Martin Jacques, author of recently published book When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (read the book review) is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and a visiting research fellow at the LSE’s Asia Research Centre. A columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman, he is also the former editor of Marxism Today. He spoke to us about his new controversial book, and why he believes the Chinese state is destined to live long and prosper.
Q: How has your book been received, in China and abroad?
A: The book has had a huge impact. I was in Beijing and Guangzhou in early October. There has been a big reaction in Beijing, and there’s been a lot of press coverage of it. It’s quite interesting to see the different in ways in which people respond, it’s been quite pluralistic. The most negative reaction is to the title. People are thinking I’m stoking up the China threat. Of course it’s not a China threat book in the least, it’s a different positive take on China. But the general reaction has been pretty positive. There have been positive reviews and snipers, and then there are those who criticize it for saying that China cannot succeed unless it follows the same path as the West, which they believe would be most highly desirable as well.
Q: What is the most cogent criticism you’ve heard so far? Has anything anyone has said caused a rethink?
A: There have definitely been things which have made me want to revisit points to develop that I haven’t developed enough and different dimensions to the problem that I haven’t dealt with enough. But nothing has changed my view of the basic argument. I took a very long time with this book, I thought about it a lot, so I’m not going to suddenly be capsized by what anyone says. I haven’t read anything I haven’t already thought about. I don’t mean that I’m right per se, but what I wrote is the result of substantial thought. However, there were two points that were raised at a lecture I gave here in Shanghai; someone was discussing the idea of a civilization state, which is one of the central ideas of the book, and he raised some interesting problems with the idea. I thought, “I need to flesh this out a bit.” And there was someone else who said something while I was reflecting on Shanghai – I haven’t been here for 10 years – and the question was the extent to which Chinese tradition has been lost, and that’s an interesting question. Maybe I experienced that coming back to Shanghai more strongly than before. I’d like to look at that again.
Q: You make some arguments about the book that the main reason China fell behind the West was primarily because of Western colonization. This remains a subject of substantial debate. How key is it to your argument?
A: In that argument I draw on the work of [Kenneth] Pomeranz and Bin Wong. It’s an interesting dimension to the argument, but it’s not in any way essential. It does throw an interesting light on Chinese history, and the extent to which one can say, as late as around the beginning of the 19th century, that the society in the Yangtze river delta was more or less as advanced as the most advanced parts of northwest Europe. This throws different kind of light on China’s economic demise during the century of humiliation. The most important point is that the antecedents for what is happening now are not so far back.
Q: You also say that Chinese culture will gain more influence internationally as China grows. But how globalisable is Chinese culture given the introspective nature you describe? This is the country that deliberately burned the boats it used to sail to Africa, after all.
A: China is very distinct and very aware, and very possessive about its Chinese character. One of my main points is that Chinese is not like the West, so there will be a very distinctive form of modernity here. Obviously the book is based on the argument that China’s economic growth will continue. Accepting that assumption, China will become more economically powerful and more influential. I think that characteristic you are describing will become one of the facets of China that will become more familiar and in a sense more attractive. When a country becomes culturally significant, people want to get to know it; they are obliged to get to know it, because China is important, a source of money, a source of investment: the reason why you are here. I don’t think that’s a barrier. I think this is a question of how China will remain different.
Q: There is a lot of interest here in foreign technology, but some have noted that this does not extend to interest in foreign food or other social characteristics. Do you think the Chinese are really interested in learning about foreigners as cultures?
A: I think they are very interested in learning, I think it is a big mistake to say they aren’t interested in learning. There are a number of students who are studying overseas. There’s a tremendous application and commitment to learning English – much better than the Japanese, for example. But it’s not just about the language, The Chinese students I have met in the West are very good students. The young budding Chinese professionals, I’m extremely impressed with them. They have a tremendous acquisitiveness and a pragmatism in the way they go about getting knowledge.
Q: In terms of management, isn’t there a risk of confusing business culture with management technology? Certain aspects of the traditional hierarchical management style here just don’t seem suited to certain tasks – efficient quality control, for one.
A: First of all, let’s take Japan. I don’t think you can understand Japans’ technological innovation just by calling it “management technology”; it was culturally embedded and had a place in Japanese society. Placing a premium on team performance, lean production, just-in-time production; these all drew from the Japanese cultural tradition, and they worked better in Japan that they did in America. Their management structures are hierarchical but they are flatter hierarchies. Income differentials are much less than in Western firms. Production technology is not a culture-free zone. Culture is important in economic capacity. Sometimes it plays to the strengths, sometimes it doesn’t. Japan’s strengths play to Japanese cultural predilections.
Q: So what about quality control and intellectual property rights? Isn’t that a cultural manifestation?
A: Those are just characteristics of a catch-up economy. This is rife across Southeast Asia. I was in Malaysia recently. They don’t buy genuine Windows there either, they pirate it. The movies they watch at home are pirated, because they are too expensive. I don’t think there is anything specifically Chinese about that. And I think if you go back to Japan that was probably true too.
Q: The Chinese development model has had a distinct role for state firms. How exportable is this model to other developing countries?
