PART 2: Pluses and Minuses of Homogeny
Robert Scheer: Continuing … Truthdig’s discussion, I’m Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig, with Martin Jacques, a very well-known international reporter, correspondent, covered the world, and he’s written a book that has a very provocative title: “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” But as we were discussing in Part 1, which I would recommend that people go check out, what he’s really talking about is the emergence of a very powerful nation, not just economically, but culturally, politically. And that in the next 20, 30 years it will probably be the No. 1 nation in certain key respects, and that while this is not inherently threatening, it is something to ponder because it will be different. And I just want to get to this question of the “rule,” which, again, sticks in one’s mind. People have developed some very negative views about China, post-Cold War, over Tibet, over the question of dealing with their Muslim population. And you’ve written, and others, that while those may be reprehensible or whatever one thinks about them, they aren’t really typical of China, because they occur within China’s borders, and that there’s a 94 percent Han majority, or is it 92 percent? That we actually have a more homogeneous society in China maybe than anywhere else, and that it shouldn’t be seen as a model of the new imperialism, I guess would be your point. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I …
Martin Jacques: Well, I think that China will in time project itself in all sorts of ways around the world. I think in that sense it will have some of the characteristics of a global power, whatever that global power is. But it will be also expressed in different ways. One of my greatest concerns about the rise of China—in fact, my greatest concern, not one of them, but my greatest concern—is the question of the attitude of the Han towards cultural differences, different ethnicities. Because, as you point out, it’s certainly true—very unusual, quite different from any other populace, nation like India or Indonesia or the United States—the Chinese overwhelmingly consider themselves to be of one race: the Han. This is a product of a long—once again, back to the civilization-state, 2,000 years and longer of a sort of ethnic construction of China, which has seen the Han-ization of China. Now, in a way, for China, that’s been a great strength, because it’s essentially held the country together. That’s why it’s never divided, that’s why it was nonsense in 1989 ever to predict that China would break up. It was never going to happen, for this reason. But on the other hand, the negative side to this is the Han have a very weak conception of cultural difference and the respect for cultural difference. And the reason they have such problems with the Uyghurs and the Tibetans—and it’s very, very serious; I mean, we’ve had really serious racial riots in Lhasa last year and Urumqi this year—is because, essentially, the Han notion of handling other ethnicities is to Han-ize them. To assimilate them. To civilize them.
Scheer: Yeah. I mean, they claimed they were doing the Tibetans a favor.
Jacques: Yeah, of course. You know, we’re raising—and in some ways they have been …
Scheer: It’s what you Brits tried to do in India, right?
Jacques: (Laughs) Yeah. Yeah, we did, and not just in India. But, you know, to raise the Tibetans or the Uyghurs up to the level of the Han, and thereby Han-ize them, that’s of course what’s happened, historically, with the Mongolians and with the Manchus and so on.
Scheer: We should remind people, because the confusing thing in talking to Chinese, not just the ones who are associated with Beijing, but even from Taiwan and elsewhere, they say: “Wait a minute, these people in Tibet are primitive, they have slaves or they have serfs, we’re going to bring them into the modern age.” It’s very much the language of that kind of enlightened colonialism, or pretending to be enlightened.
Jacques: I mean, yeah, there are obviously certain similarities. There are similarities, but it’s important to see the differences as well. I’m not one of these people who thinks, well—there’s certain common characteristics about racism everywhere, for example, but racism is culturally embedded in a society, so therefore it also has distinct features. So it’s not true to say it’s always exactly the same; it’s not.
Scheer: No. So tell us about the difference. What is this about the Han … ?
Jacques: The Han mentality? Well, I think historically the Han feel themselves to be superior. They’re very culturally self-aware. …
Scheer: Well, with some justification.
Jacques: You can understand why they feel that, because … a lot of civilizations have had a place in the sun, at least once. But the Chinese are unusual in that they’ve had that place in the sun several times. The Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty, the early Ming Dynasty, and before that as well. So the Chinese really are very proud of this sense of cultural achievement, cultural level that they’ve acquired. You know: one of the first written languages in the world; with the Fertile Crescent, the first settled agriculture. So culturally it’s extremely sophisticated, it’s true. And essentially, it defined itself against those to the north of it, the Manchus, the Mongolians, as [the Manchus and Mongolians being] barbarians who were essentially nomadic, and interestingly, they got absorbed. You know, the Qing Dynasty was a Manchu, not a Han, dynasty. Likewise, before that, the Yuan Dynasty was a Mongolian dynasty, and that was more problematic, but basically that got absorbed as well. So this is a very sophisticated culture. The problem is that the Han have, as a result of this long historical process, and such a universalizing process within China, that they don’t really understand cultural difference. They look down upon others. They have a very hierarchical view which is both cultural and racial. They’re fused. Now, that could be a problem if you’re a global power.
Scheer: Let me ask you a question. You know, we’re used to thinking—at least during the Cold War, we were used to thinking of China as having a communist ideology, which is after all a Western import, and a notion of proletariat leadership and being influenced by Westerner Karl Marx, and—from your British Museum, didn’t he write …
Jacques: He did, in the [Museum] Reading Room.
Scheer: Yeah, in the Reading Room. And so we’ve actually looked at China through that—the Commies, the Reds, and so forth. What you’re suggesting in your book and articles you’ve written is that, basically, that’s kind of an add-on that’s been transformed by the entire history of China. And that the thing that has emerged is neither now going to be a copy of the West—capitalism—or a manifestation of a sort of Marxian fantasy of the proletariat state, but rather an add-on to these thousands of years of history. And that we have to learn to think about it in intelligent ways.
Jacques: Exactly. That’s exactly what I think.
Scheer: So let’s start the learning process. Really—what are we missing?
Jacques: Well, I think that what we’re missing is this … the starting point has to be to try and understand Chinese history. I think that communism, the way it’s seen in the West, has gotten in the way of us understanding China, because we think—oh, communism, we think we know what communism is. We don’t know, of course, but we think we know what it is. And we think of it in terms of the Soviet Union, and it’s not; it’s completely different. The Soviet Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party are utterly different. The Soviet Communist Party never had a popular base. The Chinese Communist Party had a very popular base. So it’s a very confident organization, very resilient, could change direction with extraordinary flair from the ’70s with the death of Mao to the reform period of Deng Xiaoping. So my point is, really, that you have to understand China not so much as … you know, the communist period introduced certain changes which were very important to China’s success, but really the heart, the core of China is not that. The core of China, I think, is much longer, over a long period of Confucian values, very different kind of family, very different kind of state, context of a civilization-state, tributary state system in East Asia, and so on. These are the building blocks for understanding China. Now, you’ll notice that every term I’ve used—they are not familiar to us as Westerners. They are not familiar. They are alien to us. We cannot understand them with the traditional Western conceptual apparatus. So to try and understand China, we have to make a completely new intellectual effort. We can’t carry on with the thinking, which remains prevalent in the West, that ultimately China is going to be like us, because it isn’t.
Scheer: So this is the challenge. The challenge is without giving up what we think are our universal values—freedom, and the importance of the individual, and restraint on the state and so forth—to try to understand that there might be another model that accommodates those, or are we giving up these traditional values? In 10 seconds, to end this segment.
Jacques: No, I don’t think we’re going to give up some of our values, but we’ll probably acquire new ones as well.