Saturday, February 13, 2010

Eastern Dominance

Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy… Trade freely with China and the time is on our side," said George W. Bush in November 1999, a year before he was elected the 43rd president of the United States. Economic relations with between China and the United States zoomed to new highs during the Bush presidency as the Asian giant accelerated its market reforms. Thanks to those reform initiatives, China emerged as the third largest economy in the world and, according to Goldman Sachs, is set to overtake the biggest economy, the United States, in 2027. Will this economic transformation bring in changes in China's Communist Party-ruled system as many Western liberals predicted? Most unlikely, says Martin Jacques, a well-known journalist and once the editor of Marxism Today, in his new book, "When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World".

China's economic liberalisation was hailed by many in the West. The disciples of liberal political scientist Francis Fukuyama strongly believed that the world has been converging on Western liberal democracy ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The neoliberal economic development would accelerate this transformation, they argued for decades. So, China would either end up opening up its polity for a more participative system or collapse due to its internal contradictions like what happened to the Soviet Union. But Jacques challenges both these claims in his book. "Economic change, fundamental as it may be, can only be part of the picture," he writes.

The post-1978 reforms, initiated by President Deng Xiaoping, helped China modernise itself at a greater pace than many western countries did in the 18th and 19th centuries. But China's modernisation, according to Jacques, is not western. It is distinctive and "rooted and shaped by its own history and culture". Therefore, expecting China to follow the western political and cultural values would be erroneous. China is not a conventional nation-state, an ideal unit in the post-Westphalia international order. Rather, it is a "civilisation state" that kept the "essence" of Chineseness unbroken over millennia despite undergoing several political and economic transformations. "It is this civilisation dimension that gives China its special unique character." When it was down, a pragmatic China was ready to get integrated into the international system and reconcile itself to being a nation state. "It was a compromise borne of expediency and necessity," writes Jacques. "But as China arrives at modernity, and emerges as the most powerful country in the world, it will no longer be bound by such constraints and will in time be in a position to set its own terms and conditions."

When that time will come? Jacques believes the West is in the decline. The credit crunch that started in the United States in 2007 followed by the collapse of the Wall Street investment firms including the Lehman Brothers in September 2008, marks the beginning of the end of the deregulated neoliberal capitalism. The distinctive Chinese economy, in which state plays a major role and controls the flow of capital, which is an antithesis to the very concept of neoliberalism, weathered the crisis. China's relative power is rising post-meltdown at a time when the United States and other western economic power houses are struggling to manage their respective economies.

Such a rise would bring in a politico-cultural shift in international politics. For over five centuries, western values were global values. When the United States became the super power after the Second World War, only the power centre shifted from Europe to across the Atlantic. The values, ideas and culture remained the same. But the rise of China does not provide any such opportunity to the West, according to Jacques. "China will act as an alternative model to the West, embodying a very different kind of political tradition - a post colonial developing country, a Communist regime, a highly sophisticated statecraft and an authoritarian, Confucian rather than democratic polity".

Jacques presents his arguments after a detailed analysis of Chinese history and civilisation and connects them to the present-day developments in international politics. China's triumph as a non-capitalist market economy and its rising cultural "smart power" persuade us to believe Jacques' claims. But the author, seems obsessed with the rise-of-civilisation idea, fails discuss the strategic angle in detail. The hard power had played a crucial role in the ascendancy of both Britain and the United States. But how strong is China vis-a-vis the present-day hegemony the United States? How the hard power is going to help China in its quest to transform the world? That link is missing in Jacques' otherwise brilliantly written book.

Author Profile: Martin Jacques is a journalist and academic. He is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre and at the National University of Singapore. Jacques previously edited Marxism Today and co-founded the think-tank Demos in 1993. He also writes columns for the New Statesman and Guardian. (Reviewed for Business World)

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