The rise of China will consign our current western-centric views of modernity to history’s trash heap

The rise of China that Martin Jacques charts in his indispensable new book will transform global geopolitics, creating an international system in which the US is only one great power among several that are struggling for control of the world’s resources. At the same time – and perhaps even more importantly – China‘s rise is bound to change the way the world thinks. The western-centric conception of modernisation that shaped thinking and policymaking in much of the world over the last hundred years belongs in history’s trash heap.

The 20th century was a time dominated by projects of westernisation. Contrary to the common description of the cold war as a conflict between east and west, communism was a prototypically western ideology, with roots in the European enlightenment. Communist regimes everywhere wanted nothing more than to catch up with and surpass the west, not only in terms of wealth but also by outpacing the west in the pursuit of western progressive ideals. They failed miserably in both respects. Mao’s China, one of the worst regimes of the last century if not in human history, was no exception. With the fall of communism, the worldwide movement of westernisation has gone into reverse.

The subtitle of Jacques’s book refers to “the end of the western world”, but he is not claiming the west is going to collapse or disappear. It is the western-dominated world of the past few centuries that is coming to an end – and with it the west’s claim to be the arbiter of what it means to be modern. A rival version of modernity has begun to emerge in China, flawed in some ways, like every human society, but genuinely different from any western model.

It is not yet clear that China will be able to weather the global economic storm without major unrest. If it does it will emerge from the crisis immeasurably stronger. But this does not mean China will rule the world in the way that America may have tried to do during a part of the last century. Partly because it has never been monotheistic, China has rarely had the universalistic ambitions of western states. In any case the Chinese version of modernisation is no more universally applicable than the American model. Rather, from now on there will be modern societies of quite different kinds, interpenetrating in many ways but not becoming progressively more alike.

It is not just American hegemony that is coming to an end with the rise of China. The polycentric world into which we are moving will not be all sweetness and light. There will be all manner of dangerous conflicts – not least among the new emerging powers. But the global shift that is under way is in many ways desirable, as well as practically inevitable. Let us hope the west does not cling to the past, stubbornly proclaiming its superiority while floundering in the crisis it has unleashed.

 – John Gray