When China Rules the World

I first went to China in 1983.  On a holiday in Hong Kong with my wife and another couple, we signed up for a tour across the border, chosen out of curiosity rather than for shopping.  Goods were cheaper across in the PRC, but they were so cheap in the territory, it made little difference.  Our tour was well managed.  We saw new housing estates, with dozens of apartment towers, a shopping centre, and ended up in a pre-school, where a group of young students appeared, dutifully sang two songs, and showed us their classroom decorated with colourful drawings.  Of course, the bus journey couldn’t avoid passing through slum areas, street markets and dozens of begging youngsters could be seen hanging around us on every occasion we were stopped at traffic lights.  Shenzhen offered a beacon of progress, made up from pinpoints of bright light, but each one was surrounded by areas of poverty and squalor.

I had made friends with a Chinese family in Hong Kong, and two years later the father, Paul, took me on a trip to his home town in Guangdong Province.  We met his mother and his brother, who by then both were housed in pleasant new apartments.  However, Paul wanted to show me his childhood home.  This was in a village close to the town, and for the first time I saw the China where most Chinese had been living.  The family had kept the home.  It had three rooms, open to the outside without windows or doors.  Two rooms were for the family, and one, without an enclosed roof, was for the pigs they kept.  No running water, although there was a pond close by, no power.  I could have been horrified by what I saw, but Paul’s love for this tiny shack and his village left a different impression.  He was proud of where he’d lived, anxious for me to appreciate his early home, a home he told me he would never sell.  Far from clearly in that visit, I began to recognise my western perspective made understanding China almost impossible.

I have been to China many times since then.  On some occasions as a tourist, going to Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Xian, as well as many other cities, but most times I was working, giving talks and once running a week long course in entrepreneurship for 200 academics.  I have met with government officials and business leaders, and explored staff exchanges and collaboration.  Like many visitors, I have been hosted at formal lunches and dinners, carefully observing precedence and protocol, and enjoying toasts accompanied by red wine or a powerful baijiu liquor.  I have visited schools and factories, and on one trip my youngest daughter was broadcast live on radio, a guest on a call-in English program (where, to my chagrin, she spoke briefly in Japanese as she didn’t know any Chinese!).  Despite this, I have seldom had the opportunity to visit people in their homes.  When I did, I was reminded of Paul’s pride, and my own inadequate understanding of a very different world.  In those early years, one enduring impression was of the enormous pressure parents put on children’s education; most were at school or studying at home, 12 hours a day.  An obligation or a kind of investment?  Paul had explained that, in Chinese culture, when children grow up, they look after their parents.

In more recent years, I have been in China working with a client or educational agency, and for the rest of each visit I’ve been able to be a tourist again.  However, the opportunity to see and understand home life has disappeared.  I could visit art galleries and museums, or stroll through shopping centres, but I haven’t been into a Chinese home in years.  As I think about it, I have been gently treated as an outsider.  My hosts and colleagues are kind and thoughtful, but, after all, I am not like them, nor will I ever be able to breach that gap.  And China has changed.

Back in 2009, Martin Jacques book, When China Rules the World, was published. [i]  To reread it today is to rediscover the scholarship, insight and thought provoking commentary he gave.  Martin Jacques was a college tutor in Cambridge when I was in the same role: he tutored in economics and economic history, while I tutored in social anthropology:  what an auspicious start!  To be more serious, he was a communist, a journalist, a critic and an academic.  He was a co-founder of Demos, “a left wing think-tank in the UK, with a cross-party political viewpoint, which specialises in social policy, developing evidence-based solutions in a range of areas – from education and skills to health and housing.”  The source of many key public policy reports, it also houses the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which studies how the rise of the digital world affects politics, policy and decision-making. [ii]  However, it wasn’t just his talents that drew my attention when I first read his book, but the book’s dedication caught me emotionally, “For Hari.  My love for you knew no limits, nor has it dimmed with time.  I miss you more than words can say”; and, at the end of his Acknowledgements, “The aching emptiness of her absence stills any sense of elation”.  Nine years earlier, his wife died in unfortunate circumstances, four years after they married.  In her memory he founded and chairs the Harinder Veriah Trust, which supports the education of girls from deprived backgrounds at Assunta Primary School and Assunta Secondary School in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.  I admire him in many ways.

