/ / Language: English / Genre:sci_politics,

When China Rules the World

Martin Jacques

For well over two hundred years we have lived in a western-made world, one where the very notion of being modern is inextricably bound up with being western. The twenty-first century will be different. The rise of China, India and the Asian tigers means that, for the first time, modernity will no longer be exclusively western. The west will be confronted with the fact that its systems, institutions and values are no longer the only ones on offer. The key idea of Martin Jacques's ground-breaking new book is that we are moving into an era of contested modernity. The central player in this new world will be China. Continental in size and mentality, China is a 'civilisation-state' whose characteristics, attitudes and values long predate its existence as a nation-state. Although clearly influenced by the west, its extraordinary size and history mean that it will remain highly distinct, and as it exercises its rapidly growing power it will change much more than the world's geo-politics. The nation-state as we understand it will no longer be globally dominant, and the Westphalian state-system will be transformed; ideas of race will be redrawn. This profound and far-sighted book explains for the first time the deeper meaning of the rise of China. *** China Digital Times Book Review: When China Rules the World “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go: downtown.” So warbled the British singer, Petula Clark in the 1960s. However, today if solitude is your constant companion, I would suggest that you purchase a copy of this riveting book and read it on the bus and in airports — as I have been doing in recent days, with the dramatic words on the bright red cover of this weighty tome blaring insistently — and no doubt you will find, as I have, that your reading reverie will be constantly interrupted by a stream of anxious interlopers curious to know what the future may hold. For like Petula Clark, the author too hails from London, though the startling message he brings decidedly differs from her melancholy intervention. For it is the author’s conclusion that sooner rather than later, China — a nation ruled by a Communist Party — will have the most sizeable and powerful economy in the world and that this will have manifold economic, cultural, psychological (and racial) consequences. Strangely enough, Jacques — one of the better respected intellectuals in the North Atlantic community — does not dwell upon how this monumental turn of events occurred. To be sure, he pays obeisance to the leadership of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, who in 1978, opened China’s economy to massive inward foreign direct investment, which set the stage for the 21st Century emergence of the planet’s most populous nation. Yet, for whatever reason, Jacques — who once was a leading figure in the British Communist Party — does not deign to detail to the gentle reader how Beijing brokered an alliance with US imperialism, that helped to destabilize their mutual foe in Moscow, which prepared the path for the gargantuan capital infusion that has transformed China and bids fair to do the same for the world as a whole. Still, it is noteworthy that this book’s back-cover carries blurbs from the conservative economic historian, Niall Ferguson of Harvard (Henry Kissinger’s authorized biographer); the leading historian, Eric Hobsbawm; the well-known Singaporean intellectual and leader, Kishore Mahbubani (who has written a book that mirrors Jacques’ earthshaking conclusions); and a raft of Chinese thinkers who do not seem displeased nor surprised by his findings.

Martin Jacques

When China Rules the World


For Hari

My love for you knew no limits, nor has it dimmed with time.

I miss you more than words can ever say.


My interest in East Asia dates back to a visit to the region in 1993 when I also happened to meet my wife to be, Harinder Veriah, on Tioman Island, Malaysia. The idea for this book dates back to 1996. In 1997-8 contracts were signed and plans drawn up for us to be based in Hong Kong for three years. At the beginning of November 1998 we arrived in Hong Kong with our nine-week-old son, Ravi. Just fourteen months later, Hari died in the most tragic circumstances. It was five years before I could resume work on the book. I would like to thank everyone who, in their different ways, gave support and helped me survive the darkest days anyone could possibly imagine, especially Marlene Hobsbawm, Karena Ghaus, Ian Selvan, Rabindra Singh, Jasvinder Kaur, Graham Huntley, Joe Collier, Stuart Hall, Antonio Borraccino, Selvi Sandrasegaram, Paul Webster, Dhiren Norendra, Bob Tyrrell, Frances Swaine, Douglas Hague and Shariza Noordin.

I am very grateful to Eric Hobsbawm (a very close friend for over thirty years), Niall Ferguson (who first planted the idea in my mind that I should write this book), Christopher Hughes and Arne Westad for reading the manuscript and making many valuable suggestions as to how it might be improved and hopefully at least saving me from the worst of my mistakes and indiscretions. Chen Kuan-Hsing read Chapter 8 and has discussed many of the ideas in it with me over the last few years. I, of course, remain solely responsible for the book as it now appears, warts and all.

I would like to express my gratitude to Tony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, and Meghnad Desai, then chairman of the Asia Research Centre, who arranged for me to become a visiting research fellow at the Centre in 2004, a connection which has continued to this day. I am also now a senior visiting fellow at the LSE’s IDEAS, an association for which I would like to thank Michael Cox and Odd Arne Westad. I was a visiting professor at the International Centre for Chinese Studies, Aichi University, Nagoya, for four months in early 2005, where I received splendid hospi-tality from Professor Mitsuyuki Kagami and Professor Kazumi Yamamoto, who I would like to thank most warmly. For three separate periods in 2005-6 I was a visiting professor at Renmin University, which I enjoyed immensely; in particular I would like to thank my generous host, Professor Song Xinning. In autumn 2005 I was invited by Professor Nishi to be a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, which proved rewarding. I spent four months at the beginning of 2006 as a senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, for which I would like to thank the then Director Professor Anthony Reid. These visits assisted me enormously in both my research and writing.

The Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust gave me generous financial assistance to enable me to carry out my research. Having had the privilege of knowing both while they were still alive, I hope they would think their money has been put to good purpose. I am grateful to the trustees for their support.

During the course of 1999, before my wife died, I spent almost a month in each of Shanghai, Tokyo and Taipei. I am very grateful to the following for sparing me the time to share their ideas with me: Dai Badi, Tong Shijun, Gu Xiao-ming, Xie Xia-ling, Melvin Chu, Jiao Chun-xue, Ma Lian-yuan, Wang Xiaoming, Wu Jiang, Yang Qingqing, Christopher Tibbs, Lu Hao, Ge Jianxiong, Zhou Jun, Shen Kai, Graham Earnshaw, Sun Xiaolong, Cao Jingyuan, Chen Xiaoming, Teng Xuekun, Yu Zhiyuan, Yu Ming, Qiao Yiyi, Zhang Xiaoming, Wang Jianxiong, Huang Yongyi, James Harding, Ma Chengyuan, Shen Guanbao, Gao Rui-qian, Frank Gao, Hsu Feng, Qui Genxiang, Kevin Tan, Ji Guoxing, Xu Jilin, Bao Mingxin, Qiao Yiyi, Lu Yongyi (Shanghai); Chen Kuan-Hsing, Sechin Yung-xiang Chien, Chu-Joe Hsia, Liang Lu, Ling Mei, Hsu Hsin-liang, Hung Tze Jan, Stan Lai, Johnny Tuan, Bing C. P. Chu, Sen Hong Yang, Sheena Hsu, Wei-Chung Wang, Ti-Nan Chi, Ku Chung-Hwa, Yun-Peng Chu, Wan-Wen Chu, Chihyu Shih, Andrew Nien-Dzu Yang, Ping Lu, Jian-San Feng, Edward Wong, Szu-Yin Ho, Chen-Kuo Hsu, Chunto Tso, Chieh-Fu Chen, Chiang Sung, Hsiung-Ping Chiao, Christopher R. Fay, Benny T. Hu, Allen Chun, Antonio Chang, W. S. Lin, Darlene Lee (Taipei); Chie Nakane, Kiyoshi Kojima, Kosaku Yoshino, Kiyohiko Fukushima, Tatsuro Hanada, Shunya Yoshimi, Noriko Hamo, Yukiko Kuroda, Mitsutoshi Kato, Odaka Naoko, Tadashi Nakamae, Peter Tasker, Martin Reeves, Takashi Kiuchi, Yoichi Funabashi, Kiichi Fujiwara, Shinji Fukukawa, Toshiya Uedo, Sahoko Kaji, Takashi Yamashita, Kang Sangjung, Yoshiji Fujita, Masa moto Yashiro, Sadaaki Numata, Richard Jerram, Valerie Koehn, Mark Dytham, Astrid Klein, Tetsuo Kanno, Tadashi Yamamoto (Tokyo).

