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Will China Rule the World?

Posted on Jul 20, 2010
Flickr / jimg944 (CC-BY)

By William Pfaff

Possibly the most fashionable theme in current discussions of the future is whether China will replace the United States as the leading world power. That it will do so seems to be taken for granted in pop-historical circles, as well as among economic forecasters or futurists (who currently have a record that does not inspire confidence). A Goldman Sachs analysis declares that China will replace the United States as the largest economy in the world by 2027. But the largest economy is not automatically the leading nation. And ruling the world is more of a problem than one thinks, as Washington is discovering.

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“When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” by Martin Jacques is one of a number of recent books on this theme. But why should China rule the world if the United States cannot do so despite the best efforts of Republicans and of the Democratic Party hawks who currently have the ear of Barack Obama?

The poverty of this argument is very striking. It assumes that the country with the largest industrial production rules the globe, and it disregards nearly all that contributes to the human capacity to lead, which is to say, to create a dominant civilization. China and its rival India possess a theoretical potential for mass industrial production largely because they are the two most populous countries in the world, and, in a globalized market economy, they have been able to supply the leading industrial countries with cheap, skilled and, until now, docile labor. Foreign industrial countries therefore have, in a globalized economy, been able to exploit this labor. Before globalization, they manufactured their goods at home. But neither China nor India created their modern industries: They received them from the West.

These are largely the creations of foreign investment, meant to produce goods for foreign markets. This obviously is not a situation that will continue indefinitely; the Indian and Chinese labor markets are already vulnerable to the available labor in poorer and less sophisticated societies. China and India will have profited from this experience, and their own industries will be left in a position to profit from it in their own process of further development, which nonetheless will for many years remain inferior to those of societies able to continue to outperform them in innovation, scientific progress and overall sophistication.

Quality of civilization is what counts. Europe dominated the world from the Renaissance until the terrible European civil wars of the 20th century because the Europeans explored the world, learned from what they found, created modern science and technology, organized their own societies in ways never before known with unprecedented systems of administration and power, and provided a quality of life for their populations that maintained the allegiance of their societies. They did not simply out-produce everyone else in manufacture and agriculture; they revolutionized medieval methods of material production and feudal farming.


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They also produced the ideas that dominated the age—scientific ideas, ideologies of progress and governance, theories of human society and of the future. The world still lives on the intellectual legacy of Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, as well as upon the political and philosophical legacy of Greece and Judeo-Christian religion.

The United States developed from this Europe and extended the power and influence of the West with its innovative democratic society and federal institutions, democratization of culture and industry, and, since 1945, its promulgation of its own ideas and ambitions to the world at large, as well as its creation of a globalized industrial market, globalized communications and much more.

Obviously China in its great age was an immense civilization with innovative science and technology, whose moral as well as cultural influence shaped what we know now as the Far East. India was not a powerful centralized state, but it created a religious civilization whose influence endures. To compare them with the West is not to denigrate them, and China in particular may indeed become a major world power in the next half-century. It may acquire global military ambitions, although speaking historically, that would be uncharacteristic. But will it, or India, or any other of the second-ranking economic powers of the present day, see an original development of civilization able to dominate science and seize the imaginations of the rest of the world?

Will Americans and Europeans in the coming century emulate and admire Chinese and Indian civilizations, learn from them, find themselves reduced to the status of satellites of Asia? Will China indeed rule the world? None of us are likely to be here to see the answer.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By Buddy King, August 23, 2010 at 10:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For those who believe it goes against Chinese history to try and rule the world, well for a good chunk of the US’s history, the country was rather isolationist.  Then WWII happened, and here we are today.  So China might just do something different, we’re not all victims of history, which doesn’t repeat but rhymes (as Mark Twain said)

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By acacac11, August 12, 2010 at 11:13 pm Link to this comment

I am only halfway through this book but I think Martin Jacques made some interesting points. Most were really obvious to me as a person of East Asian extraction/culture. Others, however, had me thinking, does this writer know ANYTHING about East Asia?

