The dire consequences of the coming shift in global power

As an academic and journalist working throughout East Asia, Martin Jacques has had a front row seat for the past decade on China’s economic and political emergence. The British author’s latest book is titled When China Rules the World.

 Q: We in the West spend a great deal of time discussing China’s rise. But we seem to resist the next logical step, which is to consider how things will change around the world when China becomes the world’s pre-eminent economic power. Why is that?
A: I think that the world has been so used to American hegemony, and you had a recent period of American history under Bush which actually postulated exactly the opposite scenario—that we were in fact on the eve of a new American century. So we’re just not versed in the profoundly different thinking China’s pre-eminence will require. More than that, we have failed to understand that we’re not just talking about economic change. The impact of China’s rise is going to be at least as great politically and culturally as it will be in economic terms.
Q: So paint me a picture, in broad strokes. If, as some forecast, China’s GDP surpasses that of the U.S. in the next 20 years, how will China behave on the world stage?
A: Initially, I don’t expect it to behave hugely differently. Even in 2050, when it’s projected that the Chinese economy will be twice as large as that of the United States, China will still be, in terms of GDP per head, a lot poorer than the United States. But history’s very important in the behaviour of nations, and China comes from profoundly different civilizational coordinates than the West; it has a different history from the top dogs than we’re used to over the last 200 years. I think that the West is going to feel extremely disoriented by the world that is in the process of now being made. We’ve so long assumed that the furniture is our furniture, the language is our language, the sports played are our sports, the values are our values, the skin colour is our skin colour. My son’s 10, and his generation is going to grow up in a very, very different kind of world.
Q: You put a lot of focus on the fact that China is not just a nation-state but a civilization. Why is that an important distinction?
A: Consider the characteristics that give the Chinese a sense of their own identity. It lies in the language, the Confucian values as they apply to society and governance, and part and parcel of that is the notion of the state as family. Central to that is the centrality of the state in its role as the guardian of civilization. These things are civilizational characteristics, not the characteristics of a nation-state.
Q: How is that going to affect China’s relations with other countries?
A: If we want to try and understand what China’s going to be like, then the best place to start looking is East Asia, because that is China’s own region. China’s culture has had a major influence on the whole region in varying degrees for thousands of years—most obviously in the case of Japan, Korea and Vietnam. It’s a very sophisticated culture from its language to its literature to its food. These are elements of what we’ve termed soft power, and Chinese soft power is going to be hugely influential in East Asia in the future. There’s also the pure arithmetic of it, which is that with a population of 1.4 billion people, China dominates the region. The region accounts for one-third of the world’s population, and because China’s so large—both in terms of geographic expanse but in this case particularly population—there’s a huge imbalance between it and all the other countries within the region.
Q: That inequality is an important theme in your book. You predict, among other things, a return to the old “tributary” system in East Asia, in which surrounding countries supported China and served its ends.
A: Yeah, I doubt the wording will be the same—they won’t use the term “tributary.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if aspects of the system came back. It survived, after all, for many thousands of years and only disappeared at the end of the 19th century. The other thing to remember is there are now large Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia in particular, in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and Thailand. Chinese civilization has a powerful centripetal quality to it. Wherever they are, for instance, the Chinese will eat Chinese food, and they don’t necessarily lose their language in the second or third generation. They have a strong sense of being Chinese and identifying with the Middle Kingdom as the centre of this phenomenon. So these elements will, I think, come together to not simply place China at the centre of the East Asian economy, but to set the terms of the whole region’s emergence. Another point is that China will have a very hierarchical view of the world, because the Chinese are very hierarchical in their mentality.
Q: Yes, and I get the sense that this is a proverbial elephant in the room. Until I read your book, I had only a vague idea of how big a role racism and ideas of cultural superiority play in China’s culture. You describe a very retrograde strain of prejudice that is literally based on the hue of one’s skin.
A: This is my greatest single concern about China’s rise, because those kinds of views are very difficult to change. The most difficult problem the Chinese are going to face, I think, is trying to make any sense of [racial and ethnic] difference. I mean, 92 per cent of them think of themselves as of the same race. While this is clearly not true—the Han Chinese are in fact descended from many different races—it gives a kind of biological reason for Chinese unity. And you can see it in their attitude toward those within China’s borders who have not been integrated in this way. The Tibetans or the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, for example, are regarded as needing to be helped up to the level of the Han Chinese. It’s a patronizing and very assimilationist attitude.
Q: I thought Mao tried to suppress those sorts of ideas.
A: Yes, but they have never gone away. What’s even more striking about this is China’s had such a bad time since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century until 1949, what they call the Century of Humiliation, when China clearly had a terrible time in all sorts of different ways, losing territory and facing abject poverty. Yet somehow this attitude, this sense of Chinese self-confidence and superiority, has survived that period, as well as the period since 1949. It’s a very remarkable characteristic.