Saturday, March 23, 2024

Review: When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques

The Western punditry can’t make much sense of China. It has elections, but they don’t look anything like the Presidential horse race the US hosts every four years. It has capitalists and markets, but these too don’t look like the western equivalents: there are state owned entities and communist party cells and capital flow restrictions everywhere. It has adopted industrialization, international trade and the internet, but these institutions of modernity did not bring with them the value system that the West recognizes as modernity. What gives? This book is a corrective to the prevailing level of discourse. 

The strengths of Jacques’ book is its recognition that “modernity” (values, and the political structures that reflect them) can take multiple forms, and that a non-Western version of modernity becoming the (economically, demographically) dominant form is not necessarily a travesty. The first few chapters of the book stand out in particular: Jacques examines the history of China and Japan, with the latter providing a comparison point of an industrialized country that has tried to align itself more closely with “Western” conceptions of modernity despite lacking European roots. Jacques emphasizes the influence of Confucianism on popular understandings of the relationship between the State and the governed, and the continuity in philosophy between pre-1949 China through to the present day — another strength of the book. 

However, Jacques ignores the impact of Marxism-Leninism in shaping not just Mao-era China but also present-day China. Marxist figures and quotes are frequent reference points in public speeches. But perhaps more indicative of the influence of Marxism-Leninism is programs like the extreme poverty eradication program, in which communist party members act as guides to local political efforts:

The targeted phase of poverty alleviation required building relationships and trust between the Party and the people in the countryside as well as strengthening Party organisation at the grassroots level. Party secretaries are assigned to oversee the task of poverty alleviation across five levels of government, from the province, city, county, and township, down to the village. Most notably, three million carefully selected cadres were dispatched to poor villages, forming 255,000 teams that reside there. Living in humble conditions for generally one to three years at a time, the teams worked alongside poor peasants, local officials, and volunteers until each household was lifted out of poverty.

This is a method of poverty alleviation alien to neoliberalism, similarly strange to welfare states and not particularly Confucian, and yet remarkably effective: in 2021, China announced it had eliminated extreme poverty. Because Jacques’ picture of the guiding principles of 21st century China is essentially neo-Confucianism, I think his model for China’s growth and future decision-making as world power is incomplete.

In place of really understanding the philosophical traditions guiding the countries—both those of the West and those of China—Jacques turns to psychologizing the countries. Even economic factors, like level of development, fade to the background. The root of trade disagreements is found in hundreds of millions of people acting in unison out of shame or pride based on their sense of national identity. It’s not to say that these factors are not important; China’s resolution to gain independence following its “century of humiliation” and the role the Declaration of Independence plays in the US’s self perception as a fighter for freedom are undoubtedly relevant. But one can’t help but feel there’s several variables missing. 

Finally, while Jacques tactic of using a sort of “neutral, outside observer” lens for understanding China and Japan is instructive, that he does not do the same for the United States limits his analysis. (I’m a scientist, I like controlled experiments.) What, for example, would a “neutral, outside observer” say about racism in 21st century USA?

Overall, although Jacques’ book is a corrective to a far worse sort of analysis, it leaves much to be desired. Written originally in 2009 (it is peppered with references to the ‘08 recession), it reads a bit dated, and China/West relations have changed a lot.

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