Martin Jacques has only a few doubts that the Middle Kingdom will soon be the centre of the world. The title of his book is provocative. What this British journalist actually predicts is a “new kind of world system in which China is the main player — but not to the exclusion of the rest of the world.” What is more important to him is the need for the world, especially the West, to get a grip of what the return of China to a position of global preeminence will mean. Superpower China will not be a West that happens to speak funny.
As Jacques (rhymes with ‘takes’) writes, too many in the West make “three key assumptions: that China’s challenge will be primarily economic in nature; that China will in due course become a typical Western nation; and that the international system will remain broadly as it now is, with China acquiescing in the status quo and becoming a compliant member of the international community”. All wrong, he argues. Expect Beijing to refashion the world in a style that is distinctively Chinese, not ersatz European. Jacques puts it succinctly: “China is not a chip off the old Western block.”
The best part of his book is his explanation as to why the world’s most populous country will be different. Though he gives eight in the book, he says four really matter:
First, he says, “China is not a conventional nation-State. It is a civilisational State.” This means Beijing has a different conception of sovereignty than, say, a European nation-State. Jacques cites the takeover of Hong Kong where China has happily preserved “one nation, two systems” policy. “Civilisational States are just not that preoccupied with sovereignty,” he explains.
Second, China’s view of the international system is an updated version of the imperial tributary system. The core idea is “a recognition of Chinese superiority”. Jacques believes this attitude will restructure relations in East Asia.
Third is the unique racial identity of the Chinese. Think: a nation with 1.3 billion people of whom 90 per cent are of one ethnic background. “The consequence is a powerful sense of identity, ” says Jacques. The Chinese have a very strong sense of who they are.
It is the glue that has kept China together through more of its history than, say, India. The downside is that ethnic resistance to absorption, like that by the Tibetans and Uighurs, is found to be “uncomprehending”. Among the value-add chapters of Jacques’s book is one on the Chinese and racism. This is a topic most Western scholars ignore, but one that fits in with China’s self-vision. Besides generally looking down on dark skins, they decline to accept the traditional anthropological view that mankind originated in Africa.
Fourth is the status of the Chinese state. Jacques pooh-poohs those who claim the state is China’s Achilles’ heel, who look for evidence that the Chinese masses will overturn their state.
It is not merely that the Chinese state is “a fantastic, competent institution” and, in contrast with the Indian state, “very well run.” The Chinese see their state as representative of the civilisational state, “an embodiment of what China is.” Beijing therefore has legitimacy and authority without a democratic stamp, in fact, Jacques argues, it has “greater popularity and legitimacy than any Western state.”
Where Jacques is less convincing are the hundreds of pages of graphs and projections trying to show that the economic decline of the United States and concomitant rise of China are all but inevitable. As is standard with this school, China’s trade and manufacturing stats are cited. (Those who want to argue different cite the technology gap between the two powers, China’s inefficient financial system and its lack of world-class corporations.)
The chapters on China’s foreign relations with other countries are arguably even poorer. He believes New Delhi’s hangover with Beijing is largely the hangover of the 1962 war. Jacques skirts over Beijing’s disastrous foreign policy the past few years and seems to assume such blundering will never happen again.
But what is best about this book is its dissection of China itself, showing how its rise is deeply embedded in its tradition and history. “Chinese predominance is not going to about empire and military expansion,” says Jacques. “For China its expansionism is about culture.”
– Pramit Pal Chaudhuri