Sunday, February 21, 2010

When China Rules the World

This is the sensational title of the recent book by British writer and columnist Martin Jacques who was the editor (1977-1991) of Marxism Today, the theoretical journal of now defunct Communist Party of Great Britain.  It does not bother with the question of IF; rather, it proceeds straight to the question of what might the new world order be like WHEN China rules the world.  With such a provocative title and his credential (although he is less known in U.S.), Jacques did attract some attention (including mine!) and found himself giving talks, interviews and discussion forums to elaborate what he meant such as of course he is not suggesting China will literally RULE the world.  If you are interested in this topic but not ready to read this 550 pages book (including a nearly 100 pages of bibliography), you can get a 20 minutes briefing by viewing his Nov. 11, 2009 talk/discussion at Asia Society in New York, hosted by Professor Orville Schell.

While this book is a worthwhile read as it offers several critical observations and puts forth significant questions for the readers to ponder, there are a number of problems.  First off, I found Jacques’ style of making a provocative statement first and then backtracking to his less than complete and sometimes sketchy conclusions annoying and distracting.  The first part of the book was devoted to a multi-chapter discussion of history, culture, and systems with focus on China.  While necessary as a part of a self-contained exposition, the background summary was narrowly constructed.  One needs to be aware that it was chosen and presented primarily in support of his later arguments rather than giving a more comprehensive and balanced review. For example, while he acknowledged the deaths of millions, he glossed over the colossal failures and destructions beyond material for nearly three decades post 1949. Further, the resulting unity (and resulting “stability”) and independence of China were emphasized and credits were given to Mao’s disastrous authoritarian rule.

As another example, on page 96, he stated that “Both the Confucian and Communist modes of rule involved an implicit contract between the people and the state: if the state failed to meet its obligations then the peasants had, according to Mencius, a right to rebel…”  While it is true that Confucianism advocates a ruler must be benevolent to have the mandate of heaven (presumably hoping to rein in an otherwise totally unchecked power/authority), the suggestion of the existence of an implicit contract is a fairy tale and a academic justification of authoritarian rule than anything else.  Throughout the history, peasant revolutions have been the last desperate move by oppreessed population, most of which failed and brutally suppressed.  Does Mr. Jacques see Communist China as the last hope to realize some of the dreams that he and Eurocommunist had hoped for?

The most important and distinct characterization that Martin Jacques made on China is what he called Civilization State (in contrast to nation-state of the West).   Indeed this notion is fundamental to the psyche of China with that, much of the history, attitude, and behavior of China can be better understood or explained.  What Martin described as the “Middle Kingdom mentality” says it all – China is the center of the world and requires no particular name.   Ethnic Han majority (which is somewhat fluid and more a cultural notion) trumps other racial attributes with persisting “Hannization” and assimilation efforts.  Of course, the core system is built with a State based on Confucianism and carefully knitted structures and values.  The result is a resilient and cohesive imperial State despite minority rules from time to time (notably, the Mongols and Manchurians with the latter ruled China for 268 years!).   Martin Jacques also highlighted the legacy tributary system that Imperial China had with its neighbors.  His suggestion of the return of suzerainty in a “modern form” without specifics or supporting evidence is more than a stretch.  I cannot imagine the modern international law and models developed would be turned back even if China manages to export its Confucian framework and values.

At a fundamental level, , Martin Jacques’ thesis has not gone beyond the paradigm and prediction that was laid out by Professor Samuel Huntington in his 1992-1993 seminal work of The Clash of Civilizations and subsequent 1996 monograph.  Huntington proposed and articulated the theory that future conflicts of the world will be civilization based along the line of cultural and religious lines. This book is in some sense a corollary and can be considered as a tangent of Huntington’s under the scenario when China continues to outpace others in its economic development.   For your convenience, I am including below a map of the world major civilizations in Huntington’s.

In all, the speculations and predictions of eventual dominance of China have largely been based on extrapolation of its size and rapid economic development of the last 30 years.  Martin Jacques’ new book is no exception which is filled with many typical and familiar economic data.  His original contribution is to explore and try to seek a deeper insight into the behavior of China which would necessarily be heavily biased by its unique history and experience.  Indeed China’s ascension would be different from Western Europe’s during 16th-19th centuries which was based on colonialism that avail much needed natural and slave resources.  Indeed it would be different from U.S.‘s during the 20th-21st century built on a hugely successful social, economical, and political experiment made possible by highly motivated progressive settlers and immigrants that brought universalism and globalism to the next level with the vast resources of North America and displacement of native Americans.  Yes, the western civilization has dominated the world for the last several centuries and China is poised to be the next.  Yes, the future modern China may not be a westernized China.  But by simply pointing to a vague hybrid model based on China’s unique characteristics, Martin Jacques came up short in answering the challenging title he had set out to answer.

One thing is clear though: the demand and continuing pressure of the pursuit of lowest cost in the developed world has been largely responsible for much of the growth and the economic boom in Asia for the last 50 years, starting with Japan and punctuated today with China.  Such a system and ladder climbing game obviously cannot sustain itself indefinitely even with aggressive and close to reckless consumerism and globalization.  More seriously, for China to be in par with U.S. as measured by per capita GDP and average energy consumption (that correlates strongly with the popular notion of standard of living given today’s technology), China would have to reach today’s total GDP of the entire world and would have consumed ALL today’s energy resources used by the whole world! Faced with such a daunting challenge, one must address the all important and more immediate question that Martin Jacques skipped over that is:  WILL China rule the world and how would China get there?

Let us take a deep breadth and talk about that next time!

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