(This column was published in DNA edition dated August 14, 2009.)
On October 1, China will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding as a modern nation-state. It is a momentous anniversary since it marks the completion of a full 60-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, and symbolises a metaphorical rebirth of an ancient civilization. To mark this milestone moment, the Chinese government will unveil a dazzling series of events to showcase the country’s evolution and ascendance, much as it did at last year’s Beijing Olympics.
The anniversary coincidentally comes at a time of Great Change in the world economic order. That coming economic powershift is underlined by the global financial meltdown of 2008 and the enfeebled nature of Western economies, coupled with China’s rapid economic growth in the 30 years since it opened up to the point where, in Goldman Sachs’ bullish estimation, it will be the world’s largest economy by 2027!
Linear projections of current economic growth trends tend to exaggerate the strengths of countries that are riding a momentum, and underplay their weaknesses. For instance, China’s growth model of the past 30 years, driven by exports to binging consumers in developed economies, is today broken. And unless China can design an alternative model, it may not be able to recreate its “economic miracle” of the past 30 years. Yet, even rather more conservative extrapolations don’t dispute the projected transformations, only the time-frame within which they will come about.
That economic eventuality and the powerfully symbolic nature of the upcoming anniversary have given rise to feverish scenario-building of what it will be like “when China rules the world”. A recent book by Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today and a columnist at The Guardian, reflects that geopolitical “certainty” in its title: When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World.
Jacques argues that China’s rise to global leadership will challenge the ‘western-centric’ view of the world, of civilizations and even of what constitutes ‘modernity’. China, he reasons, is not a nation-state, but a civilization-state, and it will draw on its civilizational strengths – among other things, a belief in a hierarchical world and on racial (Han) supremacy – to reshape the world in its image.
What does all this mean? In ancient times, China thought of itself as being the centre of the world; its Chinese name to this day – Zhong Guo (Middle Country) – reflects that Sino-centric, superior worldview (although, to be fair, such overinflated perceptions of self were widely shared in medieval times). In acknowledgement of its superiority, China historically sought ‘tribute’ from its ‘vassal states’, which when paid with the customary markers of ritual genuflection, brought in return the promise of military support and patronage. Jacques reasons that “when China rules the world”, it will establish just such a template for its relations with its neighbours and other countries farther afield. In other words, the world should prepare to ‘kowtow’ to China.
In the weeks leading up to the upcoming anniversary, China has given a graphic demonstration of how it will deal with entities that don’t pay obeisance in the manner expected of them. When the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto snubbed a Chinese state-owned company’s efforts to invest in it, and compounded that insult by refusing to yield to Chinese steel mills’ efforts to beat down iron ore prices at their annual negotiations, China detained four Rio Tinto employees; and although the initial allegation that the employees had “stolen state secrets” was subsequently dropped, the case lingers to remind the world of the folly of not kowtowing to China.
More was in store when organisers of an Australian film festival invited exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer – whom China has unconvincingly accused of having instigated last month’s riots in Xinjiang in China’s northwest – to a screening of a biographic documentary. “Patriotic” Chinese hackers attacked the festival website, and Chinese diplomats in Australia went into overdrive to lobby against the screening, prompting a stern response from the Australian foreign ministry. The diplomatic war is still to play out, symbolising the tensions that arise when China feels slighted.
India too has been at the receiving end of the dragon’s firepower, as evidenced by a series of venomous articles in the Chinese media. And even within China, a string of arrests of civil rights activists in recent weeks points to an increasing intolerance of dissent. None of these are propitious signs.
China has given the world much to admire in the way it’s gone about transforming itself in 60 years from being an impoverished, war-ravaged country to becoming a economic superpower-in-waiting. However, the advance notice it has given of how it will conduct itself when it “rules the world” doesn’t inspire confidence that its rise will be as peaceful as it claims.