UK

This article appears in the Church of England Newspaper, August 21, 2009 edition, on page 16.

One interpretation of the global economic crisis is that it marks an important moment in the shift of power from the US to China. In his new book When China Rules the World (Penguin, £ 30.00) Martin Jacques argues that the fact that China is such a huge creditor and the US such a colossal debtor ‘reflects a deep shift in the economic balance of power between the two countries’. He sees China seeking to establish a new international reserve currency to replace the dollar and pushing to create an alternative to the the IMF, a the body in which China participates but which it has criticised in the past.

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We are now witnessing a historic change destined to transform the world. Not bad, that, for an attention-getting opening, and it is a foretaste of many provocative statements in this hand grenade of a book.

Such as the subtitle: The Rise Of The Middle Kingdom (China) And The End Of The Western World. The end? How soon? Oh, in a mere 20 or 30 years.

Economic forecasters at Goldman Sachs predict that China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2027. By 2050, China’s economy will be twice the size of those of the U.S. and India, its only rivals. The only European economies in the top ten will be the UK (ninth) and Germany (10th).

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This long and repetitive book is exactly about what it says on the cover. Unlike Martin Jacques I hesitate to say the same thing again and again, but his point is that the Chinese have a very long, tenacious, unified, and enduring culture that is overtaking the ‘West’ – he means the United States, a country of recent origin compared to the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilisation-state. Some time in the mid-term future the Chinese will be global masters.

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MARTIN JACQUES’S MAMMOTH study of the rise of China begins well enough, emphasising the country’s otherness while insisting that otherness does not have to mean alien. He is frank, too, about China’s unembarrassed racial and hierarchic view of the world. He is also right to dismiss demands for instant democracy as impracticable, though perhaps an innate anti-Americanism prevents him adding that they usually come from the people who smirk at US naivety in seeking to impose it on Iraq.

Very soon, however, his zealotry in cutting the West down to size becomes tiresome. The rise of China is to be welcomed, and there might be something in his thesis that for the first time since the rise of the nation-state (China, he argues is a civilisation-state) modernity will not be an exclusively western concept.

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Watching Tim Geithner, the US treasury secretary, in Beijing last month, it was easy to be struck by how times have changed. Most visiting American dignitaries not long ago seized the opportunity to harangue the Chinese over human rights, or over their undervalued currency that was unfairly helping export sales at the expense of competitors. Geithner instead beseeched the Chinese to keep buying US government bonds, as they have done by the hundreds of billions, or else sink the US by impairing its ability to raise money. He went out of his way to reassure the Chinese that the steps taken by the Obama administration were going to work to restore growth.

The collapsed global economy stands as a damning criticism of unfettered capitalism and the light regulation that would seem to separate the West from countries such as China. As if that were not a big enough blow, the West has also taken to asking China for far greater assistance with a host of other problems, from North Korea to the environment. China isn’t on the ascent any more; it has risen.

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Martin Jacques has written movingly and angrily about the death of his Indian-Malaysian wife in a Hong Kong hospital, claiming that the tragedy arose from a deep Chinese prejudice against anyone with a dark skin. So it comes as quite a surprise to discover that, far from warning of the dangers of a world likely to be dominated by a racist superpower, the author admires the Chinese enormously and views China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” with a remarkable degree of equanimity.

Jacques claims that “In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position”, and discusses sensitively and in depth what it means to be the “middle kingdom”. He also argues that China is essentially a “civilisation state” rather than a western-style nation state. “The term civilisation normally suggests a rather distant and indirect influence and an inert and passive presence,” he notes. “In China’s case, however, it is not only history that lives but civilisation itself: the notion of a living civilisation provides the primary identity and context by which the Chinese think of their country and define themselves.”

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Well before it was published, even before the author had typed his final chapters, this book was causing a stir. What Martin Jacques set out to do – and has done in meticulous detail – was to challenge what he regards as a dangerously false premise: that the rise of China will be benign. Don’t lull yourself into a false sense of security, he warns. China’s ascent to global dominance is inevitable, and the Western world has much to fear.

In so saying, Jacques takes on a formidable global establishment and breaks a series of taboos. Chief among them is the idea that Western civilisation reflects the pinnacle of universal achievement and that the success of individual countries will forever be measured by how closely they match that model.

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The first problem with this book is its title. There is no prospect of China ruling the world. This is a country whose uncertainties of identity and economic frailties prevent it from ever projecting hegemonic hard and soft power. Its authoritarian institutions, far from being a source of strength, are a source of weakness. China is simultaneously big but poor, powerful but weak. And there, until wholesale political change occurs, it will stay, notwithstanding its considerable growth rates and economic achievement. Indeed, its current economic model, dependent on high exports and mountainous savings, is disintegrating, as both insiders and close observers recognise.

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The subject of this long (much too long) book is important: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a fast-rising power and the rest of the world had better take note. China’s challenge to the democratic world is perhaps greater than the Soviet Union’s ever was, because of its economic success. The mixture of autocracy and capitalism is an attractive model to authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians everywhere.

Martin Jacques, however, is not concerned with politics. Culture, history, tradition, roots, race, “China’s genetic structure”, are what interest him. He believes that a future clash between “the West” (a concept he does not define) and China will be a cultural one. The Chinese, he writes, have always regarded their civilisation as superior, and the rest of the world as barbarians. To be Chinese, he explains, is to belong to a superior race. This means China’s world leadership will result in a “cultural and racial reordering of the world in the Chinese image”. Apart from the fact that “race” is a relatively modern concept, I’m not sure what this would mean. That the African lingua franca will be Chinese? That foreign diplomats will have to offer tributary gifts to the Communist party secretary in Beijing? The main point seems to be that western norms will no longer be regarded as universal. But if we leave politics out of this, the significance remains obscure.

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On his first visit to China as US treasury secretary, at the start of this month, Timothy Geithner attempted to reassure an audience at Peking University that there is no need to worry about the enormous holdings China has built up in US government bonds. “Chinese assets are very safe,” he declared. Geithner’s statement produced loud laughter from the largely student audience.

Unlike most western commentators, who still give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, China’s emerging elite know there is no prospect that the United States will pay back its debts at anything like their current value. The only way the US can repay its vast borrowings is by debasing the dollar – a process in which China will inevitably be short-changed. Significantly, the students’ response was not anger, but derision – a clear sign of how the US is now perceived. Resentment at US power is being replaced by contempt, as the impotence and self-deception of the American political class in the face of the country’s problems become increasingly evident.

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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