Sinomania

Perry Anderson – The London Review of Books

Copyright The London Review of Books
These days Orientalism has a bad name. Edward Said depicted it as a deadly mixture of fantasy and hostility brewed in the West about societies and cultures of the East. He based his portrait on Anglo-French writing about the Near East, where Islam and Christendom battled with each other for centuries before the region fell to Western imperialism in modern times. But the Far East was always another matter. Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth. Even those sceptical of the more extravagant claims for the Middle Kingdom – Montesquieu or Adam Smith – remained puzzled and impressed by its wealth and order.
A drastic change of opinion came in the 19th century, when Western predators became increasingly aware of the relative military weakness and economic backwardness of the Qing empire. China was certainly teeming, but it was also primitive, cruel and superstitious. Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world. Within another few decades, the pendulum swung back, as Pearl Buck and Madame Chiang won popular sympathy for China’s gallant struggle against Japan. After 1948, in a further rapid reversal, Red China became the focus of still greater fear and anxiety, a totalitarian nightmare more sinister even than Russia. Today, the high-speed growth of the People’s Republic is transforming Western attitudes once again, attracting excitement and enthusiasm in business and media alike, with a wave of fashion and fascination recalling the chinoiserie of rococo Europe. Sinophobia has by no means disappeared. But another round of Sinomania is in the making.
The title of Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World belongs to the scare literature of the first. But its function is little more than a commercial come-on, designed to clear the purchased display-table and the airport stall. The book itself is a sweeping contribution to the second. Its message consists of two parts. The first is the now well-known projection that – at present growth rates – the Chinese economy will be the largest in the world, overtaking the American, within about 15 years. With four times the population of the US, China already has the biggest foreign reserves, is the leading exporter, posts the most spectacular stock-market gains, and contains the largest car market on earth. So massive is the transformation its rise to economic supremacy will bring that – so Jacques – history can henceforward simply be divided into BC and AC: Before China and After China. This part of the argument is a straightforward quantitative extrapolation. Jacques hammers the impending figures home, without adding a great deal to what anyone with a certain economic literacy would know already.
Beyond altering international league tables, what will China’s emergence as an economic superpower signify? The second part of Jacques’s message is not about size, but difference. China is not like other nations, indeed is not really a nation-state at all. It is something vaster and deeper, a ‘civilisation-state’, inheritor of the oldest continuous history in the world, whose underlying cultural unity and self-confidence are without equal. Long before the West, its rulers created the first modern bureaucracy, imbued with a Confucian outlook at once authoritarian and democratic, controlling domestic subjects more by moral education than force, and organising adjacent regions into a consensual tributary system. By absorbing feudal aristocrats into impersonal state service, they freed market forces from customary constraints to develop a commercial society of unparalleled dynamism and sophistication. Only the accident of more readily available coal at home, and ruthless colonial pillage of resources overseas, allowed 19th-century Europe to overtake this great proto-modern economy, as industrialised in its way as the West, and much larger. But this Western predominance will prove a brief interval. Today, China is returning once more to its historic position as the dynamic centre of the global economy.
What are going to be the consequences for the rest of the world? Traumatically for the United States, China will fairly soon replace it as hegemon, not only in traditional areas of Chinese influence in East and South-East Asia, but across former Third and First Worlds alike. The soft power of its sporting prowess, its martial arts, its costly painters, its multitudinous language, its ancient medicine, and not least the delights of its cuisine, will spread China’s radiance far and wide, as Hollywood, English and McDonald’s do America’s today. Above all, its spectacular economic success will not only inspire imitation wherever poor nations strive for betterment. It will reorder the entire international system, by holding out the prospect, not of democracy within nation-states, which the West vainly seeks to promote, but of ‘democracy between nation-states’. For we are entering a time in which the political and ideological conflicts that marked the Cold War are giving way to an ‘overarching cultural contest’, in which ‘alternative modernities’ will end the dominance of the West. In that emancipation a distinctively Chinese modernity, rooted in the Confucian values of devotion to the family and respect for the state, will lead the way.
How should this construction be judged? Enthusiasm, however well-meaning, is no substitute for discrimination. Chinese antiquity stretches back to 1500 BCE or beyond. But this no more makes today’s People’s Republic a special genus of ‘civilisation-state’ than comparable claims for la civilisation française make one of the Third or Fourth Republic. Talk of ‘civilisations’ is notoriously self-serving, and delimitations of them arbitrary: Samuel Huntington arrived, rather desperately, at eight or nine – including an African, Latin American and Eastern Orthodox civilisation. Nothing is gained by affixing this embellishment to the PRC. Like France in the 1930s or 1950s, contemporary China is an integrist nation-state, cast in an imperial mould, if with a much longer past and on a much larger scale. Nor are inflated claims for the age-old economic centrality or social wisdom of pre-modern China much help in understanding the present or future of the country. If, up through the Song, China was technologically and commercially far in advance of Europe, by the end of the Ming its science lagged well behind, and even at the height of Qing prosperity in the 18th century, agrarian productivity and average wage levels, let alone intellectual progress in a broader sense, were nowhere near vanguard developments in Europe. Nor are idyllic images of sage concern for the welfare of the masses much closer to the realities of rule by successive dynasties, which in the words of one of China’s finest historians, He Bingdi, were always ‘ornamentally Confucian and functionally Legalist’ – repression wrapped in moralising rhetoric.
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