The points I agreed with were related to the error in idea that East Asians, moving into this hard to define modernity, would became exactly like the West. Japan was raised as a case in point.

The others were simply atrociously researched - concluding that all ethnic Chinese wanted to be white, despised their skin colour and harboured racist sentiments against those of darker skin tone. I think the single source cited was a MARKETING EXECUTIVE of a cosmetic company (!!!). This had me sharing the quote with my ethnic Chinese friends in Taiwan, China, and Australia - we had a good laugh. Personally I think this is related to the former agrarian economies - and thus white skin being associated with a higher status…not too different from pre-industrial Britain! Also, Jackie Chan is supposed to look Eurasian and be considered attractive in East Asia? He is actually more of a Robin Williams type…and no one considers his features to be eurasian…

What happened to Jacques’ wife and family is very sad…but I do sense a kind of paranoia about China’s growing power. I do believe that we can rest assured that China won’t plunder the world like other civilisations have before it…even though there are many cultural “negatives” in Sinocentricism, I think its tight link with Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thought means China’s rise will be not where as aggressive, destructive and violent as the West’s has been.

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By M Henri Day, July 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm Link to this comment

No rico, I’ll be signing out before that issue is determined one way or another, so I’ll never know. Of course, if you are right and China adopts the militaristic posture of mentors like the USA, the rest of the world will probably be signing out as well, so perhaps none of us will ever know….


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By rico, suave, July 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment

Lots of good posts here, especially from a bunch of pie in the sky lefties. But I think Monsieur Day will be disappointed the most. China WILL rule the 21st century. And they WILL protect theirs markets militarily if necessary, just like every superpower who has ever dreamed of dominating the planet. The historic inwardness of China will give way to the siren song of markets, markets, markets.

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By G.Anderson, July 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment

Clearly China has indicated that they have nothing to learn from us in regard to our government and business doings.

On the other hand maybe there are some things we can learn from them, like executing CEO’s, who through their negligence kill their customers.

Here we give them golden parachutes….

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By mef, July 21, 2010 at 10:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good points have been already posted about the
checkered (there’s a euphemism for you) rise of the
West, vs. China’s long(-er) record of “civilization.”

Another difference to consider: both the PRC and the US
are currently controlled by self-aggrandizing elites,
only in China the leadership is building up a large
middle-class alongside itself, whereas the plutocrats
in America have for 30 years worked to destroy the

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By Justin Weleski, July 21, 2010 at 9:49 am Link to this comment

How could the author overlook the role military
dominance, aggression, colonialism, slavery, and
genocide played in Europe and America’s rise to the
role of “ruler of the world”?  Pfaff pretends that it
was Europe and America’s noble virtues, technological
innovations, and lofty intellectual ideals that
shaped the world into what it currently is.  That is
patently absurd.  While each of those played their
part, the elephant in the room is a combination of
violence, death, destruction, subjugation, and pure

How can one discuss whether a nation can become the
next “ruler of the world” without even mentioning the
real, ultimate, underlying reason why Europe and the
United States have ruled the world over the last five

A foolish analysis.

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By Archie1954, July 21, 2010 at 8:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think China’s leaders already have a full plate ruling their own country. Unlike the US, I don’t believe they will want to “rule” the world. Their history gives no clue of such ambition.

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By Hulk2008, July 21, 2010 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

Here are some questions:

Since peaceful times demonstrably improve world commerce, will China choose to become the world’s “policeman” and take over the military role the US has been performing? 

Will Chinese nationalism and devotion to their ancestors eventually trump recent communist principles?

At what point will poisoning the air and land become serious enough to the Chinese people?

At what point will Chinese marketeers realize that a world too much in their debt can no longer afford to buy their goods?

When will US leaders finally discard their Iron-Curtain mentality and approaches to China?

