When China Rules the World; The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World

Martin Jacques; Penguin Books, 2009

Summary by Graham Mulligan

Martin Jacques writes from a scholarly perspective, and has a solid background that gives substance to his voice. His website description says ‘He is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, IDEAS, a centre for the study of international affairs, diplomacy and grand strategy, and a visiting research fellow at the LSE’s Asia Research Centre. He is a columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman.’ His website is here http://martinjacques.com/

Lets begin with three key assumptions of the West about China. First, China’s challenge will be primarily economic in nature; second, China will in due course become a typical Western nation; and three, the international system will remain broadly as it is now, with China acquiescing in the status quo and becoming a compliant member of the international community. In considering this Martin presents four broad themes in the book that mark China as distinct from the West. First, China is a civilization-state. This idea is developed throughout the book and is key to understanding Martin’s argument. Second, China has a different concept of race and racial relationships. One hears figures like 90 percent Han and 56 minority groups. But more central to the idea of race is the ideological component of being Chinese. There is a reaction to invaders over the centuries and is most recently seen in the Manchu and Qing dynasties, that engenders an attitude about being Chinese. Third, the idea of nation-state is a construct dating from the seventeenth century, and is known as the Westphalian system (the Peace of Westphalia, 1648 ended the Thirty Years War in the Holy Roman Empire leading to the creation of sovereign states). Martin describes an alternative state system centered on China that he calls the Tributary-state system, which is what the Middle Kingdom meant. Fourth, the principle of unity, of being Chinese and of China; unity of population and of territory; is central to the book’s argument.

Martin uses the idea of culture and the contrast between cultures that can be divided into those that are based on guilt, like the Christian-derived West, and those that are based on shame, like those of the Orient to delve into his portrayal of the Chinese attitude. Shame is the product of monitoring one’s actions by viewing one’s self from the standpoint of others.

Lets return to the attitude of the West for a moment. Globalization is a dominant Western idea and a model for all nations. The rest of the world should become increasingly like the West with its free market economies, privatization, rule of law, human rights and democratic norms. In contrast, the developing world is still subject to indigenous forces that shape the way those societies respond to the West. Indigenous institutions like the family and the culture of government and of business are different and often resistant to the intrusion of the West.

History also plays a part. Japanese history is a case in point of a society deciding to embrace the West and the modern idea. Commodore Perry invaded Japan in 1853 and by 1868 the Meiji regime was making changes to meet the challenge of the West. Fukuzawa Yukichi’s essay ‘On Leaving Asia’ (1885) defined the attitude that allowed Japan to colonize its neighbours. Contrast this to the Chinese state of the same period.  Industrialization and Western style reform and modernization did not take hold in China following its encounters with the West. The Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 did not result in a similar change of attitude. But the state remained intact.

The idea of the state in China is called the Mandate of Heaven and it describes the rule of emperors over his subjects. Unlike the corresponding Western idea of the Divine Right of Kings, China’s mandate rested on moral criteria, not birthright. This idea of what is right and what is wrong derives from Confucius with honesty at the centre. It allows speculation on virtue and suitability and critically, the withdrawal of support for the emperor. Often natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and droughts were the signal that support was weakening.

The turmoil of the twentieth century around the world struck China hard. Already battered by the nineteenth century colonial incursions, China was turned inward. China’s first attempt to join the modern world came in 1911 with the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (1866 – 1925), The First Republic of China soon degenerated into warlordism until a new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, formed the Nationalist government (1928 – 37), followed by the Japanese invasion and civil war which ended in 1949. Martin asks why did China never break up? And why did the impact of Western and Japanese occupation prove limited?

Following the victory of the communists in 1949 a new era seemed to bring stability but Martin analyzes it as a natural continuation. The Confucian and Communist traditions are similar in many ways. There are common economic and social goals, such as reducing inequality, limiting the size of land holding, and re-distributing land. There is also a state responsibility for the moral outlook of the people and for creating a stable society. Politically the implicit contract between the people and the state permitted a relationship that is authoritarian and hierarchical and good for the continuation of the idea of China. It is not unusual that the city and the countryside are ruled differently or that the Party exists as the vehicle to rule the society. The Confucian imperial exam created an elite system of court functionaries much as the Party cadres are the elite operatives of the new state. That is different from the West where the idea of a civil society and an autonomous public holds so much sway in our idea of what government is.

Another big theme of the book is the idea of modernity. Are Asian societies modern and does that mean they are more or less like the West?  Or can they be both at once? Martin looks at a number of indicators to examine if Asian societies are modern like the West is modern.  The phenomenal spread of the English language as a business language is obvious but it has not replaced indigenous languages. Clothing styles are another indicator and Martin notes the prevalence for Indian style attire in India and muslim attire in Malay that shows resistance to adopting clothing style as a necessary sign of modernity. Food is another indicator. Western style restaurants exist in China but compared to the plethora of xiaochi restaurants there is no doubt that Chinese people are not going to be feasting on Big Macs like some American families seem to do. And politics it seems is not going to be a simple matter of adopting the two-party system (or multiple party system if you are from Canada).

