Martin Jacques: “When China rules the world, or doesn't”

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Martin Jacques, author of “When China rules the world”, discusses with Emmanuel Daniel if China will indeed rule the world and if so, how.

Jacques admitted that the title of his book was bombastic to draw attention to China’s position in global geopolitics the same way “Britannia rules the Waves” used to define another era.

Daniel tried to draw out from the author the specifics of what China’s dominant role will mean in terms of institutional, values and roles.

He also tried to draw from Jacques the areas that China can work on improvements as it ascends on the global stage.

The following key points were discussed during the interview:

The following is the edited transcript of the interview:

Emmanuel Daniel (ED): This whole question of China and what it means to all of us is a burning issue and one that has been evolving over time, at least over the last 20 years and more. And today, I'm very pleased to be able to speak to someone who has written the most definitive book, screaming out headline, ‘When China Rules the World’, Martin Jacques, who's right now in London, and I'm here in Beijing. Martin, thank you very much for doing this conversation with me. A lot has been happening and has happened since you wrote the book, originally, in 2009. You did an updated version of the book in 2012. Do you think it deserves another update? Or maybe a sequel?

Martin Jacques (MJ): Well you know, it still sells extremely well. And of course, the great thing about it is that I guess more than any other book in English, it got it right. After the 2012 edition, which was the second edition, I thought that any further changes required a new book, because the old framework was kind of bursting at the seams really. And so ever since 2016, I've been working on a new book. And I've written about two-thirds of it. And I shall finish the first draft at the end of this year. So it probably won't see the light of day until 2023.

ED: But is that also on China?

MJ: Yes, on China. Very much so.

ED: The interesting thing about a book with a title like ‘When China Rules the World’ is that it immediately polarises its readers. The people who already believe what you are talking about in your book have a lot of substance coming out of it that supports what they think. And the people who don't, have all the reasons why your book doesn't actually provide the story. Was there a more nuanced way of writing a book like that or is it something that has to be written in stark terms, in order to carry the message? When you wrote in 2009, the Western world was still very patronising towards China. Even as far back as 2001, the conversations I've had in Washington DC was, ‘Oh we are worried about the Chinese non-performing loan problems in 2001’. You fast forward that 20 years, and it's like, look who's had the financial problem? It wasn't China and not just once, but twice. And today, the liberal West, which kept calling China communist and therefore dismissive of the groundswell support it had of its own people, they themselves, are now being judged because of their own problems and stuff like that. I'm sure that you've had lots of feedback on your book. Is a book like that judgmental and therefore polarising? Or is there a nuanced way to talk about China?

MJ: I don't think that the book is declamatory or assertive. And generally, the way I write is analytical and strategic. I'm also strongly minded, especially with the case of China. You know you always must have a historical dimension. You've got to understand the context and that certainly the West finds this very, very difficult to do really. It doesn't have a very strong historical view because it thinks history started with its own domination of the world. And so that it's got very little historical memory before that. And this is, of course, a point in a sense of collision between China and the West, because China wouldn't believe us in starting history. What should we say, the beginning of the 18th century? Because you can't make sense of China. That’s where I suppose it is dramatic, the title. And I regard the title to have been a mixed blessing. In terms of impact, it was quite an act of genius, really. It's a very, very strong title. It works in English. But in reality, it doesn't translate well, it certainly doesn't translate into Chinese or Japanese. The word ‘rule’ has got a particularly distinctive meaning in English. Rule in English has a range of nuanced meanings, not just the strong one. But when it translates into it, when it's in a title like that, people tend to interpret it in a strong way. The book is actually much more nuanced than that. I mean, what the book absolutely argues, is that China will become the leading country in the world, in that sense, it will become the global leader. And the West, and I argued this very strongly in my book, is in decline. And actually, my book was often criticised for being too strong. But if you look at historical events, even my book, which was at one end of a spectrum at the time, underestimated the speed, one, of China's rise and two, of America's decline.

ED: I agree that your book is nuanced, in terms of the substance of what China is, the evidence that you put on the table, right? It's very nuanced. But the one thing you didn't do was to say what ‘rule the world’ means.

