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When China rules the world

From 2009: The dire consequences of the coming shift in global power

As an academic and journalist working throughout East Asia, Martin Jacques has had a front row seat for China’s economic and political emergence. The British author’s 2009 book is titled When China Rules the World.

Q: We in the West spend a great deal of time discussing China’s rise. But we seem to resist the next logical step, which is to consider how things will change around the world when China becomes the world’s pre-eminent economic power. Why is that?

A: I think that the world has been so used to American hegemony, and you had a recent period of American history under Bush which actually postulated exactly the opposite scenario—that we were in fact on the eve of a new American century. So we’re just not versed in the profoundly different thinking China’s pre-eminence will require. More than that, we have failed to understand that we’re not just talking about economic change. The impact of China’s rise is going to be at least as great politically and culturally as it will be in economic terms.

Q: So paint me a picture, in broad strokes. If, as some forecast, China’s GDP surpasses that of the U.S. in the next 20 years, how will China behave on the world stage?

A: Initially, I don’t expect it to behave hugely differently. Even in 2050, when it’s projected that the Chinese economy will be twice as large as that of the United States, China will still be, in terms of GDP per head, a lot poorer than the United States. But history’s very important in the behaviour of nations, and China comes from profoundly different civilizational coordinates than the West; it has a different history from the top dogs than we’re used to over the last 200 years. I think that the West is going to feel extremely disoriented by the world that is in the process of now being made. We’ve so long assumed that the furniture is our furniture, the language is our language, the sports played are our sports, the values are our values, the skin colour is our skin colour. My son’s 10, and his generation is going to grow up in a very, very different kind of world.

Q: You put a lot of focus on the fact that China is not just a nation-state but a civilization. Why is that an important distinction?

A: Consider the characteristics that give the Chinese a sense of their own identity. It lies in the language, the Confucian values as they apply to society and governance, and part and parcel of that is the notion of the state as family. Central to that is the centrality of the state in its role as the guardian of civilization. These things are civilizational characteristics, not the characteristics of a nation-state.

Q: How is that going to affect China’s relations with other countries?

A: If we want to try and understand what China’s going to be like, then the best place to start looking is East Asia, because that is China’s own region. China’s culture has had a major influence on the whole region in varying degrees for thousands of years—most obviously in the case of Japan, Korea and Vietnam. It’s a very sophisticated culture from its language to its literature to its food. These are elements of what we’ve termed soft power, and Chinese soft power is going to be hugely influential in East Asia in the future. There’s also the pure arithmetic of it, which is that with a population of 1.4 billion people, China dominates the region. The region accounts for one-third of the world’s population, and because China’s so large—both in terms of geographic expanse but in this case particularly population—there’s a huge imbalance between it and all the other countries within the region.

Q: That inequality is an important theme in your book. You predict, among other things, a return to the old “tributary” system in East Asia, in which surrounding countries supported China and served its ends.

A: Yeah, I doubt the wording will be the same—they won’t use the term “tributary.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if aspects of the system came back. It survived, after all, for many thousands of years and only disappeared at the end of the 19th century. The other thing to remember is there are now large Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia in particular, in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and Thailand. Chinese civilization has a powerful centripetal quality to it. Wherever they are, for instance, the Chinese will eat Chinese food, and they don’t necessarily lose their language in the second or third generation. They have a strong sense of being Chinese and identifying with the Middle Kingdom as the centre of this phenomenon. So these elements will, I think, come together to not simply place China at the centre of the East Asian economy, but to set the terms of the whole region’s emergence. Another point is that China will have a very hierarchical view of the world, because the Chinese are very hierarchical in their mentality.

Q: Yes, and I get the sense that this is a proverbial elephant in the room. Until I read your book, I had only a vague idea of how big a role racism and ideas of cultural superiority play in China’s culture. You describe a very retrograde strain of prejudice that is literally based on the hue of one’s skin.

A: This is my greatest single concern about China’s rise, because those kinds of views are very difficult to change. The most difficult problem the Chinese are going to face, I think, is trying to make any sense of [racial and ethnic] difference. I mean, 92 per cent of them think of themselves as of the same race. While this is clearly not true—the Han Chinese are in fact descended from many different races—it gives a kind of biological reason for Chinese unity. And you can see it in their attitude toward those within China’s borders who have not been integrated in this way. The Tibetans or the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, for example, are regarded as needing to be helped up to the level of the Han Chinese. It’s a patronizing and very assimilationist attitude.

