Taipei Times (TT): When China Rules the World — that’s a very strong title. Will China, indeed, rule the world?
Martin Jacques: No. The title shouldn’t be taken literally. The theme of the book essentially is the rise of China to a point where it becomes the dominant global power and what that will be like, how it will exercise its hegemony and how that will differ from the Western era, particularly the American era. You need a catchy title that’s provocative and makes you think.
PHOTO: J. MICHAEL COLE, TAIPEI TIMES
TT: Some critics say that your portrayal of modern China is overly positive. Perhaps most notably is Ian Buruma’s review of your book in the Sunday Times, where he argues that your views on China are based on “received opinions” — those of the Chinese elite and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — especially on topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the desire for political change. You write, for example, that few Chinese actually desire democracy and that in fact there has been a turn away from democracy since Tiananmen Square.
Jacques: Writers like Buruma and others see Tiananmen Square as a defining moment — and many did, it was almost a Western consensus in 1989. [For them] the meaning of Tiananmen Square was almost the same, more or less, as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many even talked about the breakup of China. It seems to me that the people who argue this need to be honest with themselves, in the sense that that didn’t happen and therefore that for some reason they got it fundamentally wrong.
Does anyone feel comfortable about what happened at Tiananmen Square? Of course not, this was a terrible thing to happen, but we have to try to understand what it was all about. It is a simplistic notion that it was a great uprising for democracy and a great challenge to the CCP. Obviously there were elements of this, but you can’t easily fit it into history if you look at everything that’s happened since. Part of its significance is that it was 11 years into the reform period, the new market system was beginning to take root, new divisions were appearing between rich and poor and there was a reaction among the elite — students, intellectuals and so on. This is where it was concentrated the most. There was a concern among intellectuals about a turn away from politics and culture toward economics and a preoccupation with growth. I don’t think it represented any profound turning against the CPP among the people generally.
The reason revolutions work is because even though only a minority takes the action, it symbolically represents the people and then the people resist and it becomes a much wider conflagration within society. Clearly that didn’t happen with Tiananmen Square. I think its significance has been greatly exaggerated. There is a lot of conventional wisdom I disagree with, lots of cliche’s that Westerners feel happy with. The great problem is reading Chinese society through the prism of the West. That is the great weakness of Western writing and reactions and predictions about China. People want to fit China into a Western template. This is wrong, this is Western hubris.
TT: You also argue that Hong Kong has changed very little since retrocession in 1997. Some Hong Kong democracy activists, however, people like Albert Ho (何俊仁), would counter that a string of political reforms since 1997 shows the failure of the “one country, two systems” or, as you put it, “one civilization, many systems.”
Jacques: Again, from a Western angle, we didn’t really understand what was happening or how to perceive this constitutional proposal. The West — and certainly Britain, the [outgoing] colonial power — thought it was just a public relations exercise. They thought it was just some device thought up by the Chinese to reassure. The reaction was ‘can we really believe them,’ with a very strong dose of skepticism. I think it’s absolutely clear the Chinese meant it. They were loyal to what was agreed and gave Hong Kong a great deal of latitude. In that sense, the striking thing about Hong Kong is how little it has changed. There are things that have changed, but they are things that really have to do with economic integration with the mainland.
As a vast and diverse “civilization state,” China thinks in terms of different systemic solutions because you can’t run the place like a nation-state. The provinces are very different — there is huge variety in China. There is a view that China is a profoundly centralized country; in a sense it is, but it is also extremely decentralized. You can’t run a continent from Beijing. In that sense, we can’t criticize Beijing, because it runs Hong Kong as a “civilization state” would run it. We failed to understand that in 1997.
I said to [former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten] at the time: ‘Don’t you think it’s hypocritical that you start talking about democracy just as you’re handing it over, but since the Opium Wars, nothing was further from our minds?’”
TT: As China makes its global presence known and invests in media abroad, what impact will this have on freedom of expression globally?
Jacques: The effectiveness of what you say depends on how you communicate it. If it’s very stilted, it will fall on largely deaf ears. Typical Chinese government spokesman talk won’t be very effective, but I think that when they get the hang of it — something the Soviets never did — the Chinese will develop quite a powerful model. After all, Al-Jazeera is not funded by a democracy; it’s quite a good channel. Why shouldn’t the Chinese do the same? Over time, what you’ll get is competing world views and the Chinese view will be increasingly important, especially in the developing world, with which China has much in common.
TT: Throughout your book, you refer to Taiwan as a country, yet all the maps show Taipei as a provincial capital. Was there any disagreement between you and your publisher on this?
Jacques: We drew the maps according to what would be acceptable in China.
TT: Acceptable in China?
TT: Because of the size of the market?
Jacques: I’m very keen that the book gets an audience in China. An interesting question is who did I write the book for? The Burumas of this world have no doubt at all that everything is Western, that the template is Western. I suppose I was writing my book with a Western audience in mind, but because I know the other audience as well and am really interested in them and care about how they think and react, I also wrote the book for a range of audiences in this region. I wanted to be taken seriously by them. Will they think it’s just another typical Western book about them? Will a Chinese person ask if I actually “get” China, or if I’ve really tried to understand what China is? I think most Western writers about China don’t really understand it. To do this book, I had to question my own identity as a Westerner and my personal experiences changed me in a fundamental way. Many writers never question their own Western hubris.
Part two of this interview will be published tomorrow.
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