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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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 “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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