Book Review: When China Rules The World

When China Rules The World; The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. Martin Jacques. Penguin Paperback. 2012. $20.

The U.S. public needs frequent reminders other places outside of the Middle East exist. Maybe I should not generalize. Perhaps I should say, “The U.S. media and news outlets need constant reminders places outside of the Middle East exist, AND will impact our lives far more than any terrorist group du jour may affect our lives.”  See, the U.S. government is too easily distracted by people and organizations who state as their goal to bring chaos and disorder to the United States. In making these comments, they actually bring chaos and disorder to the United States without really doing anything other than stringing together words which we interpret as threatening. Our politicians then dance like puppets. Jacques makes this point, sort of, very late into his 600+ page tome. While ISIS or some other organization may threaten the United States, and yes, someone might get hurt or killed, ISIS itself does not represent an “existential” threat to the United States, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. might want everyone to believe.

Martin Jacques brings to bear a ponderous amount evidence, insight, and a good amount of speculation to address the most important issue people are not talking about, nor is the U.S. government paying much attention to. China.

I’m not talking about the China we hear about occasionally on the news, the China which has a small navy in the South China Sea, or the China which argues with Japan or Taiwan occasionally. Not even the China the U.S. government calls sporadically to figure out what is going on in North Korea.

The China to which I refer is the civilization-state of China, the China with 5,000 years of epic history steeped in the guiding principles of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), viewed by East Asian countries as the Grand Parent, the progenitor of all Asian races. In my belief, a belief I have based on 17 years of classroom teaching of adults, most Americans have very little appreciation of China. While our U.S. government continues to be mired in skirmishes, wars, and general conflict in the Middle East, China is slowly though surely, growing as the blade of grass in your yard, unnoticed, and moving as inexorably as a glacier.

To state another belief, based on my classroom contact with adults, most people do not understand Socialism is a much-nuanced class of political theory. Communism is simply one off-shoot of Socialism, perhaps the most extreme off-shoot. Most countries, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc. exist inside what political theorists call “Democratic Socialism.” People elect representatives who then set about managing public monies, some monies which are used to support either entirely or in part, services like Medicare, Medicaid, transportation, public libraries, public schools, and so on.

Making this distinction is important for a couple of reasons. First, to understand ourselves we have to understand and be honest with our own system of government. Second, we need to understand “socialism” is a broad term encompassing a spectrum of political systems and beliefs. Third, we need to understand to label a country’s government as “socialist” or “communist” has little meaning due to the variety of nuances managing that particular country. Last, Communist China is nothing like Communist Russia (USSR) or Communist North Korea. And this is an important point Martin Jacques emphasizes throughout his treatise for a critical reason.

The “West,” defined roughly as Europe plus the United States and Canada, have developed a peculiar perspective for viewing the world which will impair their ability to adapt and change.

“…the West because the latter has become accustomed to thinking of its own values as the norm and regarding itself as justified in imposing these on other countries and insisting that they be accepted by the international community.”

I hate to say anything is self-evident, but this appears to me to be self-evident. We need only look at how the United States attempts to impose all sorts of restrictions on foreign aid, investment throughout Africa and Latin America. We need only look at our hubris in trying to establish Western-style democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. I use examples in my world geography courses of corporate hubris, corporations so wrapped up in believing “the world loves America so anything we make will be loved and appreciated.” While American styles might enjoy popularity, most countries in fact do not want their culture replaced with Western culture. Companies like Nike have made errors in marketing and promotion within Asian countries. Nike messed up shoe design a few years ago, mistakenly believing Chinese feet and design tastes were  identical to those found in the U.S. They aren’t. Even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Subway have all adjusted their menus to accommodate local flavors and ingredients.

But, these are minor disruptions, changes in marketing strategies that only hint at a greater difference hidden behind the facade of consumerism. Jacques continually makes the point Chinese history and culture is 20x’s greater and more extensive than U.S. history, more extensive than European history in many cases, even if one includes the Romans and Greeks. The Chinese, while not precisely being a homogenous culture, see themselves as a single long-running civilization. Technically, China has a minority population about equal in size to the entire U.S. work force, about 155 million people, or about 10% of the population. If we were to examine the economies of several Chinese provinces, the GDP of these provinces would equal the GDP of countries. If we were to simply look at the GDP of some cities, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing, these cities have higher GDPs than many countries.

Martin doesn’t get around to setting up his thesis until well into this dense read. That is OK, though; if you can hang around long enough you will see his general argument has some merit. Martin identifies eight themes which identify why China is the country to watch (not Syria, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Russian) from now until the end of the century. And probably beyond that, too; but, by then you’ll have to keep an eye on India and maybe Brazil, too.

I’ll give a brief run-down of these themes.

1.     China is not a nation-state.

China is what Jacques has coined a “civilization-state.” China is simply too big and too old and too populated to fit the traditional definition of “nation-state.” And, the notion of nation-state is also a Western term used to define European countries, based on the Westphalian nation-state theory. Thus, many of us, and by “us” I mean Westerners, are wrongly forcing a Western idea upon an Eastern culture.