A: The Chinese example is very interesting. In some ways it is very similar to other Asian countries, in other ways very different. The //chaebols// in Korea and the //keiretsu// in Japan were privileged institutions with strong state connections. Japan you can think of as a bifurcated economy: a strong export economy with a small number of state-supported firms, and the rest of the economy is domestic. Nonetheless the fact that state-owned firms have persisted in China and have remained so in the era of privatisation hasn’t fundamentally changed that picture. It does make China a bit different. I think it’s unsurprising because the state tradition in China does share things with other Confucian societies, but the state in China does have a different historical construction. And it’s also had a communist government, which is significant. To what extent is this an exportable model? What I think what is extremely exportable is the idea that the state is an extremely important institution for economic development and modernisation, and I think the Chinese are essentially right and the Washington Consensus is wrong. The idea of privatisation with a minimal role for the state has been an unsuccessful formula. For example, in France and Germany during the Industrial Revolution, the state played a much bigger role in development because they had to protect themselves from the British. The point is, it wasn’t a permanent policy, it was a dynamic policy. For developing societies the state is important. You need an efficient, interventionist, pragmatic state that is willing to borrow from different models. Of course, the Chinese state is not the same as an African state. You can’t transplant the model from China to Nigeria or Ecuador. The question is, will state ownership be an effective way to create competitive firms? The general conclusion of the neoliberal period is that it isn’t, but that’s the way the Chinese are doing it. I think the jury is still out.
Q: What about role these firms play in environmental degradation? These state firms are incredibly resource intensive, after all.
A: I don’t think that the picture on the environment is that simple. I think there are strong sings China takes the environmental problems quite seriously. The present strategy is environmentally exhaustive. This has been a classic pattern; you use the resources you have. China is a variant of earlier experiences. At the same time, one of the things that strikes me is that Beijing does understand this is a huge problem. It has introduced a lot of environmental legislation, which is very unexpected given its level of development. Of course you can say they don’t enforce it, but that’s not to say they’re not going to enforce it. China could be very dirty and very advanced environmentally at the same time. China has some very advanced technological areas, in nanotechnology for one, and this could also be true of the environment. China has many faces, it’s quite ambiguous. The other thing is, China has never been a global warming denier. The Chinese have never made that mistake. They’ve always acknowledged the science. I don’t think the state, when it comes to the environment, is the big problem; on the contrary, the unusual authority of the Chinese state is key. The main issue is to change people’s habits, but that’s difficult to do in the West too, it happens very slowly. And I think the strategic competence of Western governments is poor. They don’t have the strategic capacity due to an era of suspicion of the state. It’s very difficult for Western states to have a long-term strategy. Part of the problem is related to democracy, but that’s not to say one can’t have long-term strategic thinking in a democracy. An example is Japan. The Chinese state does its thinking, and it has a strong strategic capacity and a strong competence as well. It’s very good at doing things – bearing in mind it is a poor society still. In China, when the state says something, it tends to have a strong impact, as opposed to in the West, and that’s not only due to communism but historically. I wouldn’t be surprised if China doesn’t go to a considerable extent to show its credentials on climate change. It would be a very strong example of soft power.
Q: So do you discount the risk of China falling into the infamous “middle-income country trap”?
A: We’ll just have to see, won’t we? Are these SOEs going to be very effective, I don’t know. But whether the firms are state-owned or not, the state is extremely important. It’s the Developmental State, but in China this state has a distinct form and enjoys a particular form of respect. In the long run, I think the Chinese will be very pragmatic. They’ve been very pragmatic since 1978. And I don’t think the authority of the state depends on state ownership, I think that would be too narrow and instrumental way of seeing it.
Q: If the reviews are any indication, a lot of people are going to take this book as a China threat book nevertheless. How would you advise Westerners to respond to Chinese growth and influence?
A: I think that it is likely that many in the West will view the rise of China with a certain amount of trepidation, because it’s entering a very new and unfamiliar way. Different people respond in different ways. Some think it’s terrible, others are pragmatic. There are two things we need to do. First we need to understand what’s happening. For a long time people have been in denial about it. First that the economic growth could go on, you know, or the statistics have been fabricated, or the Asian financial crisis will trip them up, or the current crisis will, but China has so far negotiated all of these with aplomb. The other issue is growing Chinese influence. China’s rise will have all sorts of political and cultural implications. I agree with Paul Kennedy, as country’s economies rise, other forms of power rise with them, this has been modern history and it will certainly be true of China. I think the other thing we need to do is understand China. The false dichotomy is, either China will fail or China will Westernise. Chinese modernity will have important levels of Western influence, but that is by no means the whole picture. We still see China through Western eyes. We’ve got to do better than that. Paul Cohen says that “the West thinks of itself as cosmopolitan, but really it is very insular.” It has never had to understand other cultures. For example, how the Chinese handled Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” policy; we didn’t take them seriously, but they were serious. The better we understand them, the more we learn from them, the more likely they are to learn from us. The more we understand them the less likely the future is to come as a shock. A besieged sort of attitude towards China would be a great mistake. We could establish a virtuous cycle where we learn from each other, or you could get the opposite to that, a degenerative pattern of relations.