MJ: The title, there's an approximate relationship to the content of the book. I mean, it is attention grabbing. But if you read the book, I say that China, of course, is never going to rule the world, because no country has ever ruled the world and no country ever will rule the world. To use that term, in that sense, I'm taking poetic licence. I come from a country where there's a famous old imperial song, ‘Rule Britannia’, Britannia rules the waves'. So the word rules, there's a famous song, ‘When I ruled the world’, which has been sung by many famous singers, so it's part of the culture. So no one really thinks if someone's singing, ‘if I rule the world’, that they really will rule the world. A poetic licence is taken with the term, and that's what I was doing. And the title is compelling. There's no point in having a book that sits on the shelves, you've got to get people to want to buy it. And the title from that point of view was very successful. One way of looking at the book’s title is — it was a political intervention — was an attempt to say, look, something really profound is happening in the world and you need to understand it. China is going to overtake the United States, and in a sense, usurp United States. Also, unlike what the great majority of Western commentary was at the time, China is not going to westernise, it is not going to become a westernised society, it is not going to become like the United States or any of those liberal democracies, because its roots are much deeper. And contrary to what Westerners think, this is a very strong political culture, not a weak political culture. And all my basic propositions like this, I'm not saying everything I say in the book becomes history, but broadly speaking, those are two of the main things, and they've all come true, remarkably, in a period since 2009, when the book was first published. And I would add to that, the other thing which is I say that westernisation has reached its climax and is now in decline. And we will see the growing sinicisation of the world. In other words, the growing influence of China in a range of different ways. First and foremost, of course, economic, but not just economic. We can see this. And these were the three central propositions in the book.

ED: Well, the thing is that, even if you meant it as poetic licence, that is exactly the question being asked right now, what should rule the world be? What is rule the world? And everyone around the world is looking for a definition that is relevant to themselves? The burning question is, what should ‘China rule the world’ mean? What are the elements of that? And if we drill down to each of these elements, there are a lot of debates to be held. Right? Economic, is it just being the largest economy absorbing resources from the rest of the world? China's done very well, as you pointed out in your book that it reduced the cost of technology, it eradicated poverty within its own borders, and provided a model that other countries can copy. Those are elements of rule the world. Are there new ideas that you've thought about that we need to be thinking about that makes it a little bit more substantive?

MJ: The best way to put it is that the rise of China is the rise of a new kind of modernity. A modernity expressed in economics, politics, political institutions, culture, cultural forms, the nature of the society, the nature of the family, and so on. The rise of Chinese modernity is an extremely wide-ranging and comprehensive transformation and challenge. And it seems to me that what's happening is that, and this is not understood, by and large, that this is going to change the world in a very all-embracing way. And it's inconceivable, for example, now if you have a country which represents a bit under a fifth of the world's population, and is clearly going to have by far the largest economy for the foreseeable future, not forever, then the international system as we know it, and its institutions cannot be sustained. This is something the West doesn't understand, in fact, if anything, there's this very powerful resistance to it more articulate and aggressive resistance to it now, and this feeling in the West of the threats of China and the way the kind of music's changed in the Trump and post-Trumpian era towards China. But the truth is that, I just think China, in a broad way, represents a superior economic system, to that offered by the United States. Remember that China is in a process of change. This is not the finished article of what China is going to be. It is a dramatic historical dynamic. That's what China represents. Now, we have been to this place before, in a sense, not as dramatically and that was the rise of the United States in the 19th century.

