Reviewing Martin Jacques ‘When China Rules The World’

China Has No Wish To Rule, OK

by Gwydion M. Williams

Some time in the 21st century, China is likely to be the single greatest power in the world. Is this anything to worry about?

It’s obviously a worry for the fans of ‘Sub-Americanisation’, the global movement to impose US values on everyone. Martin Jacques is one such, and expresses his fears in a book called When China Rules The World. [A] But before looking at the book, it’s worth taking a look at the author and the odd political history that he emerged from.

Martin Jacques became well-known as editor of Marxism Today, the main theoretical journal of Britain’s pro-Moscow Communist Party’s during its years of decline. The years of decline for everything that looked to Moscow for guidance. From 1968 onwards – after the suicidal suppression of a sensible reform movement in Czechoslovakia – I was one of many on the Left who were definite that they were a lost cause.

I didn’t follow Marxism Today closely, but I’m pretty sure they never said that the Left in Britain pretty much defeated itself. Said nothing when Workers Control was a serious issue in the 1970s and was denounced by the Communist Party and the Trotskyists as something that would delay the immanent collapse of capitalism. Failed to point out the self-destructive nature of wages militancy. Then when the movement he’d served collapsed, Jacques declared that history had all along made the triumph of the New Right inevitable. During the rise of Thatcherism, he and his associates managed to give a flattering description of this new force in politics. He and his associates found a niche within Globalisation. You could call them the Marxism Deceased group, and I doubt they’ve served their new masters any better than they served their old.

What’s happening now is that China is rising by ignoring Western ‘wisdom’: keeping a one-party authoritarian government and a successful Mixed Economy. The state intrudes everywhere and private property is insecure, but this has continued to be a winning formula. The West won the Cold War by its own version of the Mixed Economy, the so-called Keynesian system in which state power became much bigger and more intrusive than it had been in the past. The USA’s Military-Industrial Complex might have been morally odious, but it was a very successful engine of growth. Huge numbers of useful products emerged from the process, including microchips and the first versions of the internet. Meantime ‘Big Science’ at CERN, Europe’s centre for research into subatomic particles, happened to spawn the World Wide Web at a place where there was no pressure to make a quick profit or generate marketable ideas.[J]

Real-world business success is something very different from what Thatcher or Reagan believed it to be. Reagan managed to re-invigorate the system by big military spending. Taxes were not cut, though they were shifted away from the rich and onto the working mainstream of society. The role of the state didn’t really shrink. But the heirs of Reagan and Thatcher remained convinced that it was the ‘miracle of the market’ that mattered. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia, the former Soviet Republics and the various former Soviet satellites in Middle-Europe were ‘helped’ on the basis of this theory. They saw their economies decline sharply, which was tolerable in Middle-Europe and in those ex-Soviet nations that had long wanted to go their own way. In Russia it discredited Western values, with even Yeltsin finally realised he’d blundered. Yeltsin’s last act was maybe the only wise thing he’d done since he’d transformed from Oppositionist to Leader. He appointed Putin, who began the long path to recovery.

Meantime many part-Westernised Chinese saw how Russia had been treated and decided that Deng had actually been right to stop a similar collapse when it might have happened during the Tiananmen Protests. Meantime the Western media have become evasive on the topic, avoiding any detailed analysis and presenting the crack-down as an act of viciousness that happened for no clear reason. But the build-up of demonstrations from small beginnings process was very similar to the cycles of protests that knocked over European Leninism, even in places like Albania and Romania that were not immediately dependent on Moscow.

Of course European Leninists had been getting ever more demoralised when they saw that history wasn’t going their way. Many dedicated Communists lost belief after the 1956 invasion of Hungary. Even more after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, which might have allowed European Leninism to evolve along a much more left-wing path than actually happened. Losing the space race with the US getting to the moon in 1969 was also demoralising. European Leninism could have made the point that NASA was a gigantic state-funded bureaucracy and that a lot of the USA’s success had come from applying Soviet methods to a society that had been educated and industrialised for several generations. They could have recognised that they were facing a Mixed Economy rather than classical capitalism. But they preferred to hang onto classical Marxist formulas, the enemy were wicked capitalists and Moscow’s way was the inevitable future. Yet the USA and Western Europe got over their 1970s crisis and quietly junked most traditional ‘bourgeois’ social values, something that should not have been possible according to Marxist theory. By 1989, European Leninism no longer knew what it wanted or what it believed.

