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.
None of this, however, requires an orgy of self-abasement by the rest of us. Yes, pre-colonialist China was more advanced than the West recognised, though it is nonsense to suggest, like guilt-stricken American academics – notably the MIT professor Peter Perdue – that 18th-century China was pretty much up there with Europe.
Where was the new science, the freedom of philosophical enquiry, the intellectual ferment, let alone the political and constitutional advance in the autocratic empire of Kangxi and his successors?
And let’s not forget that empire. Western colonisation is ritualistically denounced while China’s tributary system gets an easier ride. “There is no more powerful demonstration of the advanced nature of Confucian civilisation and the hegemonic system it exercised over the peoples around its borders,” we are told of the Sinification of conquered peoples.
Try saying that about Christianity in Africa or US hegemony in South America and the book’s dual standards come glaringly to light.
It is the same with democracy. Rushing reform, Jacques contends, reasonably, could destabilise the country. Chinese democracy, when it comes, will be expressive of the country’s traditions and of “age-old systems of belief”. Witch-dunking or Jim Crow attitudes reflected age-old beliefs, too, and in China the venerable traditions tend to be anti-individualist and authoritarian – one of the reasons it ended up with communism.
A more authoritarian editor would have suppressed several passages. “The Chinese Communist regime has, after all, succeeded where the Soviet Union failed.” Relatives of the 70 million murdered or starved to death during the first half of that regime might disagree. It was when the Party stopped being communist that, materially at least, it succeeded. Statistical arguments can be misleading, too. Certainly China’s economy could be the world’s largest by 2040 – which means it could be 30 years before its per capita GDP reaches 25 per cent of America’s.
Jacques’s thesis is stabbed home so indiscriminately that he can end up lacerating his own argument. He seems unacquainted with the more nuanced and less moralistic French or Russian literature on contemporary China, and his reliance on Anglo-American sources sits oddly with his scorn for the “myth” that they are the most inventive cultures.
The sub-title should also have been edited out as a non-sequitur: the rise of China does not entail “the end of the western world”. There is a disagreeable “rubbish bin of history” tonality here, as if Jacques were eager for anyone but America to rule the world, one-party state or not. Personally, I am optimistic about a culture I admire enormously melding fruitfully with our own. Jacques appears to see it as an overdue comeuppance for the West.
His thesis is, of course, old hat. Nearly a century has passed since Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, and the same Stygian German later warned that “The innumerable hands of the coloured races – at least as clever, and far less exigent – will shatter the economic organisation of the whites to its foundation.”
What Spengler and Jacques actually mean is a downward adjustment by the West in power relationships – a more complex business, and not much of a title.
The rise of China is to be welcomed – but it does not required an orgy of self-abasement from the rest of us.
– George Walden