Asia has a better understanding of the West

ED: One of the things I want to be able to do with your book, in the substance of your thesis, is to apply that to some of the issues that China is facing today, right now. It has its economic growth, which is stable, but it's sort of come right down from 12%-6% and 3%-4%. But last year it looked very good, despite COVID-19 but slower growth, right. And then it got a number of geopolitical issues, its trade with the US. And actually the substance of its trade with the US, what China is saying is that we still want the US to buy from us and if you don't buy from us, it's going to affect our economy and the US is saying that we need you to buy from us too and stuff like that. And then, because it's a strong economy, and because it's a large economy, and any large economies can inadvertently end up doing is that they end up sort of bursting at the seams of their neighbours. They've got border problems with the Southeast Asian countries — Laos, Cambodia — the rivers flowing through the dams being built and there are a lot of negotiations that need to take place there and, of course, there's this whole issue of Xingjiang. Now, I don't want to deal with any of these issues in broad screaming headlines-type of way, that each of these have got substance that speaks for China as much as it would the West. Now, how would you apply your book, when you open the newspaper in the morning, and you read some of these issues coming out? What would you like to see China do? What would you like to see the West do? It shouldn't be just capitulating that China owns the South China Sea. That's not right. But at the same time, what needs to be the give and take in accommodating China?

MJ: Well, that is a good question. So over time, the world needs to arrive at a modus vivendi with China, a way of living. Now, at the moment, you've got to look at the world, you can't just say the world because different parts of the world are responding in different ways. I see in the United States, and also for example, in my own country the UK, a regression. The United States has come to see China, starting with Trump, but of course, there's a broad support for this position in America that China is a threat to its geopolitical position in the world. And as a result, there's a kind of quiet fundamentalist rejection of China. Absolutely zero attempt to understand China. I mean, China became communist. It was like the Cold War again. It's a denunciatory label, which has no understanding of what the Chinese phenomenon really is. You can't start with 1949, if you kind of understand China. You've got to understand Chinese civilisation over a much longer period. It seems to me that, once there's some understanding of this, then relations can improve a lot. Because then you're not fighting a zero-sum game, but you're trying to understand China, just like China tries to understand the West. China has a much better understanding of the West than the West has of China. Because China is the new kid on the block in the present era. And it's hard to make sense of America, understand the way America works. That doesn't mean it’s got perfect knowledge, otherwise it would have seen Trump coming and it didn't, basically. And this is not just for China, by the way, this is true for East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Malaysia. They all have a much better understanding of the West than the West has of them. What we need is a process of a much greater and deeper mutual understanding of both what they have in common, of the affinities and also the differences. And what the West needs to do is really try and embrace a notion of what China is. Try and understand China in a different way. At the moment, you know, basically the position tends to be on our terms. And the international order, the rules-based system, oh, come on now, what do you mean by that? I mean, America has never observed the rules-based system anyway. It's always been a privileged country because it basically kind of owned it or rather, governed the international system. The international system is in the process of being fundamentally renewed. Now that doesn't mean that China's going to boss the world. I don't expect, quite frankly, for China to behave like the United States, because its history is very different. That's not really the Chinese way. China's much more keeping itself to itself in a way, whereas the Western tradition, because America gets it from Europe and then sort of accentuates it, is to run the world. Looking at it historically and contemporaneously, what the West is criticising, in a way with China is a fear that China is going to be like the West has been. I don't think that's the case. Now it is certainly going to do things in its own way and we are going to have to get used to that because the Chinese are not going to become Western. They know a lot about the West, but they're not going to become Western.

ED: You've said that very clearly in your book. And actually, those are the useful ideas in your book, which is, if a country as large and a civilisation as large as the Chinese is or China, it's not going to be like the West, then what is it going to be? At the moment, the institutional infrastructure on which China is ruled today — given the fact that the dynastic order is now passed — is an old form, political rails as it were. The Communist Party, the state, they actually borrowed concepts from the West to hold everything together. And the one very important theme in China for the last 2,000 years is holding it together. The emphasis on unity was always far more important than diversity, on creativity and all that. And when the dynastic order ended, they needed a new form to hold it together. What are some of the institutional changes or institutional evolution that needs to take place for China to keep building what it’s building right now. Because, to some extent, and we saw that during the pandemic, which was, there was a need to hold it together at the same time, to have information from the ground up and reach the leadership so that it can be progressive in its reaction to the pandemic, to the economy and all of that and yet the institutional form is fragile. It's still in its formative stage for what it is today, or so it seem. What is your take on that?

