With its provocative title, this well-written and timely book by the well-known British journalist Martin Jacques is something of a publisher’s dream. A cut above the annual crop of run-of-the-mill “China threat” books, Jacques’ thoughtful analysis is selling well and deservedly so. It combines an excellent introduction to Chinese history and culture with an exposition of the main arguments surrounding the 21st century “rise of China”, albeit heavily weighted in favor of the author’s own views. It even throws in an excellent chapter on Japan that, taken on its own, would be a good enough reason for buying the book.
But what of the massive assumption contained in the book’s title? Does Jacques manage to make his case that China is set to rule the world? Talk of the emergence of a G2 of America and China in the wake of the crash of 2008 appears, if not to confirm, then at least prefigure China’s rise to preeminence. None of the great issues facing the world can be solved without reference to and without the agreement of the “big two.” All eyes are on the U.S. and China as the world gathers in Copenhagen to address the existential threat of global warming. But counting as one of the world’s biggest problems does not translate to occupancy of the top seat, and would in any case be an unhappy way to ascend the throne.
China’s apparent rise is a function of American decline. From Gulf War one to Gulf War two, from an unparalleled demonstration of military invincibility, to a bloody morass; from George HW Bush, the measured and cautious statesman, to George W Bush, the buffoon; from the promise of Silicon Valley to the crash of 2008, talk of America’s loss of power and prestige has become common currency. Few now quote Francis Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian tract The End of History and the Last Man, on universally-accepted Western values and institutions as the end point of human development. Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations has better stood the test of time.
Jacques’ argument is simple. China is huge, its economy is booming, its growth is unstoppable and it will therefore at some point overtake and supplant the U.S. as the world’s dominant economic power. It will do so, according to Jacques, even before its per capita GDP exceeds America’s. Other dimensions of power will flow from its economic preeminence.
Two of Jacques’ three premises are undeniable. It is because of China’s huge population and its economic record that we are having this discussion. Whether China’s growth is unstoppable is the key question. There is no shortage of doom-mongers who continuously predict economic disaster in China. The “inevitable” failure of the government’s massive stimulus package is their latest chorus. Like a stopped clock, no doubt they will eventually be right. But the lesson of all economic crises, including the Great Depression that appeared to have devastated America, is that societies, governments and economies, adapt and recover. Crises may delay but not arrest China’s growth.
On balance, therefore, I believe Jacques has made his case for the rise of China. It is part of an axial shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Europe and America to Asia, from West to East. It marks the final fading of the old imperialist and colonialist powers and the rise of the former colonies, and includes the rise of the other Asian giant, India, alongside China. Jacques, a former communist, now believes the anti-colonial struggle was of much greater significance than the Bolshevik revolution. “With hindsight, the defeat of colonialism […] must rate as one of the great landmarks of the last century, perhaps the greatest.”
What will the consequences of China’s rise be? Jacques gives the world plenty to worry about. Under a veneer of communist ideology, he believes the Chinese state and society have remained essentially unchanged since Imperial times. In particular, both rulers and people have inherited a “Middle Kingdom mentality” forged over the centuries when China dominated East Asia, and outlying “barbarians” traveled to the capital to pay tribute and kowtow to the Emperor. Will China transpose old habits to the world stage and use its economic muscle to reconstruct a modern version of the tributary system? Jacques claims to see hints of such a development in PRC relations with its smaller neighbors and trading partners.
Even more worrying is that Jacques claims to have detected a powerful strain of racism and feelings of racial superiority running through Chinese, indeed East Asian society as a whole. This is partly based on Jacques’ own experience, and indeed widespread popular prejudice against people with dark skins, and Africans in particular, can be quickly confirmed by almost any observant traveler. There is also a deep-rooted ideal of beauty which means that in China until recently it was almost impossible to buy sun-block that did not contain skin lightener. Jacques also points to articles in Chinese learned journals and the popular press that aim to refute the now almost universally-held “Out of Africa” theory of human evolution.
Should we be worried? There are many countervailing forces to traditionalism in Chinese society. One is the vast numbers of returnees who have been educated in America and elsewhere over recent decades. A younger generation that believes it has “seen the future and it works” has colonized ministries and influential think tanks. China’s “Westernizers” intellectually outgun by far the modern equivalent of its “Slavophiles”. Jacques also fails to give sufficient weight to China’s huge new working class, the largest in the world, which is streaming to the cities and abandoning rural life and its age-old traditions. While unlikely to fall in with the Westernizers, these new urban residents are no more likely to represent a traditionalist force.
The perception that racism is particularly prevalent in China may be an illusion of Westerners attuned to living in multicultural societies exposed to decades of government education programs that have expelled vulgar prejudice from polite society. Despite Jacques’ occasional careless use of the word “race,” the various ethnic groups and nationalities of China and East Asia are physically virtually indistinguishable. Western tourists in China may be charmed or annoyed by prolonged stares and giggles, but these are a reaction to unfamiliarity rather than signs of a Boxer mentality. The dissenters from the Out of Africa theory turn out to be a few archaeologists in Nanjing and Wuhan who have devoted their lives to the fossil record of early man in China. Chinese geneticists are wholly in agreement with the DNA evidence that underpins the Out of Africa theory. This is not to say the Chinese government does not have a mountain to climb to educate its citizens about racial prejudice. But starting late has never been a barrier to success in China. The important thing is to find the political will.
Martin Jacques has written an excellent popular book on China, which is exactly what the world needs if it is to understand and engage with the Chinese, as it increasingly must. Professional Sinologists have been rather sniffy about it because Jacques does not speak Chinese, but it is always open to them to write something better. Unfortunately, Western university grants systems keep their noses firmly stuck in obscure research projects that yield books nobody reads. The days are long gone since John King Fairbank and others wrote their magisterial histories, more is the pity. In the meantime, Martin Jacques has helped fill the gap.