By Martin Jacques
Editor’s note: One of the first articles ever to appear on Truthdig was a dig led by Orville Schell, who asked the question “China: Boom or Boomerang?” Years later, with China’s economy continuing to thrive amidst a global economic meltdown, the answer seems obvious. But a boom to what end? China’s rise is well documented, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood countries in the world.
China will soon become “the most powerful and influential country in the world,” says celebrated journalist Martin Jacques. It is predicted that by 2050, China’s economy will be twice that of the United States. What will Beijing do with all that power and influence?
PART 1: A Chinese Primacy in the Making
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig.com, and as part of our commitment to dealing with books—our book review section, our interviews with authors—we think that books represent a vibrant source of information, the old media is still very relevant in the new-media world. And it’s actually a pleasure to talk about a book that in a very exciting way deals with a very important and complex subject: “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques, who is a well-known writer, and particularly in England, where he writes for the Guardian newspaper and has covered international affairs.
So, my first question: “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” Are you some kind of agent provocateur? This is to sell books? You don’t believe this, do you?
Martin Jacques: Of course China will not rule the world any more than the United States has ruled the world for the last 60 years, or Britain before. But I think China will, in time, become the most powerful and influential country in the world, and that’s what I mean by ruling the world.
Scheer: Why do you feel this? Because there are people who feel, oh, this is just a bubble, and they’ll blow away, and all they make are T-shirts, and where’s their imagination, and they’ll never be able to design, and so forth.
Jacques: The thing is that for the last 30 years, China has had a hugely impressive economic performance. It’s been growing double-digit growth, the size of the economy doubling every seven years, and they’re responsible for the greatest reduction in poverty the world’s ever seen. And the consequence of this is that China is now a rapidly growing economy, projected by Goldman Sachs figures to overtake the size of the American economy in 2027, which is not so far ahead. And this is obviously more speculative, but by 2050 it will have an economy which is twice the size of that of the United States.
Scheer: But why use the word rule? You know, “When China Rules the World”? Do you mean it in the sense that they will take over, they will tell us what to do?
Jacques: No, but I mean it in this sense: that when a country of power becomes globally hegemonic, it basically sets the rules. It designs the major institutions. It has a huge reach, not just economically, but politically, culturally, intellectually, morally, militarily. Look at the United States and the way in which—or the West in general, before that Europe—have really set the tone of the world, the agenda for the world, overwhelmingly. Very few other countries have had a real look-in in that period. Now, the rise of China will see the same sort of phenomena, I think, which is that China will increasingly set the rules for the world, if you like.
Scheer: Yeah, but the Chinese are in many ways becoming more like us. Would these rules really be so very different? I just read a story where the amount of English used in China now approaches the level of India, which is amazing, given that English was there in India because of their colonial experience, and that in China it’s pretty difficult to make the transition from Mandarin to English, and yet they’re getting the numbers even on that. Won’t they be looking very much like us? What about the theory that the nation-state will disappear, that it doesn’t matter where the center of economic activity is? We’ll all pretty much even look alike through plastic surgery, we’ll watch the same movies, we’ll think the same way, we’ll have the same kind of, sort of democratic order, isn’t that the expectation?
Jacques: No, I think this is, to be quite blunt about it, balderdash. I mean, it’s certainly true that the Chinese are learning English, but they don’t learn it to speak in China, they learn it to speak with foreigners who speak English; it’s an interlocutor language. And we shouldn’t forget that twice as many people speak Chinese in the world as speak English as a first or second language. And while it’s certainly true that China has learned heavily from the West over the past 30 years in terms of technology, in terms of markets and so on, at the same time it remains profoundly different. And this is the point about modernization. People think of it as a process of Westernization. Well, maybe in part it is a process of Westernization, but only in part. Because modernization is also shaped by history and culture, so if your history and culture is very distinct and very different from that of the West, which in the case of China it most certainly is, the result will be a very different kind of society, a very different kind of identity. There is a classic example, actually; we don’t have to look very far, because it’s embedded in history: Japan. People think of Japan sometimes as a Western-style society; this is not true. Japan is profoundly different from the West. It’s got very different political and cultural characteristics; it works in a very different way, even though it is, on the face of it, to be Western. You go to Japan, you immediately know: This is very different.
Scheer: Right. And China, as you’ve written, will likely be even more so. You stress in your writing the thousands of years of Chinese history, that this is not kidding around, and it’s not just because the Communist Party happens to be in power—that there’s the notion of the state, the notion of the responsibility to the citizen, that goes back. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? We seem to miss that.