MJ: Well, the system is not fragile. the system is very strong. But it depends exactly with what we mean by the system. Francis Fukuyama, and one of his two volumes, makes the point that the governance system in China displays a far greater continuity than any other governing system in the world. Before 211 BC and the Ching Dynasty, basically the forms of governance of China remained essentially the same. I mean, of course, there are some big changes, huge changes have taken place, but what is fascinating is just how much continuity exists. There are some very, very strong affinities between the communist party system since 1949, the party state system and really the Imperial tradition of China. And so through profound changes, China has managed to get to where it is now. You made an extremely important point, which is that, because China's so vast, then its biggest problem has always been unity and stability. How do you do that in a country which is the size of a continent, four times the size of the United States, far bigger than Europe both physically and demographically? And the Chinese have internalised something very important, which is that for them, the worst periods have been the periods of instability and the best periods have been those of stability. China's political values are basically unity, stability, order. And those are the internalised values of the Chinese people based on their own historical experience. So if we want to make sense of China, and we've got to deal with China, we’ve got to respect China, then you can't immediately controvert those principles and say, no, what you need is western style democracy? No, no! We must respect and understand China. And this is very important. You see people say, well the problem with a communist system or autocratic system, is that they're inflexible, they are unable to change. What is extraordinary about China is that it's a very big country, which has existed for way over two millennia. In its existing form, it's gone through good periods and bad periods but it's the only civilisation in the world, I would suggest, which has risen in its history. We can argue whether it's four or five times to be the most advanced, or one of the most advanced societies, economies, cultures, in the world. I would argue that China is a very resilient culture and it is capable of reinvention in a remarkable way. Now, when the West thinks of choice, it thinks of it like the next general election. Does anyone really think that as Britain declines, Britain's going to one day reinvent itself and occupy the same position in the world than it did in the 19th century? Most unlikely, in fact, it’s fragmenting.

ED: That emphasis on unity or holding things together has a price to it. In fact, in the business community in China, I've heard the technology guys say something very interesting, which was that we outsource creativity to the US, the US outsource production to China. So they sort of take that reverse role. And being here in China, I meet young people who are very conscious of their personal rights increasingly. And we have to show our health app, everywhere we go. And they are concerned about the data being collected, and so on. And the education level here, ironically, is very, very good. As you say, many Chinese know exactly what's going on in the US, they have a good global perspective. And that is exactly the knowledge that is making individualism an increasingly important character of the Chinese young person. When you take it back into a historical context, China was ever only very creative during its most disruptive periods: the Warring States period, the time of the Three Kingdoms, and the Song Dynasty was known for poetry and good pottery and stuff like that. And I'm sure it's a phenomenon in any civilisation that times of peace does not necessarily mean that there's going to be a breakthrough. I would say that the one thing about your book is you are rather very not being Western. I’d say you're being very dismissive of Western civilisation, like it's in a permanent stage of decline. And in fact, you just stated it again in this conversation. One could argue that, and we've seen this taking place several times in the last 200 years, you know America had to deal with Germany, had to deal with Japan, it had to deal with the USSR and then now China. So it's defeated every phenomenon holding up against it over the last 200 years. And the biggest thing about American corporate culture is that it's actually ruthless with itself. When you think about the fact that 5G has not taken off in America yet, the main reason is that there are several telecommunication companies competing with each other, all of them needing to raise capital, be profitable and until that one breakthrough comes, nobody changes. It's a rat race kind of thing. And that rigour is what defines capitalism the way the Americans have built it. Whereas China has got two telco telecommunications companies, both state-owned and both complimentary and it can plan 5, 10, 15 years ahead. So we are looking at something that's potentially complimentary, at best or contradictory. What is your take on the phenomenon of Chimerica, Niall Ferguson's idea? Do you think that such a theme can evolve over time?

MJ: Well, in a sense, it did between 1972 and 2016 with a growing codependence between the United States and China. But at least for the time being, this is for Nepal. It's not going to be put together again in the near future. In the longer run, that would be a strong possibility. But the precondition for it is that the United States comes around to the view that it must treat China as an equal partner in the world. That is a precondition for that situation.

ED: But what about the other side of the precondition that China should also meet its own obligations to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) original arrangement? Isn't that a two-way street?

