The Truth About China

December 16, 2009 Topics: Security Tags: Han Chinese

The Truth About China

Mini Teaser: Martin Jacques’s just-released tome breathlessly informs us that China will soon rule the world. Its culture will dominate the West. Its military will threaten our own. Its authoritarian system will become an alternative to liberal democracy.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Nathan

Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 576 pp., $29.95.


[amazon 1594201854 full] WILL CHINA "rule the world"?

Despite his breathless title, Martin Jacques is not so sure. On the one hand, "China . . . is destined to become . . . ultimately the major global power." On the other hand, "the challenge posed by the rise of China is far more likely to be cultural in nature" than political or military. But on further consideration, "As China becomes a global power, and ultimately a superpower, probably in time the dominant superpower, then it, like every other previous major power, will view the world through the prism of its own history and will seek, subject to the prevailing constraints, to reshape that world in its own image." But then again, "For perhaps the next half-century, it seems unlikely that China will be particularly aggressive"; "for the next twenty years or so . . . it will remain an essentially status-quo power." But after all, yes: "China's mass will oblige the rest of the world largely to acquiesce in China's way of doing things."

Such zigzag logic characterizes many of Jacques's arguments. Will China democratize? Very likely: "it seems reasonable to expect serious moves towards democratization within [a twenty-year] timescale, possibly less." But not necessarily: "the weight of what might be described as Confucian orthodoxy is likely to make it more difficult." But probably so: "In the long run it seems rather unlikely . . . that China will be able to resist the process of democratization." But still maybe not: "it is pointless to think that China is going to change and adopt Western cultural norms: the practices and ways of thinking are simply too old and too deeply rooted for that to happen." Yet once again, yes: "It is . . . likely that within any of the longer time-frames [being considered] there will be profound political changes in China, perhaps involving either the end of Communist rule or a major metamorphosis in its character." And finally, no: "it is inconceivable that Chinese politics will come to resemble those of the West."

Where does this leave us then as we attempt to peer into the China hegemony ball? Will China rise or founder? Will it see regime change or hold fast to its values?


IT IS as if Jacques were trying to convey something for which precise words do not exist. That something is the quintessential Chineseness of China, an essence so deeply rooted that he believes it has persisted through nine major dynasties over two thousand years, has survived both modernization and communism, and will not change in our lifetimes. To be sure, "China has changed beyond recognition. But at another level the lines of continuity are stubborn and visible." "Many of the fundamental truths of Chinese politics apply as much to the Communist period as to the earlier dynasties."

These fundamentals are China's sense of itself as a civilization; belief in its superiority to other civilizations; belief in racial hierarchy; preference for order; and acceptance of unbounded government. This cultural essence is homogenous, unitary, unchallengeable and unchanging. It is "Confucian." And because China is getting so strong, it is about to overwhelm the West. "Whatever the fortunes of the Communist regime . . . the main political impact of China on the world will be its Confucian tradition, its lack of a Western-style democracy or tradition, the centrality of the state and the relative weakness of any civil society that is likely to develop."

Certainly, China is discernibly different from everywhere else. If you parachuted into Chengdu, you would not think you were in Milan or Calcutta. Jacques is perceptive on the differences among nations in cosmetics, clothing, furniture and musical tastes. But the question is: just how is China different? At the level of abstraction to which Jacques rises when discussing politics and foreign affairs, it would be hard to distinguish Chinese culture from that of Russia, France or America. All these nations are proud of their histories, value their family systems, like social order and seek national security. At that level of abstraction, China in fact is no different from any other state.

Nor, contra Jacques, is China different in being more unified than other cultures. The same forces of contention and change are at play here as in any vibrant society. Political scientist Tianjian Shi of Duke University found in a random-sample survey conducted in China in 2008 that 48 percent of respondents agreed that "The government should decide whether certain ideas should be allowed to be discussed in society" and 25 percent disagreed (the remainder couldn't chose or didn't understand); 31.1 percent agreed that "If we have political leaders who are morally upright we can let them decide everything," while 45.3 percent disagreed. If these questions were asked in a Western society, the responses would likely be different, but you would find a similar diversity in viewpoints. And there is a wide range of views in China itself, depending on age and life experience. In this survey, younger Chinese were more liberal than older Chinese, urban Chinese more liberal than rural Chinese. No huge surprise. Chinese disagree among themselves on fundamental values just like people in any society.

Nor is the Chinese tradition a monolith. It offers room not only for collectivism, state domination and social order, but also for individualism, civil society and rebellion. Besides Confucianism, the Chinese tradition includes Legalism, Taoism, Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions. Within Confucianism there were tensions between the educated man's duty to the ruler and his obligation to honor his own ethical precepts ("What is called a great minister is one who serves his prince according to what is right, and when he finds he cannot do so, retires"), and between the power of the ruler and the primacy of the people ("The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler"). Such tensions have opened the way for culturally Chinese people to advocate liberalism and democracy-and in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, to bring such values into practice. The monolith is a myth.

Moreover, cultures are no longer pure, if they ever were. They are hybrid-increasingly so under conditions of globalization. China reopened to the outside world only thirty years ago and has been absorbing foreign influences at a rapid pace. Chinese urban society is intoxicated with foreign food, sports, clothing and music. Chinese kids love foreign toys, cartoons and TV shows. This process is only beginning. If the culture of the Japanese samurai was no bar to industrialization and democracy-and as Jacques points out it was not-then why should the teachings of Confucius, who lived two thousand five hundred years ago, have created an iron cage that limits China's possible future relationships with itself and the world?

What does make China different, with respect to the features of domestic politics and foreign policy that concern Jacques most, can be best understood in terms of its institutions and geostrategic circumstances, not its culture. The reason China is undemocratic is not because it is culturally fated to endure authoritarianism, but because-among a series of reasons, for there can be no simple answer to a puzzle like this-its existing institutions are well entrenched and adaptive, the ruling party hangs together, the system is able to recruit and empower technocrats, the bureaucratic promotion system motivates local officials to work toward state goals, and the government knows how to make effective use of its propaganda and police systems. If these institutions decay, the system will change. The reason China exercises so much influence on its neighbors is not because of "the return of the tributary system"-after all, China exerted little real influence on its neighbors under this millennia-old arrangement-but because of its size and wealth. Its power would simply decline if its economy shrank. And, the reason China does not seek to acquire the territory of its neighbors is not a tradition of ruling through indirect influence, but because it is surrounded by settled areas and robust states that offer no space into which to expand-a feature that is unlikely to change.


BUT JACQUES is dead set on the idea of an epochal change in the structure of world power, and he uses overheated and ofttimes downright scary language to describe a coming reversal of dominance between China and the West. He speaks of "the rise of the civilization-state," "the Chinese racial order," "a Chinese commonwealth," "a new political pole" and "the decline and fall of the West." The fact is, however, that though Jacques wants to "ponder what the world might be like in twenty, or even fifty, years' time" most of his predictions are of things that are already happening, and none of which is cause for histrionic alarm. Jacques says that Chinese history will become familiar to people around the world; Beijing will emerge as a global capital; China's cultural influence will spread; less powerful countries will tilt toward China; China will influence global taste through the power of its market; Chinese will think of themselves as racially superior; overseas Chinese will identify with their homeland; China will invest beyond its borders and influence the world financial system; China will refrain from invading its neighbors; China's authoritarian-capitalist system will be seen as an alternative political-economic model; China will promote its idea of moral values; more students around the world will learn Chinese; Chinese universities will rise in global rankings; Chinese art and film will reach global audiences; and, Chinese food and medicine will be appreciated worldwide. So what's new?

Essay Types: Book Review