February 9th 2017 marks the much-anticipated opening conference of the Leiden Asia Centre, the expertise centre for socially relevant and applicable knowledge on modern East Asia based in the Netherlands.
The conference focuses on Sino-Dutch relations and the relations between Europe and China at large.
One of today’s key speakers is British journalist and scholar Martin Jacques (@martjacques), the author of the global best-seller When China Rules the World (2009). One of his key arguments is that China’s impact on the world goes beyond economics, and that it will also have extensive political, cultural and ideological consequences.
“China is looking for the ‘cracks’ in the global system; that where it is at its weakest.”
In introducing Martin Jacques, Professor Frank Pieke, one of the three academic directors of the Leiden Asia Centre, first talks about a separate “global China”, that is different from Western patterns of globalization.
China is looking for the “cracks” in the global system; that where it is at its weakest. Its presence is growing in Africa, Latin America, and also in regions like southern Europe. China is not looking for challenges, but it is looking for space, Pieke says.
One of the reasons why this is happening, Pieke argues, is that China is hamstrung by the fact that within its own region it is often perceived as a potentially hostile power by, for example, Japan or Korea. It does not have its own sphere of influence from where it can expand into the world.
“China is not ‘like us.’ It has never been and it will never be.”
Martin Jacques agrees with Pieke in the sense that “China’s globalization” is different from “globalization” as it is often perceived in the West.
There is a fundamental problem with how China is framed and discussed in western media, politics and academia, Jacques argues, as it often come down to the idea that China should be ‘like us.’
“We are the ‘global leaders’ and we supposedly define what modernity is, and modernity is singular. And therefore modernisation is westernization, and therefore China will end up just like us. Well, this is complete rubbish,” Jacques says: “China is not ‘like us.’ It has never been and it will never be.”
Jacques stresses that the concept of ‘modernity’ is plural, and that there is not one modernity because it is not shaped in neo-liberal terms, but it is shaped by history and culture. And since China’s history and culture is profoundly different from that of any Western country, we have to understand China in its own terms – not in our terms. The main reason why Western media or politics got China “so wrong” in the last decennia, Jacques argues, is because they failed to do this.
The assumptions people have about China are therefore generally flawed, and have failed to predict how China would evolve in the future.
China is not a nation state, but a ‘civilization-state’, and is very different from any European nation state. It is a huge united country – and the fact that it is stable and unified is the country’s top priority. The key political values of the Chinese are influenced by this idea, and also fundamentally different from Europe.
Why China is politically never going to be the same as Europe is because its key political concepts of unity, stability, and order, based on its long history, are what have shaped and are shaping China.
“China has not followed anyone’s route, but has chosen its own.”
China has not followed anyone’s route, but has chosen its own, Jacques argues. “The idea that Chinese governance is going to be like Western governance is profoundly mistaken. China is not going in that direction. I am not saying they will not change – there have been large changes already – but it will change in its own ways.”
China is historically also very different from Europe in the sense that it has not colonized the way Europe has, and has been less aggressive.
“Consider that China from being dirt poor is becoming the world’s second economy, and this all in a relatively peaceful process.”
Jacques emphasizes that China is in the process of transforming the world. Not only due to its size, but also due to its difference, that is bound to going to project itself and bring its history, values, and traditions to the rest of the world.
“China is not the leader of globalization, but it is certainly true to say that China is shaping globalization profoundly.”
All discourse about China’s rise has always been economic – discussed within the framework of American hegemony. But Jacques wants to stress that the rise of China goes much further than economics alone: 1.4 billion people are in the process of transformation is all sorts of ways, which is impacting China and the world in numerous ways.
Jacques notes that China has sometimes been blamed for being a ‘free rider’ in the international society, or for not ‘contributing’ anything, but this is changing. Since Xi Jinping has risen to power there have been some extraordinary initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Jacques predicts that also through these kinds of initiatives, its influence is growing, and that those ever said China is not ‘contributing’ will be biting their tongues.
“It is not true to say China is the leader of globalization, but it is certainly true to say that China is shaping globalization profoundly.”
Jacques is pessimistic about the prospect of Sino-European relations. China is going ahead, and Europe is basically “stuck”, as it is increasingly turned inwards.
“Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei, Baidu, JD.com, Xiaomi, and other tech companies show that in many ways China is now ahead of Silicon Valley.”
Lastly, Jacques addresses the importance of China as a global power and crucial global influencer in various ways.
China’s online growth has shown it is the global leader in terms of internet commerce. Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei, Baidu, JD.com, Xiaomi, and other tech companies show that in many ways China is now ahead of Silicon Valley, with China’s online sales being well ahead of those in countries like the USA. Jacques also mentions that the functionality of apps like Weixin/WeChat is more advanced than its western counterpart Whatsapp – meaning that ‘the world’ will also be looking at China when it comes to its digital developments.
The country is also moving quickly in other ways. China is also the leader when it comes to issues such as climate change and foreign investments. He also mentions the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project (“it’s probably going to be extremely important.”)
“If Europe can’t hitch a ride with China in its transformation, then it will become marginalized.”
There is one last thing Martin Jacques wants to add to his speech, and it is about Trump, whom he calls “the most frightening president the US has ever had”, and how he will change the EU-USA-China dynamics.
Under Trump, he said, America will look after its own interests and will interact with the rest of the world in terms of bilateral relationships rather than from a plural, global position.
What will the Chinese do? “They will retaliate,” Jacques says. As China-US relations deteriorate, with China pushing America back, they will deepen the agreements with their own neighbors. The One Belt, One Road is an important part of this strategy.
Jacques foresees that the rise of Trump will also change Sino-European relations, as Europe -like China- also has little interest in Trump.
“I started off by saying Europe and China are very different, which is true,” he says. But despite his somewhat pessimistic views on Sino-European relations that find its roots in the western frameworks applied to China, there is also some light at the end of the tunnel: “Unlike the USA, both Europe and China have a long history. And there has been little rivalry with China. There is a logic for Europe to move much closer to China.”
Jacques stresses the importance for Europe to keep up with China. It is not China that needs to change, he argues – Europe does.
“China will keep marching on. China will keep its dynamic transformation. It will continue to grow. China is not the problem. Europe is. And we need to face up to that. If we can’t hitch a ride with China in its transformation, then we will become marginalized.”
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