Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

China’s rise will be the central story of the 21st century

07 January 2017 by Jim

(photo by Maher Najm)

I've been reading the excellent When China rules the world by Martin Jacques, and his views on China are very illuminating. The book is not really focusing on the future, at least to me it isn't, because it spends a lot of time trying to explain what China is right now, and the many ways in which reality does not conform to the Western view of the country. This Western view was also my own, which is why it feels so illuminating to correct it.

First of all, China has different values from the West. It does not exist in a binary world of either democracy or authoritarian rule. There has never been a tradition of a strong civil society in China, and the government is not an iron-fist ruler on top of a squealing mass of people, but rather an integral part of society and the country. There is no distrust of the government, no feeling that its power needs to be constrained in the way that the Europeans and Americans try to keep their governments in check. In one specific way, though, China does believe in democracy: international democracy, i.e. the right of all countries to have a say, which means that the current Western, i.e. Initially European and now American-dominated world order is coming to an end, in favour of more multipolar structures, including the G20, with lots of developing countries finally getting a say.

China itself, although it does present itself to the outside world in this light, is no nation state according to the Westphalian system. With the size of a continent and a population far larger than any other country to date, and a multitude of different cultures and regions, it is what Martin Jacques calls a 'civilisation state' that has in its long history influenced many countries, first and foremost Japan and South Korea, with its Confucian polity.

The Chinese outlook on the outside world is also peculiar. While gobbling up African and other resources throughout the world to fuel its economic growth, it is not engaging in colonialism, as some in the West say, because China does not have any history of colonialism and does not think in those terms. Instead, its historic relations with others have been marked by the 'tributary system', a belief that China is the centre of the world and the most refined civilisation, and that other states should pay tribute to it and acknowledge its superiority. This, while being a very arrogant point of view similar to the views that drove European colonialism, is far less aggressive and not focused on dominating others outside China's borders, but more on getting respect from them, without the use of force. Indeed, according to Sun-Tsi, the use of force in a conflict means that the fight has been lost, for fights are won or lost before they even start.

The millennia-long Chinese history gives the Chinese a feeling of cultural superiority over most others, and certainly the 'non-White' ethnicities, which are seen as somewhat barbaric. This obvious racism, however, is never questioned because there is no counter-racism movement in China. Instead, it is seen as entirely normal to look down on Africans and other people of darker complexion. Talking about this as 'racism' doesn't make much sense to the Chinese, who feel that, since they were victims of the UK in the colonial era, it is logically impossible for them to racially discriminate against someone else. Being the victims of racism, they cannot also be the perpetrator. While this is obviously wrong, there is no sign of awareness about racism spreading in China so far. The economic and international resurgence of China probably contribute to embolden the Chinese instead of making them more humble in any way, which means this could remain a problem well into the future.

Being afraid of the many conflicts that the diversity and the huge size of the country enabled in its long history, the primary focus of the government is on preserving unity, and this explains why displays of popular discontent are not encouraged. This is falsely interpreted in the West as a clear sign of totalitarian rule against the interests of the people.

All of these thoughts are a short summary of some of the main ideas of the book, and it is definitely worth reading, because it convincingly shows that the Western view of China is skewed and not close to reality. To understand what is in essence another civilisation, it's not enough to think in our accustomed Western terms, and it's very useful to take a different view.

For those who are scared of the rise of China, as indeed many people in the West are because they are losing economic and military leverage, it seems encouraging from my perspective that China's resurgence is not based on hostile expansion, as Europe's rise was, but instead on peaceful trade and cooperation everywhere. For now, it therefore looks to me like China's rise will most likely be a very good thing for the world as a whole, because it makes the world more democratic (with the voice of +1bn Chinese now being heard) and because China has a vested interest in keeping the current system of international trade and cooperation functional, as its growth stems from it.

The world is becoming more democratic, people are becoming more equal (between countries, although not within) and we're slowly moving towards what seems like a unification of humanity (albeit very slowly).

Never mind the terrorists, the minor wars and bad news. China's (and many developing countries') rise is what will be decisive for the next century. And it'll be difficult for Europe, and especially the US, to adjust to this new reality, used as they are to a worldview where they sit at the top of the hierarchy.

Exciting times lie ahead.

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