The first impression of China when you fly out of the lurid slums of Mumbai and land in Shanghai is frankly, even if you have read about it, stunning. You’d never think this is a “developing” country, like India clearly is. You’d think you are in a rich, cosmopolitan city like New York, only ten times bigger and a lot cleaner.
Regarding China, there are two main camps in the West. What I call the “American Camp”, which claims China is becoming just like America, and it must continue to converge onto American values and policies to become really successful. This camp feeds its delusions through ignorance and provincialism, as is typical in the US. The second camp, which I will call the “European Camp”, maintains China will fail, because their culture and systems are intrinsically inferior to those of the European masters. This camp feeds its delusions on racism and arrogance, which are common European vices. Now Martin Jacques, a reputed British journalist who has lived and worked extensively in China, demonstrates that in 15-20 years China will overtake the US as the richest country in the world; in less than 40 years it will be the undisputed world leader, its GDP at least double that of the distant second, possibly the US or India. This 500 page very thorough analysis of the Chinese reality is easily the best I have read this year (out of 6 books on the topic).
Of course, predictions are always hard, and there is a distinct possibility Jacques is wrong about China; however, his analysis of current politics is very reasonable and almost commonsensical. Few will dispute it. It goes more or less like this: with the fall of communism, American conservatives and many Europeans have assumed the last adversary of Western values had been destroyed. With the unbelievable breakup of the West’s arch-enemy, the USSR, nothing would stand in the way of a planetary system shaped by Western values. This was perhaps most disastrously and famously expressed by Francis Fukuyama, who prophesized “the end of history”. On this optimistic readout, American conservatives built their famous platform of military expansion through the Middle East in order to control the leftover energy resources.
According to Jacques, this was one of the most tragic misreadings of history in ther 20th century. The “New American Century” will turn out to be the “Chinese Century”. The US economy is a castle of card, built on speculation and on the Bretton-Woods economic system, which was based on the dollar as world currency. The crash simply confirmed what the world already suspected: the US is now unable to anchor the international economy, and it is just a matter of time till the financial “world order” is replaced. The anchor country of the future will be, without a doubt, China.
The book begins with an analysis of the rise of the West and its colonial strategies. Then the author launches into a long analysis of Japan, the first Asian country to modernize along lines that are semi – Western. Then China’s humiliation is chronicled: from the early encounters with colonial Britain to the Japanese invasion, the century spanning from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th saw China under the boot of foreign invaders. How did this happen? The author goes back 4 thousand years to vividly narrate the prodigious power and unity of the Chinese empire, its great traditions in philosophy and science, and its growing sense of isolation and superiority, which led to its implosion. Then the Communist revolution is discussed in a light that sees it as a continuation of the Chinese tradition of devotion for authority and tendency to condemn individualism and espouse collectivism. Finally, China’s modernization, following a centrally conceived and executed plan with the aid of market forces, is all but Western. Those who are fooled by the McDonald’s and Pizza Huts in Beijing may believe China has embraced American values. Wrong, claims Jacques. China is developing and will continue to develop along lines that have more to do with its own values than those of the West.
China’s rise is examined next, with the aid of economic figures. Perhaps this will be the most surprising section for most readers. I doubt that it is widely appreciated how developed China really has become in 30 years. Its economic network branching throughout Asia is truly extensive, and overall one cannot but marvel at how successful the Chinese Communist party has become, especially if one compares it with its USSR equivalent, which has produced –in combination with disastrous Western advice- the current basket case that is Russia.
Why is China unique and different from the West? China’s unique history and the uniquely Chinese sense of history make China, claims Jacques, a civilization-state: a huge slice of a continent which has a single culture and race (Han, basically a fictitious race), and which shares Confucian values which are over two millennia old. Second, China has always conceived the world in terms of tributary states: it has never been a colonial power, and has been satisfied with the surrounding lands paying tribute to its economic and cultural superiority. This is the type of network that China is rebuilding in Asia: most Asian countries, except Japan and the Philippines, have moved voluntarily into China’s orbit, including former US client state South Korea. Indeed, in most of Asia China enjoys a much stronger image than the US as world leader. Its economic network extends into the American playground of Latin America and into Africa, where Chinese no-string-attached loans are replacing the predatory US/European instruments of the IMF and World Bank. This apparently benevolent and successful Chinese expansion will surprise many readers who are still thinking of China as a playground for slave labor and government brutality.
