Series: Will China rule the world? Next | Index Is western supremacy but a blip as China rises to the global summit?

Copyright The Guardian
(A truly excellent debate in the form of an exchange of letters.)
* Martin Jacques and Will Hutton
* The Guardian, Tuesday 23 June 2009
Dear Will
It is now widely recognised that the balance of economic power is shifting from the rich world to the developing world. Indeed, the role accorded to the G20 rather than the G8 in seeking to tackle the financial crisis is a vivid illustration of this. But what is not recognised – and has been barely discussed – are the political and cultural ramifications of the rise of the developing countries. That, I suspect, is because there is a deeply held western view that they will – and should – end up as clones of western modernity: in other words, there is only one modernity and it is western. This is a fallacy. Modernity is a product of culture and history as much as markets and technology. The central question here is China: will it end up like us or will it be something very different and, as a result, change the world in very fundamental ways?
In my view, there is not a chance that China will become “western”. Of course, it will be influenced by the west, as it already is, but it will remain profoundly different. To think otherwise is to believe that western norms are a universal pre-condition for successful modernisation. This is a highly provincial, and hubristic, mindset.
Let me give a number of examples of how China is and will remain different. Although for the last century it has described itself as a nation-state, in fact at its core China is a civilisation-state. The Chinese think of themselves primarily not as a nation but as a civilisation; all those things that constitute a sense of Chinese identity long predate China’s short life as a nation-state. And the logic of a civilisation-state is very different: a necessary toleration of diversity because of the country’s sheer size (as illustrated by the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong); and a state which has for centuries been seen as the guardian of civilisation and therefore organic to society in a way quite different from the west.
Or take the example of race. Unlike any of the other most populous nations, 92% of Chinese regard themselves as of one race: that is a direct product of China’s extraordinarily long history and civilisational consciousness. It also means that the Chinese do not recognise difference in the way that many societies do; and nor is that likely to change anytime soon. Consider also the fact that the Chinese state, for over a millennium, has, unlike Europe, never had to compete for power with other groups such as the church or merchants, with the consequence that there are no boundaries to its power. The Chinese state is, and will remain, very different from the western state, whatever happens to its present government.
None of these characteristics imply that China will not become a formidable power; but they will certainly make it a very different one. Why we should be surprised? The world is constituted of many different histories and cultures. It so happens that for a brief period of two centuries or so Europe (and its major derivative, the US) has dominated the world. That era is now coming to an end. Far from western universalism we are entering the age of contested modernity.
Dear Martin
More than 300 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists put their name to Charter 08 last December on the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – many have been subsequently arrested. What they want for China is an independent and impartial judiciary; freedom of speech and expression; free trade unions; a free media; the capacity to hold government to account by citizens – all institutions you dismiss as “western” and now to be contested by your forecast of China’s imminent rule of the world. Pan Yue, Deputy head of China’s Environmental Protection Agency, has warned that there is no chance of reversing China’s disastrous growth of carbon and sulphur emissions – now larger than those of the US – unless civil society has the capacity to hold the mainly state owned polluting industries to account. Until China develops the institutions advocated by Charter 08 everybody in China knows there is not a chance – just as the hundreds of thousands mourning their dead children after the earthquake in Sichuan know they have no chance of holding the corrupt officials to account who commissioned the jerry built schools in which their kids died. The party’s buildings stayed intact.
These are brave men and women, all of whom will be in silent despair about the innocent way another prominent western intellectual has bought the party’s line. There is no more enthusiastic exponent of the thesis that China is a civilisation state than the party’s propaganda department. The party thus takes refuge in some conception of “Chineseness” to excuse it from the consequences of authoritarianism, and shore up its own crisis of legitimacy. Its proposition is that the communism that aims to build a socialist market economy and which represents all of China’s traditions – the three represents – is linked by a golden thread to China’s great Confucian past. It is spearheading an economic revolution that will soon lead to Chinese world leadership. The Charter 08 signatories are thus wrong.
I find the notion that countries are condemned by their past to a future cast in the same mould empirically and philosophically wrong. The “civilisation state” is an empty construct: all states reflect their civilisations which in turn contain traditions that are in tension – individualism and collectivism, freedom and authority. If you mean that China is racially homogenous, what are your readers to make of that explosive claim? It is akin to claiming that everyone in the west is white, and therefore we think the same. But we don’t. In any case there are vast cultural differences between the great agricultural provinces of Shandong and Henan and the bustling commerciality of the Pearl River delta and Shanghai. Do you not believe that there is a universal appetite for due desert for effort, for dignity and for the capacity to express self – and which Chinese culture amply expresses itself outside China in Taiwan, and in its own history? China’s history is pockmarked with epic revolts against tyrannical dynasties excusing their tyranny as fealty to “Chineseness”.
You will object that the middle class is hardly in revolt against the party. You are right – so far. It has been bought off with ample largesse, which is more a hard headed political and economic calculation easily recognisable in the west than anything to do with culture. So much depends upon continuing economic growth, but which I believe is unsustainable – at least until there is political change. You can side with the Propaganda Department and its dismissal of Charter 08’s demands as western. I will stand with Charter 08.
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