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By M Henri Day, July 21, 2010 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

«[T]he terrible European civil wars of the 20th century» that Mr Pfaff (rightly) decries were hardly unprecedented - a good case can be (and has been) made that one of the main reasons for Europe’s ability to dominate the rest of the world was the military prowess it gained during these bloody struggles (to name just one, the Thirty Years War, which did a magnificent job of ripping up the continent). What humanity must hope for, if it is to survive, is that in the event the Chinese do become the dominant power in the world, they will not seek to maintain their dominance by military means, as does the present holder (for how long ?) of the palm. That road leads only to destruction of the species - and that of a lot of other, innocent, life on this blue planet….


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By balkas, July 21, 2010 at 7:54 am Link to this comment

I propose that millennia ago we were much tool-less, but much civilized.

Today, we are civilized only if we sanitize our behavior; i.e., cleanse it of slavery, serfdom, wifebeatings, drugs, murder, wars, oppression, torture, jailings-mining for some; letting people live in mansions, under bridges, etcetc.

US rules the planet or it doesn’t? Obviously such use of language is inaccurate and vastly inadequate.
US threatens, controls, cows, punishes more lands than any empire ever had.
This appears accurate-adequate.

Will china rule the planet? It has an appearance of a question, but it is not; i.e., pertains to future and no one knows it; thus the ques’n cannot be answered.

Did US A-bomb hiroshima? It appears as valid question because the question is answerable.

What if world wld rule the world? Again, this is not a question, since i don’t know the future and never will.

I suggest that collumnists know they are abusing symbolism and symbolic value of words. We are a symbolic class of life; thus, to us, symbolism means a lot.
But collumnists, priests, ‘educators’, methinks, know that 99.99% of people haven’t got a clue ab what we said here!
Thus, they are safe to continue abuse of symbols! tnx

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By copernicist, July 21, 2010 at 6:55 am Link to this comment

RE: G.Anderson, July 21 at 2:28 am #
“Quality of civilization is what counts.”..
Like The United states is a quality civilization?

Try reading the rest of the paragraph, sentence beginning “Europe…”, and those following it.  Mr, Pfaff, living in Paris,  is conscious of the World beyond the confines of neo-American Heimat, hence is sanely keeping in perspective the Will-China-Rule, Pass Go, & Collect [even more Monoply money] etc. A convenient Selling/Talking Futurist-media-peg du Jour. But as the ability to churn out underpriced consumer goods is NOT the sole requirement for putative “Rulership”, perhaps a more relevant concern might be asking WHY it is that Western, especially US, “minds” THINK the Chinese even WANT to “Rule the World”...given our track-record in wrecking the place?? In that, will they too surpass?

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By ttgster, July 21, 2010 at 6:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Judeo-Christian…what exactly is that?..when did that happen?  is this a new buzz word?

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By zaphodity, July 21, 2010 at 6:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

They’ve been around a hell of a lot longer than 230-odd years. The Chinese invented technologies involving mechanics, paper making, gun powder, the compass, printing, hydraulics, metallurgy, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, music theory, craftsmanship, and warfare. That should tell you something.

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By G.Anderson, July 20, 2010 at 10:28 pm Link to this comment

“Quality of civilization is what counts.”..

Like The United states is a quality civilization?

Out in the midland, theres a Wal Mart, a McDonalds, some meth labs, and few families that share a pick-up truck on their way into town to buy some beans and rice..

Yes we used to be, but that was before, the plutocracy, gutted the country, destroyed, the industrial base, exploited and sold American workers into indebtedness then leveraged and sold the debt again, filled Americans with poisoned food so they and their children could die of cancer, heart disease, diabetis and other degenerative disease…
Allowed drug dependency to florish, and addicted people to prescription medication…Not to mention, buying congress to aid in the process….

While making billions in profits from selling their country men out..

I supposed they could go live in China, when America splits up into waring states…But they will always been known as traitors where ever they go…

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By ailtonfilho, July 20, 2010 at 6:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s a good point, will the western “white” curve to eastern “Yellow”?

Well, if China wouldnt become a cave, itd possibly happens, as far as “we” know,

China, inthe figure os state, will try, once more prove ‘their system” is “the most
effective”. that’s history happening, we know it. again

but when will human be empowered besides profit?

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