I am grateful to Kenneth Yeang, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Mohamed Arif Nun, Jomo Kwame Sundaran, Shad Saleem Faruqi, Francis Yeoh Sock Ping and many others for interviews in Kuala Lumpur. In particular, I owe a large debt of gratitude to the late Noordin Sopiee, who always found time to chew the fat during my frequent visits. Although Hong Kong was more a base than a place for field research, I would like to mention Frank Ching, John Gittings, Oscar Ho, Andy Xie, Christine Loh, Lian Yi-Zheng and K. Y. Tang, again amongst many others, who gave of their time. During a visit to San Francisco I gained a better insight into the Chinese community there, especially through my conversations with L. Ling-Chi Wang and Albert Cheng. I interviewed Xin Hu, Miles Lee, Zhang Jiansen and Charlie Zheng in Shenzhen. I would particularly like to thank Wang Gungwu, Geoff Wade, Kishore Mahbubani, Chua Beng Huat and Anthony Reid for spending time with me during my stay in Singapore. Professor Mitsuyuki Kagami and Professor Kazumi Yamamoto never failed to find time for our many conversations during my stay at Aichi University, while Chunli Lee shared with me the fruits of his studies on the Chinese automobile industry and Uradyn E. Bulag discussed China ’s relationship with Mongolia. I also learnt a great deal from my Chinese doctoral students whom I had the privilege of teaching whilst I was there. I would like to thank my friend Chen Kuan-Hsing for providing me with constant advice and assistance during my various stays in East Asia, especially Taiwan, Japan and Singapore.

My stay in Beijing in 2005-6 was the source of much enlightenment. I whiled away the time in many fascinating conversations. I would particularly like to thank Song Xinning, Jin Canrong, Zhu Feng, Fang Ning, Zhang Yunling, Wang Yizhou, Zhu Wenhui, Wang Yuqing, Feng Zhongping, Wang Zhengyi, Pan Wei, Wang Hui, Wang Xiaodong, He Zengke, Kang Xiaoguang, He Guangbei, Ye Zicheng, Yu Zengke, Zha Daojiong, Cheng Lu, Liu Xiu and Liu Hua. My greatest debt of all is to Yu Yongding, Huang Ping and especially Shi Yinhong, who have been unfailingly helpful and hugely stimulating in the many conversations I have enjoyed with them.

Zhang Feng has assisted me with great thoroughness and efficiency on the footnotes and bibliography, as well as doing some background research on Chapter 11. Sherlyn Wong has conscientiously sought to obtain the necessary permissions.

I am very fortunate in having a fine agent in Andrew Wylie, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I would also like to thank my previous agent Georgina Capel, who helped to initiate the project.

I have been blessed with an excellent editor in Stuart Proffitt. He has been enormously conscientious and painstaking in his editing, for which I am extremely grateful. Perhaps most of all, I am indebted to Stuart for his sensitivity towards me after my wife’s death, when he realized that it was impossible for me to work on the book; his timing was perfect two years later when he gently broached the question again with me. I would like to thank Penguin for their patience and forbearance with an author who took far longer to complete his book than was originally intended. I would like to thank Peter Carson for originally commissioning the book, Phillip Birch for his assistance on numerous occasions, Jane Birdsell for her conscientiousness, patience and good humour during the copy-editing, Samantha Borland for taking admirable care of the maps, tables and figures, and Richard Duguid for overseeing the production of the book and making sure that it somehow managed to meet the prescribed publication date.

I would like to thank Cristina Pilien, who helped to look after our son Ravi when we were in Hong Kong and has continued to do so in London ever since, for her extraordinary kindness, loyalty and devotion. As I write, Ravi and I are very proud that she is studying Chinese at Beijing University.

My greatest debt of all is to Ravi, our son, who is now ten years old and who was just sixteen months when Hari died. It has been an unspeakably painful, sad and cruel decade but together we have found a way to play, live and grow. Ravi, you have been my reason, the source of such pride and pleasure. Thank you for putting up with all those endless days and months when Daddy has been, in your words, in ‘his prison’, otherwise known as my study. What has kept me going are all the times in between that I have spent with you, messing about, enjoying your company, listening to you play the violin and taking delight in your ever-expanding range of interests and gifts: Mummy would have been thrilled. This book is for you but, as you know, it is dedicated to the memory of your mother who I loved beyond all reason or belief. She would have been so proud of us for having found the will and fortitude to complete the book despite the cruel hand of Fate. She cannot share this moment of pleasure with us. The aching emptiness of her absence stills any sense of elation.


Map 1. China


Map 2. East Asia

Note on Transliteration, Names and Currency

The Pinyin system of transliteration, adopted in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s and now generally used worldwide, has been employed in this book, with the exception of some names which are most familiar in the older Wade-Giles system (for example, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek).

Chinese names are generally written in English style, with the family name first, except in those few cases where they are usually written in Western form with the family name second. Japanese names vary, with the family name sometimes written first (as in Japan), but where they are usually written in English with the family name second, as is often the practice, the same approach has been followed.

The Chinese currency, often known as the yuan, is referred to in this book as the renminbi.

Major Periods in Imperial China

1. The Changing of the Guard

Since 1945 the United States has been the world’s dominant power. Even during the Cold War its economy was far more advanced than, and more than twice as large as, that of the Soviet Union, while its military capability and technological sophistication were much superior. [1] Following the Second World War, the US was the prime mover in the creation of a range of multinational and global institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and NATO, which were testament to its new-found global power and authority. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly enhanced America ’s pre-eminent position, eliminating its main adversary and resulting in the territories and countries of the former Soviet bloc opening their markets and turning in many cases to the US for aid and support. Never before, not even in the heyday of the British Empire, had a nation’s power enjoyed such a wide reach. The dollar became the world’s preferred currency, with most trade being conducted in it and most reserves held in it. The US dominated all the key global institutions bar the UN, and enjoyed a military presence in every part of the world. Its global position seemed unassailable, and at the turn of the millennium terms like ‘hyperpower’ and ‘unipolarity’ were coined to describe what appeared to be a new and unique form of power.

The baton of pre-eminence, before being passed to the United States, had been held by Europe, especially the major European nations like Britain, France and Germany, and previously, to a much lesser extent, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. From the beginning of Britain ’s Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century until the mid twentieth century, Europe was to shape global history in a most profound manner. The engine of Europe ’s dynamism was industrialization and its mode of expansion colonial conquest. Even as Europe’s position began to decline after the First World War, and precipitously after 1945, the fact that America, the new rising power, was a product of European civilization served as a source of empathy and affinity between the Old World and the New World, giving rise to ties which found expression in the idea of the West [2] while serving to mitigate the effects of latent imperial rivalry between Britain and the United States. For over two centuries the West, first in the form of Europe and subsequently the United States, has dominated the world.

We are now witnessing an historic change which, though still relatively in its infancy, is destined to transform the world. The developed world — which for over a century has meant the West (namely, the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand) plus Japan — is rapidly being overhauled in terms of economic size by the developing world. [3] In 2001 the developed countries accounted for just over half the world’s GDP, compared with around 60 per cent in 1973. It will be a long time, of course, before even the most advanced of the developing countries acquires the economic and technological sophistication of the developed, but because they collectively account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population and their economic growth rate has been rather greater than that of the developed world, their rise has already resulted in a significant shift in the balance of global economic power. There have been several contemporary illustrations of this realignment. After declining for over two decades, commodity prices began to increase around the turn of the century, driven by buoyant economic growth in the developing world, above all from China, until the onset of a global recession reversed this trend, at least in the short run. [4] Meanwhile, the stellar economic performance of the East Asian economies, with their resulting huge trade surpluses, has enormously swollen their foreign exchange reserves. A proportion of these have been invested, notably in the case of China and Singapore, in state-controlled sovereign wealth funds whose purpose is to seek profitable investments in other countries, including the West. Commodity-producing countries, notably the oil-rich states in the Middle East, have similarly invested part of their newly expanded income in such funds. Sovereign wealth funds acquired powerful new leverage as a result of the credit crunch, commanding resources which the major Western financial institutions palpably lacked. [5] The meltdown of some of Wall Street’s largest financial institutions in September 2008 underlined the shift in economic power from the West, with some of the fallen giants seeking support from sovereign wealth funds and the US government stepping in to save the mortgage titans Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae partly in order to reassure countries like China, which had invested huge sums of money in them: if they had withdrawn these, it would almost certainly have precipitated a collapse in the value of the dollar. The financial crisis has graphically illustrated the disparity between an East Asia cash-rich from decades of surpluses and a United States cash-poor following many years of deficits.

According to projections by Goldman Sachs, as shown in Figure 1, the three largest economies in the world by 2050 will be China, followed by a closely matched America and India some way behind, and then Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Indonesia. [6] Only two European countries feature in the top ten, namely the UK and Germany in ninth and tenth place respectively. Of the present G7, only four appear in the top ten. In similar forecasts, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that the Brazilian economy could be larger than Japan’s, and that the Russian, Mexican and Indonesian economies could each be bigger than the German, French and UK economies by 2050. [7] If these projections, or something similar, are borne out in practice, then during the next four decades the world will come to look like a very different place indeed.