Chinese Leninism wasn’t particularly demoralised. They’d restored Chinese dignity after decades of dismal failure by a reforming Imperial system and several versions of a Western-style Republic. They’d shown that they could modernise China without outside help, as happened from 1959 to 1971. They’d also shown that they could take advantage of Western investment without losing control of it and without conceding economic sovereignty, a process that begun in Mao’s last years but was greatly extended by Deng. And it turned out that Deng was still a convinced Leninist, in some ways still a Maoist, willing to treat even the Cultural Revolution as a mistake rather than a crime. He re-affirmed his Maoist alignment during private debates during the crisis, if you believe what’s said in the Tiananmen Papers. He was carrying on the work of the ‘first generation’ of leadership, which he defined as Mao, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De. He also said

“When we were in Jiangxi in the 1930s, everyone spoke of me as part of the Mao faction. But that was never the case; there was never any Mao faction. It’s crucial to be able to tolerate and unite with people on all sides of issues”.[X]

Deng’s daughter confirmed this in her book about Deng’s life up until 1949. [B] She emphasises her father’s closeness to Mao during the years when Chinese Communism was sorting out its distinct identity. She also emphasises Deng’s part in the crossing of the Yangtze River, which ended the possibility of the Kuomintang hanging onto the South after the Communists took the North. She is quite definite that Chiang Kai-Shek betrayed China’s future in 1927 by calling a halt to what had been a national-democratic revolution based on the ideas of Sun Yatsen. She seems typical of a China that has recovered a clear idea of what it was doing.

Jacques treats the Tiananmen Protests as marginal, speaking just of “a massive student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that was brutally suppressed by the army.” [T] The regime was fighting for its survival, and survival usually is a brutal matter. States that can’t suppress open challenges to their authority don’t last long, but they also need to be sure enough of their own virtue that they can see brutality as morally justified.

The men who built first the British state and then the British Empire always saw their own acts of brutality as morally justified – and their own women mostly cheered them on. Maybe we need a book called something like A Brief History of British State Brutality, just to keep things in perspective. A logical starting-point would be the Norman invasion of 1066, with whole villages and later whole counties ‘laid waste’ in order to suppress resistance. And continuing right through to the suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya between 1952 and 1960, with mass detention, torture and mutilation used to defend some 30,000 British settlers from the Kikuyu whose land they had taken. (No one has ever been punished, though legal moves are continuing.)

States survive by doing whatever is necessary to for their survival. During the 1991 coup that briefly overthrew Gorbachev and which was the last gasp of the dying Soviet Union, I watched a British news broadcast, BBC2’s Newsnight if I remember correctly. The Western pundits were talking about a brutal crackdown, but the program showed pictures of Soviet troops in armoured vehicles being harassed by some increasingly confident demonstrators. I felt then the whole thing was collapsing, as indeed it did over the next few days. Boris Yeltsin showed sound instincts by briefly banning the Communist Party, but thereafter he dithered and proved to be a hopeless leader for the new Russia.

With hindsight, it looks as if Chinese Communism came close to collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Which would probably have meant a general collapse, because China has no strong tradition of respecting elections, and none at all of successful multi-party government. The Revolution of 1911 led to Western electoral forms being copied, but it’s not the same thing as introducing a marketing franchise like Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s, both of which China now has. But fast food thrives because some people like it, and its vendors need not worry if others or even a majority avoid them or despise them. A business can flourish by meeting the needs or desires of part of the society, and need not worry about the welfare of the society as a whole. But large prosperous and diverse societies are not at all natural, they get built up slowly over many centuries and are always at risk. Any society beyond the simple tribal level needs a state and a government to defend it, or sometimes to force changes on it.

A functional government has to be able to contain or strike down all possible challenges, while still being respected by the mass of the population. After the fall of the Imperial system, no one apart from the Chinese Communists have been able to manage it across China’s huge and highly diverse territory. It seems very unlikely that the mixed bag of protestors in Tiananmen in 1989 could have managed it.

The last attempt to form a society from scratch was the Chinese Revolution of 1911-12, and it was no improvement on the late Imperial system. Very few Chinese in the early years of the Republic accepted the notion that the party with the most Members of Parliament had an inherent right to rule. It was also quite common for Chinese provinces to declare themselves independent of the central government when they disliked the central government and felt the centre need not be feared. This was how China had disintegrated after 1911 and never did get back together until 1949.

The Chinese Communists were able to take over smoothly in 1949 because they’d been running their own state structures since the late 1920s. It was simply a question of expanding existing forms to include the whole nation. What wasn’t feasible was to share power – there was no one else fit to share it with, after the main body of the Kuomintang rejected the idea of a coalition government just after World War Two. Mao in the Cultural Revolution was trying to curb the power of the administrative machine that he’d played a large part in building. But it turned out that young enthusiasts released from party discipline could create only chaos. Mao largely restored the same administrative machine, though with reservations. After his death, Deng and others rejected the very idea that it should ever be challenged again. But he also allowed for more flexibility, the possibility of the system improving itself without losing its essential nature.