2.     China is influenced more by the tributary-state system.

The Asian tributary-state system describes a complex collection of relationships between China and countries bordering or near China. For a couple thousand years, China was viewed as the superior culture by its neighbors. After all, China was the cultural hearth of Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, providing language, arts, and philosophy. In return, these regions provided raw materials, ores and metals, grain, and such.

3.     China sees itself as a single cultural monolith.

While China does have minority groups, Han Chinese comprise the largest cultural group. About 90% of China is Han Chinese. But … the people of Han themselves represent a variety of ethnicities fused together over space and time. Jacques states that “there is a powerful body of opinion in China that believes in polygenism.” Polygenism is a hypothesis the human race had different origins for different ethnic groups, rather than springing from a common ancestor (monogenism). Thus, when China exerts influence in Asia, China is simply exerting influence over people who are really Chinese – in the Chinese mind.

4.     China is huge.

Russia is the world’s largest country, by size, followed by Canada, the United States, and China. However, China is the largest country, by population. China, then, is the world’s most populous country and 4th in size by land area. Can we really consider China the same way as we regard Germany? Or, France? Or, Israel? Can the United States – or any other country for that matter – apply a “one size fits all foreign policy” to Italy, for example, and then the same policy to China? Jacques would argue, “No, that is ridiculous.” I would 2nd that. I preach in my geography courses I do not like when people hold up the United States against other countries, say Poland, or Denmark. We cannot even hold up the United State to China, really. The United States has about 4-5% of the world’s population; China has about 20% of the world’s population. In other words, given 100 people, 4 of those would be U.S. citizens and 20 of those people would be Chinese.

5.     China has a government which does not share power.

India, the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, merely to name a few examples, have branches of government which share power with other branches. Political parties exist, special interest groups, political action groups, and grassroots organizations exist. China’s government does not share power with any particular branch or group. No NRA to lobby Congresspeople, no religious sector to satisfy. The Principles of Confucianism infuse Chinese society with an elaborate set of societal rules and structure people have followed since before the dawn of Christianity. The Chinese people have experienced very little sovereignty and have relied on dynasty upon dynasty to make good leadership choices.

6.      China is transforming rapidly.

China is very large, both in size and population, this is true. And one might be tempted to believe China’s size would hinder economic growth. Refer to the previous points as evidence why this belief is misguided. The vast majority of Chinese trust their government. The vast majority of Chinese see themselves as a single people. These same Chinese also, generally speaking, conform to Confucianism. What this means is Chinese society is generally on the same page when it comes to adopting new policies, accepting new ideas, new technologies, and changing behaviors. What this level of social conformity translates to is the ability to move millions of people quickly to new directions. Now, before I get too carried away we need to remind ourselves China is a very complex society, as well. Enormous disparities and inequalities exist, city-to-city, province-to-province, rural-to-urban. Jacques does not suggest, either, that changes to political or social system are impossible to change, only the change will be measured and patient.

7.     China is managed by a Communist regime but not a regime similar to the USSR, nor North Korea.

I tend to think most Americans do not have very savvy knowledge of political theories, especially where Communism is concerned. My perception is a typical U.S. citizen could not discrimination between Socialism and Communism, and media outlets tend to conflate Socialism to Communism. Martin recommends “Communism must be viewed in a more pluralistic manner than was previously the case: the fact is that the Chinese Communist Party is very different from its Soviet counterpart.” U.S. foreign policy seems to place all forms of Communism into one category: bad. A proposal by Senator John McCain sought to create a “league of democracies” and was designed to exclude China (and Russia). [559]

8.     China is both developing and developed.

The coastal region of China is quite modern and advanced. Coastal cities rival any city a Westerner might bring to mind, New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Rome. However, if one were to travel into the interior of China, one would see rural communities not particularly advanced, perhaps quaint. Not unlike rural America, perhaps; even more so. Farmers still use crude implements. Millions are illiterate, and have limited access to improved roads, and may lack access to local markets or economic opportunities. To China’s credit, the Communist government has helped 300 million people out of poverty and improved literacy. China is so large, though, even helping a number of people equal to the population of the United States out of poverty means China still has a long way to go.

These eight themes are enumerated late in Jacques’s book but are consistently applied from the introduction to be clear. Martin spends a great deal of effort over 100s of well-researched pages providing copious examples for each of the above points. I feel like he could have made his argument in about 300 pages or so. Much of his discourse was very repetitious.

I agreed with Martin on his points above, maybe not the content but certainly the context. Regardless of how one may feel about China, I think Martin makes a few good criticisms. First,

“the United States thus remained largely blind to what the future might hold, still basking in the glory of its past and its present, and preferring to believe that it would continue in the future.” [558]

The United States has problems thinking and acting long-term, constantly being distracted by terrorism, by societal distractions of marriage equality and ebola, and unable to breakout of its historical Cold War mentality. Second, the West measures China by a flawed “yardstick.” Jacques argues:

“[the West] expresses a relatively innocent narrow-mindedness; at worst it reflects an overweening Western hubris, a belief that the Western experience is universal in all matters of importance.” [563]

Later, Jacques alludes to comments made by Chinese history expert Paul A Cohen, professor emeritus at Wellesley College.