Figure 1. Projected size of national economies.

Such a scenario was far from people’s minds in 2001. Following 9/11, the United States not only saw itself as the sole superpower but attempted to establish a new global role which reflected that pre-eminence. The neo-conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, established in 1997 by, amongst others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, adopted a statement of principles which articulated the new doctrine and helped prepare the ground for the Bush administration:

As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests? [8]

In 2004 the influential neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer wrote:

On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union died and something new was born, something utterly new — a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe. This is a staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome. [9]

The new century dawned with the world deeply aware of and preoccupied by the prospect of what appeared to be overwhelming American power. The neo-conservatives chose to interpret the world through the prism of the defeat of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming military superiority enjoyed by the United States, rather than in terms of the underlying trend towards economic multipolarity, which was downplayed. The new doctrine placed a premium on the importance of the United States maintaining a huge military lead over other countries in order to deter potential rivals, and on the US pursuing its own interests rather than being constrained either by its allies or international agreements. [10] In the post-Cold War era, US military expenditure was almost as great as that of all the other nations of the world combined: never in the history of the human race has the military inequality between one nation and all others been so great. [11] The Bush presidency’s foreign policy marked an important shift compared with that of previous administrations: the war on terror became the new imperative, America ’s relations with Western Europe were accorded reduced significance, the principle of national sovereignty was denigrated and that of regime-change affirmed, [12] culminating in the invasion of Iraq. Far from the United States presiding over a reshaping of global affairs, however, it rapidly found itself beleaguered in Iraq and enjoying less global support than at any time since 1945. [13] The exercise of overwhelming military power proved of little effect in Iraq but served to squander the reserves of soft power — in Joseph S. Nye’s words, ‘the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies’ [14] — that the United States had accumulated since 1945. [15] Failing to comprehend the significance of deeper economic trends, as well as misreading the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration overestimated American power and thereby overplayed its hand, with the consequence that its policies had exactly the opposite effect to that which had been intended: instead of enhancing the US’s position in the world, Bush’s foreign policy seriously weakened it. The neo-conservative position represented a catastrophic misreading of history.

Figure 2. Global distribution of military expenditure in 2008 (billions of U.S. dollars).

Military and political power rest on economic strength. As Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the ability of nations to exercise and sustain global hegemony has ultimately depended on their productive capacity. [16] America’s present superpower status is a product of its rapid economic growth between 1870 and 1950 and the fact that during the second half of the twentieth century it was the world’s largest and often most dynamic economy. This economic strength underpinned and made possible its astonishing political, cultural and military power from 1945 onwards. According to the economic historian Angus Maddison, the US economy accounted for 8.8 per cent of global GDP in 1870. There then followed a spectacular period of growth during which the proportion rose to 18.9 per cent in 1913 and 27.3 per cent in 1950. This was followed by a slow and steady decline to 22.1 per cent in 1973, with the figure now hovering around 20 per cent. [17] This still represents a formidable proportion, given that the US accounts for only 4.6 per cent of the world’s population, but the long-run trend is unmistakable. [18] One could make a similar point in relation to Victorian Britain’s imperial reach between 1850 and 1914. This was made possible because Britain accomplished the world’s first industrial revolution and, as a consequence, came to enjoy a big economic lead over all other countries. Compared with the United States, however, whose share of global GDP peaked at 35 per cent in 1944 (albeit in a war-ravaged world), the highest figure for the UK was a much smaller 9 per cent in 1899. The precipitous decline of Britain as a global power over the last half century has been the predictable result of its deteriorating relative economic position, its share of global GDP having sunk to a mere 3.3 per cent by 1998. [19] If Britain took its place alongside the United States in Iraq, its military contribution was largely cosmetic. The precondition for being a hegemonic power, including the ability or otherwise to preside over a formal or informal empire, is economic strength. In the long run at least, it is a merciless measure. Notwithstanding this, imperial powers in decline are almost invariably in denial of the fact. That was the case with Britain from 1918 onwards and, to judge by the behaviour of the Bush administration (though perhaps not Obama’s) — which failed to read the runes, preferring to believe that the US was about to rule the world in a new American century when the country was actually in decline and on the eve of a world in which it would find its authority considerably diminished — the US may well make the same mistake, perhaps on a much grander scale. The financial meltdown in 2008 belatedly persuaded a growing number of American commentators that the United States might after all be in decline, but that was still a far cry from a general recognition of the extent and irreversibility of that decline and how it might diminish American power and influence in the future.

It has been estimated that the total budgetary and economic cost to the United States of the Iraq war will turn out to be around $3 trillion. [20]ven with this level of expenditure, the armed forces have come under huge strain as a result of the war. Deployments have got steadily longer and redeployments more frequent, retention rates and recruitment standards have fallen, while the army has lost many of its brightest and best, with a remorseless rise in the number of officers choosing to leave at the earliest opportunity. [21] Such has been the inordinate cost of the Iraqi occupation that, regardless of political considerations, the financial burden of any similar proposed invasion of Iran — in practice likely to be much higher — would always have been too large: for military as well as political reasons, the Bush administration was unable to seriously contemplate similar military action against Iran and North Korea, the other two members of its ‘axis of evil’. [22] The United States is, thus, already beginning to face the classic problems of imperial overreach. The burden of maintaining a huge global military presence, with over 800 American bases dotted around the world, has been one of the causes of the US’s enormous current account deficit, which in 2006 accounted for 6.5 per cent of US GDP. [23] In future the American economy will find it increasingly difficult to support such a military commitment. [24] The United States has ceased to be a major manufacturer or a large-scale exporter of manufactured goods, having steadily ceded that position to East Asia. [25] In recent times it has persistently been living beyond its means: the government has been spending more than it saves, households have been doing likewise, and since 1982, apart from one year, the country has been buying more from foreigners than it sells to them, with a consequent huge current account deficit and a growing volume of IOUs. Current account deficits can of course be rectified, but only by reducing growth and accepting a lower level of economic activity. Growing concern on the part of foreign institutions about these deficits led to a steady fall in the value of the dollar until 2008, and this could well be resumed at some point, further threatening the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency and American financial power. [26] The credit rating agency Moody’s warned in 2008 that the US faced the prospect within a decade of losing its top-notch triple-A credit rating, first granted to US government debt when it was assessed in 1917, unless it took radical action to curb government expenditure. [27] And this was before the financial meltdown in 2008, which, with the huge taxpayer-funded government bail-out of the financial sector, will greatly increase the size of the US national debt. This is not to suggest that, in the short run, the US will be required to reduce its military expenditure for reasons of financial restraint: indeed, given the position that the US military occupies in the national psyche, and the primary emphasis that US foreign policy has traditionally placed on military power, this seems most unlikely. [28] Being an imperial power, however, is a hugely expensive business and, peering into the future, as its relative economic power declines, the United States will no longer be able to sustain the military commitments and military superiority that it presently enjoys. [29]


We stand on the eve of a different kind of world, but comprehending it is difficult: we are so accustomed to dealing with the paradigms and parameters of the contemporary world that we inevitably take them for granted, believing that they are set in concrete rather than themselves being the subject of longer-run cycles of historical change. Given that American global hegemony has held sway for almost a lifetime, and that Western supremacy transcends many lifetimes, this is not surprising. We are so used to the world being Western, even American, that we have little idea what it would be like if it was not. The West, moreover, has a strong vested interest in the world being cast in its image, because this brings multifarious benefits. As a matter of course, hegemonic powers seek to project their values and institutions on to subordinate nations and the latter, in response, will, depending on circumstances, adapt or genuflect towards their ways; if they don’t, hegemonic powers generally seek to impose those values and arrangements on them, even in extremis by force. For reasons of both mindset and interest, therefore, the United States, and the West more generally, finds it difficult to visualize, or accept, a world that involves a major and continuing diminution in its influence.

