When China Rules the World

By Martin Jacques
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Martin Jacques
Martin Jacques is the author of "When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World."The second edition of the book – greatly expanded, revised and updated – was…
Martin Jacques

PART 3: Coping With Political Change

Robert Scheer: Hi, welcome. This is Robert Scheer, the editor of We’re talking to Martin Jacques, who has written “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” This is the third part of this ongoing little series we’ve been having about this book. And we’ve established by now that the title is provocative, but it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be enslaved to this new Chinese overlord. It just, I guess, is meant to convey that they will, within 20, 30 years, be the dominant power—not just economically, but culturally and politically, and so forth. And so now we’re trying to sketch out: What does this mean as a model? And it’s extremely confusing to people in the West, particularly conservatives in this country, the Republicans and so forth. It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who made the opening to China, and I interviewed Nixon about this a few years later, and his expectation was they would become just like us, we’re being silly, capitalism will dominate, they’ll have the same values, they’ll do everything the same. And he saw political democracy as very much coming out of capitalism in the free market, and so this is all a win-win. You’re suggesting something more disturbing, intriguing, or what have you: that we may not have a lock on the essential model. And so what I’d like to do now is sketch out what this means, a strong China. Will it be a bullying China, is one kind of question; will they continue to carry our debt, will they push us around, will they be fairly competitive or unfairly competitive, is there room for us? But that’s only one part. I would like to push you on something we talked about earlier. Are there universal values that should be respected, of the rights of the individual, of limiting government power and the ability of government to intrude and construct your life, or is there something in what you’ve been stressing—the 2,000 years of Chinese history—that conveys a much more aggressive, robust role for the state that might be in the offing? That, to my mind, is the $64 question.

Martin Jacques: Well, I don’t think that the American notion of the limits of power of government is a universal value. I think it’s an American value, which has been very influential, and it’s gone through various iterations—for example, in the neoliberal period. But I don’t think it’s a universal value, and I don’t think it will apply to China or has applied to China or is now applying to China. Because actually the state, firstly, occupies a very different position in society; and secondly, it’s been extremely proactive in the whole process of change. You know, people think, oh, it’s all about the market, but actually the state is extremely active. I mean, it’s been the designer, the architect of this transformation. And if you look now at even the companies, for example, many of them are state-owned. And I think this reflects not simply China now, but China historically. The state has played such an important role in this society, and the Chinese think of it in a very different way. One question, for example, is that in China for a thousand years there have been no serious competitors to the state. And a thousand years is a long time, and you don’t wash away that kind of history quickly. And the result is there are no obvious boundaries to the power of the state. There can be problems with that; of course there can be problems with that. But the Chinese view the state as intimate to society in a way that we don’t.

Scheer: Right, but the Chinese—and Mao is not the first one to do this—but the Chinese, when the state has failed them, have rebelled.

Jacques: Of course. The mandate of heaven is withdrawn and the regime is overthrown.

Scheer: Yes. And in fact, even Mao did his Cultural Revolution to challenge, in a fundamental sense, the power of the party and the bureaucracy that had developed. So when you say there’s an intimate connection with the state, our knee-jerk reaction is to think: a totalitarian model of the state deciding everything and never being challenged. But actually this long history of China has been a history also of insurrection, of fundamental challenge. How does that get institutionalized, or is it always going to be disorderly, and civil war, and revolution, and so forth?

Jacques: Political change?

Scheer: Yes.

Jacques: I think this remains problematic in China. There’s no obvious way in which there can be a regime change, except as a result of growing disorder for whatever reason, and ultimately the overthrow of the regime. It doesn’t happen very much, historically, in China, actually. But when it does happen, it’s extremely destabilizing. Like the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911—this was a long, long period for China of great instability and hardship and failure.

Scheer: So isn’t there something to learn from the West, dare I say it, that maybe you should institutionalize the process of change so you don’t have to have this chaos and disorder and everything that’s been attendant to those upheavals of China?

Jacques: Yes. The Chinese will have to find a way of making big political change in a relatively stable way. It may be that … it’s not that they’re incapable of it now. Let me give you one illustration of it. After the death of Mao, when Deng Xiaoping became so-called paramount leader, of course China made extraordinary change. I mean, it basically abandoned central planning and the command economy and embarked on the market reforms and so on, leading to the present growth, and so on. This was a huge political change—much bigger, I would wager, than any political change in most Western societies since 1945. And it was a peaceful change, and it was an orderly change. So it’s not that the country is incapable of doing this, but it was done in a very different way from the way we would do it. We would do it by changing our government. They did it by a fundamental shift within the ruling Communist Party.

Scheer: But the example, then, of course, is Tiananmen Square and brutal suppression and secret police and so forth. Is that the inevitable price of their system? And is that compatible with an increasingly sophisticated population that has access to the Internet? … After all, we’re not living back in the days of the old Chinese dynasties; people have the Internet, they can travel, they can see other models. And these were the things that tore down the old Soviet Union, when people—you know, you sent them around the world, and they said, “Wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Jacques: Well, the reason the Soviet Union failed wasn’t because of the Internet, which didn’t exist anyway, really.

Scheer: But travel, and trade …

Jacques: Well, the reason it failed was because it had become … it had atrophied. Economic growth was failing. The system was incapable of change and was inert. And in that situation, the population that did hear about these things and the changes that were going on around them, thought: “Well, we’ll have a bit of that,” rather than …

Scheer: Well, one example I have …

Jacques: China’s different.

Scheer: I understand, and I don’t want to take too much time on the subject, but I do remember very vividly, because I spent time there then, and I remember when a guy, [Roald] Sagdeev, one of their leading physicists, came to the United States and I took him to a Radio Shack, and he was shocked that in this little franchise Radio Shack store there was equipment that was as sophisticated as in back in his super-secret lab. And you’re absolutely right, the Internet was certainly not full-blown, although there was already the beginning of communication of that kind—the Moscow-Stanford Teleport, and all that sort of thing—but it was the travel, it was the experience. And what I’m asking is a question of whether, in fact, education doesn’t have its own imperative of empowering the individual. Knowledge. And getting back to those universal rights—that part of empowering the individual, and being able to learn and read and travel and study, is you want to figure things out for yourself. And maybe that requires—just for the survival of the system, not just because I happen to think it’s a better way to live—but for the survival, for stability, you better accommodate that, because you’ve got a lot of smart people in China who know a lot about all those other models.

Jacques: Well, so far they have accommodated it, up to a point, I think.

Scheer: Well, let’s talk about that.

Jacques: Well, they have accommodated it; otherwise they couldn’t have grown like they have, because this kind of growth requires immense popular creativity and adaptation, and thirst and appetite for change. So it would be absolutely impossible to do what they’ve done without allowing the individual some space in which to do it. And of course one of the great things in China, as everyone comments today, is the extraordinary expansion in people’s personal lives.

Continued: The Issue of Individualism
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