According to The Tiananmen Papers, Deng took a clear line.

“Of course we want to build socialist democracy, but we can’t possibly do it in a hurry, and still less do we want that Western-style stuff. If our one billion people jumped into multiparty elections, we’d get chaos like the ‘all-out civil war’ we saw during the Cultural Revolution. You don’t have to have guns and canon to have a civil war, fists and clubs will do just fine… Our adversaries are not in fact those students but people with ulterior motives… their goal is to set up a bourgeois republic on the Western model.” [Y]

Had Zhao Ziyang won during the power-struggle of May-June 1989 – it’s been widely suggested that he used and encouraged the protests as a way of throwing off Deng Xiaoping’s paramount leadership – could he actually have made a coherent new China? I’ve read his book Prisoner of the State [D], and the most worrying possibility is that the man was indeed telling the truth as he saw it. Did he really not see it as a prospective overthrow of Communist Party, of the sort that happened in Middle-Europe later on that same year, and then in the Soviet Union itself in 1991? You don’t even need hindsight to see it so: I recall the BBC discussing the Tiananmen crisis in just those terms during the days before the violent dispersal of the protests.

Of course Gorbachev didn’t see it either, and still does not. Having once been a world leader, he has shrunk to a marginal figure occasionally given a platform by the Western media and despised by his own people.

Could such a thing have happened in China? The key figure in 1989 was a man called Wan Li, an ally of the Western-minded Zhao Ziyang. He had made his name as a pioneer of Deng’s encouragement of household-based agriculture – not exactly private, even today all land is state land, but he promoted a system in which families ran their own farms and the Communes ceased to matter much. In 1989 he was Chairman of the National People’s Congress – effectively the chief man in China’s Parliament, though the National People’s Congress was a weak body and his post was rated below that of the State Presidency. But he might theoretically have called together the Congress and changed the nature of the state, as did happen later on in the Leninist states of Middle-Europe. I don’t have a written source, but I’m definite I heard a BBC analysis that was expecting just that.

Wan Li was on an official visit to the United State during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and made speeches sympathetic to the student movement. Some of the protestors planned a demonstration to welcome him back to Beijing in late May.[E] But instead he returned to Shanghai, having been told to go there by the senior party leaders.[F] There he was met by Jiang Zemin and others who tried to persuade him to oppose the protests. It’s been suggested that he was temporarily put under house arrest: if he was then he was soon won over by Jiang, who at that time was boss of Shanghai and had handled student protests in Shanghai with some cleverness and without violence. We don’t know what was discussed between those senior leaders. What we do know is that Wan Li expressed conditional support for the leadership on May 27th, suggesting that a tiny minority of the protestors were conspiring to overthrow the government.[G] He kept his position until he retired in 1993, one of many reformers who stayed lukewarm at a critical time.

The system might have collapsed then – but what would have followed it? Unlike Middle-Europe, there was no older tradition of Western-style democracy to revive. In 1914, most of Middle-Europe was split between the German, Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist Russian Empires. Each of these had systems of multi-party elections, thought parliaments had to share power with the hereditary monarch. Had World War One not happened, or had it been ended in early 1915 on the basis that neither side had won, it is reasonable to suppose that the Empires could have evolved into peaceful Federations and that a lot of human misery and death could have been avoided.

The USA’s blundering policies after 1989 include a lot of misunderstandings, including a notion that they brought democracy to most of Europe, when it actually existed almost everywhere when they stepped into Europe’s war in 1917. That’s one of a whole raft of misunderstandings that ensured that their brief period as the world’s only Superpower has translated into very little they can boast about.

Jacques blames Bush Junior for the decline of the USA’s global role [C]. But Bush inherited a mess. Russia was growing increasingly distrustful of Western advice and disgusted with liberal and neoliberal ideas. In China, western models were also in retreat. He may have been hoping to intimidate China and other ‘uppity’ non-Western powers by showing the full extent of the USA’s power. But this depended on making a success of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jacques does not care to deal with the way in which the West lost its chance to absorb China into its system. There is no entry for Tiananmen in his index, nor for Wan Li. His only reference to Zhao Ziyang is on the minor matter of the man denying that racism exists in China. Jacques does correctly draw attention to odd attitudes to black people, but is content just to complain. You could suggest that they do a bit of public education, maybe programs about Satyendra Bose, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Srinivasa Ramanujan, Hindus who made impressive contributions to physics. But positive ideas are no part of the ‘Marxism Deceased’ heritage. The point is not to change the world, but simply to moan about it in various ways.

Jacques gets viewed as an expert on China: I’d view him as more of an expert on recent Western academic writing about China. Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China gives a fascinating glimpse of the modern Chinese state in its tiny beginnings in the Liberated Area in Shaanxi and Gansu. Jacques does not mention Red Star Over China, does not include it in his bibliography and quite possibly has not read it. Also missing is the book by Deng’s daughter than I mentioned earlier, as well as Deng’s own works (which are admittedly rather opaque).