Q: I thought Mao tried to suppress those sorts of ideas.

A: Yes, but they have never gone away. What’s even more striking about this is China’s had such a bad time since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century until 1949, what they call the Century of Humiliation, when China clearly had a terrible time in all sorts of different ways, losing territory and facing abject poverty. Yet somehow this attitude, this sense of Chinese self-confidence and superiority, has survived that period, as well as the period since 1949. It’s a very remarkable characteristic.

Q: You have had personal experience with Chinese discrimination. Your wife, Hari, was Indian-Malaysian and she died nine years ago in a hospital in Hong Kong, having received what you felt was inferior treatment because her skin was darker than that of other patients.

A: Yes. She died as a result of Chinese racism in the hospital. Her death led to a long campaign which eventually resulted in the first anti-racist legislation ever in Hong Kong. That’s why I think about these questions a lot, because I’ve had to not just come to terms with the personal pain—the terrible loss—but I’ve had to try to understand it from my head rather than my heart. As a white person, I’d never had to think about race in my own country, because I’d never suffered discrimination. Certainly what happened to Hari sensitized me to the problem, and made me think about it in a way most writers are never forced to do.

Q: Why don’t these attitudes get talked about, inside or outside China?

A: Well, no society likes to talk about its own racism; this is a universal characteristic of the dominant races in countries. As for why it doesn’t get talked about outside China, well, the people who’ve written about China are mainly Westerners—and the Chinese, of course. Generally, Western academics are white, so it’s not something that they think about. There are a couple of black academics who have written about China, and they’ve engaged in discussion about race because they’re very conscious of how it moulds a society and how it structures human relations. The trouble is that the way in which countries behave has been interpreted in terms of diplomacy and international relations theory. International relations theory doesn’t talk about race.

Q: But we, as a Western civilization, have dedicated considerable energy—at least within the last three decades—to trying to address racism in our own countries.

A: I think there’s a much greater awareness. I mean, Obama’s election in America is a vivid illustration of how attitudes have changed. But the whole American behaviour with Guantánamo and their treatment of Iraqis during the war has had a powerful racial component to it. People don’t talk about it that way, but it is a racial component.

Q: Let’s switch to politics. You talk about China offering an alternative political model to developing countries—something different from the blend of democracy and free markets prescribed by the United States. What would that model be?

A: Well, for one thing, it takes a more favourable view of the state as a force in society and the economy. Unlike in Western societies, the state really has had no competitors in China for a thousand years. It didn’t have to negotiate with the church, or the merchant class, or the judiciary, or an elite. This reinforces its authority, and the Chinese state has had this ability to reconstruct itself and remake itself, such as in 1949, even again in 1978. I would argue that since 1978 it has undergone a particularly important reconstruction. I mean, this has been an absolutely brilliant economic strategy that has lifted Chinese fortunes since then. The guys that have been running this economic reform policy have been extraordinarily talented about the way they’ve done it. This is an example, I think, of the strength of Chinese statecraft, this ability to be able to elaborate and implement a strategy.

Q: You seem pretty comfortable with the idea that democracy isn’t as important as other issues facing the Chinese government just now. But if China really is going to be—for all intents and purposes—ruling the world, surely it should understand that political freedom is one of the most important things to Westerners, if not the most important thing.

A: What I wanted to try and explain in the book is that we shouldn’t simply see Western democracy as a universal. It needs to be considered in its proper historical and cultural context. No Western country was, by the standards that we use now, democratic when it went through its process of industrialization. Our Industrial Revolution in Britain started in about 1780 and lasted into the 1840s, and it was only much, much later that large numbers of people began to get the vote. As you know, women didn’t get the vote until well into the 20th century. This is a very important point. When we lecture other countries now on why they should be democratic—well, we weren’t when we were going through that same historical stage as they were. Now, this doesn’t mean that countries don’t become more open after their economies take off. China’s modernization will be accompanied—is being accompanied—by a process of growing openness, representativity, and much greater flows of information. You know, the Internet discussions, apart from a subject like the role of governance by the party and Taiwan, are open, hard-hitting debates. There aren’t many no-go areas.

Q: I’m not sure that view squares with the facts. China just announced that they want all of the personal computers sold in the country to have filtering software that makes it easier for the government to censor electronic information.

A: It’s certainly true that there’s all sorts of controls, but it’s a huge transformation from what it was, and [the Internet] is much freer than the press is.