Take globalization as an example. The dominant Western view has been that globalization is a process by which the rest of the world becomes — and should become — increasingly Westernized, with the adoption of free markets, the import of Western capital, privatization, the rule of law, human rights regimes and democratic norms. [30] Much political effort, indeed, has been expended by the West towards this end. Competition, the market and technology, meanwhile, have been powerful and parallel pressures fostering the kind of convergence and homogeneity which is visible in many developing cities around the world in the form of high-rise buildings, expressways, mobile phones, and much else. There are, however, strong countervailing forces, rooted in the specific history and culture of each society, that serve to shape indigenous institutions like the family, the government and the company and which pull in exactly the opposite direction. [31] Furthermore, as countries grow more prosperous they become increasingly self-confident about their own culture and history, and thereby less inclined to ape the West. [32] Far from being a one-way process, globalization is rather more complex: the United States may have been the single most influential player, exerting enormous power in successive rounds of global trade talks, for example, but the biggest winner has been East Asia and the greatest single beneficiary China. The process of globalization involves an unending tension between on the one hand the forces of convergence, including Western political pressure, and on the other hand the counter-trend towards divergence and indigenization.

Prior to 1960, the West and Japan enjoyed a huge economic advantage over the rest of the world, which still remained largely agrarian in character, but since then a gamut of developing countries have closed the gap with the West, especially those in East Asia. As a consequence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the developed world and the more advanced parts of the developing world: South Korea and Taiwan, for example, are now to be counted as developed. But as countries reach Western levels of development, do they become more like the West, or less like the West, or perhaps paradoxically a combination of the two? Clearly the pressures for convergence indicate the former but the forces of divergence and indigenization suggest the contrary. Previously, the overarching difference between the developed and the developing world was the huge disparity in their levels of economic development. It is only with the arrival of these countries at the lower reaches of Western levels of development that the question of convergence or divergence becomes pertinent. There has been an assumption by the Western mainstream that there is only one way of being modern, which involves the adoption of Western-style institutions, values, customs and beliefs, such as the rule of law, the free market and democratic norms. [33] This, one might add, is an attitude typically held by peoples and cultures who regard themselves as more developed and more ‘civilized’ than others: that progress for those who are lower down on the developmental scale involves them becoming more like those who are higher up.

The significance of this debate to a world in which the developing nations are increasingly influential is far-reaching: if their end-point is similar to the West, or, to put it another way, Western-style modernity, then the new world is unlikely to be so different from the one we inhabit now, because China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, to take four examples, will differ little in their fundamental characteristics from the West. This was the future envisaged by Francis Fukuyama, who predicted that the post-Cold War world would be based on a new universalism embodying the Western principles of the free market and democracy. [34] If, on the other hand, their ways of being modern diverge significantly, even sharply, from the Western model, then a world in which they predominate is likely to look very different from the present Western-made one in which we still largely live. As I discuss in the prologue to Part I, modernity is made possible by industrialization, and until the middle of the last century this was a condition which was exclusive to a small part of the world. As a result, before the second half of the twentieth century the West enjoyed a de facto monopoly of modernity, with Japan the only exception, because these were the only countries that had experienced economic take-off. It might be argued that the Soviet Union also constituted a form of modernity, but it remained, contrary to its claims, far more backward than Western nations in terms of GDP per head, the proportion of the population living in the countryside, and its technological level. Moreover, although it was Eurasian, the USSR was always dominated by its European parts and therefore shared much of the Western tradition. Japan is a fascinating example which I will consider at length in Chapter 3. Until the Second World War it remained a relative outsider, having commenced its industrialization in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. After 1945 Japan became a powerful economic competitor to the West, and by the 1980s it had established itself as the second largest economy behind the United States. Japan, however, always sought to assert its Western credentials and play down its political and cultural distinctiveness. Defeated in the Second World War, occupied by the United States until 1951, endowed with a constitution written by the Americans, disqualified from maintaining a significant military force (and thereby dependent on the US-Japan security pact first signed in 1951 for its defence), Japan, if not a vassal state of the Americans, certainly enjoyed an attenuated sovereignty. [35] It is this which largely explains why, although it is a highly distinctive country which culturally shares little with the West, it has nonetheless persistently sought to emphasize its Western characteristics.

With the exception of Japan, the modern world has thus until recently been exclusively Western, comprising Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; in other words, Europe plus those countries to which European settlers migrated and which they subsequently conquered, or, as the economic historian Angus Maddison chooses to describe them, the ‘European offshoots’. Western modernity — or modernity as we have hitherto known it — rests, therefore, on a relatively small fragment of human experience. In every instance, that experience is either European or comes from Europe, sharing wholly or largely the cultural, political, intellectual, racial and ethnic characteristics of that continent. The narrowness, and consequent unrepresentativeness, of the Western experience is often overlooked, such has been the dominance that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries. But as other countries, with very different cultures and histories, and contrasting civilizational inheritances, embark on the process of modernization, the particularism and exceptionalism of the Western experience will become increasingly apparent. In historical terms, we are still at the very beginning of this process. It was only in the late 1950s that the first Asian tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — began their economic take-offs, to be joined in the 1970s by Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and others, followed by China. [36] And what was once more or less confined to East Asia — by which I mean Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea in North-East Asia, and countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in South-East Asia — has more recently spread to other regions and continents, most notably India. In 1950 the US GDP was almost three times that of East Asia and almost twice that of Asia. By 2001 US GDP was only two-thirds that of Asia, and rather less than that of East Asia. [37] In Part I, I will discuss more fully the nature of modernity, arguing that rather than there being a single way of being modern, we are witnessing the birth of a world of multiple and competing modernities. This will be a quite new and novel feature of the twenty-first century, ushering in an era of what I characterize as contested modernity. [38]

Although we are witnessing the rise of a growing number of developing countries, China is by far the most important economically. It is the bearer and driver of the new world, with which it enjoys an increasingly hegemonic relationship, its tentacles having stretched across East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Latin America and Africa in little more than a decade. China is very different from earlier Asian tigers like South Korea and Taiwan. Unlike the latter, it has never been a vassal state of the United States; [39] furthermore, it enjoys a huge population, with all that this implies. The challenge represented by China ’s rise is, as a consequence, on a different scale to that of the other Asian tigers. Nonetheless, the consensus in the West, at least up until very recently, has been that China will eventually end up — as a result of its modernization, or as a precondition for it, or a combination of the two — as a Western-style country. American policy towards China over the last three decades has been informed by this belief. It has underpinned America ’s willingness to cooperate with China, open its markets to Chinese exports, agree to its admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and allow it to become an increasingly fully-fledged member of the international community. [40]

The mainstream Western attitude has held that, in its fundamentals, the world will be relatively little changed by China ’s rise. This is based on three key assumptions: that China’s challenge will be primarily economic in nature; that China will in due course become a typical Western nation; and that the international system will remain broadly as it now is, with China acquiescing in the status quo and becoming a compliant member of the international community. Each of these assumptions is misconceived. The rise of China will change the world in the most profound ways.

The effects of China ’s economic rise are being felt around the world, most notably in the falling price of many consumer products and the rise, until the credit crunch, in commodity prices. With a population four times the size of that of the United States and a double-digit growth rate, Goldman Sachs has projected that in 2027 China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, [41] although even then China will still be at the relatively early stages of its transformation into a modern economy. Breathtaking as these economic forecasts are, why should we assume that the effects of China ’s rise will be primarily economic in nature? Rising powers in time invariably use their new-found economic strength for wider political, cultural and military ends. That is what being a hegemonic power involves, and China will surely become one. The West, however, finds it difficult to imagine such a scenario. Having been hegemonic for so long, the West has, for the most part, become imprisoned within its own assumptions, unable to see the world other than in terms of itself. Progress is invariably defined in terms of degrees of Westernization, with the consequence that the West must always occupy the summit of human development since by definition it is the most Western, while the progress of others is measured by the extent of their Westernization. Political and cultural differences are seen as symptoms of backwardness which will steadily disappear with economic modernization. It is inconceivable, however, that China will become a Western-style nation in the manner to which we are accustomed. China is the product of a history and culture which has little or nothing in common with that of the West. It is only by discounting the effects of history and culture and reducing the world to a matter of economics and technology that it is possible to conclude that China will become Western.

As Chapter 5 will show, it is striking how relatively little East Asia has, in fact, been Westernized, notwithstanding the effects of a century or more of European colonization followed by a half-century of American ascendancy in the region. If that is true of East Asia as a whole, it is even truer of China. There are four key themes, each rooted in Chinese history, which mark China as distinct from the West and which, far from being of diminishing significance, are likely to exercise an increasing influence over how China both sees itself and also conceives of its place and role in the world. These form the subject matter of the second part of the book, but as a taster I can outline them in brief as follows.