Jacques does mention some of Adam Smith’s remarks about China, but second-hand from modern experts and with the Smith himself not in the bibliography. [N] Had Jacques bothered to look up Adam Smith’s remarks on China in The Wealth of Nations, he could have found the following:

“China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms in which they are described by travellers in the present times. It had perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire…The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe.”[H]

Adam Smith was wrong to suppose that China had been static since the days of Marco Polo. It had a much bigger population, and the poverty he notes may have been due to this. But he correctly puts 18th century China and India on a level with Europe. And he notes that China, at least, had been at that level for many centuries. (It would also have been true of India, but I don’t think Smith says that.)

Would Jacques have made anything of this? More likely he’d have just ignored the off-message fact, as his sources have. Europe in the 18th century was in many ways less civilised than contemporary China, but it was also not burdened by the heritage of thousands of years of continuous high culture. Chinese governments before Mao had no wish to break with its past – and Mao was continuously fighting the dead weight of tradition during the quarter century that he ruled. A lot of what Mao is now criticised for should be seen in the context of fighting centuries of accumulated habits – bad habits that have managed to partly re-asserted themselves after his death. No European moderniser faced such a problem, in part because Europe has no single culture that can be viewed as ‘traditional’. Europe is a hybrid, having roots in Latin, Greek and Germanic culture, with lesser elements of Celtic and Slavonic and a Christian tradition that was West-Asian in origin. 18th century Europe had no real choice except to find its own adjustments to an accumulation of wealth and knowledge that hadn’t existed since Roman times. Smith’s contemporary Gibbon looked back to the final run of pagan Roman emperors as a human optimum that modern Europeans should strive to recreate. But it was just one of many models – the later Christianised empire had been the ideal for centuries, while the Roman Republic was becoming the model for radicals.

Jacques notes correctly that China in Smith’s day was not behind Europe, and wonders why it became so. Adam Smith saw deeper and noticed that China then was static, Europe dynamic. On this basis, no one should be surprised that it took strong government and intense faith to force China to absorb what Europe had to offer.

Mao was in many ways a much more Western mind that any ruler of China before or since. He wanted to wholly remake China according to what Marx and Lenin had wanted to create in Europe. Later rulers have been more modest in their aims, allowing a lot of Chinese traditions to be asserted, some of them superstitious. They also no longer have a global Communist movement to feel a part of. They have for now settled for running their own country and letting the rest of the world go as it pleases.

Jacques spends some time arguing that the global spread of English is threatened by the rise of China. He notes in passing that Spanish is one of the Big Three, along with English and Standard Chinese (Mandarin). He doesn’t ask, why has Spanish made so little progress outside of its own areas? A language has four possible sources of strength: a lot of native speakers, a high cultural status beyond its home area, one or more powerful state that pushes it and the accepted status of a neutral medium of communication. In Western Europe, Latin and Greek had high cultural status, while French used to be the language that educated people learned in order to communicate with educated foreigners. German had something of that status in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But English in increasingly taking over the ‘neutral medium of communication’ role, not just for Europe but globally.

Mandarin suffers the disadvantage of having few major groups of Mandarin-speakers outside of the People’s Republic. Taiwan – claimed as part of China – is one, though it also has its own regional dialects. Singapore is another, with Mandarin imposed on ethnic Chinese who mostly spoke other Chinese dialects, but English is also widespread and many Singaporeans are bilingual. Most overseas Chinese speak some distinct Chinese dialect, though in Hong Kong they are now increasingly learning Mandarin. I can’t see Mandarin having any great range outside of the areas where it is already spoken, whereas English is becoming the standard second language almost everywhere.

In China itself, you see English in almost all of the places a foreigner might go. Not only English-speaking visitors: outsiders can more-or-less follow foreign road-signs in any country that uses a familiar alphabet, but ideograms are utterly meaningless to all visitors except Japanese, Koreans and Overseas Chinese. On their fast motorways, road signs are generally in ideograms and in a rather odd English that probably matches the Chinese word-order – perhaps serving as a kind of outdoor lesson for Chinese seeking to improve their English and foreigners seeking to read Chinese.

That’s language – English is almost certain to keep its global place. Jacques can also be very inaccurate about Chinese history. He says:

“China… has occupied roughly similar territory – certainly in terms of where the great majority of the population live – for almost two millennia. When the Roman Empire was in the process of fragmentation into many smaller states, China was moving in the opposite direction, acquiring a unity which has, despite long periods of Balkanisation, lasted until the present”. [K]

There has been some sort of powerful Empire on the Yellow River for maybe 4000 years, with the ancestor of Chinese writing found on Shang oracle bones from 1200 BC. The Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang and then gradually lost authority, while still claiming to be Rulers of China until 256 BC. In 221 the Qin Dynasty reunified the country, at least it was seen as a re-unification of what ought to be a single state. Even if you say that the Qin Emperor was the first real Emperor, the system lasted a little over 21 centuries, ending when the last Emperor was deposed in 1911-12.

