Discussions about China’s rise and its global impact have been growing more heated over the years. Martin Jacques (Jacques), a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University and author of When China Rules the World, shared his thoughts with Global Times (GT) London correspondent Sun Wei.
GT: In your book When China Rules the World, you argued that “China will become the dominant global power within decades, and it won’t become more westernized but will make the rest of the world more Chinese.” Do you still stick to this conclusion now?
Jacques: Yes, very much so. Of course, as China has become increasingly integrated into the global economy, it is being influenced by other countries and cultures, especially Western. But as China rises, it is clear that it is exercising a growing influence on the world. Countries around the world are looking to China, and pivoting to China because they see China as increasingly central to their own futures. This is abundantly clear in East Asia, but also Africa and indeed Europe. Major European countries, notably Germany, France and the UK, are more and more orientating themselves towards China. If Westernisation was the dominant trend for over two centuries, we are now seeing the beginnings of a process of Sinicisation. That doesn’t mean that Westernisation is no longer important, but it is no longer the overwhelming influence that it was in the past. What is remarkable since the publication of my book in English in 2009 is now far this process has gone in such a short period – and this is only the beginning of the process.
GT: UK has been leading among Western countries in adopting a more pragmatic policy toward China. Why is that? Will other European countries and the US follow UK’s suit eventually?
Jacques: The UK has shifted closer to China. The shift was big. When the Conservative government came in, they were less friendly toward China compared to the previous Labour government. The question is why they shifted. They have shifted because their worldview has significantly changed. They were thinking in typically Western-centric ways before. Britain was the closest US ally. They never allow any distance to be developed between the US and Britain.
The shift is a recognition about China’s rise and how the world was changing, China is going to be extremely important in future, probably the biggest economy in the world. Britain started to align itself close to China, and that persuaded them to join the AIIB. Even thinking about joining the AIIB is extraordinary.
The second reason they joined is about interests. Britain is short of money. Britain is thinking China might help with our nuclear industry, high-speed rail, and of course there is the issue of the city of London and the yuan. Britain is thinking that the yuan in time would be the most important currency, and the city of London could be a major hub for the yuan.
In terms of relationship with China, I think that Britain was a laggard in Europe. Germany was the first country and the close relationship with China goes back to 1980s. France was ahead. Britain took this opportunity with the AIIB to steal a march.
European countries are shifting significantly to China over the last few years. They are short of money. China does give them huge opportunities to help them with the economic difficulties.
And there is no reason for them to think of China really as a threat. Because they don’t have any geopolitical ambitions. They used to but not now as they are declining. They don’t have to think about China in those terms because they have no presence in East Asia.
The US is in a completely different situation. America is the global hegemon. It thinks itself the boss of the world. Most Americans deny their decline. Maintaining US global hegemony is extremely important for them. So the American position is more backward, more anti-Chinese.
GT: The UK is going to hold a national referendum on June 23 to decide whether to remain in the EU. What’s the chance of British voting to leave EU?
Jacques: I think it’s a real possibility. Opinions are becoming more negative towards it.
In the 1975 referendum, the vote was something like 65% to 35%. It was an overwhelming vote to stay. Now the polls are almost evenly split. Why? Europe has had lots of problems after financial crisis.
Immigration became a big issue. There were fears about immigrants supposedly snatching up jobs, places in school, housing, and so on.
Also, Britain is always being enthusiastic about Europe. Because it’s an island, its border is English Channel, it’s not like being France, Germany or Italy. Islands think differently. The Labour party is more pro Europe. The Conservative party has always been divided. Now the majority of the Conservative party is against European. Older people tend to be more hostile to the EU. People between 18 and 30 years old are pro EU. Anyone above 50 is much more likely to anti-EU. They are nostalgic about the past.
Personally I think Britain will stay, because to leave is a drastic decision. People will think: well, wait a minute, we have to be careful here. A lot of people say consequences could be very serious. So I think when it comes to it, people will vote to stay. It’s more like the Scottish referendum, where it was closer than people thought but still a no.
GT: If Britain votes to leave, what will be the consequences in terms of EU and Britain’s global influence?
Jacques: In losing Britain, which is one of the most important three members of the EU, the EU’s global influence would be reduced.
For Britain, the people in favour of Brexit would say we can do our own trade deals. I don’t believe it. I think the British attitude is romantic and nostalgic to when Britain was great. “We can do it on our own.” That’s how they think.
If they vote to leave, the country would collapse. It would strengthen the backward thinking about the world and British relationship with the world. Cameron and Osborne would have to go. You’d probably get Boris Johnson. He is very opportunist. He calls for leaving just to boost his own chances of becoming prime minister.
GT: To what extent would the result influence UK’s policy toward China and UK-China relationship?
Jacques: Cameron and Osborne’s attitude toward China are not quite representative of the country. They are in advance of public opinion. During President Xi’s visit last year, the government was very positive about China. But the newspapers were terrible. They were actually quite isolated.
But the argument has been moved. When my book (When China Rules the World) was published in 2009, it caused huge discussion and disagreement. It was well outside of the mainstream. Now it’s not that far away from the mainstream. There has been a little shift in opinion.
GT: Bearish view on China’s economy is popular in the West. In March, ratings firms Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Service have downgraded China’s government debt outlook. How should we view these negative views on China’s economic prospect?
Jacques: I think there are always strong attitudes in the West toward China. I don’t think it’s ever gone away. What’s new is people talk about it more, because China matters more now. They are more concerned and worried about it.
GT: The World Bank forecast last week that China’s economic growth will decline to 6.7 percent this year and further contract to 6.5 percent next year owing to deceleration in real estate and manufacturing. How should we look at this forecast?
Jacques: The reason why there is always an underlining bearish sentiment about China’s economy is political. There is a consensus in the west, China’s political system is fragile and lack legitimacy. At some point, there is going to be a big economic crisis.
Not everyone believes this but it’s very common in the West. They can’t believe in a country that has Chinese history, the Communist Party as the major party, no Western style democracy, can deliver the goods. They still think there is something going to go wrong. So the underlying reason is a political one. And 6.7 percent is not a bad forecast. None of this means that we are going to have a hard landing.
GT: What do you think about China’s current economic transformation? Are you confident to its result? Why?
Jacques: The shift in the economic model in China is a great challenge. There are three key facets: the structural shift, maintaining the growth rate at 6-7 percent, and dealing with the negative consequences of the stimulus program, notably the various bubbles. This will not be easy. This will not be easy for the Chinese authorities because it involves new kinds of challenges and policy instruments that they are not familiar with. They have made some mistakes, for example in dealing the stock market. But this is understandable and inevitable. I am confident that China will succeed in shifting to a new economic model but it will take time and there will be plenty of bad moments on the way.