The meteoric rise of China’s economy since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 has no parallel in recorded history. Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World charts the trajectory of that rise, looking ahead to its continued path and consequences for the next century. The Chinese story added dimensions when the United States and other developed countries plunged into recession in 2008 and China, though not unscathed, recovered quickly and at relatively minor cost. Long-standing complaints about unfair competition from cheap Chinese products were supplemented by concern about the vast amount of the American national debt held in China’s foreign-exchange reserves. Concern for China was an important factor in the rapid and radical financial interventions by the U.S. government in 2008. All of these matters receive attention by Jacques, but his perspective is much broader.
The subtitle suggests this will be a book of apocalyptic warnings, but this is not another routine recital of the “China threat.” Jacques does not pretend that China will literally “rule the world,” any more than the United States has done in recent years. In fact, his presentation is sober, scholarly, and developed with great patience. One of his many important themes is that China is unique in ways that limit the relevance of such familiar categories of analysis as democracy and capitalism. At the same time, China’s rising importance is clearly based on the size and rapid growth of the country’s national output.
Jacques argues that for decades analysts in the West have assumed that the only effective path for low-income countries toward modernization and economic abundance would involve westernization, including the development of free markets, the rule of law, and democracy. The experiences of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea after World War II did not obviously disprove this hypothesis, although their conformity to the stereotype was far from complete. China’s economic emergence has cast the entire notion into doubt and dramatized the fact that it did not really apply to most Asian countries, particularly those with a Confucian tradition.
Jacques feels that “it is inconceivable that China will become a Western-style nation in the manner to which we are accustomed.” He cites four reasons. First, China is not a nation-state in the Western sense but a “civilization-state.” Much of the book is devoted to explicating the elements of this civilization, which centers around the continuity of long-lived Chinese languages and culture. Second, the Chinese have a strong conviction about the uniqueness and superiority of their race (Han). Racist and xenophobic attitudes are strong in China. Third, for centuries, China’s political culture embodied tributary relationships, in which neighboring states acknowledged the superiority of Chinese culture and power and sought China’s patronage and protection. Fourth, China’s political unity has a far longer history than that of other countries, and it has deep emotional power, reflected in national attitudes toward Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
The continuity of Chinese culture is an important consideration, but there are aspects of it that Jacques overlooks. One is the extraordinary level of violence in Chinese history, spanning the Taiping Rebellion and the mass murders of Mao. An underappreciated achievement of the post-Mao era has been to reduce the extent of official violence (though there is more than is known of in the West). At the same time, one wonders what elements in Chinese culture made Chinese people so willing to brutalize one another.
Another element of continuity is the Chinese written language. Admirable as it is it many respects, learning it requires an exceptional degree of memorization by Chinese children. This requirement spreads to a heavy emphasis on rote learning throughout Chinese education. Because of their conviction of intellectual superiority, Chinese universities since the 1980’s have offered doctoral degrees. Often, these degrees do not require students to be familiar with Western languages and do not measure up to the academic standards prevailing in the rest of the world. China produces more than 300,000 engineers a year, but fewer than 10 percent of them meet international engineering standards. It is instructive to scan the list of Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. Eight ethnic Chinese have won such prizes, but only one of these (Samuel C. C. Ting in 1976) received a substantial part of his...
(The entire section is 1861 words.)