March 5, 2015
Perry Anderson on the Specter of China
Posted on Mar 19, 2010
How should this construction be judged? Enthusiasm, however well-meaning, is no substitute for discrimination. Chinese antiquity stretches back to 1500 BCE or beyond. But this no more makes today’s People’s Republic a special genus of ‘civilisation-state’ than comparable claims for la civilisation française make one of the Third or Fourth Republic. Talk of ‘civilisations’ is notoriously self-serving, and delimitations of them arbitrary: Samuel Huntington arrived, rather desperately, at eight or nine – including an African, Latin American and Eastern Orthodox civilisation. Nothing is gained by affixing this embellishment to the PRC. Like France in the 1930s or 1950s, contemporary China is an integrist nation-state, cast in an imperial mould, if with a much longer past and on a much larger scale. Nor are inflated claims for the age-old economic centrality or social wisdom of pre-modern China much help in understanding the present or future of the country. If, up through the Song, China was technologically and commercially far in advance of Europe, by the end of the Ming its science lagged well behind, and even at the height of Qing prosperity in the 18th century, agrarian productivity and average wage levels, let alone intellectual progress in a broader sense, were nowhere near vanguard developments in Europe. Nor are idyllic images of sage concern for the welfare of the masses much closer to the realities of rule by successive dynasties, which in the words of one of China’s finest historians, He Bingdi, were always ‘ornamentally Confucian and functionally Legalist’ – repression wrapped in moralising rhetoric.
When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
By Martin Jacques
The Penguin Press HC, 576 pages
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State
By Yasheng Huang
Cambridge University Press, 366 pages
Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt
By Ching Kwan Lee
University of California Press, 340 pages
It would be unfair to judge any of this side of When China Rules the World, a popular work, by scholarly standards. None of it matters very much to the main thrust of the book, where it serves only as preliminary folklore to adjust readers in advance to the idea of pre-eminence to come. China could perfectly well be about to dominate the world without having nearly always represented the summit of universal development in the past. More serious is the incoherence of the book’s central message. For the most part, When China Rules the World is an unabashed exercise in boosterism, hailing the PRC not only as the paramount power of the future, but as the liberating ice-breaker that will, in the book’s American subtitle, bring about ‘The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’. Sightings of this sort seem to have become a late British speciality: Jacques’s version is only a little less absurd than Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century by Mark Leonard, a fellow seer of the Demos think tank Jacques helped to found. But there is another side to When China Rules the World at odds with its generally upbeat story. Internationally, China has ‘embraced multilateralism’, attracts its neighbours and partners by ‘soft power’, and promotes ‘democracy between nations’. Yet we also need to be aware that ‘the Chinese regard themselves as superior to the rest of the human race,’ inheriting a Middle Kingdom mentality that has always been more or less racist, and traditions of tributary statecraft that may have been conducive to stability, but were always based on hierarchy and inequality. Might this heritage compromise the fair prospect of a democratic inter-state system? Not necessarily, since while ‘the Western world is over, the new world, at least for the next century, will not be Chinese in the way that the previous one was Western’. The book, in other words, disowns its own title, confected purely to increase sales. China is not going to rule the world. All that is happening is that ‘we are entering an era of competing modernity’ in which China will ‘increasingly be in the ascendant and eventually dominant’.
But the idea of a distinctively ‘Chinese modernity’ winning a global competition for hegemony is no more coherent than that of high-speed Chinese growth ushering in ‘democracy between nation-states’. Its role in the book is to be understood in the light of the author’s cursus vitae. Once the editor of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s monthly, Marxism Today, after his party and journal gave up the ghost in the early 1990s Jacques moved into mainstream journalism, shedding the language, if not altogether the reflexes, of his past. The Cold War over and the Soviet Union gone, the opposition between socialism and capitalism was now a back number. How then should the open-door policies of the PRC – its welcome to the world market – be related to it? This is not a matter on which When China Rules the World cares to dwell. Such questions belong to a vocabulary the book goes out of its way to avoid. Over five hundred pages, the word ‘capitalism’ scarcely ever appears. But there is still a global contest, in which the more sympathetic side can nonetheless win. Simply, it is now between not the outdated political and ideological categories of socialism and capitalism, but alternative ‘modernities’, as so many different cultural ways of being up to the minute. The function of this change of lexicon is not hard to see. What it offers is the chance of a consolation prize for the left. Capitalism may have won worldwide, so why bother to go on talking about it? Instead, why not look ahead to the welcome prospect of a non-Western variant of what is now our common destiny overtopping all others, in a country where the ruling party at least still describes itself as Communist?
Alas, there is a logical difficulty in this wistful hope, which is insuperable. Alternative modernities, so conceived, are cultural, not structural: they differentiate not social systems, but sets of values – typically, a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility, making up a certain national ‘style’ of life. But just because this is what is most specific to any given culture, it is typically what is least transferable to any other – that is, impossible to universalise. Other recent works highlighting cultural differences in a post-ideological world – Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations or Fukuyama’s Trust come to mind – have grasped this intransitivity, making no claims that any one complex could tend towards predominance over all others, in the way that a modal economic order can. Moreover, projections of a Chinese modernity that will eventually become hegemonic not only forget the inherently self-limiting character of any strongly defined national culture, they further ignore the especially intense Chinese insistence, familiar to anyone who has been in the country, on the uniqueness of China. Few contemporary cultures, save perhaps Japan, are so self-consciously resistant to international comparison, so convinced of the inimitability of their own forms and traditions. In his way, Jacques is aware of this, at times even exaggerating it as an inveterate sense of superiority close to racism, of which there is less evidence than he assumes. But he fails to see how thoroughly the cult of Zhonghuaxing – ‘Chineseness’ – undoes his own imaginings of a future Han modernity spreading triumphantly, as a universal attractor, across the globe.
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