Sunday, September 20, 2009

A China-dominated world will be very different but will it be better?

As China prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, most observers agree that it will take less than another 60 years for the rapidly-growing nation to become the world’s pre-eminent superpower.

The more vexed question is what a China-dominated world will look like in 2050. Martin Jacques, a British academic and journalist, has just published a book called When China Rules the World that attempts to offer up some possible answers.

Jacques addressed a meeting of Singapore’s Foreign Correspondents Association on Friday, when he argued strongly that the world would be a very different (and better) place with China, not the US, as the dominant power.

He claimed that those who believe that the West has a monopoly on modernisation and that China would therefore become more Western as it becomes more modern were wrong. He outlined a number of key historical factors that explain why a Sino-centric world will look so different:
  1. China is a civilization-state, not a nation state like most European countries or the US.
  2. China used to govern East Asia through a tributary state system and East Asian economies are now being reconfigured to be China-focused.
  3. Unlike Brazil, India and the US, China is not a multi-racial country, with 92% of the population describing themselves as Han. There is a very weak conception of cultural difference, as evidenced by the treatment meted out to the Tibetans and Uighurs.
  4. The Chinese polity is constructed in a different way to the West, with the Chinese state seen as representing the embodiment of Chinese culture (see 1). Unlike in the West, the pre-eminence of the Chinese state has rarely been contested – i.e. China has not experienced the challenges to the central state from the people, the church, merchants and municipal councils that were commonplace in the West. Hence the Chinese state is used to operating through supplication and favour rather than bargaining.
Jacques concluded the rise of China “has got be a good thing because it’s the most rough and ready democratisation in the last 200 years”. Evidently his view of “democratisation” has more to do with balancing out the power of America and the West than it does with free and fair elections.

While his historical argument about the heterogeneity of China's development is convincing, I find it hard to share his quixotic and rather Utopian view of China's wider influence. The presence of a single, hegemonic superpower is potenitally a threat to the wider world, whether the top dog is the US or China.

The push-back against China’s growing global influence has already begun in Australia, in some African countries and, closer to home, in Vietnam.

Interestingly, Jacques admitted that his “single greatest concern” about China’s rise was the lack of recognition of different racial and religious groups. I wonder if that has anything to do with the tragedy that befell his Indian-Malaysian wife, who died in a Hong Kong hospital in 2000 after receiving sub-standard treatment because of Chinese racism, according to Jacques.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user gadgetdan.

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