A certain genre of Western literature can be summed up by the title of one of its earliest entries, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in 1918. As the title suggests, the author had a dire view of Western democracy. The defeat of fascism in the Second World War ought to have cheered everyone up, but the guns had barely stopped firing before we had books such as The West at Bay, by British economist Barbara Ward, about the “Communist challenge,” and Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, an even more sober assessment of that challenge. Chambers was sure the West was going to lose this battle for hearts and minds.
Even relatively tame Japan loomed as a menace to the West in the ’80s. I recall one book, whose title I forget, predicting a new Asian Pacific war between the United States and Japan — a classic instance of Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror. Since the ’90s, the invincible Japanese, those economic if not military giants, have been humbled by their own woes and have ceased to trouble the dreams of the West, and the United States in particular.
But it seems you can’t be the world’s No. 1 superpower without fearing that another country is going to knock you off, and sure enough we now have books such as When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, by Martin Jacques, a British journalist and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre.
So muddled are our present affairs that the title seems more of a promise than a threat. China set to rule the world? Be our guest. Perhaps the new rulers could kindly solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, revive our economy, reverse global warming and prohibit the production and distribution of Adam Sandler movies. (As Jacques points out, the current rulers of the Middle Kingdom are not sticklers for freedom of artistic expression.)
No such luck, it turns out. I don’t want to spoil suspense, but near the end of the book, Jacques admits that the Chinese have no intentions of ruling the world. The declining West will not “be replaced in any simplistic fashion by a Sinocentric world,” he writes. “The rise of competing modernities heralds quite a new world in which no hemisphere or country will have the same kind of prestige, legitimacy or overwhelming force that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries.” Jacques does point out, rightly I think, that even this less than apocalyptic outcome might prove traumatic for the United States, where patriotism is stimulated by chants of “We’re number one.”
Aside from the blatant marketing-department title and a good deal of repetition in the text, this is an interesting and useful book. Jacques lays out the familiar outlines of the subject — the phenomenal growth of the Chinese economy since the reforms of 1978, the huge trade surplus with the United States, coupled with massive Chinese ownership of U.S. Treasury Bonds. The United States, no longer a major manufacturer, is heavily in hock to China, in large part because the former insists on maintaining a military capability roughly equal to the rest of the world combined. It’s an expensive proposition, and Jacques follows the thesis of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that economic decline inevitably leads to political and military decline.
What might be more of a revelation to readers of this book is its reminder of China’s own weaknesses. For all the spectacular skyline of Shanghai and the Beijing Olympics extravaganza, the country is still poor, with nearly half the population still working the land. The country also needs resources — land, water, forests, oil and so on — that are either being rapidly depleted or are available only through imports. Assuming the problem is resolved, China will still take another 20 years to match the size of the American economy. The U.S. also has an ace up its sleeve — its top universities, the best in the world, which help foster a spirit of innovation.
Jacques realizes that a lot can happen in 20 years, but he still takes it as more or less a given that China will eventually catch up to the United States both in economic might and in technological sophistication. His thesis has less to do with rising China than his belief that China can become a fully modern society and still retain a non-Western culture. Certainly there is no sign of China simply aping American culture or abandoning ancient ways of dealing with life. “By Western standards,” Jacques writes, “Chinese societies are not very religious, but they are extremely superstitious.” That a Chinese PhD from Silicon Valley will still burn incense and worship the spirits for good fortune is oddly heartening.
Jacques also maintains that China will have nothing to do with Western norms of political freedom. Paternalistic one-party government is a legacy of Confucius that China will not abandon in a hurry, if ever. More disturbing is China’s emphasis on a common Chinese identity — an identity, as Jacques points out, that is “highly racialized.” That is one piece of baggage that Westerners could rightly wish abandoned by the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom, even while accepting their nation’s quest for wealth and security.
– Philip Marchand