Will China Dominate The 21st Century?

by Jonathan Fenby
(Polity Press, £9.99)

BEN CHACKO reviews Jonathan Fenby’s latest analysis of China’s chances

JONATHAN FENBY is one of Britain’s more knowledgeable China-watchers and his latest work on the subject deserves attention.

The book, however, ought really to take the title of its final chapter — Why China Will Not Dominate the 21st Century.

It reads rather like a refutation of Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World, mirroring the latter even to the extent that both contain a section quoting attitude surveys “proving” that positive or negative views of China are the norm worldwide.

In this it is quite effective. Fenby relentlessly highlights China’s weaknesses, and in many respects he is right — right that China is nowhere near displacing the US as a global superpower, right that there is scant evidence that it wants to, right that it faces serious economic, political and environmental challenges which will keep its politicians’ focus firmly on their own country and not on attempts to become a world leader.

The author is no doom-monger.

He acknowledges both that China’s problems are unsurprising considering how rapid its economic growth has been and that the West faces its own systemic failings.

He has no time for predictions that the Chinese economy or system of government are likely to fall apart.

Still, the book is overly negative.

The problems are endlessly hyped up, while China’s equally dramatic achievements are generally only given a cursory nod.

The Mao period is described as having “some benefits, for instance in the extension of primitive healthcare and greater longevity” — an ungenerous way of noting a near-doubling of life expectancy.

Fenby falls into the liberal trap of ascribing the worst motives to communists — sometimes amusingly.

When talking of how the “party state” has “eliminated” potential centres of opposition he lists improved material wealth, large pay rises for blue-collar workers and how even migrant workers are “joining the consumer society” as examples.

These nefarious communists — nipping opposition in the bud by improving people’s lives!

If many of Jacques’s arguments for Chinese supremacy weaken under close scrutiny, Fenby too often fails to argue at all.

After quoting Eric Li’s praise for Chinese political reform he simply says it is “difficult to credit,” without explaining why.

No attention is paid to contested elections for local government and there is no real analysis of how the mass party interacts with society and to what extent it is democratic.

Fenby repeats the mantra that the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership was a wasted decade, ignoring its improvements to labour law and investment in green technology.

The greatest weakness in Fenby’s analysis is in fact the same as in Jacques’s — a failure to assess the class make-up of China and, particularly, the growth in size and political clout of the urban working class.

His only references to class are to an undefined “middle class,” a term as vacuous and misleading in China as it is in Britain.

If you’re high on the “China dream” after imbibing too much Jacques, by all means read this book as an antidote.

But it is too one-sided to act as a useful introduction to the current state of China and its revolution.