“When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” (out in paperback next January) is the provocative the title of Martin Jacques’ assessment of China’s future role as the dominant global power. For more than a decade Jacques was editor of “Marxism Today” – having first transformed it from an obscure ideological organ of the Marxist Left into a broad platform for wide ranging political and social debate. Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union “Marxism Today” was also wound up and Jacques went on to become deputy editor of The Independent, an engaging newspaper columnist and author.
Having heard him speak recently about his book on China my main reservation is that he is still overly influenced by his political antecedents, and perhaps too willing to overlook the nature of the Chinese political system as he rightly dwells on China’s extraordinary growth, economic capacity, and cultural richness.
The title of the book is itself a giveaway.
Mercifully, no nation has ever ruled the world and however much national fortunes may change no free people would accept the idea of one nation determining our destiny. It’s neither desirable nor historically probable.
In 1963 the great Welsh tenor, Sir Harry Secombe, recorded a song entitled “If I ruled the world”. It contained the memorable lines that if he ever found himself in that position “every man would be as free as a bird” and “every voice would be a voice to be heard.” Would this be China’s song for its own citizens or the rest of us? A troubling answer might come from Ai Weiwei, the celebrated Chinese artist and political activist, who was incarcerated in Chinese jails for two months earlier this year; or ask Chen Guangcheng, the blind civil and human rights activist, jailed for four years after challenging China’s one child policy, and still under house arrest having recently been beaten up by his surveillance officers.
Jacques tends to dismiss concerns for human rights as the West patronising China and he believes that because the Communist State has created economic growth (a Pew Poll indicated that over 91% of its people are satisfied with its economic performance) this confers legitimacy on the Government. He argues that there is no widespread desire for democracy or for the “enlightenment values” of the West.
His central point is that, unlike Western powers, China is not a nation state but a “civilisation state”; that China is far more diverse than we imagine, and more flexible. He cites the example of Hong Kong and the creation of “two systems in one country” as an example of both its diversity and its flexibility.
What is incontestably true is that at a moment when our western economies are in crisis and stagnating, China’s continues to accelerate.
In 1992 just 3.5% of America’s imports came from China; today it is 14.5%; in Brazil it was 0.9%, today it is 14%; and in the UK, from virtually nothing in 1990, China provides 6% of our imports today. One fifth of Australia’s imports come from China, while its two-way trade with its near neighbours – Taiwan, Singapore, and even Japan –soars. Over the next five years we will see the Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RNB) – “the people’s currency” – increasingly challenge the mighty U.S. dollar.
Globalisation will no longer be shaped by the United States but by China – although Jacques takes far too little account of America’s military might or China’s disastrous demographic trends, or the flight of capital from China’s new rich. The inhumane one child policy (previously a flagship of the country’s Communist ideology) has left it with an aging population which will have to be supported by a significantly reduced young workforce (the back bone of its current economic growth).
Perhaps expressed less provocatively than in the title of Jacques’ book, it could certainly be said that the twenty-first century is China’s century; just as the twentieth century was America’s century and the nineteenth century was Britain’s.
What this will mean in terms of the aspirations of its own people remains to be seen.
Even more intriguing will be to watch what happens in the developing world– especially Africa – where China has become the main show in town. And Jacques rightly says that “the developing world and China are umbilically linked.” The rise of China and the rise of the developing world will march hand in hand. Here Jacques provides a contradictory picture. He says that China was never a colonial power (some in Tibet would probably beg to differ) while it “has always seen its civilisation as superior as it created relationships with its vassal states” (places like the Korean peninsula). For thousands of years China was the epicentre of a system of tributary states – which only ended when European powers arrived in the East at the end of the nineteenth century. But does anyone seriously believe that the modern Republic of Korea or Japan would happily settle into such a subservient relationship today? These are not vassal states but neighbours and how China behaves in East Asia will shape the way they and the rest of the world sees it.
In Africa, Chinese self interest will also have to come to terms with democratic legitimacy and the rights of sovereign nations. And the more that Chinese workers travel and are exposed to democracy, free speech, religious freedoms, and human rights will certainly affect the way they see themselves in relationship to their own State.
China is in Africa because it has a scarcity of oil, minerals and food. Africa provides a solution. Once again, the big question will be whether China will be able to avoid the age old temptation to exercise hegemony and be better than its colonial forbearers, Britain included, in both in avoiding exploitation and in using statecraft to resolve conflict and to provide long term infrastructure and enable sustainable development. Harry Secombe’s idyllic world where “happiness which no man can end” might seem a little far-fetched to a Congolese or Sudanese worker trapped in a country awash with arms (many made in China) where millions have died in lawless conflicts. If China ruled the world would it be any different?
Jacques rightly contends that Confucianism was at the heart of Chinese civilisation and that it still shapes what is the very best of China today. But here he makes a miscalculation. He has nothing to say about the rise of Christianity in China and by many calculations during this century China is set to become the biggest Christian nation in the world.
As Matteo Ricci understood in the seventeenth century, when high Confucian philosophy and Christian faith walk together, they are an extraordinarily powerful combination – and perhaps this will be China’s great gift to the world and certainly not something to fear. Martin Jacques should perhaps also ruefully recall that Christianity is also a principal reason why Marxism is yesterday rather than today in the former Soviet Union.