Within those 21 centuries, the worst fragmentation was the 361 years between the last Han Dynasty emperor and the first Sui Dynasty emperor. That’s 220 AD to 581 AD, which about covers the actual break-up of the Roman Emperor in the West. Rome had a half-century crisis from 235 to 284, though there was usually a single Roman Emperor at any given time, while China had several rival dynasties. The Roman Empire also rallied under Diocletian and had another century of coherent rule, ending in 395 with the death of Theodosius, the last man to rule both Western and Eastern halves of the Empire. But a few decades before the Sui Dynasty re-unified China, the Emperor Justinian and his general Belisarius had reconquered North Africa, Italy and part of Spain. As it happened, the Sui Dynasty were short-lived but were succeeded by the Tang Dynasty, which lasted for nearly three centuries, while the partly restored Roman Empire was hit by the rise of Islam. But I doubt if anyone at the time would have guessed that the Roman Empire would dwindle from then on, whereas the Chinese Empire would never have another such period of fragmentation.

China did have long periods split into two or three large fragments, most notably the Southern Sung. Jacques correctly describes Sung China as a time of innovation, but wrongly credits it with woodblock printing, which had begun centuries earlier under the Tang Dynasty. [N]

He also gets Japan muddled, saying

“Japan, this, lived in the shadow of China for some 14 centuries, for most of that time as one of its tributary states, paying tribute to the Chinese emperor and acknowledging the superiority of Chinese civilisation.” [L]

Japan took a lot from China, including the script, which however they quickly adapted to create several different phonetic system. The Japanese view was that they had improved on what they’d taken from China, and it was certainly different. The Japanese Emperor tried to establish relations with China on the basis of two equal Empires, the Rising Sun and the Setting Sun, but this was unacceptable to China. Thereafter there were no direct relation between the two states, except that Kublai Khan as Great Khan and Emperor of China twice tried to conquer Japan, and later one Shogun did acknowledge the Ming Emperor as his superior, though this was never repeated.

Jacques also quotes another author saying that:

“Japan’s conceptions of her Emperor is one that is found over and over among the islands of the Pacific. He is the Sacred Chief who may or may not take part in administration… But always his person was sacred.” [M]

Actually that’s a global pattern. China’s Emperor was also a Sacred Chief who performed annual sacrifices to keep balance between Earth and Heaven. It was common for deposed Emperors to be kept alive and comfortable till they died of natural causes – this even happened with the last Emperor, whom the Communists chose to rehabilitate as a gardener, despite his role as a Japanese puppet in the invasion of China. Of course most Chinese Emperors have been the actual administrators, or at least delegated it to trusted ministers who they could usually choose to dismiss. But in Europe there were puppet Emperors in the Western Roman Empire long after the last Emperor who actually ruled. Among the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty began as rulers but became figureheads for the Carolingian dynasty. The Merovingians kept their hair long, and the last of them was symbolically deposed by being shaved and sent to a monastery. And Timur (Tamurlane), whose father was a mere tribal chief, kept a puppet khan who was a descendant of Genghis Khan.

The survival of an archaic ‘Sacred Monarchy’ was maybe very lucky for Japan. The actual rulers when Japan faced the threat of the West were the Tokugawa shoguns. The ‘Meiji Restoration’ scrapped the entire existing system of government and created a new one based on lower-ranking Samurai who hadn’t been sufficiently well-born to have a major share in government under the old system. Yet the new system had massive legitimacy because it was headed by the Emperor, the sacred ruler in the eyes of most of the people. Both radicals and reactionaries could work within the same framework.

Japan had one other advantage – its trade with the West was small and well-balanced, so that the West didn’t organise large-scale opium smuggling of the sort that did so much to weaken China before Mao. When Jacques discusses the fact that Japan and China both tried to modernise from the 1860s but that China failed miserably, he does not mention the inherent unlikelihood of a society rotted by narcotics managing such a very difficult change.[P]

Jacques goes along with the standard Western condemnation of Mao, while also accepting that Mao remains a popular hero – it would be hard to spend time in China without noticing that. He says:

“The key figure was Mao Zedong. Notwithstanding his colossal abuses of power, which resulted in the deaths of millions, as the architect of the revolution and the founder of an independent and unified China… a venerated figure in the eyes of many Chinese, even more than Deng Xiaoping, who presided over the reform period from 1978.” [Q]

He does not clarify what he means by ‘the deaths of millions’. There were certainly a lot of deaths in Land Reform, but this was done locally by the peasantry on the basis of specific crimes that individual landlords had committed. Before 1949 landlords could get away with murder and after 1949, some of those murders were avenged. I doubt that anyone was killed just for being a landlord, and it all depended on what their neighbours thought of those specific individuals.

