Henry Kissinger, On China. New York: Penguin Press, 2011, pp. 608, ISBN 978 1 5942 0271 1.

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. London: Allen Lane, 2009, pp. 576, ISBN 978 0 7139 9254 0.

The two books by Henry Kissinger and Martin Jacques remind me of European writings on China during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Whether reported by commercial or military officials operating off the coasts of China or by Jesuits working in the Qing court, they focused on the wealth and power of that empire. Some outlined ways of managing a relationship that would profit their masters back in Europe; others were impressed by how the Chinese governed their peoples and sought to understand the values which made that state so strong.
For the next 200 years, the story was largely different. From respect and some degree of awe, attitudes shifted to increasing contempt for a system that was decaying. Writings described the people as poor and divided, confused by the empires and ideologies that competed for attention, and chastened by knowing that their civilisation was inferior to one based on science and industrial capitalism. There was also pity for an industrious people who had been let down by incompetent leaders. Even the Chinese themselves began to believe that their civilisation was doomed and only violent revolution could save their country.
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TWO THOUSAND AND NINE has been a momentous year for the world, but especially for China. Late last year, with the Olympics barely over, the global financial crisis delivered a body blow to its economy. Facing the disastrous decline of export markets and the jobs they supported, the government engineered a major stimulus package, and the country now seems to have staged a miraculous recovery. And while economists continue to debate the dimensions and downstream costs of the policies behind the upturn, China has been taking a great propaganda windfall from the financial embarrassment of many western states, not least the United States. Even Australia, which suffered less than most, has owed its resilience primarily to China and – if you believe the media – has found itself on the back foot in a whole series of its dealings with that country.

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