When China Rules the World was written when the Global Financial Crisis was shaking the international financial system.  There was a sense that this might bring about changes in the role of governments, and in controls over markets, lending, and investment.  Here we are, eleven years later, a pandemic has thrown the financial system into upheaval again, and once more we read hopeful views on how this will change the world. It is illuminating to go back and review whether the views in 2009 make sense today, given how much has changed on the global scene, especially with the emergence of Xi Jinping, as President of the PRC in 1993, and his re-appointment as President in 2018 without term limits.  Many other writers’ predictions at the time have proven mistaken.  In contrast, Jacques focussed on longer term issues and challenges, and how China’s rise was likely to alter cultural, political and ethnic relations in the balance of global power, quite apart from the effects of its emergence as an economic superpower.

The heart of Jacques’ book is very clever.  After reviewing the appearance and collapse of world powers over the previous few centuries, including an engaging analysis of how Japan took a very different path from the West in becoming a modern nation, he introduces us to the westerner’s experience of China.  I could have written that chapter.  It was exactly what I had seen in those years of visits.  However, Jacques made clear an issue which I hadn’t fully grasped.  China wasn’t just different, another culture where you had to learn new values, understand a different history, appreciate a different aesthetic.  As he explained, the Chinese saw themselves as better than others, superior, not in a snobbish sense, but the result of the asymmetrical relationship the country had established over centuries:  as they saw it, other countries were to defer to China.

I understood immediately.  In Melbourne a few years earlier, I was hosting a visit by a Vice-President of Fudan University, one of the big five universities in China.  We had established an International Management Centre there, and this was a brief courtesy visit, in the context of his longer series of meetings in a number of countries.  He was with us for a day and a half, and disappeared on the morning of the second day.  When he reappeared, he told me he had been to the University of Melbourne, which was, unbeknown to me at the time, a partner of theirs in a prestigious international network, Universitas 21.  He was angry.  Not only had the Vice-Chancellor not made time to meet him, but he had been taken on a campus tour.  He was shown some of their latest classrooms, with various IT systems available.  It was, he told me, quite demeaning to be shown something that, by implication, would not be available to a Chinese university. “Our lecture theatres had that equipment five years ago”, he told me.

The example might seem trivial, but it speaks to a broader theme.  We tend to flaunt our achievements, our technologies, impressing others with the reasons to admire us, especially in the case of Americans abroad.  Naturally circumspect, and always interested in the people I meet, my interactions with the Chinese revealed they were even more circumspect than I!  Whenever I was patient, just a little of Chinese achievements and pride would be revealed.

After a masterly review of changing empires, Martin Jacques ends his book with a summary of the future issues he saw facing the West as China became a dominant power. He argued that China will be a different kind of world power than those that have dominated in the past five centuries.  It is not like a western power, but rather a civilisation (not a ‘state’ as we imagine it), concerned with unity, run by a government that has never shared power with any other institution (his examples include the church or business).  The government sits above all other organisations and agencies, resting on a set of moral and ethical values that reinforce family and respect.

Back in 2009, Jacques saw several ways China would be different as a global power.  First, there’s its history over the long term, not just the past 150 years: that past suggests it will revert to its traditional view of international relationships – others have to adapt to China.  He linked this to the ‘tributary state’ relationship others have had with China, an acknowledgement of its superior place in a China-centric East Asia.  Another key issue is that China’s dominant group, the Han Chinese, (who comprise the vast majority of the country), are seen one race, and any others are seen as ‘other’ nationalities.  Jacques focusses on Tibet as his core example. Today, we must add an ethnic ‘cleansing’ of the Uyghurs as another case.  His point was that this isn’t an ideological perspective, it is a fact: China is a Han civilisation, and the Han are the Chinese.

