Martin Jacques (Jacques), a British journalist and former editor of Marxism Today, has become a well-known pundit on Chinese issues since the publication of his 2009 book When China rules the world. In his recent article published on the Financial Times, he argued that Western views on China’s system are flawed. What does he think of China’s success today? What problems does the country face? Global Times (GT) London-based correspondent Sun Wei interviewed him over these issues.
GT: You recently said that China’s governance system has been remarkably successful for more than three decades. Is your conclusion mainly based on China’s economic achievements?
Jacques: No. It’s true that China’s economic transformation has been hugely successful with remarkable achievements. But that’s the core of a much wider change in Chinese society. I regard this as being a very successful period for Chinese governance in general.
The economy does not exist in isolation from society. It’s not something you can change on its own and everything else stays the same.
First of all, how do you transform the economy? The state in China has been extremely important in that process. Then, the impact of this huge change in the economy is to transform Chinese society: the shift of around 30 percent of the population from countryside into the city, the pressures of creating more modern education system, and the requirement for a new healthcare service. There are many aspects to it. You cannot have huge economic transformation like that without also having to reform, re-engineer and re-purpose the state.
GT: What do you think is the core of China’s governance system? Is the “China model” replicable for other parts of the world?
Jacques: First of all, it’s a very extraordinary relationship between the state and the society, which goes back an extremely long period of time, at least 2,000 years. For the Chinese, the state in some way is a fundamental expression of what China is and what being Chinese means, in a way that’s not true for the US or Britain. My argument is that China is not primarily a nation state, but a civilizational state. You cannot really understand the way China works without understanding that.
Then, after 1949, it’s a reinvention of the state in the context of the dominance of the Communist Party of China. That process has been through two main phases, the Mao and the Deng periods. But it requires constant reforms.
I don’t think the Chinese governance system is one that can be transplanted. Things can be learnt from it by very different systems. But you cannot transplant them. The history and circumstances are so different.
The Chinese state is a pretty unique institution. The only countries that are close to the Chinese governance system are other Confucian-based societies, much more than communist ones.
GT: After your recent article on the Financial Times was published, have you got any feedback?
Jacques: It got quite a big response. Some people are relatively supporting, but other people are not so.
There are very clear views in the West that the great problem of China is the governance system. They believe that China is fundamentally unstable. Sooner or later, the economic rise will come to an end. Why? Because China doesn’t have a democratic model in the Western style.
But China has been doing extremely well for 35 years. Some people just ignored this.
GT: US political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently published his new book Political Order and Political Decay, in which he argued that three building blocks are required for a well-ordered society: a strong state, the rule of law and democratic accountability. How do you evaluate Fukuyama’s assertion that a strong state is needed in the first place?
Jacques: The strong state is very important, but the strong state should understand what needs to be done. There is a whole history of strong authoritarian states that were not good. The question is can they transform society? It depends on in what way it is strong, and how enlightened it is. It should be a state which enjoys a great deal of respect and that is also enlightened with a very clear set of progressive priorities.
GT: Do you think there is a trend among Western scholars of rethinking governance?
Jacques: I do. There is a growing recognition that there are some serious governance problems in the West now. This is going to grow for two reasons.
Firstly, I don’t see any solution to the problems at the moment in the West. I don’t see us escaping from stagnation in the near future.
Secondly, the fact is that the West is in relative decline in its global position. There is now a growing crisis of governance in the West. The ruling elite is not able to solve these problems in Europe. The US, being more successful, still has very big problems.
GT: China also faces a lot of problems and challenges on governance. What worries you most? What needs to be done to improve the governance?
Jacques: There are a lot of challenges facing China. Can you successfully make this transition from a very labor-intensive period of growth, to less rapid growth with a technology-based and consumer-based economy? It’s a difficult transition. We shouldn’t assume it can be achieved successfully.
Part of this transition is shifting to a situation where state has less control of the economy but the market has more. I see serious dangers with this. Can the Chinese government strike the right balance?
China also has to cope with a very difficult international environment, particularly a difficult economic environment. When the financial crisis came, China adopted a stimulus program to deal with the Western downturn. But some of the effects of the stimulus program have become big problems.
China is going to become more and more important politically. There will be growing pressure on China both internally and externally. It’s very difficult for China because it is still in the process of modernization. How can China deal with the pressure? China will be forced to take this responsibility, which comes too early for it.
Above all, the most difficult question is stability and unity. It’s extremely difficult for a country to hold together, but it’s extremely important that it does hold together. If it starts being divisive, chaotic, everyone is going to suffer, not just China, everyone in the world is going to suffer.