MJ: By and large, China did meet its obligations to the WTO, as it was agreed with China. It's not that China has been in serious breach. It was classified as a developing country quite correctly, given where it was at that stage in 2001. And if you look at the judgments with regard to China, China is actually relatively speaking better than both the United States and Europe in terms of its behavior by WTO judgments. I don't think China is the bad boy and everyone else is the good boy, or the United States is the good boy. I don't think that's true.

Innovation served a major factor in the rise of economies in Asia

ED: Is China to America what Japan was to the UK? There's one perspective, which I would put out to you is that the UK originated the idea of the industrial revolution. It all started the process going and Japan perfected it and it was really a beneficiary of the industrial revolution. And in fact, as the industrial revolution declined, so did Japan. And then now you find that the US is the originator of the digital revolution, the network revolution and China is a child of it. It perfected it because it has the size of the population. Chinese society is a highly networked community and the internet facilitated that and brought that to life. Would you draw parallels like that between the West and China?

MJ: Well, clearly for a long era, speaking economically, I mean the West has been the main innovator and the main leader starting with Britain's industrial revolution. And then this becomes shared with other European countries, and of course, the United States, which rapidly overtakes the UK. And then eventually the rest of the world gets the number. Most importantly Japan after the Meiji Restoration, it was really the only country outside the West that managed to industrialise in that particular era. This is sort of a basic pattern that in any historical era where the most advanced culture or society that then rivals appear and then they obviously have to learn from and borrow what is the state of the art, which is what the previous leader or hegemon achieved. And that's true now that the rise of Asia, East Asia in particular, has been based on learning a lot from the West. And the rise of China clearly, was achieved because it learned a lot from the West. But that doesn't mean it doesn't in the process, innovate itself. I'm absolutely averse to this proposition that all the East Asians can do is to imitate the West. The fact of the matter is that even though a lot of the technology was Western technology, when countries like the Asian tigers, South Korea, Taiwan, etc., first started on their part, to do it they produced a new economic model to make this work, which did involve the state, and did involve a tremendous emphasis on export markets. And they made up a new way of doing it. China's extremely innovative and the reason China is extremely innovative, in my view, is because once you do what Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues did from the 70s and achieved this kind of economic growth rate, then what you do is you turn the whole population, the mentality of the population becomes highly innovative. Because if you're growing at 10% a year as they did until 2010 to 2012, that means your economy is doubling in size every seven years. That means not just the economy but people's lives are being transformed. Every aspect of social relations are being transformed with tremendous speed and people have to adapt to that and learn to carry it. China is very innovative now, as people know, in many areas, and that will become more innovative in a lot of ways in the United States. United States is very, very good at certain things tremendously. And historically, it has a great record. But China and East Asia, particularly China, in the context of our conversation, is going to be a great innovator in the coming period. But in some areas, it's still behind. A very good example is the vaccine. They've produced at least two very good vaccines but they're not as innovative as Pfizer in biotechnological terms. So that's an area where you can see China is still behind. But there are a lot of areas now, we wouldn't have said this when we're having this discussion when my book came out in 2009, where China is now the leader.

ED: Would you be a little bit too dismissive of what the West really is and what it has contributed to humanity as a whole? But when I think about the UK, I think about the way in which the structure of the state was finally given good institutions, the separation of powers, the judiciary and the executive. And if you superimpose China against the UK model, it's a great administrative state. But the representative state is something that it's still working on, or maybe it's represented in different ways. I do believe there's a huge sense of representation in China because there is support from the ground up, there's a trust in the government. But it's essentially an administrative state. And at some point, it's going to start needing to deal with three elements: the state, the individual and the corporations. In fact, the corporations that have given China its impetus in the last 20 years are the private sector corporations. In fact, the speeches given recently reveal that they paid 60% of the tax in the country. And then you have the state-owned enterprises, and there seems to be a move towards absorbing private enterprise back into a state-owned structure. Now when you think about how institutions evolved in statecraft, whether it's in the UK or in the US and China, do you think there is a kind of an evolution that all of us need to start thinking about and give it a shape? And in the US, although it says that it's a democracy, it's become a lot more like a plutocracy because you've got extremely wealthy individuals being able to dictate trends right down to how vaccines are being delivered and stuff like that. In other words, they’ve become influential, another institution that didn't exist in the past. Do you see China in those terms, and if you see it in those terms, how would you describe China in institutional terms?