Q: Still, if we’re talking about China setting an example for other countries, the prospects for democracy do not at this stage seem very promising, do they?

A: No. China, as it is at the moment, does not believe in the democratic model. It doesn’t strongly polemicize against it, but it certainly doesn’t advocate it. So this is going to introduce a very new dimension into global arguments, because this has been a very fundamental Western value. It’s important to note, though, that when China argues its position globally, its emphasis is not on democracy within societies but democracy between societies.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: China thinks the international system—from the WTO to institutions like the IMF—is extremely undemocratic because it’s dominated by a small minority of the world’s population—i.e. the West plus Japan. So it has a different agenda on these kind of questions, which also is a very influential agenda because the developing countries recognize and support these arguments. We’re moving into a world where former colonized countries like China and India will become the big players. This is going to shake up the global value system. So I’m not arguing personally against democracy, but I’m trying to imagine what the world’s going to be like when countries have different imperatives, different histories, and therefore different priorities.

Q: Can institutions like the IMF and the World Bank survive as they are if China is the economically dominant force in the world?

A: There are two possibilities. One is that they are reformed, profoundly, so they’re no longer dominated by the United States and European countries. If China’s the biggest economy in the world it would have to have the biggest voting power in the IMF. Why should it stick a load of money into the IMF if it’s got only two-fifths of the voting power? The other possibility is that reform happens slowly and reluctantly, and these institutions wither on the vine. What we may see then is the emergence of new institutions which reflect the power, wealth and priorities of the new big powers—in the first instance China, but maybe in collaboration with India and Brazil and, in time, Indonesia and so on.

Q: Either way, the days of the IMF demanding privatization or other reforms in exchange for money are probably over.

A: Absolutely right. I’ve been arguing that era’s coming to an end because of the intensity of the international financial crisis. But there are already examples of this happening. Angola, for example, was offered a big loan from the IMF with strings attached and the Chinese came along at the last minute without any strings. Angola told the IMF to keep their loan and accepted money from China.

Q: That’s just one example of its growing interest in Africa, where Western powers lack presence and credibility. How do you see its relationship with those countries playing out?

A: It’s a very unequal relationship, because the African countries are cast in the role of supplying raw materials, and they’re much poorer. Their populations are much smaller, they’re fragmented amongst themselves and their state apparatus is much weaker than the Chinese state. People talk about neo-colonialism, but I wonder whether Africa might be drawn into something more like the tributary relationship. This could be repeated in other regions, Latin America possibly, and Central Asia.

Q: What about China’s military aspirations? A think tank reported recently that China has become the biggest defence spender in the world, short of the U.S. Should we be scared?

A: There are imperatives of being a major power, interests that go with it that will be the way in which China tends toward acquiring the same kind of hardware, interests, and behavioural characteristics as the United States. But again, the best way to understanding how a great nation will behave is to look at its history, its own experiences within its own geography, if you like. While Europe comes from an extremely exciting militaristic tradition—a long history of what I call internal war, followed by expansion into the Middle East and then on a global basis with colonization—China hasn’t been like that. It did engage in a long period of expansion, but it was a continental-based expansion. So I don’t think we should expect the Chinese to be expansionist in the same way as the Western powers. I mean it doesn’t even have an aircraft carrier yet. None of this means that China’s not going to be a problem in various senses, including militarily. If you look at the invasion of Vietnam in 1979, that was a classic kind of action against a tributary state, actually.

Q: Has it it become more subtle since then? I’m thinking of their recent trade agreements with Southeast Asian countries, which suggest a very multilateral and benign approach compared to, say, that attack on Vietnam.

A: Yeah, definitely. They’ve made an extraordinary shift, actually, from the beginning of the ’90s, showing a very flexible diplomacy, and it has completely transformed the relations between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. They’ve outmanoeuvred Japan and the United States. The Americans, in the late ’80s and ’90s, had been pursuing APEC, which sought to define Asia as Asia-Pacific—i.e. the U.S., Canada, Australia and East Asia. I think that model has been totally outgrown.

Q: I guess the question is whether the soft approach is going to last.

A: One of the great advantages the Chinese have is time is always on their side. Why is time on China’s side? Because it’s growing so quickly, and with that big population, they can afford to play a waiting game. The historical trend for as far as the eye can see is toward growing Chinese strength. You remember what Deng Xiaoping was supposed to have said when Henry Kissinger asked whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing: “It’s too early to say.” That to me is a very good insight into the Chinese mentality.