In the first place, China should not be seen primarily as a nation-state, even though that is how it presently describes itself and how it is seen by others. China has existed within roughly its present borders for almost two thousand years and only over the last century has it come to regard itself as a nation-state. The identity of the Chinese was formed before China assumed the status of a nation-state, unlike in the West, where the identity of people, in both Europe and the United States, is largely expressed in terms of the nation-state. The Chinese, in constantly making reference to what they describe as their 5,000-year history, are aware that what defines them is not a sense of nationhood but of civilization. In this context, China should not primarily be seen as a nation-state but rather as a civilization-state. The implications of this are far-reaching: it is simply not possible to regard China as like, or equivalent to, any other state. I will explore this question more fully during the course of the book, especially in Chapter 7.

Likewise, China has a different conception of race to that held by the other most populous nations, notably India, Indonesia and the United States, which acknowledge, in varying degrees, that they are intrinsically multiracial in character. It is self-evident that a country as vast as China, comprising a fifth of the world’s population, was originally composed of a huge diversity of races. Yet the Han Chinese, who account for around 92 per cent of the population, believe that they comprise one race. The explanation for this lies in the unique longevity of Chinese civilization, which has engendered a strong sense of unity and common identity while also, over a period of thousands of years, enabling a mixing and melding of a multitude of diverse races. There is also an ideological component to the Chinese attitude towards race: at the end of the nineteenth century, as the dynastic state found itself increasingly beleaguered in the face of the European, American and Japanese occupying powers, the term ‘Han Chinese’ acquired widespread popularity as part of a nationalist reaction against both the invaders and also the Manchu character of the Qing dynasty. But in practice this is a far less influential factor than the effects of China ’s long history. Race is rarely paid the attention it deserves in political and cultural writing, but attitudes towards race and ethnicity are integral to understanding all societies. As I demonstrate in Chapter 8, they shape and define how the Chinese see the non-Chinese, whether within China or the rest of the world. The Chinese attitude towards difference will be a powerful factor in determining how China behaves as a global power.

Until little more than a century ago, China’s hinterland — what we know today as East Asia — was organized on the basis of tributary relationships which involved neighbouring states acknowledging China’s cultural superiority and its overwhelming power by paying tribute to the Middle Kingdom (which is the Mandarin Chinese name for China, namely Zhōngguó) in return for benevolence and protection. The tributary system, as it was known, fell victim to the colonization of East Asia by the European powers, and was replaced by the Westphalian nation-state system. Is it possible that the tributary system could return to the region? China, as before, is set to economically dwarf the rest of the region. The Europeans have long since departed East Asia, while the American position is progressively weakening. It should not be taken for granted that the interstate system that prevails in the region will continue to be a version of the Westphalian. If, with the rise of China, we are entering a different world, then that is even truer of East Asia, which is already in the process of being reconfigured in terms of a renascent China. I consider the nature of the tributary state system, past and possible future, in Chapter 9.

Finally, the most single important characteristic of China concerns its unity. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square repression it was widely believed in the West that China would fracture in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. This was based on a fundamental misreading of China. The latter 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 fragmenting into many smaller states, China was moving in the opposite direction, acquiring a unity which has, despite long periods of Balkanization, lasted until the present. The result is a single country that is home to a huge slice of humanity. This profoundly affects how it sees the rest of the world as well as providing it with — potentially at least — exceptional power. The sheer size of China defines it as different from all other countries, bar India. The nature and ramifications of China ’s unity are considered at various stages in the book, notably in Chapters 4, 7, 8 and 11.

It is obvious from the profundity of these four points — civilization-state, race, tributary state, and unity — let alone many others that I will consider during the course of the book — that China has enjoyed a quite different history to that of the West. Countries invariably see the world in terms of their own experience. As they become hegemonic powers — as China will — they seek to shape the world in the light of their own values and priorities. It is banal, therefore, to believe that China ’s influence on the world will be mainly and overwhelmingly economic: on the contrary, its political and cultural effects are likely to be at least as far-reaching. The underlying argument of the book is that China ’s impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater.

This brings us to the question of whether, in the long run, China will accept the international system as presently constituted or seek a fundamental change in that system. It is an impossible question to answer with any certainty because we are still at such an early stage of China ’s rise. Since 1978 China has progressively sought to become a fully-fledged member of the international community and has gone to considerable lengths to reassure the West that it is a ‘responsible power’, as it likes to describe itself. John Ikenberry, an influential American writer on international relations, has argued that:

The postwar Western order is historically unique. Any international order dominated by a powerful state is based on a mix of coercion and consent, but the US-led order is distinctive in that it has been more liberal than imperial — and so unusually accessible, legitimate, and durable. Its rules and institutions are rooted in, and thus reinforced by, the evolving global forces of democracy and capitalism. It is expansive, with a wide and widening array of participants and stakeholders. It is capable of generating tremendous economic growth and power while also signalling restraint — all of which make it hard to overturn and easy to join. [42]

Ikenberry argues that the present American-created international order has the potential to integrate and absorb China rather than instead being replaced in the long run by a Chinese-led order. This is a crucial barometer of what the rise of China might mean. Hitherto, the arrival of a new global hegemon has ushered in a major change in the international order, as was the case with both Britain and then the United States. Given that China promises to be so inordinately powerful and different, it is difficult to resist the idea that in time its rise will herald the birth of a new international order. It is a question I will return to towards the end of the book.

PART I. The End of the Western World

Until the second half of the eighteenth century, life was conceived of largely in terms of the past. The present was seen as no more than the latest version of what had gone before. Similarly, the future, rather than being a separate and distinct idea, was regarded as a repetition or re-creation of the past. In a world in which the overwhelming majority worked on the land and where change was glacial, this is understandable. Material circumstance and daily experience complemented a philosophy and religious belief that reproduced and venerated the past. The values that counted — in everyday life, art, literature — were those of experience, age, wisdom, hierarchy and tradition. Change was acceptable and legitimate as long as it did not threaten the cherished ideas of the past. Even the Renaissance and the Reformation, two great efflorescences of European life, were, as their names suggest, couched in terms of the past, despite the fact that they contained much that was forward-looking and novel. [43] Scholars of Renaissance Europe believed that the learning of classical antiquity was being restored even while they were busy transforming the very manner in which people understood history. [44] From the sixteenth century, this retrospective way of thinking gradually began to subside, not just in Europe but also in China, India, Japan and the Islamic world, though the process has been best chronicled in Europe. The growth of scientific knowledge, the expanding influence of the scientific method, the spread of secularism, and the burgeoning importance of the market and commerce slowly eroded the idea that the present and the future were little more than replays of the past.

From the late eighteenth century, a fundamentally different outlook began to take root with the arrival of modernity. Instead of the present being lived as the past, it became increasingly orientated towards the future. From change being seen as so many variants of the past, it acquired a quite new power and promise as a way of making a different future. A new set of words and concepts became the bearers of the values that were intrinsic to modernity: progress, change, modernization, reason, enlightenment, development and emancipation. There was growing conflict between these attitudes and those — such as tradition, custom, heritage, experience and conservative — associated with the old modes of thinking. The modernity-tradition divide became a new central organizing principle of social life.

The coming of modernity cannot be considered in neat chronological terms like the reign of a king, or the period of a dynasty, or the duration of a war, or (though with less precision) the boundaries of an industrial revolution. Its inception cannot be given a date, only a period; while there appears, as yet at least, to be no obvious end but more a process akin to perpetual motion. It was the onset of industrialization that marked the arrival and diffusion of modernity and, rather like the ever-expanding universe, modernity has relentlessly kept on moving ever since. According to Göran Therborn, modernity marked the arrival of ‘an epoch turned to the future’. [45] Christopher Bayly argues that modernity should be seen as an open-ended process, ‘which began at the end of the eighteenth century and has continued up to the present day’. [46] If modernity was a novelty at the time of the British Industrial Revolution, it has since become a compelling and seemingly omnipotent narrative, sweeping all before it, with the ‘new’ exercising a magnetic attraction on the popular imagination from North America to Europe, from China to Japan. The extent to which so many contemporary conflicts are fought out between ‘progressive’ on the one hand and ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional ist’ on the other underlines the degree to which the language of modernity has insinuated itself into the bloodstream of societies.