Martin sees instead an indigenous modernity and a ‘very thick accumulation of history’ making up a different modernity. He calls this ‘Contested Modernity’. The old idea of an ideological divide exemplified by the nearly 70-year conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States is now in the past. Something new is afoot. Different cultures, histories and values will compete with equal legitimacy. Many states once deemed backward or inferior have emerged with a different world presence. Ideas of ‘advanced’, ‘developed’, and ‘civilized’ are no longer synonymous with the West.

Part II The Age of China

Martin delves into his analysis of China’s economic model and where it is heading and then looks at the politics of the region and then puts China in a global perspective. Lets begin with the economic model.

Deng Xiaoping described the specific policy for development in China in its Reform and Opening phase. It requires two conditions: international peace and domestic stability. For the central government this meant an economic policy that includes resisting liberalization of capital such as the free flow of money in and out of China, coupled with tight control of the value of the renminbi in order to avoid speculation. Low tariff barriers in such and environment would encourage foreign investment.  This economic growth model is aimed at creating enough new jobs each year to provide an improved standard of living for the millions of migrants to the cities of China. The strategy depends on exports of cheap consumer goods to the West plus the supply of low-cost labour. This is sustainable for the next 5 to 10 years at least. A significant constraint on this strategy is the lack of natural resources forcing China to import a lot of raw material. The strategy, like that of Japan and Korea much earlier, also has to move through the low-cost production of low-end products sold to developed countries. Eventually China must climb the economic ladder to produce more high-end products. To do this China is trading access to the Chinese market for access to technology, coupled with increased spending on its own research and development. At the same time many foreign-trained professionals are being wooed back to China.

The growth of China’s economy and the shift up the value ladder will lead to increased calls for trade protection by the West.

The role of ethnicity is significant when discussing China. The Han People is the name given to the overwhelming majority of people in the country, about 90%, but it includes some ethnicities that are clearly unique such as Mongols and Manchus while excluding Ouighers and Tibetans. Martin leans heavily on the idea of ‘unification’ versus ‘expansion’ to explain how the Han enveloped and included other groups. In an interesting discussion related to ethnicity Martin explains how the Chinese don’t acknowledge racism as a problem in China, seeing it as a ‘White’ issue and at the same time hold to a self-view of being a superior ethnic group. There is even some adherence to the idea of an Asian origin of man theory.

With respect to regional politics it is clear that China has been dominant in Asia in the past with the exception of a period of time when the Japanese rose to prominence. The focus of Chinese regional dominance is clearest in North Asia while in South Asia the emphasis now given to the ASEAN block versus the US dominated APEC block points to how China sees itself. Another block formed in 2001 called SCO (Shanghai Co-operation Organization) focuses on Central Asia.

All these groupings are portrayed by Martin as evolving naturally out of the ancient dynastic Tributary System which described how governance was conducted in past ages. The notion of sovereignty is challenged by evidence of past historical reference to the tributary system where a location or people paid tribute to the distant emperor in Xi’an. Taiwan is discussed along with Hong Kong as examples of two very contemporary state issues with China’s position being ‘One Civilization Two Systems’. Future scenarios include a more open tolerance of Taiwan’s separateness but not independence. Japan, he says, will be isolated and continue to be oriented to the West but probably will not be as strategic for the US as in the past and will not rival China.

Globally, China will need to source commodities that it lacks and will continue to invest in Africa, while respecting sovereignty. What China brings to Africa and elsewhere is large scale, state-led investment and infrastructure and support. Contrast this with the predominant model of the West, which focuses still on resource extraction and privatization. This leads to a new kind of international system that Martin calls the Beijing Consensus as opposed to the Washington Consensus (IMF and World Bank). Relations with the US will be determined by four issues: The US attitude toward globalization; the shift in the balance of power in East Asia; China’s emergence as an alternative model to the US; and military power.

Finally, Martin describes four geopolitical shifts that will occur in the future: Beijing will become the world capital replacing New York (London in the past, or even Florence or Rome at one time dominant in the West); China will be the leading power, certainly economically; East Asia will be the most important region of the globe; Asia will be the most important continent.

Yoshihiro Fukuyama predicted the ‘End of History’ after the fall of the Soviet Union, describing a convergence of nations on political and economic liberalism and democracy. Martin argues for an alternate vision that he calls a ‘new modernity’. Central to this vision is the alternative evolution of history that he has begun to portray in this book. It will have eight defining characteristics:

The Civilization State

A Tributary System as opposed to the Westphalian System of nationhood

The importance and centrality of ethnicity, especially Han

Size of population and area and will look more like the EU than one country

Specific polity that is like an imperial dynasty

Speed of transformation

Communist regime

Simultaneously a developing country and a developed country

It is this last chapter that has provoked the most criticism of his book. You can read a series of letters between Martin and opposing author, Will Hutton at http://www.thechinabeat.org/?p=1408



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