A stimulating yet ultimately flawed portrait of a China-dominated world

Martin Jacques, academic and former editor of Marxism Today, is a big fan of the Chinese development model. In his new book, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, Jacques makes the provocative argument that China is not only set to rise in stature within the current system, but in fact will overturn the system and reconfigure it according to essential Chinese principles.

The thesis is stimulating and the book well-written, but it falls short of convincing to those who do not already share the statist premise.

While Jacques told CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW that he doesn’t consider his work to be another “China threat” book, the work’s title seems designed to inflame Sinophobes. Those who happen to like the current economic order, whatever its flaws, or who believe that rights like democracy and freedom of speech are not arbitrary Western social constructs have every cause to be threatened if Jacques is correct.

The vision of the future When China Rules the World paints – in detail – is of a racist, self-absorbed, yet disproportionately powerful China that will try to restore the old imperial tribute system. Foreign devils, prepare to kowtow!

There are two main parts to Jacques’ argument. First, he believes that China will continue to grow even as the “collapse of the Anglo-American model” continues to bleed the West. Jacques supports this argument with projections from Goldman Sachs showing China leaping ahead of Europe and then the US in relatively short order.

However, unlike many China skeptics, Jacques does not believe Beijing needs to liberalize in order to achieve this – much the opposite. The Chinese government, he says, “is a highly competent institution, probably superior to any state tradition in the world.” Without denigrating the recent accomplishments of the Chinese government, Jacques gives Beijing too much credit.

For one thing, he understates the mistakes made in the past by the government (and the likelihood of such mistakes repeating in the future) and ignores the extent to which Chinese growth was enabled by the center loosening, not tightening, its grip on private enterprise – a trend that appears to be reversing itself.

Jacques also takes too rosy a view of the performance of state-owned firms. For example, he says it is “inconceivable” that China will not build a globally competitive civil airplane manufacturer, pointing to the country’s first domestic regional jet, the overweight, obsolete ARJ-21, as a herald of future success. Similarly, Jacques points to state-controlled Lenovo – which recently withdrew from Western markets – as an example of a successful global competitor.

Disfigured democracy

The second part of the argument is socio-political. Jacques believes that China will not embrace democracy, transparency and an independent judiciary because it is the world’s only “civilization state” – and its mode of political organization and diplomatic relations is incompatible with such values. If this is true, the China that Jacques prophesies is headed for across-the-board cultural, economic and military confrontation.

For example, Jacques argues with depressing effectiveness that racism in China is so deep-rooted that “any democratically-elected government… will almost certainly be more nativist and essentialist in its attitude towards Chinese identity than the present Communist government.”

It is in its acceptance of the durability of Chinese people’s attitudes toward foreigners and themselves that the book must be ultimately judged. Jacques’s definition of Chinese tradition and which parts will endure should be strongly questioned. If one sets aside the ersatz “Confucian villages,” China’s state and society have already exhibited a strong tendency to abandon traditional practice. One need look no further than the one-child policy for evidence: The old imperial order rested on a familial model of government, and yet few institutions have changed as drastically as the Chinese family in the last 30 years.

If China succeeds in attaining economic dominance, Jacques is right to say that it will change the world, but the way Chinese people will view their own traditional ideas – political or otherwise – will change as dramatically in the process.

Pete Sweeney