PART 4: The Issue of Individualism
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig.com. And we have a pretty big commitment to books. We think books are very much a part of the future; we have a big book section. And I’m here to interview Martin Jacques, who has written a very provocative book, “When China Rules the World”; the subtitle is “The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” And this is now the fourth segment [of the interview]; you can just start here, but I would recommend you go back to the first one, because it’s a continuing discussion on a complex subject. And it has to be explored at some lengths. Of course, the best way to begin exploring it is to buy this book, but in the interim maybe we can gain your interest with this discussion.
So where we left it off in the third segment is whether there is not an inherent conflict between the demands, the curiosity, of an individual who has been educated, is aware of all the other models in the world, other than what the particular dynasty was putting up during the 2,000 years of Chinese history that you say has such a hold on the imagination. So there’s a new imagination; they know how [people] live in England and the United States and so forth. And would that not be in conflict with a notion of the state that has 2,000 years of history behind it, that the state is paternalistic, is involved intimately with you? And is there not some inherent conflict, and if not, how are they managing this?
Martin Jacques: Well, change always involves conflict, because old institutions or existing institutions need to be reformed in order to take account of certain sorts of changes, and so on. I think that any society that cannot do that gets stuck. And the question is, how does the reform take place? Does it take place in some sort of gravity-free zone which has no relationship to the past, or does it actually, the change, take place within the context of the traditions and customs, and so on, of a society? Now, I think—and certainly this is true in China—that political change in China will be congruent with the traditions and the past, and so on, of the society. So the state won’t suddenly become like the American state, because the American state grew up in an entirely different society, almost the opposite kind of society to the Chinese experience. So, of course, this goes without saying in a country like China: when it’s moving at 10 percent a year, this is extraordinary transformation in people’s lives, in every aspect of their lives, including their ideas. This is change on a scale we don’t know about in the West. And the Chinese are now about to be the largest number of Internet users in the world. It’s not that the Chinese are closed off from the rest of the world. This is not like the Soviet Union, which was closed off from the rest of the world. China is open to the rest of the world, just like it’s the world’s, now, biggest exporter. It’s also the people, young people and so on, that are very open to the ideas of the world, very familiar with them, learning English like crazy, and so on. So this is a fluid society in rapid process of movement. You’ve only got to go to China; every time I go back, there’s a vast new university, extension to this … everything’s changing with extraordinary speed.
Scheer: But how do they manage it? I still believe in the Bill of Rights. I know you got along quite well in England without them. But it seems to me some notion of the territory of the individual—and here I’m being parochial, I know, but still I feel it.
Jacques: You said it. (Laughs)
Scheer: I don’t mind saying it; my parents came from … my mother came from Lithuania and my father came from Germany, and they came because this society had a notion of the protection of the individual, and the inalienable rights of the individual. I’m not embarrassed by that. And so I am perplexed: How do you develop a new order, a new global order, in which China will be very influential without having that respect for the individual as an island of their own making?
Jacques: I don’t think it’s fair to say that the Chinese have no respect for the individual. I don’t think that that’s right. It’s not true that respect for the individual comes in only one shape and form, which is the American form. America is a very exceptionalist society, in a way, because it had no pre-existing feudalism or anything like this. It started with the arrival of European settlers; it brought with them the assumptions of European society, which was at that phase already a post-, essentially, capitalist society. So the United States has no history in that sense. This is unlike every other country in the world, apart from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This was the Western, the European transplant. Now, every other society grows up with a history. Europe is like China in this context. So various forms of protection of rights of individuals and so on have grown up in each society. This is certainly true in Chinese society. There’s a very strong stress in Confucian thinking on the rights of the individual, on the responsibility of government to respect people’s needs, and so on. This is one of the reasons why the market developed very early in China. Adam Smith, in the late 18th century, commented that the market was much more developed in China than it was in northwest Europe. And one of the reasons for this was the respect shown by Confucian values for the individual, and the importance of the individual. So it’s not true that the individual is completely and utterly dwarfed by the state. The Chinese are quite actually, in many ways, quite an individualistic, entrepreneurial people.
Scheer: You get different pictures of China. Some people say they don’t have a strong central government, that actually it’s spread out and these people out in the provinces make decisions and decide everything, that’s why there’s so much corruption, and Beijing can’t really control, and that’s why Shanghai spun off on its own, and so forth. Is that compatible with your view of the importance of the state? Is the state different, is it spread out?
Jacques: Well, I think you make a really important point, which is that China is a huge country, and a very diverse country, and a very complex country. And it would be impossible to run it from Beijing. Beijing is responsible for quite a small minority of the tax take and government expenditure, which is done predominantly in the provinces and local government. So the way the thing works is complicated. Beijing certainly enjoys a lot of authority, but often it’s feigned compliance by the provinces, is the way it works.
Scheer: So it is a decentralized model.
Jacques: Oh, yeah. It’s much more decentralized than the Western view, much more decentralized.
Scheer: And finally, it’s often said that this gap between the rural and the urban, between the poor and the new middle class, and so forth, will break the system—that this is not something that can be resolved. And this sort of goes back to the old idea of impotence in dealing with population. I remember when I was a student in the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley, China had a population of 400 million. It now has a population of, what … 1.3 billion. And yet they’re more prosperous, even in the rural areas, than they were then. But we keep hearing these projections that the thing has got to explode, that there are these hundreds of millions, if not still a majority, maybe a majority of the people who have not benefited or are not benefiting enough, and they can’t be contained. Is this your view?
Jacques: No, it’s not my view at the moment. I mean, we’ll see what happens in the future. But when your economy is growing like China has over the last 30 years, the vast majority, if not the whole population, has benefited hugely, and hence the huge reductions in the numbers of the poor. The problem is that once they, as it were, let the thing go, then some areas grew much quicker than others. And within the richer areas, disparities of wealth between different groups became much more marked. Now, I think this is a serious problem in China. I do think it’s a serious problem. It’s becoming very unequal. Now, some of this is structural; it’s very difficult to contain, but other aspects of it are unstructured, and I think this is a new pressure, a new tension on China. And it could lead to serious problems; it could do, it’s not impossible. We’ll just have to see. And this also, by the way, to underline this point, cuts against both Confucian and communist values, both of which held equity to be of serious importance.
Scheer: Thank you, Martin Jacques. The book is “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.”
Jacques: Thank you, Bob.
Scheer: Read it and weep, or think, or whatever you want.