The decisive moment for modernity was, and remains, economic take-off and the coming of industrialization. This is when the new mentality — the orientation towards change and uncertainty, the belief that the future will be different from the past — slowly moves from being the preserve of a few elites to eventually infecting the psyche of the entire population. The locus of economic activity shifts from the field to the factory, and that of residence from the countryside to the cities. Every aspect of human life is progressively transformed: living standards, family structure, working conditions, skills and knowledge, self-organization, political representation, the relationship with the natural environment, the idea of time, and the perception of human existence. Like modernity itself, and as its key driver, the industrial revolution unleashed a process of economic transformation which continues unabated to this day. [47]

Even though one can trace some of the origins of the modern in Europe back to the sixteenth century, the decisive period of change was the nineteenth century, when industrialization swept across north-west Europe, the economic power of European nations was transformed, the modern nation-state was born, and virtually the entire world was brought into a global system dominated by Europe. The merging of all these trends marked a qualitative shift in human organization. This was the period when modernity began to acquire a global reach, and people aspired to be modern and to think of themselves as modern — from dress and ways of being named to the possession of objects like fob watches and umbrellas — not only in Europe and North America, but also even amongst elite groups, though not amongst the masses (with the exception of Japan), in Asia and Africa. [48]

This process has been gathering speed ever since. By previous standards, Britain ’s Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1840 was breathtakingly rapid, but, when judged by later examples, especially those of the Asian tigers, it was, paradoxically, extremely slow. Each successive economic take-off has got faster and faster, the process of modernization, with its attendant urbanization and rapid decline in agrarian employment, steadily accelerating. Although Europe has, in the debates about post-modernity, recently expressed qualms about modernity, seen from a global perspective, it is abundantly clear — as it sweeps across the Asian continent, home to 60 per cent of the world’s population — that the insatiable desire for modernity is still the dominant force of our time; far more, in fact, than ever before. Europe’s confidence and belief in the future may have dimmed compared with that of Victorian Britain, but the United States is still restlessly committed to notions of progress and the future. And if one wants to understand what ‘the embrace of the future’ means in practice, then there is no better vantage point than China.

Europe was the birthplace of modernity. As its tentacles stretched around the globe during the course of the two centuries after 1750, so its ideas, institutions, values, religion, languages, ideologies, customs and armies left a huge and indelible imprint on the rest of the world. Modernity and Europe became inseparable, seemingly fused, the one inconceivable without the other: they appeared synonymous. But though modernity was conceived in Europe, there is nothing intrinsically European about it: apart from an accident of birth it had, and has, no special connection to that continent and its civilization. Over the last half-century, as modernity has taken root in East Asia, it has drawn on the experience of European — or, more precisely, Western — modernity. However, rather than simply being clones of it, East Asian modernities are highly distinctive, spawning institutions, customs, values and ideologies shaped by their own histories and cultures. In Part I, I will explore how modernity came to be indelibly associated with Europe, and more broadly the West, and how East Asia is now in the process of prising that relationship apart.

2. The Rise of the West

By the mid nineteenth century, European supremacy over East Asia had been clearly established, most graphically in Britain’s defeat of China in the First Opium War in 1839- 42. But when did it start? There is a temptation to date it from considerably earlier. Part of the reason for this, perhaps, is that China ’s history after the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and especially after the genius of the Song dynasty (960-1279), was to blaze an altogether less innovative trail. Writing of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), for example, the historian David Landes suggests that: ‘ China had long slipped into technological and scientific torpor, coasting along on previous gains and losing speed as talent yielded to gentility.’ As a result, he argues: ‘So the years passed and the decades and the centuries. Europe left China far behind.’ [49]

As China disappointed compared with its previous record, Europe, on the other hand, grew steadily more dynamic. From around 1400, parts of it began to display steady economic growth, while the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance provided some of the foundations for its later scientific and industrial revolutions. The longer-term significance of these developments, though, has probably been exaggerated by what might be described as hindsight thinking: the belief that because of the dazzling success and extraordinary domination of Europe from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the roots of that success must date back rather longer than they actually did. The result has been a tendency — by no means universal — to believe that Europe’s lead over China, and China ’s own decline, commenced rather earlier than was in fact the case. [50]

The idea that Europe enjoyed a comfortable lead over China and Japan in 1800 has been subject to growing challenge by historians. Kaoru Sugihara has argued that, far from going into decline after 1600, over the course of the next three centuries there was an ‘East Asian miracle’ based on the intensive use of labour and market-based growth — which he describes as an ‘industri ous revolution’ — that was comparable as an economic achievement to the subsequent ‘European miracle’ of industrialization. He shows that Japanese agriculture displayed a strong capacity for innovation long before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, with major improvements in crops and productivity helping to support a growing population. [51] It is clear, as Adam Smith pointed out, that in the late eighteenth century China enjoyed a rather more developed and sophisticated market than Europe. [52] The share of the Chinese harvest that was marketed over long distances, for example, was considerably higher than in Europe. A key reason for the early development of the market in China was the absence of feudalism. In medieval Europe the serf was bound to the land and could neither leave it nor dispose of it, whereas the Chinese peasant, both legally and in reality, was free, provided he had the wherewithal, to buy and sell land and the produce of that land. [53]

In 180 °China was at least as urbanized as Western Europe, while it has been estimated that 22 per cent of Japan ’s eighteenth-century population lived in cities compared with 10–15 per cent in Western Europe. Nor did Western Europe enjoy a decisive advantage over China and Japan before 1800 in terms of capital stock or economic institutions, with plenty of Chinese companies being organized along joint-stock lines. Even in technology, there appears to have been little to choose between Europe and China, and in some fields, like irrigation, textile weaving and dyeing, medicine and porcelain manufacture, the Europeans were behind. China had long used textile machines that differed in only one key detail from the spinning jenny and the flying shuttle which were to power Britain ’s textile-led Industrial Revolution. China had long been familiar with the steam engine and had developed various versions of it; compared with James Watt’s subsequent invention, the piston needed to turn the wheel rather than the other way round. [54] What is certainly true, however, is that once Britain embarked on its Industrial Revolution, investment in capital- and energy-intensive processes rapidly raised productivity levels and created a virtuous circle of technology, innovation and growth that was able to draw on an ever-growing body of science in which Britain enjoyed a significant lead over China. [55] For China, in contrast, its ‘industrious revolution’ did not prove the prelude to an industrial revolution.

Living standards in the core regions of China and Western Europe appear to have been roughly comparable in 1800, with Japan perhaps slightly ahead, while the figures for life expectancy and calorie-intake were broadly similar. [56] European life expectancy — an important measure of prosperity — did not surpass that of China until the end of the nineteenth century, except in its most affluent regions. [57] Paul Bairoch has calculated figures for per capita income which put China ahead of Western Europe in 1800, with Asia as a whole behind Western Europe but in advance of Europe. [58] In referring to China and Europe, of course, we need to bear in mind that we are dealing with huge land masses populated by very large numbers of people: in 1820, China ’s population was 381 million while that of Western Europe was 133 million, and that of Europe as a whole 169 million. Levels of economic development and standards of living inevitably varied considerably from region to region, making comparisons between the two problematic. The key point is that the most advanced regions of China, notably the Yangzi Delta, seem to have been more or less on a par with the most prosperous parts of north-west Europe, in particular Britain, at the end of the eighteenth century. [59] Given the crucial role played by the most advanced regions in pioneering industrial take-off, the decisive comparison must be that between Britain and the Yangzi Delta.

The general picture that emerges is that, far from Western Europe having established a decisive economic lead over China and Japan by 1800, there was, in fact, not that much to choose between them. [60] In this light, the argument that industrialization was the product of a very long historical process that took place over several centuries, rather than a few decades, is dubious: instead, it would appear more likely that industrialization was, for the most part, a consequence of relatively contingent factors. [61] This still begs the question, however, as to why Western Europe, rather than Japan or China, was able to turn its fortunes around so rapidly from around 1800 and then outdistance Japan, and especially China, by such a massive margin during the nineteenth century.

