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.
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.
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.
Books about China ruling the world used to be prefaced by “if”. Now, more often, they are preceded by the assumptive “when”. Such is the age we live in. Martin Jacques’ 550-pager on the ascent of China finds little space to consider the question of whether its rapid economic progress is unstoppable. It ignores almost entirely the other popular – and perfectly plausible – premise for books on the Middle Kingdom: “When China’s miracle goes phut”.
Jacques’ book is based on the extrapolation that, by 2050, China will be the biggest economy in the world, surpassing the US and India which, by then, will be third. By virtue of what Jacques calls the “merciless measure” of gross domestic product, China will be politically and militarily the most powerful country in the world.
THERE have been many rivals for America’s crown as the world’s greatest power. In the 1950s the Soviet Union threatened its military hegemony; in the 1980s Japan challenged its economic might. These days the pretender is China. The evidence of America’s decline seems obvious. The limits of its military power were exposed after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the flaws of its capitalist system were revealed by the global financial crisis that started on Wall Street. The West now looks to China to prop up its financial system, and to the Chinese consumer to stimulate the global economy.
Is the long era of Western dominance, first by European powers and then by America, finally coming to an end? For Martin Jacques, a British commentator and recently a visiting professor at universities in China, Japan and Singapore, the answer is clear. The title of his book says it all: “When China Rules the World”.
A certain genre of Western literature can be summed up by the title of one of its earliest entries, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in 1918. As the title suggests, the author had a dire view of Western democracy. The defeat of fascism in the Second World War ought to have cheered everyone up, but the guns had barely stopped firing before we had books such as The West at Bay, by British economist Barbara Ward, about the “Communist challenge,” and Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, an even more sober assessment of that challenge. Chambers was sure the West was going to lose this battle for hearts and minds.
Even relatively tame Japan loomed as a menace to the West in the ’80s. I recall one book, whose title I forget, predicting a new Asian Pacific war between the United States and Japan — a classic instance of Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror. Since the ’90s, the invincible Japanese, those economic if not military giants, have been humbled by their own woes and have ceased to trouble the dreams of the West, and the United States in particular.
Here’s an uplifting read. British author Martin Jacques believes the United States will soon lose its position as the world’s dominant power to China and is totally unprepared for the change.
The provocative title of this new book conjures up visions of Asian hordes storming America’s shores. But Jacques’ thesis is far more subtle and ultimately troubling. While many Americans might be open to the possibility of China becoming top dog some day, we tend to assume that in the process, the Chinese will somehow be “Westernized,” or at least settle comfortably into the familiar Western-dominated global system.