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The enigma of Chinese modernisation

David Kelly

18 November 2009

Opposing itself to the west is stopping China from developing in important ways, writes David Kelly


Bohui Pan

When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
by Martin Jacques | Allen Lane | $69.95

TWO THOUSAND AND NINE has been a momentous year for the world, but especially for China. Late last year, with the Olympics barely over, the global financial crisis delivered a body blow. Facing the disastrous decline of export markets and the jobs they supported, the government engineered a major stimulus package, and the country now seems to have staged a miraculous recovery. And while economists continue to debate the dimensions and downstream costs of the policies behind the upturn, China has been taking a great propaganda windfall from the financial embarrassment of many western states, not least the United States. Even Australia, which suffered less than most, owes its resilience primarily to China and – if you believe the media – has found itself on the back foot in a whole series of its dealings with that country.

As China moves inexorably from its backburner status to budding superpower (as reflected in President Obama’s recent visit to Beijing, where he received less in the way of concessions than his predecessors), there is a clear need for expansive, well-written accounts of China’s intentions and capabilities. Extracting his own advantage from the situation, veteran editor and researcher Martin Jacques brings considerable powers of persuasion to the task.

Jacques’s fluency is enviable – so much so that some criticisms of the book seem partly motivated by envy. When China Rules the World has been criticised for being repetitive, but this feature makes it an attractive candidate textbook (provided it was available in paperback) for a semester course on “China in the World.” The canvas sketched by the book is generous, obliging students to get a range of big China issues under their belts; a little repetition only helps the process. The thesis that “China is the elephant in the room that no one is quite willing to recognise” is perhaps the key to the book, and is indeed a likely quote to set as an “International Politics 101” exam question. The word “discuss” would, however, appear next to it: to get a pass, the candidate would need to put that quote in the crosshairs of some criticism.

Reviewing the book for the Spectator, Jonathan Mirsky listed some major errors of fact, and attacked many of the book’s concessions to prevailing, and self-serving, Chinese prejudice. Somewhat more restrained were the objections of Will Hutton, who debated with Jacques in the pages of the Guardian. Another writer charged Jacques with “building a case by cherry-picking the evidence.” But his treatment of secondary literature seems to me to be reliable, not to say valuable, so that charge seems somewhat wide of the mark. Many of the political and economic facts Jacques recounts seem, in fact, to run over familiar ground, and are as uncontroversial as they are well-written.

Some of the harsher criticisms seemed to be triggered by emotional reactions to the atmospherics and presentation of the book, rather than by what is actually at stake. Thus the teasing title, When China Rules the World, seems more like a publisher’s publicity ploy than one of the author’s stronger theses. When China rules the world, it turns out, it won’t actually rule the world: “China is likely to operate both within and outside the existing international system,” writes Jacques, “seeking to transform that system while at the same time, in effect, sponsoring a new China-centric system which will exist alongside that system and probably slowly begin to absorb it.”

China thus reinvents its traditional identity as a civilisation-state rather than a nation-state, exerting influence and extracting compliance with its norms, but showing little interest in expanding its borders. More military capacity may change this, Jacques concedes, but this is not one of the major scenarios scouted.

Another key argument is that the challenge China poses is less to do with its authoritarian political system than with its inability to deal with its sense of historical identity without reverting to an historical doctrine of superiority over all other civilisations in the world. “The problem with western commentary on China,” writes Jacques, “has been its overwhelming preoccupation with China’s polity, in particular the lack of democracy… [whereas] the most difficult question posed by the rise of China is not the absence of democracy but how it will handle difference.”

This argument has a lot to recommend it. Barack Obama’s visit this month drew a badly thought-out and patronising statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the effect that as a descendent of slaves, Obama would surely appreciate China’s position on Tibet, which President Lincoln, as a foe of disunion, would have supported as well. It would have been more appropriate to reflect on what Obama himself focused on in a strong speech delivered in Tokyo on the eve of his arrival in Shanghai – namely, that having spent important years of his life in Indonesia, he has a good grasp of Asian-Pacific political culture. China’s difficulty in accepting the idea of a black president does not, however, equate to a belief that China is superior to the United States. Regardless of the identity of the US president, America is a fundamental point of reference in Chinese thinking in scores of areas. For the rest of the world, the problem is often less about China’s amour-propre than its fixation on American models of modernity.

This is a matter for judgement, but the questions about modernity go deeper. Jacques argues that China can modernise without westernising – or, in his own words, “Chinese modernity will be very different from western modernity and China will transform the world far more fundamentally than any other new global power in the last two centuries.” This is the burden of chapter five, “Contested Modernity,” which is central to the book.

With his supporting arguments about Chinese culture, about China as “civilisation-state” rather than a nation-state, Jacques places himself on contested ground. His definition of western modernity is based on an inadequate critique of values and, in its own way, is paradoxically Eurocentric. Concerned to knock the west, and above all the United States, off its pedestal, he fails to take adequate stock of the fact that the value systems that evolved there were the results of just the same processes of sifting and elective affinity that occurred in China as well.

