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.
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.”