Jacques: Yeah. Well, I think—the bedrock idea, I think, in trying to understand China—you can’t understand China using Western concepts alone, or even mainly. China dates back at least 2,000 years to the victory of the Qin at the end of the Warring States Period, when it began to assume, roughly, its present borders, at least on the eastern part of China. So it has a 2,000-year history, and it is that 2,000-year history which defines the Chinese sense of identity—you know, the ideographic language, Confucian values, very distinctive idea of the family, and so on. So the Chinese sense of who they are comes not from the nation-state period—which is just the last hundred years, which is nothing in terms of Chinese history—but comes from 2,000 years ago. And the result is that the way China works, and the institutions that China possesses, are defined by this extraordinary history and the sheer vastness and diversity of the country. So, for example, the state is a very different kind of institution, I think, in China, to what it is in Western countries. Essentially, the state is seen by the Chinese as the custodian, the guardian, the embodiment of the civilization, the civilization-state. And for that reason it enjoys much greater authority, much greater legitimacy than any Western state does amongst its people, even though not a single vote is cast.
Scheer: Well, votes are cast, but they’re not cast for the top. …
Jacques: Well, they’re not cast in a way that’s familiar to us, that’s for sure.
Scheer: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that a bit, because this is probably the most provocative notion that I think you’re putting forth: that we don’t own the franchise on the modern model. Or the democratic model, or the freedom model, or the human rights model. And you’re arguing—and this scares people, because they think you’re going to start justifying tyranny, and you’re going to start rationalizing, you know, for maltreating people and so forth. But you have suggested in your writing that maybe they have the capacity to come up with something different that may also be better in some respects.
Jacques: It will be different, that’s for certain. And I think in some respects—I mean, it’s very difficult to know, because one is projecting so much into the future—but I would imagine that in some respects it will be better. Maybe in some respects it will be worse. But in some respects I think it will be different. I think the idea that the West has a monopoly of all things that are good and wise, and everyone else is still sort of in a form of barbarianism, and as they develop they’ll become like the West—I think this is a very hubristic way of thinking. I think every culture, or most cultures in the world, have their own bit of genius, their own bit of wisdom. Values like accountability, representivity, tolerance are not Western values alone. Most cultures have, in some way, embodied them. And there’s no doubt at all that there’s some fine values in the Chinese tradition. What one has to distinguish, I think, is between—it’s dangerous to compare a developing country with a developed country. And this is constantly—we insist that the developing world is like the developed world, that we measure them by the same standards of human rights, of democracy, and so on. But in fact they’re in very different situations, very different circumstances to us. I mean, when we went through our industrial revolutions—the United States, the European countries—we weren’t democratic. We didn’t have universal suffrage. So why do we insist that they have the same standards as we do now when we didn’t have them at their level of development? So we need to be historical rather than ahistorical about it.
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.
PART 3: Coping With Political Change
Robert Scheer: Hi, welcome. This is Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig.com. 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?
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.
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.
PART 5: Militarism Not on the Horizon
Robert Scheer: The book is “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” I’ve been talking to Martin Jacques. This is the fifth in the series that we’ve been having [with this author]. It’s a pretty big book, so five 10-minute segments are certainly warranted, and fascinating. And what we’ve established is that the title is a bit provocative; it may be accurate, but it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be walking around in chain gangs with Chinese overlords. But just to clear that up …
Martin Jacques: Certainly not.
Scheer: … Just to clear that up in our final section, right now we have this crazy relation to China. These Commies, the yellow horde, the Red ants, have turned out to be in some ways better at capitalism, certainly at capitalist finance, than we have. At a time when our economy is floundering, they seem to be pulling out of a recession that we created, much more rapidly than we are. And that’s disturbing, particularly to American free-market zealots—the Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand school—who thought that not only is this the most efficient system, but also gives rise to all of the good values in life. So how, basically, filed to conclude this discussion, how does this impact us? Are they going to continue to carry our debt? Are they taking unfair advantage of our economy? Is the yen-dollar relationship, is that false? Will they attack us militarily? What is your projection for the future in terms of the impact of this great change in the next decades in China? How does it impact people here in the United States?
Jacques: Well, I think in some ways the shift in power is going to be … some aspects will be rapid, and some will be quite slow and protracted. Because the rise of China is as, ultimately, the biggest economy in the world—but it will still be a poor country compared to the United States.
Scheer: Per capita.
Jacques: Yeah. In 2050, which is when the Chinese economy is predicted to be twice the size of the American economy, living standards in China will be about half those in the United States. So we should have a sense of historical perspective about this; this is a protracted rather than a sudden process. But certain stages will happen.
