style democracy, serious argument and debate must be largely absent. In fact, the contrary is true. The arguments among Chinese intellectuals are, I would suggest, more interesting and more novel than is the case in Britain, or even the United States.

The reason for this is twofold. First, China is changing so quickly that it constantly throws up new challenges and problems that require response and solution. In contrast, an economy growing at 2 percent – or these days, of course, barely at all – poses new kinds of problems only occasionally. Second, not only is China changing with extraordinary rapidity, but since the turn of the century it has also been transforming the world with great speed (even if this remains barely recognised in Britain’s insular and blinkered public discourse). Chinese intellectuals are no longer confronted simply with how to handle the country’s domestic development but also with what kind of global power China should become. Far from China’s foreign policy debate being of interest only or mainly to the Chinese, it has enormous import for the rest of the world. If we want to understand what the world will be like as China steadily usurps the US as the dominant global power, then the starting place must be the debate within China about the country’s future foreign policy.

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Updated and expanded new Chinese edition just released.

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Turkish edition just published!

When China Rules the World is the first book to fully conceive of and explain the upheaval that China’s ascendance will cause and the realigned global power structure it will create.

New edition available now from:

Amazon UK
and all good booksellers.

US second edition is available now via: 

Amazon US