(It would, incidentally, be a clever idea for China to throw open the entire countryside to foreign journalists with their own interpreters who wished to investigate the matter. Get first-hand accounts while some of those involved are still alive, and let foreigners understand what the actual issues were.)

Then there was the food shortages following the Great Leap Forward. The norm for Western critics is to compare Mao to Mao in order to condemn Mao. The death-rate doubled in the ‘Three Bitter Years’ of 1959 to 1961, so if you look at this in isolation, you can accuse Mao of causing the death of millions. But the death-rate in China had fallen dramatically since 1949, and remained unusually low for a poor developing country for the rest of Mao’s rule. It was and remains distinctly better than the death-rate in the Republic of India, where the poor have generally been neglected.

There were wild stories of millions of deaths during the Cultural Revolution. These aren’t now taken seriously by any Western source I’ve seen.

Having said the standard things against Mao, Jacques then zigzags, saying

“Despite the wild vicissitudes of Mao’s rule, China achieved the impressive annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent between 1950 and 1980, more than quadrupling the country’s GDP and more than doubling its per capita GDP. This compared favourably with India, which only managed to increase its GPD by less than three times during the same period and its per capita GDP by around 50 per cent.” [R]

This comes in part from Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics, and maybe over-states it. If Maddison is correct then the GDP growth under Mao was a little less than a quadrupling and the GDP per head was not quite a doubling. Still, it is good to see some acknowledgement of what Mao managed. A better scholar might also have asked, ‘aren’t wild vicissitudes normal in periods of dramatic change’? In plain English, isn’t it normal for big changes to need a major shake-up and a really severe attitude towards all those trying to hang on to old ways?

Mao’s economic record is even more impressive when you consider that China operated more or less alone from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Not just shut out of the global economy, but continuously having to fear invasion from the USA, and also from the Soviet Union from the mid-1960s. It gets forgotten that it was Mao who made peace with the USA and laid the basis for Deng’s opening-up. It we imagine that Mao had died in 1969 and that Deng had come to power in the ensuing succession struggle, could he have reversed two decades of hostility to the USA in the way Mao did? In the USA they are fond of saying ‘only Nixon could go to China’, correctly noting that his long-standing right-wing record made him safe from criticism. But if only Nixon could go, probably only Mao could have welcomed him in. And if (slightly improbably) there had been a set of friendly socialist governments in the wider world during Mao’s rule, might he have achieved just as good a growth-rate as Deng?

Mao’s break with the Soviet Union was seen as crazy at the time. In the light of the final ignominious collapse of that system, it now looks inspired. The ‘Three Bitter Years’ of 1959 to 1961 established that China did not take orders from Moscow, persisting in being independent in the face of some hardship. The contrast between Mao’s ‘wild vicissitudes’ and the order and stability imposed by Brezhnev after 1968 look rather different now than they did at the time. William Blake was onto something when he said “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. [S]

Multi-party government of the sort that’s existed in the Republic of India prevents excess and also prevents efficient authoritarian solutions to drastic social problems. Yet India represents an optimum, the most successful implementation of the odd Western system that expects societies to fight a bloodless civil war every few years, with the possibility of all existing politics being overturned. India had several decades of elections to relatively powerless assemblies under the supervision of the British Raj, which retained all of the basics of power. India also managed to produce a remarkable party in the Indian Congress Party, given moral authority by Mahatma Ghandi’s long struggle. Yet the system failed to contain most of the subcontinent’s Muslims, who split off as Pakistan, initially West Pakistan and East Pakistan but with East Pakistan being helped by India to secede as Bangladesh after one of Pakistan’s interludes of multi-party elections.

You’ll probably have guessed I am going to strongly disagree with Jacques’ definition of democracy, the standard view of modern Western pundits.

“In Western eyes, the test of a country’s politics and governance is the existence or otherwise of democracy, with this defined in terms of universal suffrage and a multi-party system. The last fifty years have seen a huge increase in the number of countries that boast some kind of democracy.” [V]

Democracy actually means ‘the people in charge’. It includes people from very ordinary backgrounds getting the highest jobs. Also a flattening of hierarchies, with much less privilege and much less deference from those at the top. An election on a wide franchise is just one path to a functional democracy, always supposing that the state machine is already built and is reasonably effective.

