One of the more fascinating, and bulkier, books I’ve read and reviewed recently is When China Rules the World, written by English intellectual and journalist Martin Jacques, who I interviewed here. The book’s purpose is as grandiose as its title, aiming to establish that the rise of China will have a tremendous impact on the world, no objection here, so tremendous in fact that it will establish new norms and break down Western conceptions and ideas such as liberal democracy. China will thus be able to lead the world, by taking over from the U.S. and Western Europe. At the risk of simplifying the book’s points, this is the core of it and it is a very intriguing one. Yet I am hesitant to believe it, especially in that something like t will happen soon in the next few decades. This recent news of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou calling for all-English curriculums in Taiwan universities for instance, shows that Western global dominance in areas such as education and knowledge is still the norm.
There is a big difference between China becoming a great power, which I think is very likely and currently happening, and its becoming a global leader, which Jacques and others believe will happen. Jacques doesn’t literally mean what his book’s title says- that China will RULE the world – but he means that China’s rise will lead to a new sense of modernism, distinct from the West, and that its norms and ideas and systems may become widely used, adopted and possibly standard worldwide. This for me seems hard because in many vital aspects of society, China is lagging and is still learning as it goes. I refer to systems such as independent and effective judicial system, rule of law, proper public health care system, free media and so on. After all, in Hong Kong, nobody really wants to abolish the British-based legislative, educational or bureaucratic systems for Chinese ones, if they even exist.
Jacques is no wildeyed idealist though. In When China Rules the World, there is a page on which Jacques lists many things that make up the United States’ global hegemony, including having the world’s largest economy, the top universities, corporations and values such as democracy and individual freedom – values that it spreads around the world though not always with success or the best of intentions. During our interview, Jacques said when nations modernize, initially they will follow the leading nations but gradually they tend to become more confident in their own cultures and ideas. This may turn out to be true but China’s vast history and its many turmoils and inability to face up to them may hinder China from obtaining that confidence. Jacques faced criticism and scorn in the nineties when he first started to believe in China’s potential economic success and he has turned out to be right. He may turn out to be right again.
More convincingly, Jacques refers to China’s long history as a single civilization of over two thousand years, with a few breaks in between, that precedes the modern concept of the nation-state, devised by the West “only” a few hundred years ago. This unique state of existence has caused Chinese to develop perspectives and attitudes significantly different from the West and that still continue to exist. Again, nothing surprising here, and something I agree with. The question is what will be the result of this difference? It will help China continue its rise as a modern nation, and presumably on its own terms in some aspects, but not to the point that it will “lead” the world in the same way that the United States or Great Britain in the nineteenth century did.