When China rules the world

Issue section: 

Martin Jacques, Allen Lane; £25.00

One of the most striking features of China's rise has been its sheer speed. Thirty years ago the Chinese economy was essentially stagnant, and accounted for less than 1 percent of world trade. Since then it has grown by around 10 percent a year almost without interruption, and has become the third largest trading economy (behind the US and Germany).

So it's hardly surprising that most commentators assume that this will carry on indefinitely. The standard argument in almost anything written about China nowadays is that it will shortly become the world's biggest economy, and supplant the US as the world superpower.

Right-wingers lament this; left-wingers welcome it: but both see it as inevitable.

As the title suggests, this book echoes that consensus, though the author takes it further than most, suggesting at one point that China's rise is more important that of the US. He also takes a wider angle than many other writers, arguing that China's dominance will mark an end not just to US hegemony, but to a Western model of development which has dominated the world since the 18th century.

The problem is that the consensus is simply wrong. China's economic boom relies on cheap exports - now mostly electrical goods - to the West, crucially the US. And the factories that produce those exports rely on a constant supply of cheap labour from the countryside. Even before the economic crisis hit, it was impossible that both of these could carry on growing indefinitely.

As far back as 2006 there were clear signs that the numbers of migrant workers were decreasing. In 2007, an academic report found that in about two-thirds of villages there were no more "surplus" peasants ready to become migrant workers.

But over the past year the traffic has been all the other way. Rather, more than 20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs in export-producing factories as exports have collapsed. And the current economic statistics coming out of China are contradictory, suggesting that at best China may fare less badly than most other economies.

Jacques does at certain points acknowledge the impact of the crisis, but doesn't really grasp that the sheer uncertainty of the crisis makes long-term predictions quite irrelevant. He also acknowledges some of the problems facing China's current development model, but again doesn't integrate these into his predictions about China as the future superpower.

If the parts of the book dealing with China's economy aren't very useful, those about the nature of Chinese culture and nationalism are considerably worse. Jacques comes close to arguing an essentialist view that all Chinese people necessarily have a distinct worldview, based on the fact that elements of Chinese culture go back more than 2,000 years.

This is part of the wider argument about the Western-defined world order being overturned as developing world economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) come to be the dominant powers in the world. Now there's no question that the weakening of US power is in part driven by the growth of other countries, and that we are moving towards a multipolar world, rather than one in which the US is the sole superpower. But the idea that China will automatically side with other developing economies against the US is simplistic.

It's equally likely that China, faced with the rise of India and Russia as fellow Asian powers, will look to an alliance with the US as a counterweight. That's what Mao did in the 1970s, after all. More importantly, the argument misses the fact that the "Western model of development" is a world capitalist economy dominated by imperialism.

China has risen precisely by accommodating to, and participating in, that world economy. And the continued prosperity of the Chinese economy depends both on the health of that world economy, and within it the disproportionate power of Western imperialism. A stronger China may well shift the balance of power and influence within that framework, but it is beyond the power of any one national ruling class to break the framework itself.

There are some better parts to the book, in particular the account of China's relations with southeast Asia, and many of his speculations are thought-provoking even when they're based on very little evidence. China is becoming more important as US power wanes, and although there are good reasons to doubt many of Jacques' answers he does point to some important questions. But there's an underlying power-worship that runs through this book, which made me increasingly uncomfortable.

Older readers may remember Jacques as one of the leading lights of Marxism Today, a magazine that provided much of the intellectual justification for the Labour Party's lurch to the right in the 1990s. He said in an interview that, "Thatcher was a kind of hero of mine... she was on the opposite side of the fence but you could learn a lot from her. She had a vision and a strategy to achieve that vision." For Thatcher, read China's rulers.