He also touched on some other issues.  One is size, both geographic and population, which gives China space to experiment and allow diversity:  not the forced ‘two systems’ of Hong Kong and the PRC, but rather the flexibility to allow a Shanghai or Wenzhou to be entrepreneurial and capitalistic, for example.  Rather than collaborating or partnering with other countries, China can create alternative paths and systems internally.  This relates to another theme, as Jacques saw China was both modern and rooted in its past, both developed and developing.  This takes us to the opaque nature of its international ambitions:  does China merely want to reassert control over what has always been China, and deal with Taiwan, the Spratlys and Tibet, or will it want to expand beyond those parts of former China and create a more extensive empire?

Jacques concluded that China will take an unfamiliar path in the future, placing less emphasis on ‘fitting in’ with the world order and its complex set of democratic agencies.  He suggested it might want to establish a modern version of that tributary system.  Rather than adopting what he calls western universalism, he suggested China will establish its own values and practices in dealing with others, and expect them to conform to its way of being in the world. [iii]

In reviewing his ideas, the past few years have been instructive.  On the side of the West, its democratic, universalistic approach has been falling apart.  Democracies are becoming tenuous, as populism and straight-out dictatorships are emerging in Russia, South America and several European nations.  Alliances are fragmenting.  With this, the moral authority and international consensus that ruled from 1945 has been deteriorating.  The US seems headed helter-skelter into an undemocratic isolationist position, its decline hastened by a thoughtless, self centred leader; an election later in 2020 might stop the decline, but it may be too late.  While Angela Merkel tries to keep the European Union together, she will shortly step down completely, and there are few left in the union to keep it working.  The UK, with antiquated delusions of its importance, has floated away into a confused self-parody, seeking a return to imagined 19th Century world, one which is mistaken, illusory, and irrelevant in the face of a world that couldn’t care.

As for China, three events signal its abandonment of playing nice on the world scene.  Xi Jinping has tossed out the superficial sense of change at the top, and the country has reverted to lifetime rulers.  Its commitment to military strength has grown dramatically, as the parade of armaments technology made clear on May Day in 2020.  Perhaps most important among the signs of change, it ignored the agreement over Hong Kong, due to expire in 2048, and has simply taken the city-state back, ignoring protests, and calmly imposing absolute control.  These, and many other smaller actions, suggest that China now feels confident to be itself.  As it sees it, the rest of the world will have to fit in, rather than the other way around.

Equally telling has been China’s actions since the coronavirus pandemic began to impact nations across the globe.  The first to start recovery, China had the opportunity make its mark on the international scene, seeking to be seen as acting in the common good, and convincing the west of its peaceful intentions.  In fact, as one commentator observed “In the first half of 2020, Beijing has been ecumenical in its assertiveness: Britain, Japan, Australia, India, Canada, and others have been on the receiving end of China’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy”.  The list of actions includes pursuing a border standoff with India (and killing Indian soldiers); and a new national-security law that ended Hong Kong’s political freedom, violating internationally commitments.  When any country supported an international inquiry by WHO into COVID-19’s origins, China barred imports, as Australian found to its cost.  Armed Chinese coast-guard vessels have been sailing close to the Senkaku Islands daily, and Taiwan has reported an ‘unprecedented’ number of sea and air exercises near the island, while the Chinese air force conducted live-fire drills in the South China Sea.[iv]  No evidence of peaceful intentions, but rather hostile Chinese responses.

The approach this year seems very clear.  While the world might react with horror at Chinese actions, Beijing assumes that emotions will cool and it will prevail.  Is this hubris?  Or have we reached the point where the world has no choice but to accommodate itself to China’s power, rather than the reverse.  Martin Jacques was prescient.  On present trends, when China rules the world, it will be a new global order, and almost certainly a Chinese form of global order.

[i] When China Rules the World, The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin, 2009

[ii] https://demos.co.uk

[iii] Jacques, ibid, pages 397-399, 414-435.

[iv] See China has squandered its first great opportunity, Richard Fontaine, The Atlantic, July 30, 2020