The 21st century probably belongs to China, not America, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics recently told an audience at UCLA. So the United States should try to better understand China and its culture in order to react responsibly to this changing world order.

Martin Jacques laid out the reasons for this at a well-attended talk Nov. 20 at Bunche Hall that also served as an introduction to the field of Chinese studies. He is a member of the School of Economics’ IDEAS center and author of a new book, “When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New World Order.”

“The global financial crisis represents the beginning of the end of the American economic order,” Jacques told his audience.

However, Jacques is not alarmed by the shift and does not expect Western living standards to decline. He argued that the rise of the Chinese economy is of less concern than the failure of the West to understand China and its culture and, therefore, the possibility that the United States and others could react irresponsibly to the changing order.

Since China is considered a developing country, many Westerners assume that development will make it more like the West in how it governs and does business, Jacques said. But he sees globalization differently: “We’re moving into a world of multiple modernities, and we’re moving into an era of contested modernity.”

Jacques outlined the many ways Westerners view China and its culture through their own lens rather than understanding how China is different.

It is crucial to understand, for example, that China views itself not as a nation-state, he said, but as a civilization-state that dates from the 221 B.C. victory of the Qin over Eastern China. This is the longest continually existing polity in the world. The civilization is based on several key principles, including the primacy of the family, Confucian values, ancestral worship and an ideographic language system. Keenly familiar with their history, ordinary people feel comfortable quoting ancient philosophers.

Within a civilization-state, unity is extremely important, but unity does not mean uniformity. The country is actually remarkably pluralistic in its embrace of different local systems, Jacques said. One example is the manner in which China annexed Hong Kong, taking very seriously the slogan, “One country, two systems.”

At the time, naysayers in the West argued that the “two systems” wouldn’t last, Jacques said. But they were “categorically wrong,” he noted, because they failed to see the issue from the Chinese civilization-state’s point of view. Hong Kong continued to be a capitalist powerhouse while remaining part of China.

Westerners also have trouble understanding the role of the state in China, and miss the fact that the central government is fundamentally very competent.

Compared to Western democracies, he said, China’s government “enjoys more respect even though not a single vote is cast. The Chinese state is seen as the guardian and custodian of civilization. In contrast, look at Italy, whose citizens are always voting, “but the state lacks legitimacy” he said.

In spite of China’s claim to more than 50 ethnic minorities, Jacques observed, 90 percent of Chinese people now consider themselves to be Han, which is arguably the largest ethnic group in the world. It is a remarkable contrast with Western countries that are divided by race.

“The modernization of China is the Hanization of China, the event that holds China together,” said Jacques. The West, he advised, needs to know China better to get along with it and to anticipate its movements on the world stage, he said, because China will not simply be beaten into submission.

The lecture was sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies.

– Kathleen Micham