MJ: Well, actually I see China as a work in progress. If you're changing at the speed that China's even now still changing, then everything is subject to a very rapid change in China and that is still true. If you go from a country, which 40 years ago, 80% of the population lived in the countryside, to a situation now where probably around a half or a bit over half are now urbanised. That's a phenomenal speed of change, which requires huge shifts in the nature of governance, as well as the economy. So, we’ll see huge changes in China but it's not going to westernise. It's not going to adopt a Western model of governance. In fact, the question is, why should it? Why should a country which has undergone the most remarkable economic transformation in human history, within this governing context, why should it abandon that governing context? I mean, it doesn't make any sense. The transformation has given the present governing system great support and great legitimacy in China. But if it sits on its laurels, if it stops innovating, if it stops moving, then it will get into trouble and it will stagnate. Now I don't personally expect that to happen. But of course, there's always a possibility that, one reason or another, that could happen. 

I think that you're underestimating the degree of crisis that exists in the West. I mean the United States, would we really have been thinking in terms of five years ago, of a serious threat to and crisis of democracy in the United States? And there are deep, deep problems in the United States, which I do not think that I would probably veer slightly to thinking that they're irresolvable in within the existing context. It'd be better if they were resolvable. But I'm not convinced. What are the problems? You've mentioned one, which you had a democracy but now you've got something more like a plutocracy. You've got a situation where half the population for about 40 years have not seen any increase in their real living standards. You've got a growing polarisation in America with a huge gulf by and large between the Republican bloc and the Democratic bloc with the worst since the Civil War. So I'm concerned about what's happening to America and how it's going to move beyond this situation. And the fact of the matter is that obviously, the political system in America, and the constitution has worked very well, but it doesn't work well now.

ED: America has always moved from crisis to crisis. When I looked at what happened in the last two years, I said, hey, this is the 1968 replay. You know, a black guy gets killed, there are street riots, exactly the same month. Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 and it just went on in a crisis that carried right up to Nixon in 1973. And then there was the so-called great depression, and before that there was a stock market crash in the early 1900s. And even the Federal Reserve Bank was formed as a result of a war and then the country was born out of a conflict with the UK and so on.

MJ: You’ve got to put this in a proper historical context. And that is, the extraordinary thing about the United States was more or less from the Declaration of Independence. The United States was on the rise in a way that I don't think any other country in the world — probably certainly in the modern era — has managed to achieve that. And the problem that America faces now is that since probably the 1980s as the world changed, as other countries, Japan and so on, began to industrialise, then America’s weight in the world has declined very significantly.

China’s rise as a powerful political, cultural, and military player

ED: That's very clear. And that's something that America is not entirely absorbing, which is the rest of the world has caught up. It doesn't necessarily mean it's the decline of America but America has to deal with a world where the forces are beyond its own control, one of which is China. And what I'm trying to put in context here is your criticism of the West. Are we pushing the needle way on towards one side where we are very apologetic towards China and very presumptive as to what it's capable of and very dismissive of what the West is today? Are we kinder to China?

MJ: Well, we're not very kind to China at the moment, that's for sure. We're hugely critical in the West now of China. If you're asking me, what the West has achieved? Well, the West changed the world. It was essentially the West that created the world as we know it today. But you've got to understand history doesn't just carry on in the same way. It's not just a process of incrementalism, that history goes through great changes, profound changes. You said America is not in decline. No, it's in relative decline. The proportion of global gross domestic product that America accounts for is much more than it was. The world is in the process of major transformation and recreation. And we have to, in that context, understand the importance of China.

ED: You've said it very well, because that's where your thoughts become useful and applicable. When we think about what China needs to work on to not lose the momentum, do you feel that this so-called rise of China has several phases to it? That it will plateau at some point and then it needs to absorb the massiveness of the changes that are taking place? Is there some creative self-destruction that needs to happen in the process?

