Editor’s note: One of the first articles ever to appear on Truthdig was a dig led by Orville Schell, who asked the question “China: Boom or Boomerang?” Years later, with China’s economy continuing to thrive amidst a global economic meltdown, the answer seems obvious. But a boom to what end? China’s rise is well documented, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.
China will soon become “the most powerful and influential country in the world,” says celebrated journalist Martin Jacques. It is predicted that by 2050, China’s economy will be twice that of the United States. What will Beijing do with all that power and influence?PART 1: A Chinese Primacy in the MakingRobert Scheer:
Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig.com, and as part of our commitment to dealing with books—our book review section, our interviews with authors—we think that books represent a vibrant source of information, the old media is still very relevant in the new-media world. And it’s actually a pleasure to talk about a book that in a very exciting way deals with a very important and complex subject: “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques, who is a well-known writer, and particularly in England, where he writes for the Guardian newspaper and has covered international affairs.
So, my first question: “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” Are you some kind of agent provocateur? This is to sell books? You don’t believe this, do you?
Martin Jacques: Of course China will not rule the world any more than the United States has ruled the world for the last 60 years, or Britain before. But I think China will, in time, become the most powerful and influential country in the world, and that’s what I mean by ruling the world.
Scheer: Why do you feel this? Because there are people who feel, oh, this is just a bubble, and they’ll blow away, and all they make are T-shirts, and where’s their imagination, and they’ll never be able to design, and so forth.
Jacques: The thing is that for the last 30 years, China has had a hugely impressive economic performance. It’s been growing double-digit growth, the size of the economy doubling every seven years, and they’re responsible for the greatest reduction in poverty the world’s ever seen. And the consequence of this is that China is now a rapidly growing economy, projected by Goldman Sachs figures to overtake the size of the American economy in 2027, which is not so far ahead. And this is obviously more speculative, but by 2050 it will have an economy which is twice the size of that of the United States.
Scheer: But why use the word rule? You know, “When China Rules the World”? Do you mean it in the sense that they will take over, they will tell us what to do?
Jacques: No, but I mean it in this sense: that when a country of power becomes globally hegemonic, it basically sets the rules. It designs the major institutions. It has a huge reach, not just economically, but politically, culturally, intellectually, morally, militarily. Look at the United States and the way in which—or the West in general, before that Europe—have really set the tone of the world, the agenda for the world, overwhelmingly. Very few other countries have had a real look-in in that period. Now, the rise of China will see the same sort of phenomena, I think, which is that China will increasingly set the rules for the world, if you like.
Scheer: Yeah, but the Chinese are in many ways becoming more like us. Would these rules really be so very different? I just read a story where the amount of English used in China now approaches the level of India, which is amazing, given that English was there in India because of their colonial experience, and that in China it’s pretty difficult to make the transition from Mandarin to English, and yet they’re getting the numbers even on that. Won’t they be looking very much like us? What about the theory that the nation-state will disappear, that it doesn’t matter where the center of economic activity is? We’ll all pretty much even look alike through plastic surgery, we’ll watch the same movies, we’ll think the same way, we’ll have the same kind of, sort of democratic order, isn’t that the expectation?
Jacques: No, I think this is, to be quite blunt about it, balderdash. I mean, it’s certainly true that the Chinese are learning English, but they don’t learn it to speak in China, they learn it to speak with foreigners who speak English; it’s an interlocutor language. And we shouldn’t forget that twice as many people speak Chinese in the world as speak English as a first or second language. And while it’s certainly true that China has learned heavily from the West over the past 30 years in terms of technology, in terms of markets and so on, at the same time it remains profoundly different. And this is the point about modernization. People think of it as a process of Westernization. Well, maybe in part it is a process of Westernization, but only in part. Because modernization is also shaped by history and culture, so if your history and culture is very distinct and very different from that of the West, which in the case of China it most certainly is, the result will be a very different kind of society, a very different kind of identity. There is a classic example, actually; we don’t have to look very far, because it’s embedded in history: Japan. People think of Japan sometimes as a Western-style society; this is not true. Japan is profoundly different from the West. It’s got very different political and cultural characteristics; it works in a very different way, even though it is, on the face of it, to be Western. You go to Japan, you immediately know: This is very different.
Scheer: Right. And China, as you’ve written, will likely be even more so. You stress in your writing the thousands of years of Chinese history, that this is not kidding around, and it’s not just because the Communist Party happens to be in power—that there’s the notion of the state, the notion of the responsibility to the citizen, that goes back. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? We seem to miss that.
Jacques: Yeah. Well, I think—the bedrock idea, I think, in trying to understand China—you can’t understand China using Western concepts alone, or even mainly. China dates back at least 2,000 years to the victory of the Qin at the end of the Warring States Period, when it began to assume, roughly, its present borders, at least on the eastern part of China. So it has a 2,000-year history, and it is that 2,000-year history which defines the Chinese sense of identity—you know, the ideographic language, Confucian values, very distinctive idea of the family, and so on. So the Chinese sense of who they are comes not from the nation-state period—which is just the last hundred years, which is nothing in terms of Chinese history—but comes from 2,000 years ago. And the result is that the way China works, and the institutions that China possesses, are defined by this extraordinary history and the sheer vastness and diversity of the country. So, for example, the state is a very different kind of institution, I think, in China, to what it is in Western countries. Essentially, the state is seen by the Chinese as the custodian, the guardian, the embodiment of the civilization, the civilization-state. And for that reason it enjoys much greater authority, much greater legitimacy than any Western state does amongst its people, even though not a single vote is cast.
Scheer: Well, votes are cast, but they’re not cast for the top. …
Jacques: Well, they’re not cast in a way that’s familiar to us, that’s for sure.
Scheer: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that a bit, because this is probably the most provocative notion that I think you’re putting forth: that we don’t own the franchise on the modern model. Or the democratic model, or the freedom model, or the human rights model. And you’re arguing—and this scares people, because they think you’re going to start justifying tyranny, and you’re going to start rationalizing, you know, for maltreating people and so forth. But you have suggested in your writing that maybe they have the capacity to come up with something different that may also be better in some respects.
Jacques: It will be different, that’s for certain. And I think in some respects—I mean, it’s very difficult to know, because one is projecting so much into the future—but I would imagine that in some respects it will be better. Maybe in some respects it will be worse. But in some respects I think it will be different. I think the idea that the West has a monopoly of all things that are good and wise, and everyone else is still sort of in a form of barbarianism, and as they develop they’ll become like the West—I think this is a very hubristic way of thinking. I think every culture, or most cultures in the world, have their own bit of genius, their own bit of wisdom. Values like accountability, representivity, tolerance are not Western values alone. Most cultures have, in some way, embodied them. And there’s no doubt at all that there’s some fine values in the Chinese tradition. What one has to distinguish, I think, is between—it’s dangerous to compare a developing country with a developed country. And this is constantly—we insist that the developing world is like the developed world, that we measure them by the same standards of human rights, of democracy, and so on. But in fact they’re in very different situations, very different circumstances to us. I mean, when we went through our industrial revolutions—the United States, the European countries—we weren’t democratic. We didn’t have universal suffrage. So why do we insist that they have the same standards as we do now when we didn’t have them at their level of development? So we need to be historical rather than ahistorical about it.