The scope and scale of the Chinese march is enormous. As the ever cerebral David Aaronovitch pointed out in The Australian recently, China is even making sure the march continues by buying up the world’s oil and gas reserves, spending almost $40 billion on energy assets last year.
In fact, in terms of both population and economic growth, what is happening in China is like trying to count the stars in the night sky. Seeking to understand what it all means has led to some fascinating theories.
A few years ago, Martin Jacques left his readers in no doubt: the title of his absorbing and provocative book was simply When China Rules The World. The West, he argued, is about to be challenged – economically and also morally, politically and ethically – by a non-Western superpower for the very first time. China has long regarded itself as being at the centre of the world and the West should be prepared as the Chinese seek tribute from others as acknowledgement of their inherent superiority.
Meanwhile, in her book Maonomics: Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do, Loretta Napoleoni argued that China is using profit and its new-found wealth to plan a fairer distribution of wealth and prosperity than we do in the West. In the 21st century, China is at long last realising Marx’s goal of an egalitarian society. Western notions of democracy and a harping on about the terrible past, says Napoleoni, miss the point.
Central to both theses is, of course, politics. True, the horrendous crimes committed under Mao are acknowledged by the current Communist Party leadership, but as James Palmer pointed out in his book last year, the scope and origins of those crimes are minimised. All blame is heaped on the Gang of Four and the terror of the Cultural Revolution is treated as an aberration, as an event that came out of nowhere rather than as the logical consequence of Mao’s political vision.
In a little over 100 pages, John Garnaut offers a captivating tale of where that vision has taken China today. Garnaut, the China correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald andThe Age, tells the story of Bo Xilai, a charismatic rising star of the Communist Party who until only last year was seen as a serious contender for the presidency. Born into one of the aristocratic families of the Communist Party, Garnaut’s story of the fall of Bo has almost everything: a dynasty, a death, adultery, espionage and political intrigue.
As Garnaut writes: “The political explosion of Bo Xilai is blowing open the black box of Chinese politics and layting bare a world of staggering brutality, corruption, hypocrisy and fragility. For the first time, the webs of power and money that bind and also divide China’s red aristocracy are being exposed for the world to see.”
With his wife serving a life sentence for murder, Bo himself has been charged with defection, abuse of power and corruption. Instead of becoming president, Bo is facing a life in jail while his arch rival Xi Jinping has taken the post instead. Bo, who spoke the language of neo-Maoism and appealed to nostalgic Party elders, uncovered “a purulent mass of corruption, violence and decadence beneath the Communist Party’s shiny veneer”, was caught using the same web of malevolence as those he denounced.
The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo is a Penguin Special; written and designed to be read in a single sitting, it does just that. Thought-provoking and fascinating, Garnaut tells the tale not just of a spectacular fall from grace: it is an exposure of the brutality of Chinese politics. It is, wrote an ABC colleague recently, an absorbing insight into “the deep fissures in China’s leadership as the Communist Party dictatorship battles to shape for a new generation a story that will shore up its hold on power.”
What this brilliant book does so well is to show how an ambitious politician can exploit that sense of injustice and alienation among China’s young people, can tap into a lingering nostalgia for more certain narratives, and take advantage of the corruption, lack of restraint and great wealth available to Party insiders. What happened to Bo, and what John Garnaut so superbly explains, was nothing less than the ‘battering of the Party’s public legitimacy and its facade of unity’. “Never before,” concludes Garnaut, “had China’s evolving kleptocracy been documented and exposed for all to see.”
So will China win? Is the West destined for decline or an inevitable clash with the emergent superpower? A final word from the outstanding British economist Will Hutton:
“There is no prospect of China ruling the world. This is a country whose uncertainties of identity and economic frailties prevent it from ever projecting hegemonic hard and soft power. Its authoritarian institutions, far from being a source of strength, are a source of weakness. China is simultaneously big but poor, powerful but weak. And there, until wholesale political change occurs, it will stay, notwithstanding its considerable growth rates and economic achievement. Indeed, its current economic model, dependent on high exports and mountainous savings, is disintegrating, as both insiders and close observers recognise.”