Amid the avalanche of summer reading crashing on to my desk falls another hefty tome about China’s re-emergence as a global power.
The theme is familiar: the present century will belong to Asia in general and to China in particular. The book’s title, When China Rules the World, permits none of the doubts and vacillation about the future course of events that often afflict this columnist.
By unhappy accident, publication has coincided with the most serious unrest since the Cultural Revolution, in China’s Xinjiang province. More than 150 have been killed in ethnic clashes. Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, this week felt obliged to cancel his appearance at the Group of Eight summit in Italy to fly back to Beijing.
Skipping a gathering of some of the world’s most powerful politicians was no small thing for the leader of a regime that that places a high premium on the image it shows the rest of the world. Yet it was also a reminder that China’s politicians are rarely quite as confident as western observers about their country’s destiny. In my experience, the west’s awe is as often as not matched by China’s anxiety.
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The country’s trajectory and the change in its people’s values and aspirations are cause for heated debate. Two experts go head to head
It is now widely recognised that the balance of economic power is shifting from the rich world to the developing world. Indeed, the role accorded to the G20 rather than the G8 in seeking to tackle the financial crisis is a vivid illustration of this. But what is not recognised – and has been barely discussed – are the political and cultural ramifications of the rise of the developing countries. That, I suspect, is because there is a deeply held western view that they will – and should – end up as clones of western modernity: in other words, there is only one modernity and it is western. This is a fallacy. Modernity is a product of culture and history as much as markets and technology. The central question here is China: will it end up like us or will it be something very different and, as a result, change the world in very fundamental ways?
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This week, I received an e-mail from a friend in Tokyo tagged: “Greetings from Number Three, Japan.” He was mourning the passing of an era.
The quarterly numbers he was alluding to suggest that, even in dollar terms, China is now the world’s second-biggest economy. There it will remain until, catastrophe or stagnation aside, it overtakes the US to become Number One.
Dollar comparisons are pretty arbitrary, as much influenced by currency fluctuations as by economic activity. They do not take into account that it is much cheaper to buy a house, a meal or a foot massage in Beijing than in Tokyo. In purchasing power terms, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s nearly a decade ago. But symbolism counts. And by that measure, China’s usurpation indeed ushers in a new order. For the first time since 1968, when Japan overhauled the then West Germany to become the second-largest capitalist economy, there is a new pretender to the US throne.
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