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Ascent of the civilisation state

book bazaar

Martin Jacques isn’t just convinced about something that a lot of people believe but would rather not voice — that China will soon be the most powerful nation in the world — but he is also courageous enough to have written a book on the subject.

On Friday, The Bengal Club in association with The Telegraph and the Aspen Institute presented, as part of Bengal Club Library Talk, a discussion with Jacques on his book, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. The talk and the ensuing interactive session was moderated by the retired major general Arun Roy.

Jacques — who, among other things, is a visiting professor at Renmin University in Beijing and writes for The Guardian — began his lecture by saying that China owed its phenomenal ascent to many reasons. He distinguished it from a nation state by saying that it is a civilisation state — an ancient civilisation that was also the oldest independent polity in the world.

Jacques claimed that China’s economy gradually ascended from being a twentieth the size of the economy of the US. Today, it is over half the size of the US economy.

Jacques further said that the hegemony of a Western notion of modernity had most countries “aspiring to be Western”. The impact of colonisation, however, had not taken root in China like it had in most other nations — as a result, Jacques said, China was and always will be distinct from the West.

The professor said he hoped he was being “controversial” enough because heated debates “stimulate thinking”. He said the concept of unity was not just an ideal held up by the Chinese government, but was essentially ingrained in the “Chinese psyche” — even though China is indeed “diverse, and is not ruled homogenously from Beijing”. The example of Hong Kong, he said, is proof of the functional existence of a ‘one nation, two systems’ model of governance. The notion of sovereignty for China, Jacques said, is different.

How will China conduct itself as a global power? Jacques believes that with China becoming a very important market for east Asia — the renminbi, for example, is fast becoming a street currency in Cambodia — nations like Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia shall have to deal with the spillage of China’s dynamic economic growth over its borders, and will themselves be “reconfigured” in the process.

But Jacques is of the opinion that, in spite of this, China shall not be a replica of the US behaviourally — for example, “China has no tradition of maritime expansion”. It is a continental power, a huge country concerned with keeping the Middle Kingdom intact.

Going back to the question of Chinese unity, Jacques said that in spite of being a nation of roughly 1.3 billion, the Chinese people considered themselves to be “one race”. He conceded that this resulted in a lack of respect for cultural differences. However, he added, “the Chinese state is not the Achilles heel of China”.

He used Italy — “a nation that has had more elections than I have had hot dinners” — as an example of a nation where democracy has not delivered the legitimacy of the state. In China, he said, the state “enjoys legitimacy even without democracy” because it is the “defender” and the “expression” of the Chinese civilisation.

When the interactive session with the audience began, there were many dissenting voices — China is, after all, a sensitive topic of discussion in India. One guest disagreed with Jacques’s claim about the absence of China’s maritime expansion by pointing out Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

When asked how India should approach diplomatic dealings with China, Jacques made no bones about the fact that “India is fazed by China”. He added that India needed to sort out its border issues with China more than the latter needed to. For this, he said, political will in India is desperately needed. He also said that India needed to look at China as an example of how a developing nation could transform itself.

As a final word, he said that one of the only things China needed to consider seriously was how to shift its economy from being one that depended on cheap labour to one that was more innovative and less imitative. The moderator summed up the evening’s lecture by saying that a nation needs four pillars on which to stand and flourish — a large land mass, which provides resources; a great number of people to exploit those resources; a healthy economy, and a strong military. All of these, he said, China does already have. He did, however, rule out the possibility of war with China.

The evening ended with a vote of thanks being given to Jacques and Roy by the director of the Aspen Institute.