China is also unique in terms of being the only world power where religion plays little or no role. There is no church power to contrast or support state power, like there was in Europe till a few decades ago and there is now in the fundamentalist regions (US, Middle East). The fact that the Chinese don’t have a state religion (indeed religion is still persecuted, especialy Buddhism), makes them less prone to sharing the American “manifest destiny” theory, because China does not have a history of explosive continental expansion and genocide.
China’s size and population are the obvious distinguishing feature of China: no country is both as large and as populated. Its vastness gives it a unique advantage. A little known fact is the size of the Chinese diaspora, both in Asia and in other continents like Africa. In certain areas of Southeast Asia, Chinese enclaves are no longer minorities and their economic power is disproportionate with their number. China is conquering the world, in part, with its enormous population.
Another distinctive feature of China’s power structure is that it goes back to 4,000 of absolutism, a rather benevolent form of absolutism which did not derive its power from God, and indeed could be replaced if the monarch did not perform. China never had alternative power structures like a Church or a merchant class, ready to claim part of the absolute power of the monarchs. Indeed, China does not have a history of power sharing between classes. Many who see China irresistibly drawn toward democracy are deluding themselves. All the prerequisites that led to the European revolutions are absent in China, and therefore a Western-style democracy is unlikely to emerge in the next couple of decades. Indeed, China’s absolutist model is working well and delivering results. At least 3 Chinese out of 4 are very satisfied with the way things are going. Tienanmen square is a forgotten event.
What will China look like in 40 years, and how will it choose to run the world? “China will have a free press” claim many US journalists. Jacques demonstrates how our analysis of globalization is deeply flawed, picking for example as easy target the most celebrated fan of globalization, Thomas Friedman, who undoubtedly has little understanding of China. China’s “soft power” approach, which contrasts with the military aggression the US has chosen, has led many Asian, South American and African countries to embrace China as an ally. China, although not democratic, encourages “democracy among nations”. Since the language of “hard power” is not inscribed in the national Chinese psyche the way it is in the American psyche, Jacques predicts China will not be an oppressive power, but it will certainly arm itself, as it is already doing (albeit very slowly).
The exact balance of “carrot and stick” China will choose in exercizing its power is hard to predict, but the Chinese government seems to have understood very well that reconfiguring the international financial system is a much more effective road to power than building a huge military, as the growing impotence of the US on both fronts clearly demonstrates. With the US economy on a life support system from China, it is a matter of a few decades before China takes over the economic leadership of the world, with a monetary system based on a basket of currencies, featuring the renmimbi.
“As the present international system is designed to represent and promote American interests”, the future one will be used by China to promote its own agenda. The devaluation of the dollar will hasten the decline of the US as world leader. Chinese culture will expand worldwide at a pace similar to the expansion of America’s after WWII. Mandarin will become one of the two“lingua francas” on the world (it is already so in Asia), alongside with English. Chinese food, entertainment, music, fine arts, and basic science will expand dramatically, overtaking the US equivalents: a short section of the book details the stunning progress in this area, alongside with comments on the decline of the US in areas like sports (the Chinese won more gold medals than the US in Beijng) or cinema (all over the world, popular movies are increasingly not coming from Hollywood, and China is investing dramatically in this area).
Finally, in “Decline and Fall of the West”, Jacques expresses the optimistic view that a multipolar world, with China, India, and Brazil reaching superpower status in 2050 and the US declining to the rank of “important nation” will be inherently more balanced and peaceful than what we have now. In his conclusion, Jacques does not spare blunt words for the West. Europe, says Jacques, is basically a client system of the US and “finds it extremely difficult to understand its increasingly modest place in the world and adjust its sights accordingly”, and “Europe’s decline is certain to continue into the indefinite future”. The US is, of course, in much worse shape, because, whereas Europeans have gotten used to their decline as world leaders after 1945, Americans suffer still from an acute form of delusion. “ If Europe will suffer, that is nothing (compared) to the material and existential crisis that will be faced by the USA. It is almost completely unprepared for a life where it is not globally dominant….the US is entering a protracted period of economic, political and military trauma. Its medium term reaction is unlikely to be pretty: the world must hope it is not too ugly”.
I am sure there will be those who will say Jacques is a Brit turned Chinese. On the other hand, Jacques makes a very convincing case that the rise of China is irresistible as are the decay of the American empire and the increasing irrelevance of Europe. I am personally amazed at the technical growth China has achieved in a couple of decades. Regardless of what you think of these economic predictions, the book should be an eye-opener for all those who are unfamiliar with modern China, its rise from from the ashes of its humiliation, and its glorious future. I learned a lot even though I had been reading up on China the whole year. As soon as my Dutch is under control, sign me up for those free Mandarin courses!