MJ: Yes, all societies need that. There was a very big change that took place in China in 2012. And from the Hu Jintao era to Xi Jinping but also from the Deng Xiaoping era, in a broader sense, from 1978 to approximately 2012 and then the period since, and that has been a big change in China. Now the West though doesn't like Xi Jinping but we’ve got to try and understand what was happening then. China was never going to just carry on being an economic phenomenon, which is how it was and how it saw itself — hide your capability, don't show leadership, get on very well with the United States — key pieces of Deng Xiaoping. But as I argued in my book, China will become — as it grows, as it rises — a formidable political, cultural, military player and that is what is happening. And every country that rises in history, has in some way or another, according to the era, gone through that process. And this is an example. Now, one of the problems in Hu’s period was — now this is greatly underestimated and not talked about — that there was clearly a sort of growing dissatisfaction, corruption, remember corruption in society? Very important during this period and people were getting disillusioned. And there was the big anti-corruption campaign with Xi Jinping. This was a big political shift, no question at all. I also think the emphasis on the Communist Party, as opposed to just government, was important because clearly, the feeling was that they lacked some of the levers that were necessary. I mean, you know there's a very important point that Lucian Pye, the American sinologist makes, which is that whereas in the West, the basic kind of political configurations in the modern era have been between left and right. In China, it's never been like that. The big tension that lies at the heart of the body politic in China is between centralisation and decentralisation, which relates to the problem of political stability and unity and so on. We must expect that many things are going to happen in China. I mean if it freezes, everything will come to a halt and it will decline. I don't personally expect that to happen. I expect big changes to happen. But we've got to understand those changes, we've got to understand China, because changes will not be recognisable in a Western form.

ED: Why did Japan decline and why will China not decline on those terms?

MJ : Well, I've never said that China won't decline. I mean I do expect China to be the predominant power in the world for many years to come, but not indefinitely. Because at some point, China will go into decline. That's what will happen, just like it has on 5, 6, 7 occasions in China's history, that will happen again. Because new contradictions appear, new conflicts appear, institutional crises and so on. And China will not be able to deal with them successfully and China will go into decline. Just like I'm arguing, although you've been a bit resistant to it, that America is in decline now, in global terms. When it rises again, I can't tell you whether the United States depends whether it can surmount those that decline and deal with it in a satisfactory way, or whether as a result of it, is always a possibility, United States might fragment. Who knows? I don't know the answer to those questions. But I do think if you're looking at a longer-term history, you have to be cognisant of these things.

ED: If a Chinese reads your book and thinks about his own self-perception, something that I find, and I grew up with Chinese people so I'm very familiar and you've had that in your family too. The thing is that Chinese people have a certain self-deprecating character by themselves, they have a chip on their shoulder, they never think that they're good enough. And I've seen this at a very personal level, family and so on. And the one thing that Chinese people keep repeating is that ‘We will not be humiliated again’. Do you think that that age has arrived where they need to snap out of that and get on to it with taking their place in the world and not use that as a crutch to explain why they need to be a lot of things today?

MJ: There are two strands rather than one strand in Chinese personality. One is what you described, which is self-deprecating, modesty, humility, and so on. And that's very strong, amongst the Chinese. They're not pushy, in say, a Western or especially American way. They don't speak with a very loud voice as the Americans, not just the Americans. That has to do with their sense of authority in the world. That's one side of the Chinese. The other side of the Chinese, as you well know, is this tremendous strength that they feel from the success of Chinese history and Chinese civilisation. They know that their culture is a very sophisticated culture — in the Han period, the Tang period, the Sung period and in a different way, in the Ming period, and even in the early Qing period — China has been hugely important and successful. So they have a mixed view. They look at history and they say, we can do it, and they look at the recent history and say, well, we're having a go.

ED: Now, at some point, this whole thing, I mean, just taking the theme of your book, ‘When China Rules the World’, we are here, and we have responsibilities. The funny thing about ruling the world is that it is not a position of prestige, it is a position of responsibilities. Anything that happens anywhere in the world, there will be a Chinese resolution to it, which is China as an economic engine, China as an aid giver, China as a technology builder and all that. But keep going back to this whole idea of we will not be humiliated and the fact that every civilisation has been humiliated at different points in its history. Should there be a sense of confidence which takes it to the next level, which doesn't exist at the moment? Or is this thing about ‘we will not be humiliated’ a crutch that is used as an excuse for a lot of concessions that they get enough from the rest of the world, or from the Western world, actually?

