The Magazine

Here Comes China

If and when the Middle Kingdom’s potential is realized.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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China in the 21st Century

Here Comes China

Photo Credit: Newscom

What Everyone Needs to Know
by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Oxford, 192 pp., $16.95

When China Rules the World

The End of the Western World and
the Birth of the New Global Order
by Martin Jacques
Penguin, 576 pp., $29.95

The publishing industry owes a lot to China. Ever since the Boxer Rebellion reminded Westerners that China was not simply “inscrutable”—the tired qualifier from a thousand lectures and lantern-slide shows—but could be actively murderous towards foreigners, every decade has produced a plethora of China tomes. Some have been timeless and insightful, but most have simply reflected the particular Sinological fashion of the decade.

 During the 1950s China’s sudden transformation under Communism into a unified and powerful nation-state provoked a shower of books ruminating on the theme of China as a nation of ant-like automatons clad in blue Mao suits. During the 1960s the Cultural Revolution worried readers with the idea of an ancient civilization prodded into self-torment by Mao Zedong. Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 and Big Bird on the Great Wall were more reassuring sights and prompted many Americans to anticipate China’s imminent adoption of Jeffersonian democracy in the 1980s. When this dream was rudely drowned out in Tiananmen Square it was time to return to the basic question: What was China really made of, and in which direction would it turn?

China’s successful management of the Olympics in 2008 demonstrated that the country was capable of organizing a national event watched by the world; yet China’s looming economic power suggested that it might be headed in directions not previously foreseen. Hence a sort of return-to-the-roots approach in several recent studies: Some books began to reflect a darker projection of China’s future than those written during the superficial optimism of the 1980s and ’90s; in addition, more recent writers about China have tended to be younger academics, very different from the sages of earlier decades, such as John King Fairbank.

As a basic introduction to culture and history, Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s China in the 21st Century achieves a workmanlike, sensible synthesis of historical narrative and analysis. It would serve well as an introduction to China for someone with just enough time to read about the country on a flight to Beijing. The titles of his chapters reveal his Socratic approach to the topic: “Who was Confucius?” “Who was the Gang of Four?” “What was the Long March?” Wasserstrom’s weakness is a wishful prediction of China’s future foreign policy, a bland dismissal of China’s more egregious human-rights abuses, and an academic leftist swipe against George Orwell that is decidedly gratuitous.

For example, Mao’s insane drive to collectivize and super-industrialize China during the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward led to the deaths through starvation of an estimated 40 million Chinese. Wasserstrom’s response is to allege that Mao was not “a fiend” but played a role in Chinese history comparable to that of Andrew Jackson in the United States. (I beg your pardon? Did Jackson institute policies that killed millions upon millions of Americans?) As for China’s ultimate objectives: Don’t worry, folks. China is too Confucian and reasonable to attack Taiwan or aspire to military hegemony. And regarding Orwell, rather than being a brilliant interpreter of political totalitarianism, he has subsided, in Wasserstrom’s account, to “a one-dimensional poster boy for the anti-Communist Cold War Right.”

Martin Jacques’s contribution to the literature is far longer than Wasserstrom’s and provocative enough to be referred to for years to come. The issue that Jacques, formerly on the left wing of Britain’s Labour party, takes on is the facile assumption of many about China—on both the left and right, here and in Britain—that the rise of China’s economy will lead to imitation of American capitalist institutions and political democracy. Jacques makes his case forcefully and, indeed, repetitively: China will confront the world with a serious problem.

 “The Chinese,” he writes, “believe that China’s rightful place in the world is as the world’s leading power, and that the last two centuries represent a deviation from the historical norm.” The last two centuries, of course, coincided with both the rise of the industrial West and Japan, and China’s humiliation as the victim of “unequal treaties” forced upon it by foreigners. With a masterful array of statistics illustrating the relentless upward movement of its economic power, Jacques shows that China has skillfully deployed its diplomacy both to cement its primacy over economic and political affairs in East Asia and to build a global presence for the Chinese state that will enable it to dominate not just East Asia but the global business community. 

 China, Jacques predicts, will then draw not just “countries but entire continents into its web, as is happening already with Africa, and they will not simply be economic supplicants to a hugely powerful China but [will] also occupy a position of cultural and ethnic inferiority in an increasingly influential Chinese-ordered global hierarchy.” 

The Pax Sinica won’t be pretty, and Jacques thinks it will be colored by a Chinese sense of cultural superiority that naturally elides into racism. He relates a sobering account of a conversation with a highly intelligent female student at a Shanghai university who is the model of cosmopolitan reasonableness—until Jacques mentions that some of the biracial couples he knew in America were Asian/African-American. She puckers up her face in disgust.

China’s rise will not herald a new order of democracy, Jacques insists, but lead to a reversion to China’s old status, in Confucian times, as the center of a tributary system in which China behaves not just as the center of global economic power, but the center of civilization itself. Only the rise of other developing powers such as Brazil, India, and Russia may offer some form of commercial and political counterbalance.

When China Rules the World is detailed, broad in its dimensions, and not just sobering but very nearly alarming. Where Jacques is strangely incurious is one area where Wasserstrom shows more imagination. China has been going through a remarkable cultural revolution of an entirely unpredictable kind during the past two decades, a discovery of religious passions and allegiances. If the rise of Christianity and other religions continues at its current rate, by the time China achieves its (presumed) economic destiny of global hegemony, its entire philosophical culture may have changed beyond recognition. At which point China’s leaders may need far more evocative comparisons than Andrew Jackson.

Martin Luther, perhaps.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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