Here the fortuitous or chance factor, while by no means the sole reason, played a critical role. Around 1800 the most heavily populated regions of the Old World, including China and Europe, were finding it increasingly difficult to sustain rising populations. The basic problem was that food, fibre, fuel and building supplies were all competing for what was becoming increasingly scarce land and forest. This was particularly serious in China because its heartland, which lay between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, had always supported a very large population as a result of its fertility; now, however, it became increasingly exhausted through overuse. [62] This, combined with the fact that new land brought under cultivation was not of a high quality, posed an increasingly acute problem. [63] For two crucial reasons, Europe — or rather specifically Britain — was able to break this crucial land constraint in a way that was to elude China. First, Britain discovered large quantities of accessible coal that helped to ease the growing shortage of wood and fuel the Industrial Revolution. In contrast, although China also had very considerable deposits of coal, they lay a long way from its main centres of population, the largest being in the north-west, far from the textile industries and canals of the lower Yangzi Valley. Second, much more importantly, the colonization of the New World, namely the Caribbean and North America, was to provide huge tracts of land, a massive and very cheap source of labour in the form of slaves, and an abundant flow of food and raw materials: the early growth of Manchester, for example, would have been impossible without cheap and plentiful supplies of cotton from the slave plantations. Raising enough sheep to replace the yarn made with Britain ’s New World cotton imports would have required huge quantities of land (almost 9 million acres in 1815 and over 23 million acres by 1830). Overall, it is estimated that the land required in order to grow the cotton, sugar and timber imported by Britain from the New World in 1830 would have been between 25 and 30 million acres — or more than Britain ’s total arable and pasture land combined. [64] The role played by colonization, in this context, is a reminder that European industrialization was far from an endogenous process. [65] The New World — together with the discovery of large quantities of coal in Britain — removed the growing pressure on land that was endangering Britain ’s economic development. China was to enjoy no such good fortune. The consequences were to be far-reaching: ‘England avoided becoming the Yangzi Delta,’ argues the historian Kenneth Pomeranz, ‘and the two came to look so different that it became hard to see how recently they had been quite similar.’ [66]

The fact that the New World colonies proved a vital source of raw materials for Britain at such a critical time was a matter of chance, but there was nothing fortuitous about the way that Britain had colonized the New World over most of the two previous centuries. Colonization also provided Europe with other long-term advantages. Rivalry over colonies, as well as the many intra-European wars — combined with their obvious economic prowess — helped to hone European nation-states into veritable fighting machines, as a result of which, during the course of the nineteenth century, they were able to establish a huge military advantage over every other region in the world, which thereby became vulnerable to European imperial expansion. The scale of this military expenditure should not be underestimated. HMS Victory, commanded by Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafal gar in 1805, cost five times as much as Abraham Crowley’s steelworks, one of the flagship investments of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. [67] Colonial trade also provided fertile ground for innovations in both company organization and systems of financing, with the Dutch, for example, inventing the joint-stock company for this purpose. Without the slave trade and colonization, Europe could never have made the kind of breakthrough it did. It is true that China also had colonies — newly acquired territories achieved by a process of imperial expansion from 1644 until the late eighteenth century — but these were in the interior of the Eurasian continent, bereft of either large arable lands or dense populations, and were unable to provide raw materials on anything like the scale of the New World. [68] South-East Asia, which was abundant in resources, would have been a more likely candidate to play the role of China’s New World. Admiral Zheng’s exploits in the early fifteenth century, with ships far larger than anything that Europe could build at the time, show that China was not lacking the technical ability or financial means, but the attitude of the Chinese state towards overseas interests and possessions was quite different from that of Europe. Although large numbers of Chinese migrated to South-East Asia, the Chinese state, unlike the European nations, showed no interest in providing military or political backing for its subjects’ overseas endeavours: in contrast, the Qing dynasty displayed great concern for its continental lands in the north and west, reflecting the fact that China saw itself as a continental rather than maritime civilization.

This raises the wider question of the extent to which the contrasting attitudes of the European and Chinese states, and their respective elites, were a factor in China ’s failure to make the breakthrough that Europe achieved. The capacity of the Chinese state was certainly not in question: as we shall see in Chapter 4, it was able to achieve quite extraordinary feats when it came to the mobilization of economic and natural resources. [69] The highly developed granary system, the government-built 1,400-mile-long Grand Canal and the land settlement policies on the frontiers all demonstrated a strong interventionist spirit. The imperial Chinese state also had the experience and ability to transport bulk commodities over long distances, though its priority here was not coal but grain, salt and copper, since these were crucial for maintaining the stability, cohesion and subsistence of the population, always an overriding Chinese concern. [70] Herein, in fact, lay a significant difference: the priorities of the imperial state tended to be focused on the maintenance of order and balanced development rather than narrow profit-making and industrialization. The state was resistant to excessive income differentiation and marked displays of extravagance, which were seen as inimical to Confucian values of harmony. [71] The state did not block market activities and commerce — on the contrary, it strongly supported the development of an agrarian market economy — but it did not, for the most part, promote commercial capitalism, except for those merchants engaged in the monopolies for salt and foreign trade. In contrast, the European state, especially the British, tended to be more responsive to the new industrial possibilities. [72] Likewise, the imperial state did not believe in pitting one province against another, which would clearly have made for instability, whereas in Europe such competition took the form of nation-state rivalry. The main reason for the different mentalities of the Chinese and Western European states was that while the rising merchant classes were eventually incorporated, in one form or another, into European governance, in China they remained firmly outside, as they have remained to this day. [73] Rather than enjoying an independent power base, the merchants depended on official patronage and support to promote and protect large-scale commercial undertakings. Western European states, and in the first instance the British, were more favourably orientated towards industrial development than China, where the administrative class and landed interest still predominated. [74]

In 1800, therefore, Britain enjoyed two long-term — as opposed to contingent — advantages over China. The British state (and, in varying degrees, other Western European states) was more favourably disposed towards industrialization than the Chinese state, while colonization and persistent intra-European wars had furnished Western Europe with various strategic assets, notably raw materials and military capacity. The fact that colonization was to provide Britain with the means by which to side-step its growing land and resource problem towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, was entirely fortuitous. The point remains, therefore, that in 180 °China (and, indeed, Japan) found itself in a rather similar economic position to Western Europe and possessed a not dissimilar potential for economic take-off. What made the decisive difference were those contingent factors — New World resources and, to a lesser extent, accessible supplies of coal — that enabled Britain to deal with its resource constraints, together with the supportive attitude of the British state towards industrialization. China enjoyed no such contingent salvation and, as a result, found itself in a hole from which it was unable to extricate itself, a situation that was to be exacerbated within less than half a century by the growing incursions of the European powers, especially Britain, beginning with the Opium Wars. The historical consequences were to be enormous: China was at least as agrarian in 1850 as it was in 1750 and not much less so even in 1950. According to the economic historian Angus Maddison, China ’s GDP in 1820 was $228.6 billion — almost four times greater than in 1600 — but had barely increased at all by 1913, by which time it had nudged up to $241.3 billion, and actually fell to $239.9 billion in 1950. [75]

If the root cause of China’s catastrophic performance between 1800 and 1950 lay not circa 1600 but circa 1800, then the antecedents of China’s present economic dynamism, rather than being lost in the mists of time, are, on the contrary, relatively recent. [76] This makes China ’s remarkable economic transformation since 1978 rather more explicable. [77] Far from being a basket-case, the Chinese economy in 1800 remained, in many respects, very dynamic; society continued to be highly competitive, the peasantry displayed a powerful capacity to adapt and innovate, and merchants possessed considerable commercial acumen. While these characteristics may have remained relatively dormant in the inclement intervening period, after 1978 they have once again come to the fore. [78] To this we might add a further contemporary point. In 1800, rather than being Eurocentric, the global economy was, in fact, polycentric, economic power being shared between Asia, Europe and the Americas, with China and India the two largest economies. The global economy is now once more becoming increasingly multipolar. Rather than regarding this as unusual, perhaps instead we should see the last two centuries, in which economic power became concentrated in the hands of a relatively small part of the world’s population, namely Europe and North America, as something of an historical aberration. Colonization, furthermore, was to play a crucial role in this outcome, by providing some of the preconditions for Europe to break into Prometh ean growth while at the same time also bestowing on it the power and opportunity to stifle and distort the economic development of much of the rest of the world for a century or more.

Figure 3. The fall and rise of China and India: changing shares of global GDP, 1820–2001.


If, towards the end of the eighteenth century, Western Europe was in a rather similar position to China, the implications for our understanding of history and subsequent events are far-reaching. It suggests that the explanation for the rise of Europe was in large part to do with relatively short-term factors rather than preordained by its slow but steady transformation over previous centuries; in other words, we need to rethink the idea that the ensemble of characteristics which Europe had been acquiring over centuries, and enjoyed on the eve of economic take-off, were, as has often been assumed, also preconditions for that take-off. They might have been desirable, they could have been advantageous, but were they also conditions without which the process would never have happened at all? Japan, China and India were not too far away from achieving a similar economic breakthrough but their political and cultural histories contrasted sharply with that of Europe. If they had succeeded and Europe failed, then the characteristics of their subsequent paths of development, and the institutions and values they would have spawned, would certainly have looked very different from those we have come to associate with Europe. Indeed, as we shall see later, as these countries have modernized they have diverged markedly from the European template.

