Martin Jacques has a simple and sobering thesis. The West is in terminal decline and the 21st century will belong to China. More significantly, it will not be simply a rerun of western democracy, with all its obvious positives and glaring limitations. No, this will be a competing modernity complete with eight distinct Chinese characteristics. It’s all change at the head of the table so we damn well better get used to it.
Jacques is clearly a more than competent scholar of Asian and in particular, Chinese affairs, but it is this academic competency that may well be his undoing, for in concentrating as he does on the historical dimensions of China’s staggering rate of industrialisation and modernisation, he may well be in danger of blinding himself and his readers to what is really taking place on planet Earth. Yes, there clearly is some sort of a changing of the guard at the top table, and no one but the most reactionary neo-cons in the US can now doubt the inexorable decline of western power relative to the equally inexorable rise of Asian economic and political power. But all this only serves to obscure the more profound fact that so called free-market, neo-liberal capitalism has run its course, and only those nations that apply rational state planning to their economies are going to prosper.
Here is one of the great ironies of history. Just a few short years after the West engaged in an orgy of triumphalism at the apparent defeat of ‘state socialism’, the feared beast returns, a hybrid beast admittedly, but more virile and resilient than ever. And furthermore, its global reach is significantly greater. Jacques makes the point clear enough when he reminds us that China has loaned more to the developing world in the last few years than has the World Bank. The huge currency reserves held by China is probably the only factor preventing the US and Europe from a wholesale default on their massive sovereign debt.
But here is the rub. The situation cannot be simply regarded as one nation supplanting another as was the case of the USA replacing the British Empire after WW2. China’s newfound economic muscle cannot be divorced from the world economy. If Europe and the US no longer have the financial wherewithal to buy Chinese manufactured goods then very suddenly the Chinese economic miracle starts to look a little fragile. What I think I am suggesting is that we have reached a level of globalisation hitherto unseen in the 10,000 year story of human ‘civilisation’. We are embarking on an entirely new international epoch not merely the changing of the old guard. And most significantly, the essence of this new epoch will surely be state collectivised wealth as opposed to private, individual and corporate wealth.
This alternative thesis, if I can make it sound so grand, is not to dismiss the Chinese characteristics that Jacques makes such play of. Rather it is to put the international dimensions as primary in the equation and the national particularities as important but secondary. There can be no going back to the era of the nation state. That is finished and done with. Now comes the era of the globalised economy, dripping as it does with all the brutalities and inequities of the previous eras, but pregnant with all the possibilities of something altogether new; a highly urbanised, highly connected world, totally interdependent on each others resources, skills and markets. The competing modernities that Jacques talks about is really academic speak for the transition from monopoly capitalism to state socialism. The idea floated by Jacques that we are witnessing the return of the Chinese Middle Kingdom ‘civilisation-state’ is to miss the relentless internationalisation of human affairs.
Jacques is certainly justified in predicting that the epicentre of this new international era will very likely be Beijing, Shanghai or one of the other mega metropolitan centres that seem to be emerging in China almost out of the ether. A world dominated by cities like Chongqing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou may seem a little fanciful to Anglo-Saxon ears but Jacques warns us to get acclimatised to it pronto. But perhaps a more realistic scenario is that these new and great cities will take their place alongside other already imposing cities both East and West. There is no evidence to suggest that African, South American and Indian cities will not also be major centres of politics and finance alongside those we are already familiar with. A hundred mega cities with ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty million inhabitants, all interconnected by shared commerce, culture and collective aspirations. No doubt that China will be at the top table in a very prominent way but not necessarily in the old imperial manner that Jacques is keen to suggest.
