Recent books dealing with China’s unprecedented development over the last 30 years and its future have an annoyingly-repetitive habit of starting out by yelling the big facts: the country’s GDP growth, urban migration, education levels – and normally a concern or two about corruption, reforms and opacity. While these are all important issues to address, it does make the majority of these titles blend into one singular snapshot of the country.
At least journalist Martin Jacques tries a different and more anthropological tact. When China Rules the World leaves it until page 73 before it seriously starts to look at China and its current position. Until that point the book concentrates on exploring previous models of industrial revolution: Britain’s in the 1750s, the United States’ soon after, and Japan’s rise in the 19th and early 20th century following its adoption of many Western institutions and attitudes.
Yet despite looking deeply into these Western precedents, Jacques spends the majority of the book arguing that China will blaze an entirely new approach to its future development. Many in the US and Europe might assume — and not-so-secretly hope — that China’s progress will follow the tried and tested Western model, but Jacques, concentrating on the country’s unique historical, cultural and national psyche, believes that what we are witnessing is a whole new proposition. “It is clear we have already entered this era of multiple modernities.”
China’s sheer size, national identity rooted in 2,000-plus years of recorded history, and its ambitions and belief in its role in regional if not global issues means that, in Jacques’ opinion, its position as a developing country was always an aberration that would be corrected sooner rather than later.
That being said, it is its dual position as a developing and developed nation that the author highlights as one of the most interesting aspects to concentrate on over the next few decades. While the country’s contribution to the growth of global GDP has already surpassed that of the USA, many of its citizens still live in pre-industrial revolution conditions. Jacques suggests that it is this almost unique position — shared only with India and possibly Brazil — that gives China an opportunity to have a growing voice in both camps.
By starting with China’s rise to the top as a forgone conclusion, something many will find debatable, Jacques is able to focus on the increasingly influential position it will play in international relations, most notably in its own backyard. While America is still the dominant outside influence for most of the world’s countries, China is catching up fast – but it is increasingly flexing its muscles economically rather than militarily, with trade agreements and soft power-plays the flavor of the day.
The book systematically deals with China’s relationships — past, present and future — with the pertinent regions of the world without feeling contrived or forced, though special attention is paid to its growing role as the dominant regional power. As time goes by and China is looked on with less and less suspicion, an increasing number of countries in Asia — though also in Africa and elsewhere — are moving closer to China’s sphere of influence and away from the US. Even countries like Japan and South Korea who have strong historical ties to America and concerns about China are gradually leaning towards a greater involvement with the country.
In general, Jacques is optimistic about the role that China can play as a member of the international community, though one aspect of concern he raises is the unresolved racial issues that the Chinese have with various ethnicities. Jacques questions the country’s current ability to take a global leadership role when its people traditionally see the world in “racial or cultural hierarchy; with the Chinese at the top” followed by Caucasians and lastly other, darker-skinned, races.
That being said, the book’s message is unflinching: China has returned to a dominant position in the world but it will go about it in its own way. “The West is habituated to the idea that the world is its world, the international community its community, the international institutions its institutions . . . The West will progressively discover, to its acute discomfort, that the world is no longer Western.”