MJ: It's perfectly understandable given their history, especially the century of humiliation, the period 1800, I would date it, to 1950. The Chinese feel that they've had it tough, they haven't been successful. They've definitely been done down during that period by the West and some. But you're underestimating the new generation in China. And indeed, the confidence that the Chinese leadership shows in its own capacity. This is a very, very competent leadership remarkably so. Now, we shouldn't be surprised by that because with all of China's problems, of course, we're very familiar with the fact that the Chinese historically invented statecraft effectively and are enormously competent at it, even when they've been put in a difficult position. They've shown a great deal of ability in that area. If you're 40 in China, you were born, roughly speaking, with Deng Xiaoping’s beginning of his reforms. Most of China are creatures born into that period. And if you're 20 now in China, then you were born in 2000. And what you've seen is a very successful economy and a remarkable transformation in living standards and opportunity. And so there is a tremendous buzz and confidence amongst young Chinese people, which you can see. If you're in Beijing, you can see this on the streets.

ED: I'm familiar with that. In fact, I'm representing that generation when I say, should they have a new voice? Because the official voice is a defensive one. And you're right, the new generation has not seen any of these. They don't understand the language of having been humiliated and all that. And they need that new voice. Would they find that voice, if they read your book? And what would that be? You know, their sense of confidence? That was my question, actually. I'm trying to look for the applicability of your book to current things.

MJ: I don't come from a Chinese studies background or anything like that. I just got interested in it much later in my life. I had no history or reputation when my book came out at the end of June 2009. It was published in America in November 2010 and the Chinese had it out in January 2010. Worldwide, I don't know how many it's sold, over 400,000, which for a big book like that, a serious book, is a great sale. Of course, there are a lot of voices that make up what's happening in China today. But the book had an important voice in China.

ED: Absolutely, it needed to break that Western mindset at that point in time, which was dismissive, self-deprecating, and all that. A book with a screaming title helps to dictate that. And the purpose of my conversation with you was to try and apply that to current day realities, issues, and see whether you could still hold the theme when you think about China, and some of the conflicts that it gets into with its neighbors, and some of the issues that it's struggling with internally, and not shy away from that and then to see what the substance of it is. Do you have new thoughts coming in, in terms of how we need to think about China as a phenomenon? And the one question that everyone asked is that China and me. It's not China for what it is, but China and me as a Brazilian, China and me as a South African, China and me as an Australian. And what is it that I need to take into account? Up to this point, a lot of China's interaction with the rest of the world has been with trade and on the economic front, because it's a huge consumer of global resources. But as the economy stabilises or it slows down, that interaction has to become more sophisticated, more nuanced and more mature. And it'll be good to have an idea of what that means going forward. Actually, China has precedents and you're familiar with Southeast Asia, you're familiar with the original Tiger countries, they reached a plateau, and then they sort of leveled off. Several of them have middle income, country problems and going on to the next level seems to be an issue. And the question is, will China get to that point? How will it have the institutions deal with those issues? It's time that those of us who are serious about China, should not just discuss China in big terms but more in substance and it'll be good to see how all that evolves. And one of the things in our conversation is the institutional reforms. What will China have to teach the rest of the world in terms of the institutional reforms that we’ll be willing to take in place that the rest of the world can learn from? And here we go back to your country, which is the UK and the Oliver Cromwell revolution and the building of the institutions that the UK gave the rest of the world in the last 200 years? What will China's contribution be in those terms? You allude to it, but it'll be good to see you give more substance to that.

MJ: Read my next book.

ED: And with that, thank you so much for this conversation.

Keywords: When China Rules The World, Chimerica, Westernisation, Sinicisation, Industrial Revolution, Hegemon, Covid-19, Ching Dynasty, Meiji Restoration, Asian Tigers, Declaration Of Independence


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