The rise of China is reshaping the world in profound ways that are bringing about new political, cultural, intellectual, moral and military consequences, and yet we mistakenly continue to view China from a Western perspective, according to author and China academic Martin Jacques. He recently gave a lecture on the topic for Sydney University’s China Studies Centre and Sydney Ideas.

Calls for China to democratise are mis-founded.

Based on his controversial book When China rules the world: The end of the Western world and the birth of a new global order, Jacques presented the audience with sobering thoughts about how the West perceives China and how this affects Australia and our own relationship with China.

Simply, if we are to understand the new world order, we need to understand China, especially when Goldman Sachs predicts China’s economy will be twice that of the US by 2050.

“I would argue that the arrival of China on the world scene is the arrival of a new paradigm in the relationship between the market and the state. The question is not whether China is coming to get us but rather that China is coming to buy us,” Jacques said, adding that, “Every country in the world is reconfiguring its relationship with China.”

The problem for the West is that we cannot understand China if we continue to see it through a Western perspective.

For so long the thought has gone something like: “Oh, China will modernise and grow rich and become more like us”.

China will modernise and it will grow rich, but it will be a China with Chinese characteristics, “not a clone of Western values”.

Jacques argues that China is profoundly different from the West, which is comprised of a series of ‘nation states’, while China sees itself as a ‘civilisation state’ with a continuous historical thread dating 4000 years to the archaeological evidence of the Bronze-Age Xia Dynasty.

For almost 2000 years China was a loose group of rival states until its first unification of language, weights and measures, and bureaucracy under the seal of China in 221 BC by the Emperor Qin, known universally for the Terracotta Army tombs at Xi’an.

“I think of China being a civilisation state for three reasons: longevity, civilisation and polity – this is the longest polity in the world,”
Jacques said.

The bad or good news is that Australia is no longer a Western economy.

In 841 BC the Gonghe regency introduced the first year of concise and continuous court dating at a time when there was no concept of European nation states until the formation of the Roman Republic around 509 BC.

In that time China had also developed systems of currency, writing, medicine, philosophy and art, all hallmarks of civilisation.

From its distant past to the present, Chinese actions are informed by the traditions of Tao, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism that define the individual’s place and role in society. To understand some of how the Chinese think collectively it is necessary to look further at these influential ideologies, none of which worship a supernatural or personal god. All embody attitudes easily adapted to the present single-party state.

In Tao, every action has consequences and the individual accepts that to achieve balance they must accept, conform and work with the elements of yin and yang.

In a theme of mutuality that continues into the present citizen state relationship, juniors are reverent to elders and elders have
a duty of care towards juniors.

The great goal of Confucianism is social harmony that results from an individual knowing their place in the order of things and playing their
part well.

“There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father and the son is son”, said Confucius.

The Chinese reshaped Buddhism into a religion with Chinese characteristics, which in turn has informed their view of politics, philosophy, literature and medicine since around 200 BC.

It was partly the genius of Mao and his early comrades to defy the all-powerful Russian Comintern to create an interpretation of Marxist- Leninist philosophy with its roots in these ideologies that helped make the goals of the Communist Party of China understandable to the masses.

At its height, the Mao period reflected much of the past where Mao became the most powerful and ruthless emperor of all and the Communist Party of China, which currently has over 80 million members, as the guardian and protector of the people.

Now, when the West projects its own values, “calls for China to democratise are mis-founded”,
said Jacques.

He sees a danger in compartmentalising China as a business partner and China as a friend.

“Democracy can be an important element of the legitimacy of a government, but it doesn’t guarantee legitimacy – Italy is a classic example,“ Jacques said.

“That’s why they can elect clowns like Berlusconi.”

“I would argue that the Chinese state in the eyes of the Chinese citizen enjoys more legitimacy than any Western state.”

Jacques believes “the great strength of China is the state”.

He also warns that China’s rise will require new thinking on how we see Australia’s relationship with the new economic power.

“Australia is now part of the Chinese sphere of influence – the reason being the importance of the Chinese market for ore, plus huge Chinese investments in Australia,” Jacques said.

He sees a danger in compartmentalising China as a business partner and China as a friend.

“You can’t be the recipient of Chinese largesse without showing a willingness to have a much deeper relationship with China and a much deeper respect for China,” he said.

“The relationship between China and Australia is going to get more important… and the Americans are going to resist this. Australia will have to develop a more independent role in the region.”

Jacques says one way we can start to do this is by placing more importance on introducing compulsory Mandarin in schools as a second language.

“The bad or good news is that Australia is no longer a Western economy,” Jacques said.


When China rules the world is an ironic title, not to be taken literally, says Jacques, who admits it has caused some disquiet in China. The book was first published in 2009 and has since been translated into 11 languages and shortlisted for two major literary awards. A second edition of the book, greatly expanded, was published in March 2012. His TED talk on how to understand China has had almost one million views. He is a Senior Visiting Fellow at IDEAS, a centre for diplomacy and grand strategy at the London School of Economics, and a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is also a Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, Washington DC. He has previously been a Visiting Professor at Renmin University, the International Centre for Chinese Studies, Aichi University, Nagoya, and Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. He was a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. He was formerly the editor of the renowned London-based monthly Marxism Today until its closure in 1991 and was co-founder of the think-tank Demos. He has been a columnist for many newspapers, made many television programmes and is a former deputy editor of The Independent newspaper.


One-eyed view?

As an example of the skewed world-view produced by Western-oriented thinking, Jacques cites the ubiquitous term ‘global financial crisis’. The crisis is really only in the US and Europe, Jacques points out, directly affecting only a minority of the world’s population. It’s not “global”. From an Asian perspective, the very term is one-eyed.