on 31 December 2011
Martin Jacques's When China Rules the World is well written, nicely packaged, and fails utterly in explaining why China is going to rule the world. But then, maybe we should it expect it to. After all, it's not called Why China Will Rule the World, but with a title like the one it has, one can be forgiven for expecting a concrete explanation.
In this book, you'll find academic prose, a massive select bibliography, 70 pages of notes, lovely maps and graphs, omissions of key evidence, wild speculation, unforgiveable leaps in logic, stupefying factual errors (Sun Yat-sen's philosophy was not influenced by Mencius; it was influenced by Abraham Lincoln), and a thesis that, if you will, repeatedly repeats itself repeatedly, but offers little in the way of support.
Before we look at the tome in toto, let's have a glance at its Taiwan section. The chapter on Taiwan gives a fairly accurate overview of China's and Taiwan's political history since 1949 and notes that 2009 saw a thaw in cross-strait relations. The two sides signed agreements regarding direct flights, and so on, therefore there might be `a resolution of disputes in the relatively near future.'
But those agreements were signed by the Nationalist Party, the organization that turned Taiwan into the Republic of China upon losing the Chinese Civil War. Never mind that China and Taiwan were only ever nominally united, and for a very short time (something Jacques fails to mention), a chief aim of the Nationalist Party is so-called reunification. Because it can't have "reunification," the Nationalists settle for closer ties with China. "Reunification" is impossible because the Nationalist Party's rival, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won't allow for it. Moreover, supporters from both parties don't want it. Polls regularly show that something like 90 percent of Taiwanese people want nothing to do with China politically. The Taiwanese are incredibly passionate and politically motivated, and they make frequent use of their democratic right to demonstrate. Futurology is a fool's game, but I would stake my life on the people of Taiwan turning their country on its head before capitulating to Beijing or being sold out by the Nationalists in Taipei.
Jacques says that if the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gets re-elected and declares independence, China will likely invade Taiwan, but it's highly unlikely the DPP will declare independence because their supporters don't want them to. Something like 70 percent of Taiwanese people wish to keep the status quo. The Nationalists and many of their supporters would never go in for independence, either; neither would the United States. Politically, Taiwan represents a political conundrum and cross-strait relations are a knotty, complex affair. But not to Martin Jacques, who says `things are getter better; one day they might be resolved' (quotation marks are mine). Such a sentiment is the type of hare-brained sloganeering you'd find on a Communist Party propaganda banner. Jacques has to say a solution is possible because if China is really going to rule the world, a prerequisite would be to gain control over the tiny, nearby, Chinese island that has underscored China's impotence for six decades.
I mention the Taiwan section because it is representative of the rest of the book. With print, you can make obstacles and complexities disappear by not mentioning them, and you can make any scenario seem plausible. Just use the words `possibly,' `likely,' and `perhaps,' and for variety's sake, or to sound authoritative, say that certain events will transpire. Using the word `will' makes you sound like an expert. Don't complicate things with the word `because' because that only leads to claims that people can dispute.
The thesis statement for When China Rules the World can be found on p. 15: "It is banal, therefore, to believe that China's influence on the world will be mainly and overwhelmingly economic: on the contrary, it's political and cultural effects are likely to be as far-reaching. The underlying argument of the book is that China's impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater."
But why will it be greater?
You read the book's two parts (I: The End of the Western World, II: The Age of China) and sift through their many subsections (e.g. Beijing as The New Global Capital) only to find the flimsiest of evidence.
Naturally, the reader wonders, `When China rules the world, in what language will the world take its instructions?' and Martin Jacques deals with this in the section `Can You Speak Mandarin?' Here, we find the usual: Mandarin has become popular as a second language in countries like South Korea and Thailand. It still hasn't taken off in the West, however, perhaps because of the US's and UK's "abiding linguistic insularity and their failure to comprehend the wide-ranging implications of China's rise." Jacques goes on to say that Mandarin "will probably in time join English as a global lingua franca and perhaps eventually surpass it." And then: "The nascent competition between English and Mandarin for the status of global lingua franca... is fascinating... because... they could hardly be more different: one alphabetic, the other pictographic...." Only, there is virtually no competition between English and Mandarin, and the situation is not nascent. Furthermore, Chinese script is not pictographic. This gaffe, along with the fact Jacques cannot pronounce the Chinese words he attempts to slip into conversation in his promotional videos, are clear indicators he doesn't speak Mandarin. Not that I'm calling Mr. Jacques a hypocrite. That would be a grave insult to hypocrites everywhere. Perhaps it's just that Jacques prefers to cling to his linguistic insularity and fails to comprehend the wide-ranging implications of China's rise.
I was especially curious to see what Mr. Jacques would say vis-a-vis the exportation or appeal of Chinese culture. The relevant section is a mere three pages long. As examples, Jacques holds up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chinese food, and what he calls the "global reach of traditional Chinese medicine." But Chinese medicine doesn't have a global reach. Western medicine does. Chinese doctors practise Western medicine. They read medical journals in English. They become doctors by studying textbooks printed in London, Boston, and New York. Ask a Chinese doctor about traditional Chinese medicine and they're likely to tell you it's quackery. Also exportable, Jacques says, is kungfu, interesting to me because during the decade I lived in Chinese society I never met a single person who studied kungfu. I never witnessed anyone wearing the uniform; never saw a single kungfu school. There are kungfu comic books and movies from Hong Kong, but they are, like Jacques's arguments, puerile.
The author's examples go from superficial and silly to downright absurd. While acknowledging China's media outlets don't compare with the BBC, the writer says the potential of the People's Daily and CCTV (China Central Television) shouldn't be disregarded. The People's Daily and CCTV are propaganda outlets for the Chinese Communist Party. Martin Jacques was the editor of the Communist Party of Great Britain's Marxism Today for 14 years. Not surprisingly, that's not mentioned in the book either.
In addition to being a Marxist, Martin Jacques is a dyed-in-the-wool Sinophile, and in the end, Sinophiles are all the same: they are knowledgeable, articulate, dedicated embellishers. About the closest the author comes to explaining his thesis is by saying China will come out on top because it is not a nation-state, but a civilization state - only there's no such phrase as civilization state; it's a term Jacques invented. Jacques, and other Sinophiles, would have you believe that China is exceptional, not subject to analysis applicable to the world's other countries and cultural entities. China is different. In fact, it's so different the English language lacks the terminology to deal with it, but luckily for us, Martin Jacques has a patent on the required lexical items, and he'll share them for just $29.95. Sinophiles resurrect the old ethos that China is mystical, inscrutable. They would have you believe that China is nigh impossible to understand and oh-so-hard to explain - unless they are the ones explaining it.
Martin Jacque's When China Rules the World represents a wish, an exercise in pro-China propaganda, or both. The Englishman's argument is unsubstantiated, graph-and-chart infused, pseudo-academic tosh. The concept of China ruling the world has nothing to do with China studies and is the wrong lens through which to view that country. There are plenty of highly engaging, informative, and honest, China books out there. This isn't one of them.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World