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.
Jacques, a well-known journalist, once-editor of Marxism Today and now a columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman, lived for some years in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. In his introduction he thanks dozens of friends and colleagues, some of whom, he says, saved him from ‘mistakes and indiscretions’. I don’t know what he was saved from, but what remains is peppered with basic errors of fact so serious that they mar the reasonable things he says. While not original, these include a potted account, repeated many times, of China’s post-Mao economy, an overview of China’s traditional technological developments that I assumed owed much to Joseph Needham’s multi- volume study of that subject, but there is no mention of this in the bibliography; China’s recent entry into the multi-state system; its influence on the rest of the Third World; the recent loss of status, economically and in reputation of ‘the West’, by which, as I say, he usually means the US; Chinese cultural-physical racism. If you know nothing of these matters and pick your way through Jacques’ assertions and judgments there is something to learn.
But what weakens this book fatally in my judgment, and makes it another revelation that editors don’t edit much any more and experts called in to vet a text either don’t care or don’t bother, are the mistakes, large and small, which disclose, from their absence in Jacques’ bibliography, what he doesn’t know.
A few small but emblematic examples: the Chinese written language is not ‘pictographic’; Shanghainese is not a variant of Mandarin; China has not resisted alphabetisation — there is a useful alphabetical form of the written language, ‘pinyin’, which most Chinese children and plenty of foreigners learn first; the influence of the Tiananmen killings was not limited — there were related uprisings, large and small, in several hundred Chinese cities, and using the word ‘Tiananmen’ on the internet can bring a knock on the door; the Olympic opening ceremony was not a total success — it was marked by fakery, including the dubbed little girl singing, and the Games themselves were marred by the arrests of dissidents and the prevention of any public criticism.
The fundamental flaw in this book, however, is Jacques’ swallowing whole the lowest common denominator of the Chinese self-image, available from taxi- drivers and the four students Jacques quotes at length. That is, that China has existed more or less in essence for 5,000 years, and even alien conquerors, like the Mongols (the Yuan, 1280-1368) and Manchus (the Qing, 1644-1912) adopted Chinese ways as soon as they could. It is true that there are some Chinese who say this but it is no longer the unquestioning notion of educated people inside or outside China. None of the present scholars on the Manchus, notably Pamela Crossley and Evelyn S. Rawski, are listed in Jacques’ bibliography. These historians emphasise how malleable the ‘alien’ rule was; sometimes alien, sometimes ‘Chinese’, depending on what seemed needed. For example, Manchu women could not bind their feet Chinese-style, and Chinese men were forced to wear the Manchu pigtail. Manchu rule varied with the part of China in which it was exercised, using different languages to issue commands, and using different modes of bureaucracy.
Nor did Confucianism start in the Qin, several hundred years after Confucius, and far from it being the state ideology, as Jacques says repeatedly, what emerged in the Qin was a very tough, controlling, punitive ideology that Confucius would not have recognised. Mao, who loathed Confucianism, admired it. Nor, as Jacques asserts, was the State unchallenged in traditional China: there were countless secret societies, cults and regional leaders ever threatening the centre and the provinces. Mao admired them too. As Michael Loewe says in the Cambridge History of China, Volume I (this great series is also absent from Jacques’ bibliography):
From 20th Ch’in and Han periods, when this process of uniformity was first being developed, it is necessary to peer behind the apparent exterior to find the traces of a whole host of belief and practices on which official Chinese records preferred to keep silent.
This is true for all Chinese history, up to the present, and Jacques has neglected to peer, so dazzled is he by the lowest standard of conception about China, rather like thinking of Britain as fairness, cricket, warm beer, and ‘fayres’.
As for Mao himself, here Jacques finds an ally in Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who recently noted in a Times interview that Hitler ‘got things done’, but went wrong when he got into bad company. Jacques notes that ‘notwithstanding his colossal abuses of power, which resulted in the deaths of millions’, Mao founded the unified and independent state, ‘and is still widely venerated’. Having used ‘notwithstanding’, he slides over to another weasel-word: ‘Despite the calamities of the Great Leap Forward [30 to 50 million dead] and the Cultural Revolution, [more dead millions] both of which Mao has been responsible for…’. In a book of well over 500 pages, this is the only mention of these particular Maoist horrors, neither of which appears in the index. He notes that Mao’s portrait still hangs over Tiananmen Square. Of course: in May 1989 three men hurled paint at it and were jailed for many years. It is not veneration that keeps others from taking it down.
Jacques asserts that no one wants Party rule to end, or democracy. But I heard hundreds of thousands in Tiananmen Square shouting ‘Down with the Party’ in May 1989. Many of them were soon murdered. And one of the founders of the Chinese Democratic Party, Xu Wenli, recently completed a 16-year prison sentence. The heirs of Mao have taken great care to crush opposition.
Jacques disparages those who regard ‘Communist regimes as the devil incarnate’. None of the significant works of scholarship that reveal this devil and all his works, by Roderick MacFarquhar, Michael Schoenhals, Edward Friedman, Paul Picowicz, Mark Selden, Merle Goldman, Robin Munro, and Ralph Thaxton to name but a few, occur in Jacques’ suggestions for further reading or his bibliography, nor do the many volumes on Mao by Stuart Schram.
According to Jacques, ever since Confucius’s disciple Mencius (551-479 BC) said so, Chinese peasants have had the heaven-granted right to rebel. Official historians, however, granted this ‘right’ only after a dynasty fell, and in any event most Chinese have never heard of Mencius. Rebellion against the dynasty was number one in the list of Ten Abominations that led to execution. Jacques then dives over the top — perhaps assisted by the devil incarnate — when he says that this traditional right of rebellion took the form in the ‘Communist era’ of the ‘right of the proletariat to resist and defeat the bourgeoisie’. Bourgeoisie was the term applied to the tens of thousands of writers, artists, scientists, academics, Party members and leaders, and many others deemed to be worthy of torment and death in the Mao years. Now Jacques is optimistic: China he says, ‘is possessed of a 5,000-year history and an extremely long memory … it is blessed with the virtue of patience, confident in the belief that history is on its side … in the 21st century [China’s mentality] will come to fruition’. Lucky Martin Jacques. He is a ‘bourgeois’. If he had been a Chinese in those not so distant terrible years, he would have been a victim.