When China rules the world

By John Sexton
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, December 12, 2009
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When China rules the world

By Martin Jacques, published by Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2009

With its provocative title, this well-written and timely book by the well-known British journalist Martin Jacques is something of a publisher's dream. A cut above the annual crop of run-of-the-mill "China threat" books, Jacques' thoughtful analysis is selling well and deservedly so. It combines an excellent introduction to Chinese history and culture with an exposition of the main arguments surrounding the 21st century "rise of China", albeit heavily weighted in favor of the author's own views. It even throws in an excellent chapter on Japan that, taken on its own, would be a good enough reason for buying the book.

But what of the massive assumption contained in the book's title? Does Jacques manage to make his case that China is set to rule the world? Talk of the emergence of a G2 of America and China in the wake of the crash of 2008 appears, if not to confirm, then at least prefigure China's rise to preeminence. None of the great issues facing the world can be solved without reference to and without the agreement of the "big two." All eyes are on the U.S. and China as the world gathers in Copenhagen to address the existential threat of global warming. But counting as one of the world's biggest problems does not translate to occupancy of the top seat, and would in any case be an unhappy way to ascend the throne.

China's apparent rise is a function of American decline. From Gulf War one to Gulf War two, from an unparalleled demonstration of military invincibility, to a bloody morass; from George HW Bush, the measured and cautious statesman, to George W Bush, the buffoon; from the promise of Silicon Valley to the crash of 2008, talk of America's loss of power and prestige has become common currency. Few now quote Francis Fukuyama's neo-Hegelian tract The End of History and the Last Man, on universally-accepted Western values and institutions as the end point of human development. Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations has better stood the test of time.

Jacques' argument is simple. China is huge, its economy is booming, its growth is unstoppable and it will therefore at some point overtake and supplant the U.S. as the world's dominant economic power. It will do so, according to Jacques, even before its per capita GDP exceeds America's. Other dimensions of power will flow from its economic preeminence.

Two of Jacques' three premises are undeniable. It is because of China's huge population and its economic record that we are having this discussion. Whether China's growth is unstoppable is the key question. There is no shortage of doom-mongers who continuously predict economic disaster in China. The "inevitable" failure of the government's massive stimulus package is their latest chorus. Like a stopped clock, no doubt they will eventually be right. But the lesson of all economic crises, including the Great Depression that appeared to have devastated America, is that societies, governments and economies, adapt and recover. Crises may delay but not arrest China's growth.

On balance, therefore, I believe Jacques has made his case for the rise of China. It is part of an axial shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Europe and America to Asia, from West to East. It marks the final fading of the old imperialist and colonialist powers and the rise of the former colonies, and includes the rise of the other Asian giant, India, alongside China. Jacques, a former communist, now believes the anti-colonial struggle was of much greater significance than the Bolshevik revolution. "With hindsight, the defeat of colonialism […] must rate as one of the great landmarks of the last century, perhaps the greatest."

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