Five hundred years of European conquest and colonialism is surely drawing to a close, but to leap to the conclusion that a new Chinese epoch of imperial rule is about to descend upon us, as Martin Jacques suggests, is to negate the growing pulse of internationalism. Capital has long outgrown its national borders and in its international wake has come the broad outlines of an international culture that hark back to the European Enlightenment. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights might be considered its high point to date, even though US imperial ambitions has trampled all over it from day one. Nevertheless, global expectations of the universality of human rights grow stronger by the decade, not weaker. The expectations of the Chinese people are no exception. China will be as much influenced by these global expectations as the West will be by China’s superior economic model. That is the dialectic that I think that Jacques misses. Yes, there may even be a Confucian component to our growing international culture but that will be tempered by an individualism espoused by the Enlightenment philosophers and a collectivism as dreamed of by generations of socialists. It is not too fanciful to imagine that a synthesis of these human schools of thought might not be a million miles away from Marx’s vision of a rational and humane communist society.
Admittedly, my whole counter thesis crumbles to dust if in fact what we are witnessing in China is not so much the re-emergence of state socialism but actually the renewal of capitalism itself, with new markets to conquer, new resources to exploit, new capital to invest and new minds to corrode. In other words what we may be witnessing in China today is a virulent form of state capitalism with just the fading veneer of communist political organisation. Whilst I am very aware that the state capitalist school of thought has been around for a good few decades and that its advocates and adherents are an integral part of the left wing discourse, I have never been particularly convinced of its validity. I didn’t believe their theoretical arguments stood up to the facts of the former Soviet Union, neither do I think they match the facts in the China of the early 21st century. Jacques makes the telling point that 80% of large Chinese corporations are still under government control while only 20% might be considered to be fully privately run. But even these 20% are heavily influence by government diktat and could lose their franchise at a moments notice. If the figures were reversed I think the state capitalist argument would be on firmer grounds but as it stands today I sense that the collectivist foundations of the Chinese revolution are still in place. Having said that, nature abhors a vacuum and should the Communist Party lose its ideological bearings make no mistake, the international owners of capital will be ready to pounce.
It would be facile to dismiss Jacques’ thesis on little more than a whim and a gut instinct. What Jacques has proposed is a major historical shift, an epochal shift in global politics. As such, only after a large chunk of time has passed will we be able assess the validity or otherwise of what he is now predicting. Out of respect for his work the least we can do is marvel, and perhaps tremble at the momentous events that are taking place before our eyes. The nature and essence of the change may be a matter of intense debate but the speed and magnitude of the change is certainly not in contention. Martin Jacques puts it bluntly enough:
‘In it’s heyday, America’s most attractive feature for many people was that, because of its sheer wealth and dynamism, it was able to set the benchmark of modernity in so many areas. People around the world looked to the United States as a way of understanding and anticipating what the future would be like. The examples over the last sixty years have been countless: the rise of the car, suburbia, shopping malls, space exploration, the PC, skyscrapers, affordable air travel, the internet, Facebook, the iPod, fast food, Ivy League Universities, jeans, Hollywood, to mention but a few. It has been able to do this because it was an extremely rich nation. No other country has been vaguely able to match America’s performance as the exemplar of modernity. With relative economic decline, however, America’s capacity to lead in the manner of old has started to wane, while China has begun to show some small but significant signs of playing such a role, albeit still in a very limited way. The most obvious example is its infrastructure, which is becoming the envy of the world: great airports, an excellent network of expressways, the Beijing- Lhasa railway, the Pudong airport-Shanghai maglev rail link, the Three Gorges Dam, the Birds Nest Stadium, the world’s largest high speed rail network, which will transform China economically and socially and, ultimately, its links with the rest of East Asia. In a similar manner, China is boldly embracing a greener future with its huge investment in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines.
‘The United States, with its aging infrastructure – antiquated railway stations, abysmal and slow rail network, indifferent airports, a ground-tracking system for air travel that dates back to the 1950’s, and a stubborn addiction to the private car – already pales in comparison. Its public spending on transport and water stands at 2.4 per cent of GDP, compared with 9 per cent in China. The contrast in sheer will and foresight in such matters is sobering.’ P611/612
So there we have it, an irrefutable transition from one to the other, but a transition to what? That is the question facing all of humanity.