In most countries in Western Europe, there was already an efficient state by the 18th century, run by a small aristocratic elite. The struggle for democracy was much the same as the struggle for increased power for the elected assemblies, along with a wide franchise for electing them. The rival parties assumed that they take it in turn to operate the existing machinery of state. It has never been that brilliant a system, of course. Elections only work when the differences between the various possible Parties of Government are small enough that no one thinks them worth dying for. However bitter the struggles over Thatcherism, very few wished to break the existing machinery of government. But elections can get that bitter, with the USA providing the first example with the Confederate secession after Lincoln won the 1860 election. Likewise the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s was the fairly predictable result of the Popular Front victory in elections a few months earlier.

Elections can also be a way of stifling a militantly democratic minority. After the Parliamentary side won the English Civil War, Cromwell in his debates with the Levellers said that if all Britons had the vote they would bring the King back. No one much doubted that this was the case, so Cromwell was accepted as a dictator for life, permanently changing Britain even though the system lost authority after his death and the King was indeed brought back with the support of the majority. A century and a half later in France, a properly elected assembly got rid of their king and then executed him, but were quite unable to form a coherent government.

China after its Communist revolution experienced a degree of democratisation that would probably not have happened if China had achieved some sort of viable Republican government with Western-style elections. The Republic of India has kept far more of its traditional hierarchies and inequalities.

Jacques seems not to like China, and takes a hostile line on most issues. In his account of Tibet, he leaves out the fact that the original Lhasa-based Tibetan kingdom was an aggressive vassal of Tang Dynasty China, sacking the Chinese capital and trying to put its own candidate on the throne. Nor does he mention that Tibet was ruled by Kublai Khan and his heirs, or that Ming Dynasty China awarded titles to Tibetan dignitaries who eagerly sought the connection. He doesn’t mention that when the current Dalai Lama was established in Lhasa in 1940, this was with support of the central Chinese government, which chose him in preference to several other candidates and authorised this to happen without using the ‘Golden Urn’ that was sometimes used to settle the matter by chance. He doesn’t mention that the uprising in 1959 was largely provoked by land reform and the abolition of serfdom and slavery in Tibetan areas that had been incorporated in Chinese provinces and were not included in the promise of autonomy to Western Tibet, the lands traditionally ruled from Lhasa. Or that serfdom and slavery had been retained in Western Tibet until 1959, with the Dalai Lama showing no interest in abolishing them.

Jacques says of the March 2008 riots “there were over 120 separate protest in the various Tibetan areas, the great majority non-violent.” That’s like saying that Al Capone was non-violent most of the time – it is true in a sense, but it’s the outbreaks of violence that count. There were plenty of Western visitors who saw Tibetan rioters in Lhasa attack ordinary Han Chinese. Some were killed, including five young women burnt alive in a dress shop.[AD]

Jacques also says “Rather than seeing the Great Wall as a line of fortified defences against the nomads, it is more appropriate to regard it as the outer perimeter of an expanding Chinese empire.” [Z] Actually there were many versions of the Great Wall, and the earlier versions were generally further north than the Ming Great Wall, the final version that modern tourists visit. There was a general retreat south, in part caused by a drying-up of Central Asia. But some version of the wall was necessary, because nomads never kept the peace, either in China or anywhere else they bordered on rich civilised lands. Han Chinese only managed to spread into those lands under the Manchu Dynasty, which was of nomad origin and which ruled both sides of the various walls.

It’s also peculiar that Jacques believes that China wishes to rule the world, rather than simply establish itself in a position suitable for its large population and growing wealth. He does refer to the ‘tributary system’:

“Until the later decades of the nineteenth century, China enjoyed overwhelming regional dominance… It was a hierarchical system of relations whose tentacles stretched across much of East Asia, with China at its centre… the [Chinese] emperor generally pursued a policy of non-interference, leaving domestic matters to the local ruler. It was thus as essentially cultural and moral rather than administrative or economic system… Korea, part of Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar all paid tribute to China, while a large number of South-East Asian states, including Malacca and Thailand, either paid tribute or acknowledged Chinese suzerainty.” [AB]

Actually the various countries had a very different history of relations. Korea pulled itself together as a single kingdom in the 10th century. For most of that time was functionally independent, though the Mongols conquered it. A new dynasty established an independent Korea near the end of the 14th century, at about the same time as the Ming Dynasty was established in China. Korea accepted vassal status so as to be able to trade with China, where no equal and independent rulers could be recognised. It also needed Chinese aid when Japan invaded towards the end of the 15th century. Thereafter it largely lived its own life, until a newly modernised Japan broke its relations with China and then annexed it in 1910.

