Martin Jacques has written movingly and angrily about the death of his Indian-Malaysian wife in a Hong Kong hospital, claiming that the tragedy arose from a deep Chinese prejudice against anyone with a dark skin. So it comes as quite a surprise to discover that, far from warning of the dangers of a world likely to be dominated by a racist superpower, the author admires the Chinese enormously and views China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” with a remarkable degree of equanimity.
Jacques claims that “In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position”, and discusses sensitively and in depth what it means to be the “middle kingdom”. He also argues that China is essentially a “civilisation state” rather than a western-style nation state. “The term civilisation normally suggests a rather distant and indirect influence and an inert and passive presence,” he notes. “In China’s case, however, it is not only history that lives but civilisation itself: the notion of a living civilisation provides the primary identity and context by which the Chinese think of their country and define themselves.”
One of the fundamental features of Chinese politics is the overriding emphasis placed on the country’s unity, Jacques claims. This occasionally leads to contradictions which he does not entirely resolve, for he also stresses China’s diversity, going so far as to claim that “China’s provinces are far more differentiated than Europe’s nation-states, even when eastern Europe and the Balkans are included”. The question of unity and diversity leads to a stimulating comparison of China and India, a far more pluralistic – and democratic – nation, and Jacques notes how the enormous cultural differences between the world’s two most populous countries have resulted in “an underlying lack of understanding and empathy”.
The book is based on a well-informed and subtle analysis of Chinese history and culture, and as the title implies, Jacques is convinced that it is not a matter of whether China will dominate the world over the next few decades, but how. He is careful to avoid over-confidence in his predictions, however, and notes that “China’s present behaviour can only be regarded as a partial indicator, simply because its power and influence remain limited compared with what they are likely to be in the future”. But he is surely right to say that American confidence that “the Chinese are inevitably becoming more like us” is misplaced and is based on a view of globalisation that is seriously flawed.
Jacques is likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters by playing down China’s military potential; he sees China’s arms buildup as being aimed largely at blocking any possible Taiwanese moves towards independence rather than at achieving world domination, and he claims that its own technological level remains relatively low. In the face of US and EU bans on selling weapons to Beijing, its only potential foreign supplier is Russia, Jacques says, and Moscow is hardly eager to see a militarily powerful China.
But it is China’s fast-growing economic power which has the world transfixed right now, and Jacques is confident that this will grow further. In the long term he expects China “to operate both within and outside the existing international system, seeking to transform that system while at the same time, in effect, sponsoring a new China-centric international system which will exist alongside the present system and probably slowly begin to usurp it”.
In perhaps his most provocative remarks, Jacques praises China’s communist leaders for their “remarkable perspicacity … never allowing themselves to be distracted by short-term considerations”. He appears to defend the party’s failure to move towards democracy, stating that China has devoted itself to economic growth, having concluded that it cannot afford to be diverted by what it “rightly deemed to be non-essential ends”.
Jacques observes, as commentators such as Jonathan Fenby have also noted, how the party has confounded western assumptions that the consumer boom over the last 20 years, the internet and the flood of Chinese travelling abroad on business or for pleasure would inevitably result in moves towards western-style democracy. He is not perturbed by this and is indeed sympathetic to the “not misplaced view that any move towards democracy is likely to embroil the country in considerable chaos and turmoil”.
It is on race, not unexpectedly, that Jacques is most critical of China. He says “racialised ways of thought … have been on the rise in both popular culture and official circles”, and he expects this to continue, with China’s “sense of superiority resting on a combination of cultural and racial hubris”.
Some flaws are inevitable in such a lengthy and wide-ranging book. Jacques’s discussion of Japanese culture is cliché-laden (the Japanese are “exquisitely polite”, “You will never seen any litter anywhere” and the country is virtually crime-free) and it is surprising that his discussion of China’s historical scientific and technological achievements makes no mention of Joseph Needham’s towering contributions to the field. There are also occasional factual mistakes: Japan annexed north-east, not north-west China in 1931, and Shanghainese is not a dialect of Mandarin. In addition, the author occasionally cites dubious statistics: for example, I find it impossible to believe that 100 million Chinese tourists will visit Africa annually in the near future.
Despite such foibles, this is an extremely impressive book, full of bold but credible predictions. Only time will tell how Jacques’s prophecies pan out, but I suspect his book will long be remembered for its foresight and insight.
– Michael Rank is a former Reuters correspondent in China