Scheer: But what the hawks would say—of course, this has come up … you know, right now, we have a military budget that’s equal to the whole world combined. Still, Joe Lieberman, Sen. Lieberman, says; “No, we have to have these new subs, because the Chinese are building their navy.” So even if you take their aggregate wealth, they could finance a pretty big military.
Jacques: China could.
Jacques: Yes, but I don’t think they’re going to, particularly, go down that road.
Jacques: Because, first of all, the Chinese have never really majored on military expenditure. They’ve never been an expansionary force, globally. They have the tributary state system, but they didn’t colonize the region. They had much more advanced naval ability in the 15th century than Europe did, but they didn’t colonize anywhere. And if you look at them now, the period since 1978, military expenditure for much of that period, till recently, has been responsible for a declining proportion of GDP. This is very different from the Soviet experience. So I think that the Chinese will be very, very cautious about military commitment. I think it will definitely develop a modern military capability; it will do that. But it will not seek to confront the United States or compete with the United States on this front, unlike what happened with the Soviet Union—which eventually helped to break the Soviet Union. The Chinese won’t make that mistake. And if America wants to follow Lieberman’s advice, then [that’s unfortunate for] America. Because actually what America needs to sort out is its economic efficiency, its economic powers, and so on. It shouldn’t be diverting resources into constantly thinking that what really matters in the world in hard military power, but what matters for America, its future, is the renewal of America.
Scheer: So, implicit in what you’re saying is that the example of Tibet and their relations to Taiwan is not a model of imperial expansion?
Jacques: Well, I don’t think Taiwan is, no. Definitely, because Taiwan has intimately been part of China; it’s part of what happened in 1949 after the revolution.
Scheer: And you think they’ll patch it up?
Jacques: I think that what’s going to happen is Taiwan will decide to accept Chinese sovereignty, and in return China will offer an extremely flexible and generous constitutional arrangement which will include Taiwan keeping its military forces and also keeping its present electoral system. Along the lines of Hong Kong, but more flexible, if you like.
Scheer: And Tibet, which gets a lot of attention in this country?
Jacques: Well, Tibet is part of China since the Qing conquest of western China, from the 16th century onwards. And I think that there’s no way that Tibet … it is possible to consider that period, in one sense, as a period of … it has certain aspects of a colonial expansion; that’s what I feel about it, certain aspects of it. But that’s the only example one can think of in relationship to China. It could have colonized Southeast Asia easily, but it never did. But now Tibet has been part of China for such a long time, I think the solution to the problem with Tibet is essentially along the lines of allowing the Dalai Lama back and Tibet enjoying more autonomy within the context of China—which is the Dalai Lama’s position, actually. I think that would be the way forward. But China’s not going to be a globally … I think China will be a less expansionist, aggressive force than Europe and the United States have been.
Scheer: Military, but what about economically?
Jacques: I’m only talking militarily.
Scheer: Let’s talk economically, then, and concluding this: Are they a threat economically? Will they take jobs from Americans? Will they take our oil?
Jacques: Of course there are going to be conflicts of interest, but I think it’s important to see two things in this context. First of all, that the rise of China has been hugely beneficial for the global economy, just like the rise of America after 1870 was very beneficial for the global economy. Of course some groups have lost out, in the United States and elsewhere, but if you look at the global picture, most countries, most people have benefited from the rise of China and will continue to; likewise with the rise of India. And the second point is, when I say “the end of the Western world” and so on, and “the rise of China,” we’re not talking about the demise of the West, the end of the West; we’re just talking about the end of a world shaped so much as in the past. …
Scheer: “The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order.” We can’t conclude this without you telling me why I shouldn’t be afraid of … I was afraid of it when George Bush, the father, was talking about a new global order. Why shouldn’t I be afraid of China’s new global order?
Jacques: Well, it’s going to happen, and I think … the point I wanted to make is that, as we move into this era, 50 years down the line—I know about these things because I’m British, and my life has been framed by British decline. And Britain has lost huge status compared with 1945. But Britain is hugely richer. We Brits are, to a person, much richer than we were in 1945. So Americans will continue to get richer and richer in this new world. It’s not that they’re going to suffer in that sense; it’s just that America will lose power and status in the world.
Scheer: But the worldwide pie will expand?
Jacques: Of course it will.
Scheer: So it’s not coming out of our hide.
Jacques: Well, there are other factors that will affect this, like climate change—but treat that as an exogenous factor.
Scheer: That’s your next book. Thank you.
Jacques: Thank you very much, Bob.