“the Western mentality – nurtured and shaped by its long-term ascendancy – far from being imbued with a cosmopolitan outlook as one might expect, as in fact highly parochial, believing in its own universalism; or, to put it another way, its own rectitude and eternal relevance. If we already have the answers, and these are universally applicable, then there is little or nothing to learn from anyone else.”

Jacques warns “by seeing China in terms of the West, it refuses to recognize or acknowledge China’s own originality and furthermore, how China’s difference might change the nature of the world in which we live.”

The Chinese currency referred to as both the yuan and the renminbi, has the potential to become the toughest competition for the U.S. dollar the world has ever seen. China is flush with money, likes to make investments, and provides attractive loans without the moral or political conditions often imposed by the United States, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. So many countries have taken advantage of China’s largess, China is considering developing its own international loan system in competition to with the World Bank.

Judging by huge U.S. gaps in intelligence over the last 15 years in the Middle East and Central Asia, I find Jacques comments nothing other than stating the obvious. Government leaders in the West seem to fall victim to the adage, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” In other words, our policy makers are too susceptible to their own belief systems. On NPR this morning, during the radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” one of the panelists stated, “I just conducted a study in my own brain and found that people who take selfies with bears should succumb to Darwinism.” I think our politicians tend to conduct studies in their own brains, reach conclusions based on little more than bias and feelings, without much in the way of facts or substantive evidence, and without due consideration of experts. Much like our politicians who have zero experience in STEM who prefer to consider their own knowledge about climate change rather than physicists and chemists.

Martin does take several liberties with the landscape of American history. The following statement was made that almost made me throw the book down:

“The fact that the United States started as a blank piece of paper enabled it to write its own rules and design its own institutions: from the outset, steeped in Protestant doctrine, Americans were attracted to the idea of abstract principles, which was to find expression in the Constitution and, subsequently, in a strong sense of a universalizing and ultimately global mission.” [51]

Maybe I might be guilty of over-reacting, but this comment seems blind to the years of harsh discourse among all parties leading up to the creation of the Constitution, and for years thereafter. No doubt, Christian principles and associated racism and bigotry played important roles in the early evolution of the United States. Our cultural “homogeneity” was hardly that. True, Protestants comprised early settlers, but so did Catholics, as well as some who probably did not believe anything. Americans act as if atheism is a recent invention. In any case, Jacques seems to whitewash a hundred or so years of atrocities committed against the native Americans.

The West does need to pay attention to China, to Japan, and Korea, and Southeast Asia. China, in particular, is already aligning itself with many African countries. Tens of thousands of Chinese have already relocated to several African countries. There, they are already beginning to influence local politics and the local economies. China is engaging in important trade negotiations in Latin America, specifically Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Chinese corporations are buying farmland to raise crops for export back to China. While our U.S. government is manipulated by the Israelis, or the NRA, sidetracked by problems in Iran and Iraq and Syria – places where the United States has no real interest other than oil – China will continue to grow, evolve, and continue to infuse itself in the economic affairs of its neighbors while building relationships in Latin America and across Africa. Russia will come face-to-face with China as Chinese migrate across the porous Russian-Chinese border and begin to assert themselves in the Russian Far East.

Martin spends too much time referring to the “Fall of the West” or the “Decline of the United States.” Of course, I might simply be expressing the hubris he accuses the West of practicing. I don’t see the United States as declining, nor like Charles Krauthammer is quoted as saying do I see the decline of the United States as a “choice.” I dispute this point entirely. China, as has been established, is big, in terms of people and size. When China ramps up its population to the point where 90+% of Chinese are literate, when more Chinese rise from poverty, and as more Chinese become both producers and consumers, China’s rise must surpassed the United States. The United States will not fade away or decline; it may appear so but only because China’s emergence will accelerate past us. Like two cars driving down the interstate our Ford Escape will eventually be approached, met even, and passed by a Volvo or MG. Then, we will see them pull away into the distance. At least, that is the idea.

I am sure I missed some subtle points and themes within When China Rules the World. In teaching world geography I look for broad themes and anecdotes to support the themes. I also like to see maps, charts, and tables. Martin Jacques does a nice job of providing all of these elements. I especially appreciate when he enumerates his points, reasons, or evidence for clarity. All of these assist me in an educator role when I want to encourage critical thinking.

“Ok, get out your laptops, tablets, or phones. Let’s look up some of this data. Can we arrive at the same conclusion as the author? Can we find data which disputes the author’s point?”

Then, once we have found, examined, and interpreted pertinent data, then students can make their own inferences. Books like When China Rules the World make a good place to start and engage students in thinking about geopolitics and global economics.

Thanks for reading my words 🙂



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