In consequence of this, Jacques’s account of Chinese modernity is somewhat overdrawn. Modernity is after all not a floating signifier, a convenient shorthand for “whatever is going on now.” Even if we allow for variant national encodings of modernity, to qualify means drawing a line, at some point, under feudal relations of dependency, like slavery and serfdom; limiting the powers of monarchs under the rubric of popular sovereignty; and affirming the moral autonomy of the individual.

It would be wrong to think that China failed completely to register the impact of this sea change in ideas running from the Reformation, via the Enlightenment, to the Industrial Revolution. So eager were China’s revolutionaries to overthrow “feudalism” that they accepted Stalin’s dogma of “five stages of social development,” discarding the established view of traditional Chinese historiography that feudalism in the strict sense (control over territory granted in return for a promise of service) had been extinguished following the unification of the Warring States by the Qin emperor.

Freedom, democracy and individualism have had their famous and passionate advocates in China. The earliest Marxists, like Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) and Li Dazhao (1883–1927), clearly believed in these ideals, though they believed that realising them required taking a radical rather than a gradual approach. The disappearance of these ideas in the 1950s had little to do with their being driven out of the marketplace by more popular or more culturally attuned rivals, and much to do with a conscious policy of intellectual cleansing by Mao and his acolytes. Even at the level of popular culture, we can’t be sure how far these ideas may have advanced in the absence of the specific pressures of very recent Chinese history.

Jacques’s partial view of Chinese debates on modernity and universal values points the way to a wider discussion. No matter how exceptional, how path-dependent, China’s trajectory has been, its modernity retains a family resemblance to so-called “western” modernity, not least to the latter’s uncertainties. In fact Jacques smoothes the image of “western modernity,” leaving out the huge indeterminacies and unresolved issues that have agitated the twentieth century.

Take social inequality. The west is deeply conflicted about what to do about inequality, and many attitudes in China, including attitudes to inequality, are the result, not of the traditional “essence” of Chinese culture – of what Jacques terms its “DNA” – but of decisions to follow one or another suggested western solution. The idea of equality of opportunity is one on which many formerly competing systems of thought have begun to converge, with the remaining differences of opinion mainly over the speed and the arc of change. But again contra Jacques, China by no means stands aloof from this trend, claiming a unique and exceptional Chinese solution. On the contrary, equality of opportunity is a point of intellectual convergence in China as well, and was the explicit core of what many in party policy circles understood to be the operational meaning of “social harmony.”

Re-emerging inequality is widely acknowledged, not least in China itself, as the greatest of the drawbacks of the reform era (1978–). The breakdown of the reform consensus, signalled by fierce polemical exchanges between “liberal” and “new left” intellectuals in the 1990s, was the first act in this process of acknowledgement, followed a decade later by the acceptance into official discourse of the language of social justice.

Inequality is a factor for stability in many societies – for example, in India, where caste inequalities have been capable of maintaining equilibrium for centuries – but this is unlikely to be the case in contemporary China, where economic transition produces so much uncertainty. Indeed, the intractable processes that generate inequality under policy uncertainty are more potent drivers of political change than purely political interests, such as competition between elites. It is true that degrees of citizenship vary independently of western liberal political values like democracy, liberty and human rights. Nazi Germany was, after all, able to enhance the citizenship of the German populace. But this is precisely the point: one can have modernity without Anglo-American liberalism, but without citizenship the term loses any meaningful reference. A huge amount of discourse in China accepts that without enhanced citizenship there is no way out of the inequality quagmire.

A great deal of the culture produced in China since the European collision in the early nineteenth century is culture of ressentiment – a state fuelled by feelings of weakness or inferiority that produce a “rejecting/justifying value system, or morality” that “attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration.” Much of what Jacques identifies as Chinese modernity corresponds to this projected image. It is accurately and lucidly described in the book, but is stripped of many of its internal divisions and paradoxes, presented as the whole – and, worse, as China’s cultural “DNA.” An entire flank of Chinese modernity, running from Lu Xun to Qin Hui and other critical intellectuals, is concerned to confront this “justifying value system” and the collective self-deceptions it tends to induce.

I don’t have space to repeat the arguments of Qin and kindred spirits here, but the implications for the global politics of China seem clear: China has constructed a story about its independence from world currents of thought, partly based on historical fact but partly on self-serving myth. Until it confronts its repressed urge to negate western value systems simply because they are western – not realising that they represent alternate possibilities within universally human thought – and then goes on to solve the governance problems stemming from its self-generated uncertainty and inequality, China will be an enigma to the outside world. It will be unable to generate either sustainable public goods or genuine soft power, and it will continue to export uncertainty and arouse unwanted reactions. There is indeed an elephant in the room, but China is as capable of blindness to it as any other observer. •

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