The northern part of what became Vietnam had been a Chinese province under the Han and Tang dynasties. It then became independent, co-existing with the Sung dynasty and expanding south. The Mongols, the Ming Dynasty and the Manchu Dynasty all made a serious effort to reconquer it, and all failed. For a lot of the time, the ruler of Vietnam was officially ranked as an Emperor, recognises as such by China, though not viewed as an equal. The failure of the Ming Dynasty to impose real authority on Vietnam may have played a part in their abandonment of the overseas voyages that had got as far as East Africa.

When Jacques says that ‘part of Japan’ paid tribute to China, he must mean the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa Prefecture to the Japanese. This was originally an independent kingdom that accepted the status of a tributary to China in order to trade with China. It was conquered by the Satsuma Clan in Japan in 1609. But if the Wikipedia account is accurate, it thereafter pretended to be still independent, so that it could be seen as a tributary to China and continue to trade, often with Japanese goods.[AC] But it was tributary to China before it became part of Japan, and was only really absorbed into Japan after the Meiji Restoration.

Different again was China’s relations with Tibet, Mongolia and what is now Xinjiang. There, the relationship was usually one of formal Chinese superiority, but often the ‘vassal’ was out of control and extorting wealth from their theoretical superior. Unlike the Roman system of tribute, the flow was never the other way round, it was never a matter of China draining wealth from its official inferiors. China was usually richer, but on the basis of its own production and with both sides benefiting from trade. There had usually been some sort of control, though intermittent for Tibet, which frequently had no recognisable central government. In the 18th century, taking note of Russian pressure on what is now Xinjiang and also British interest in Tibet, the Manchu Dynasty established officials called Ambans to impose more direct control on Tibet, Mongolia and part of Xinjiang. In Xinjiang the system failed, with a major revolt by the Hui Muslims. It was re-conquered and officially made a Chinese province in 1884.

When China decided it had to modernise after losing the Second Opium War, it did so on the basis of what it actually controlled, which included Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang. This was broadly accepted by the rest of the world, though one faction in Korea tried to hang on to the Chinese connection in the face of Japanese aggression. Vietnam also found the Chinese link useful in the face of French pressure, but France then was much stronger and forced an official separation. All those links were severed and no one at all suggested that they be revived. What you have now is a set of distinct nation-states, each with its own history of national self-assertion against European imperialism – and also Japanese imperialism for some of them.

Since the 1870s, China has tried to function as a very large nation-state, part of the world system. But it tried this at the height of European imperialism, and was always under threat of being conquered or partitioned. After 1949 it was able to assert its own identity and also modernise. From the 1960s it has been recognised as the third-ranking power in the world, moving to second after the Soviet collapse. The current crisis has considerably narrowed the gap between China and the USA, though it is still vast. China also has no obvious allies: relations with both Japan and Vietnam are always likely to be cool, while more distant countries find its culture alien.

China has taken a moderate line so far, helping Russia when Putin was rebuilding its strength, seeking globally to shift power to a broad G20 forum, not repeating Khrushchev’s error of pretending to be a superpower equal to the USA. Whatever happens to the USA, China is always going to be much less powerful than the combined strength of the other 18 sovereign nations of the G20, which consists of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States of America, along with a representative of the European Union.[AE] To ‘rule the world’ would need a cluster of allies – the USA can usually count on at least half the G20 countries to support it, yet cannot really control events. Even supposing China wished to rule, they’d be lucky to pick up even half a dozen of those countries as regular allies: currently none can be considered regular allies, though most make bilateral deals when it suits them. But it also seems much more likely just to ‘cultivate its own garden’ and let the world be run by consensus and sovereignty.



[A] Jacques, Martin. When China Rules the World, Allen Lane 2009, page 5

[B] Deng Maomao, Deng Xiaoping, My Father. Basic Books 1995. ‘Deng’ is of course the family name, that is the Chinese system.

[C] When China Rules the World, page 5

[D] Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State, the Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, Translated and Edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang and Adi Ignatius. Simon Schuster 2009.

[E] Zhang Liang (Compiler), The Tiananmen Papers, Little, Brown and Company, 2001, page 289.

[F] Ibid, page 263

[G] Ibid, page 305

[H] Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations, I.viii.24, page 89, Glasgow Edition of 1976

[J] []

[K] When China Rules the World, page 15

[L] When China Rules the World, page 48

[M] When China Rules the World, page 49

[N] When China Rules the World, page 80.

[P] When China Rules the World, page 97

[Q] When China Rules the World, page 95

[R] When China Rules the World, page 98

[S] Blake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

[T] When China Rules the World, page 154

[V] When China Rules the World, page 211

[W] When China Rules the World, page 252-253

[X] The Tiananmen Papers, page 328

[Y] The Tiananmen Papers, page 187-188.

[Z] When China Rules the World, page 238

[AA] []

[AB] When China Rules the World, page 274

[AC] []

[AD] []

[AE] []


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2009


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