The first problem with this book is its title. There is no prospect of China ruling the world. This is a country whose uncertainties of identity and economic frailties prevent it from ever projecting hegemonic hard and soft power. Its authoritarian institutions, far from being a source of strength, are a source of weakness. China is simultaneously big but poor, powerful but weak. And there, until wholesale political change occurs, it will stay, notwithstanding its considerable growth rates and economic achievement. Indeed, its current economic model, dependent on high exports and mountainous savings, is disintegrating, as both insiders and close observers recognise.
Martin Jacques partially acknowledges that economic problems exist even as he breathlessly rehearses the economically impossible extrapolations of China’s recent growth far into the future. His intellectual difficulty is that he needs to make the grandiose claim that China will rule the world to drive home his interesting thesis that western-defined modernity – the belief in the marriage of democracy, Enlightenment values, capitalism and progress – is about to be contested seriously for the first time by a non-western power.
China is not a nation state, he writes, but a civilisation state. As such, it cannot make accommodations with others as it rises. It will be condemned to be true to its past; rather than submit to multilateral law and institutions, it will “feel free to be what it thinks it is and act accordingly to its history and instincts which are those of a civilisation state”.
Historically, China has regarded itself as being at the centre of the world and has sought tribute from others as acknowledgement of its inherent superiority, a racism that is embedded in the Chinese psyche, Jacques argues provocatively. Its instincts remain essentially Confucian: a strong central state seeking benevolently and collectively to improve the condition of the people. Communism is a contemporary expression of Confucianism.
This is the most eyecatching part of what is in essence another of the Beware China is coming, Asian values are superior books. However, the affinity between Confucianism and communism is hardly a new insight. Liu Shaoqi, one of the party’s five leaders in the 1940s, drew a parallel between the self-discipline and self-cultivation needed to be a Confucian scholar and becoming an effective communist. Where Jacques scores is in arguing that it is Chinese civilisation, rather than the Communist party, that will drive China.
Yet the more I reflect on the idea of a civilisation state standing in tension with a conventional nation state, the less am I persuaded the distinction holds. Britain, France, Germany and the US are also civilisation states, defined as much by their different cultures and histories as their jurisdictional boundaries, languages and national assemblies. All in varying ways are creatures of the European Enlightenment; all can trace core values to republican Rome and the philosophers of Greece.
Western states frequently do not meet their own standards any more than China does. But I agree with Rousseau, Kant and Paine that all human beings have a sense of self and are thus worthy of equal respect as individuals, as I agree with Aristotle and Plato about the importance of due desert underpinning justice. There is a universal hunger for these values which does not stop at China’s borders because of some mystical adherence to Asian values. We all want to live lives we have reason to value – whether we are Chinese or British.
Indeed, the processes thrown up by the western tradition – the rule of law, the drive to experiment and innovate, the prevalence of free argument and exchange of ideas – also drive successful, long-term economic performance. China can approach the frontier of technological knowledge developed by others, but it has a limited capacity to get beyond it. It is deeply corrupt, deeply uninnovative, deeply environmentally wasteful and these deformations can be traced back to its lack of institutions rooted in Enlightenment values. China has no checks and balances; it needs them.
The great reforming revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen wanted them for China; the Tiananmen protesters in Beijing and other cities across China risked their lives for them; Charter 08, instigated by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals last December, campaigns for them; and the Chinese in Taiwan have succeeded partially in implanting them. Jacques’s argument implies that Chinese workers don’t want representation at work, nor Chinese shareholders any influence on company managements, nor Chinese citizens to hold their government to account. It is profoundly mistaken. The majority do want these things and the fact they don’t have them holds China back.
China cannot build its economy for ever on a savings rate of 40 per cent of GDP, or exports growing at such a rate that by 2020 they will constitute half of the world’s merchandise exports. The model is cracking because it must. China must save less and consume more, as Jacques acknowledges.
But it will not make the transition without political change. The Chinese save because they do not trust the future. They know the Communist party’s grip is unsustainable. The real story of the next generation will be of the west drawing ahead of a China facing political turmoil and increasing economic difficulties. The problem we will have to manage is not China ruling the world. It will be of bridging the already high and growing gap between the west and the rest. Martin Jacques’s extensive research is marred by the book’s central thesis. He is too suspicious of the west to offer real insight into the future.
– Will Hutton is the author of The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century (Abacus)