Book Review: When China Rules the World

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Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and it’s become harder and harder to make time for books over the last few years.  However, over Christmas I was given Martin Jacques’ book  “When China Rules the World” and I read most of it on the six flights we took over the holidays.This is an extremely important book, in that I feel Martin accurately distills and describes a few integral pieces of China and the Chinese mindset that are almost universally missed by Western commentators.  These pieces, when placed in the proper context can often combine to explain the more (to Western eyes) puzzling questions about China, events that happen within China, and China’s reactions to external pressures.One of the reasons why I enjoyed this book is that the author is a master at providing historical context and to illustrate and reinforce his ideas.  With a history as long as China’s this isn’t a small task, but he accurately makes the point that few nations are as cognizant of their history and traditions as China.  Ignoring thousands of years of constant cultural development leads to gross misunderstanding, and is something that is all too easy to do from a Western perspective that’s driven by the acceptance of a Western order that is really only three centuries old.Jacques begins his book with the relevant facts of how China will most likely overtake the US as the largest economy in the world by 2027, and focuses on the central question of the book: What will a modern world dominated by China look like?  The prevailing thought of most attention paid to China is that capitalism, free markets, and Western style economies inevitably echo Western values of freedom, human rights, democracy, and culture.  In other words, free trade begets free societies.  Not necessarily so in China.This misguided belief that a swing towards Western style freedom and government is inevitable is a key miscalculation that negatively affects US foreign policy and undermines true understanding of China and the rest of East Asia.Reasons for China not following the Western model of modernism coalesce around different set of values.  In China, unity and stability is a key value that is reinforced by the strong, hierarchical family unit, the universal acceptance of Confucian thought, and the reality that China is a civilization-state, not a nation state.  The Chinese desire of unity explains the tolerance of the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and even within the numerous special economic zones found within the country.  This type of duality is almost inconceivable to the West.  Stability is valued highly due to China’s  experiences with turmoil during its history (estimations of 25 million dead during Manchu invasion, 50 million dead during Taiping rebellion, and as many as another 50 million dead during World War II and the ensuing Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution), and it’s long experience with a strong central government and its emphasis on a Confucian trained and tested government bureaucracy.  Stability, therefore, is enough of a priority that the Chinese are content with a system that values the group over the individual.History teaches us that the Chinese civilization has never wavered in it’s attitude of superiority towards outsiders.  Indeed, even when conquered by external invaders, which happened often throughout history, the invading groups (Mongols, Manchus) forsook their own identities and adopted Chinese customs, dress, and language while moving their capitals and governments to China.  Today there is an overwhelming sense among the Chinese that China is finally regaining it’s rightful place in the world as the Middle Kingdom.  Most forget that in the 1800s, the Chinese standard of living was slightly higher per capita than that of Europe.  England had a strong navy and easy access to coal close to its urban centers, China did not.  A crippled and weak end of the Qing dynasty, the Japanese invasion, World War II and the disastrous effects of Communism contributed to a net decrease in China’s GDP between 1820 and 1950.The idea that modernism must revolve around the Western model is rejected by the examination of how little modernity has affected Chinese politics.  China has always had a strong central government that was paternalistic in nature and was bound to the collective well being of society.  This is unlike Western governments, which have evolved to the point where they exist as a utilitarian entity in exchange for popular support.Jacques also spends significant time exploring the reasons behind the current Chinese policies towards trade, it’s own citizen’s freedom, and it’s long term goals.  In the light of the many historical and political contributing factors, it’s much easier to understand China’s currency peg (which hurts China more than it hurts the US), it’s continuing support for US debt, and it’s aggressive stance towards opening its own markets.  According to Deng Xiaoping, two things must remain for China to lift its population from poverty: domestic stability and international peace.  Seventy-five percent of China’s economy is accounted for by international trade of some sort, and while this may decrease as China continues to diversify, this is an unprecedented level for a country that is so large.  This precarious balance between its economy and the implicit social bargain (like all Confucian states have) to its citizenry for future standard of living improvement are the key drivers to China’s behavior.This book isn’t without its faults.  Jacques, like the good Marxist he is, glosses over the disastrous effects of Communism for China’s people and its economy.  Like many intelligentsia (Thomas Friedman and almost any other environmentalist) , he finds himself almost in awe of the incredible power that the Chinese Communist Party has to command policies that he wishes or wants to see implemented.  His exploration of China’s tributary system and it’s possible resurgence in the future is incomplete as it doesn’t resonate well with the Western reader.  Some of the book’s information is outdated or at least could have been updated, and some of the statistics feel as though they’ve been cherry picked.  There also doesn’t seem to be enough credit given to the remarkable lever of capitalism: lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just thirty years is nothing short of a miracle.While the overall message of the book is that China will not become the US or a prototypical Western nation-state, this doesn’t mean that the China of today will exactly mirror the China of tomorrow.  It does mean that we shouldn’t prescribe the Western template to China, and should remain mindful of the powerful historical currents that remain in full force for China.

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