Author: Katelyn Shiring, Goucher College
China confronts the Western nations with an enormous problem: we do not understand it. British scholar Martin Jacques made a prediction in 2009 that the Chinese economy will be equal with the United States’ economy by 2025, and surpass it by 2050, in terms of unadjusted GDP. Earlier this month, China surpassed the US economy in terms of purchasing power adjusted GDP. Jacques communicated his prediction through his book, When China Rules the World, and his 2010 TED talk, outlining the main arguments of his thesis. Although Jacques is criticized as being a communist and overestimating China’s ability to grow and surpass Western economies, it is clear that events in the past few months have ultimately proven his theory to be correct. With the recent IPO of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on the New York stock exchange, and China’s economy rising above the United State’s in terms of adjusted GDP, there leaves no question that China will soon surpass the United States in terms of overall spending and unadjusted GDP.
But the most interesting and alarming part of Jacques’ theory does not lie in his statistical predictions of when China will rise; rather, it is in the multiple ways that the West misunderstands China. Jacques states bluntly that the United States, and by extension the Western Powers, are ignorant in their capacity to understand China, claiming the West knows all there is to know about this developing country. In response to this ignorance, Jacques provides three ‘building blocks’ that the West needs to understand in order to exist in a world where China is an equal power. Although published in 2009 and 2010, both the TED talk and the book are more significant and crucial than ever given China’s recent demonstration as an economic power. Jacques outlines three specific ways that the West understands China wrongly, and how to reverse those mental models in order to adapt.
One of the main ways that the US misunderstands China is that they view them through preconceived Western theories and ideas, and frankly, it is impossible to understand China through these views. The West is comprised of nation-states, whereas China is a civilization-state, and therefore, their behavior will inherently be very different than nation state behaviors. Although modern China, the PRC, is not yet a century old, the country itself has been around since 221 BC. This is a defining factor in their identity, because their cultures and history do not lie in the Mao Zedong and revolutionary era, rather, it lies in the centuries of dynasties, expansion, foreign influence, and Confucian values. The West has trouble conceptualizing this, because they think in nation-state ways. Jacques uses the example of the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, the West, thinking in a nation-state mentality, thought for certain that after the handover, Hong Kong would become as Chinese and anti-Western as Beijing. They were wrong; it is as different as it was under British rule today. The West thought that Hong Kong would be similar to the reunification of Germany – the East would be swallowed by the West, and would operate under one nation, one system. China operates under the notion of “One Country, Two Systems”, which allows Hong Kong to remain a financial hub for foreign investment into Asia. This is one of the most ignorant ways that the West views China, and a significant part of their inability to understand them.
The concept of race and the role of state are also contributing factors to the West’s incorrect understanding of China. Both race and the state play crucial roles in the country, and while both these aspects are ignored in Western society, they are applauded as both the patriarch and an intimate member of the family in China. China is made up of mostly one ethnic group, the Han, which is an extremely strong unifying principle for the Chinese people. In contrast, the West is multiracial, which makes race neither an important factor nor a unifying one. The West misinterprets the role of the state, while the Chinese see the state as an intimate member of the family, while the West sees it as an intruder. Although this could be pegged to the differing ideologies of communism and capitalism, it is important to note that the West sees the role of the state as a brainwashing tactic rather than a difference in government practices. Jacques ends his TED talk with a few images, all comparisons of Chinese technological progress and their Western counterpart. One of the images shows China’s advanced high-speed train station in comparison to outdated trains in America, and another shows the ship Christopher Columbus’ sailed in 1492 to the new world, which pales in comparison to Chinese explorer Zheng He’s 1405 ship. These images of obvious Chinese superiority demonstrate the sophistication of the ancient civilization that the West so obviously ignores and invalidates.
It is important for the West to start taking China seriously, and to stop viewing them, and other rising developing countries such as India, as “little westerners”. This breeds an ignorance that will only be detrimental to the Western world when China does hold a more powerful seat at the table. Although Jacques and other economists view China as a powerful threat to the Western world, it is not in the “Red Scare” way that the USSR was viewed as during the Cold War. They are an economic threat because they are economically and politically powerful, not because of their reputation as the communist superpower. These three building blocks create an opportunity for reform in the way the West thinks about China. It is clear that in the future, China will only continue to grow and dominate foreign markets, so it is important that the United States, along with the other Western powers, creates adaptive foreign policy that reflects this change in power.