It is clear from the experience of the last half-century, during which a growing number of countries have achieved rapid industrialization, that the processes and conditions that characterized European take-off, and particularly that of Britain, were largely peculiar to Western Europe and that there are, in fact, many ways of achieving take-off. As the historian Peter Perdue writes: ‘Industrial growth does not have to be an outcome of a centuries-long accumulation of the particular skills found in north-west Europe; there are numerous paths to economic modernity, and England followed only one of them.’ [79] As a small example, the nature of class differentiation in the English countryside, including the rapid decline of the peasantry, has not been repeated in the case of China ’s industrialization nor, indeed, many others as well. [80]

This brings us to the broader political, cultural and intellectual framework of Europe ’s passage to modernity. The roots of European civilization are usually traced back to Greek democracy, Roman law and Judaeo-Christian religion. It has been commonplace to regard these as preconditions for, as well as characteristics of, European modernity. Although the impact of democracy in ancient Greece has been exaggerated, with the West not adopting it, except for small minorities, until the late nineteenth century at the earliest, there is no mistaking the broad influence that Greek civilization has exercised on European history down the ages, including the way we think about right and wrong, the tradition of debate and oratory, the notion of independent citizenship, and the idea of democracy. A more prosaic example is the constant recycling of mainly Doric but also Ionic and, via the Roman Empire, Corinthian columns as the preferred architectural style for buildings that seek to convey a sense of eternal authority, from the Bank of England to the Supreme Court. [81] Similarly, the development of Roman-inspired law — essentially through Christianity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries — helped to establish the concept and reality of an independent legal system, which played a significant role in the subsequent entrenchment of property rights. [82] Finally, Christianity was to imbue Europe with a powerful sense of universalism, which was to shape the continent’s attitudes towards not only itself but also other cultures and races, playing an important role in moulding the colonial mentality and the notion of a civilizing mission. [83]

It is not difficult, then, to see the lines of continuity, but it is rather more difficult to argue that they were necessary conditions for take-off. These cultural characteristics certainly helped to shape European modernity, but that is not the same as them being preconditions. Something similar can be said of Western individualism and the Western family. It would appear, with the benefit of hindsight, for example, that many different types of family are compatible with the process of industrialization. A significant area of European advantage was in the field of science, based on the growing autonomy of intellectual inquiry, spreading networks of scientific activity, and the routinization of research and its diffusion. [84] But other intellectual traditions, notably the Chinese during the Qing dynasty and the Islamic, also gave rise to forms of debate, argument and empirical observation that stand comparison with the emerging scientific rationalism of Western Europe. The rider — and a very important one — is that in these other traditions there was still a strong tendency to seek to reconcile new arguments with those of older authorities, instead of rejecting them. [85]

By 1800 Europe had accumulated various cultural assets, such as the rule of law and the beginnings of parliamentary government, but these were not the key to its economic breakthrough. They should be seen as characteristics of European modernity rather than as preconditions for it. [86] There is no reason to believe that other cultures — with their own diverse characteristics — were not capable of achieving the breakthrough into modernity: this, after all, is precisely what has been happening since 1960. Fundamental to an understanding of why Europe succeeded and China failed at the end of the eighteenth century are conjunctural factors rather than long-run cultural characteristics. Christopher Bayly draws the following conclusion: ‘If, in terms of economic growth, what distinguished Europe from China before 1800 was only its intensive use of coal and the existence of a vast American hinterland to Europe, then a lot of cultural baggage about inherent European political superiorities looks ready to be jettisoned.’ [87]


Far from Europe being the template of modernity which every subsequent transformation should conform to and be measured by, the European experience must be regarded — notwithstanding the fact that it was the first — as highly specific and particular. [88] In practice, however, it has seen itself, and often been seen as, the defining model. This is not surprising. The extraordinary global hegemony enjoyed by Europe for almost two centuries has made the particular seem universal. What, then, have been the peculiar characteristics of Europe ’s passage to, and through, modernity?

Although European nations spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy fighting each other, the European passage to modernity from the mid sixteenth century onwards was achieved without, for the most part, a persistent threat from outside, with the exception of the Ottoman Empire in the south-east. By the seventeenth century, however, the latter was progressively being rolled back, though it was not until the nineteenth century that it was finally excluded from the Balkans. [89] Europe was the only continent to enjoy this privilege. Every subsequent aspirant for modernity — Asia, Africa, Latin America — had to confront and deal with an outside predator in the form of the modern European nations. Even the European settlers in North America had to fight the British in the American War of Independence to establish their sovereignty and thereby create the conditions for economic take-off. A consequence of this is that Europe has been little concerned in recent centuries with dealing with the Other, or seeking to understand the Other, except on very much its own, frequently colonial, terms. Only relatively recently did this begin to change.

Europe ’s colonial history, in fact, is a further distinguishing characteristic. From the sixteenth century to the 1930s European nations, in a remarkable display of expansion and conquest, almost uniquely (the only other instance being Japan) built seaborne empires that stretched around the world. The colonies, especially those in the New World and, in the case of Britain, India and the Malay Peninsula, [90] were to be the source of huge resources and riches for the imperial powers. Without them, as we have seen, Europe could not have achieved its economic take-off in the way that it did. No non-European country, bar Japan after 1868, was to achieve take-off in the nineteenth century: as a result, a majority found themselves colonized by the European powers.

Although the passage through modernity universally involves the transition from an agrarian to a service-based society via an industrial one, here we find another instance of European exceptionalism. European countries (sixteen in all) — with Britain, Belgium and Germany (in that order) at the head — are the only ones in the world that have been through a phase in which the relative size of industrial employment was larger than either agrarian or service employment. [91] In Britain, industrial employment reached its peak in 1911, when it accounted for 52.2 per cent of the total labour force: by way of contrast, the peak figure for the United States was 35.8 per cent in 1967 and for Japan 37.1 per cent in 1973. It was the sheer weight of industrial society that was to lend modern Europe many of its most distinctive characteristics, notably the centrality of class conflict and importance of trade unions. From a global perspective, a different and far more common path has been to move directly, in terms of employment, from a largely agrarian to a mainly service society, without a predominantly industrial phase, a route that has been followed by the United States, Canada, Japan and South Korea. [92]

Although the pace of European industrialization was extremely rapid by the standards of previous economic change, it was slow compared with subsequent take-offs, the United States included, but especially East Asia. [93] The transformation of Western Europe was a long and protracted affair: it took Britain, after all, over two centuries to get where it is now. One consequence has been that the conflict between modernity and tradition has been relatively muted. The European city neatly illustrates this point: it is like a geological formation, one era of architecture existing cheek by jowl with another, a living museum embracing centuries of history, in contrast to North America, where cities were newly created, and East Asia, where little survives from the past in places like Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

Another peculiar characteristic of Europe has been a succession of intra-continental conflicts or what might be described as internal wars. [94] Perhaps this was in part due to the relative lack of an external threat, which meant that the dominant fault lines were national or intra-European rather than to do with the outside, as was to be the case, in varying degrees, with colonized societies. The initial cause of these internal wars was religious conflict, starting in 1054 with the struggle between eastern and western Christianity followed, after 1517, by the division between Catholicism and Protestantism, which was to split the continent largely on a north-south axis. The persistence of these religious conflicts was to lend Europe a strongly doctrinal way of thinking which was initially expressed in theological and then later ideological forms. This was to be a far more pronounced characteristic than in any other continent: most of the major non-religious ‘isms’ — for example, liberalism, anarchism, socialism, communism, republicanism, monarchism, Protestantism and fascism — were European in origin. [95] From the 1540s to the 1690s Europe ’s internal wars were largely concerned with the consolidation of the early modern states. After the French Revolution, class assumed growing importance, and from the early nineteenth century until the late twentieth century it formed the overarching language of European politics and society in a way that was never to be the case anywhere else in the world. From 1792 through to around 1870 the establishment of nation-states was to play a fundamental role in Europe ’s internal wars. By the late nineteenth century these national rivalries were to be increasingly transposed on to the global stage, with the struggle over colonies, notably in Africa, contributing to the First World War. The Second World War started as a further instalment of Europe’s internal wars but rapidly spread to engulf most of the world, although its heartland remained in Europe. This penchant for internal war found global projection in the very European phenomenon of the Cold War, in which the fundamental divide was ideological, with the two great ‘isms’ of the time — capitalism and communism — ranged against each other. Ultimately, this appetite for internal war was to prove near-fatal for Europe: it fought itself to a standstill in the two world wars of the twentieth century and thereby rendered itself both exhausted and, in terms of global power, largely a spent force. [96]

Finally, the transformation of Europe has also been differentiated by individualism. The historian and anthropologist Alan Macfarlane has described individualism as ‘the view that society is constituted of autonomous, equal units, namely separate individuals, and that such individuals are more important, ultimately, than any larger constituent group.’ [97] This is very different from East and South Asian cultures, where group rather than individual identity is central. Take the family, for example. The English family system had its origins in the thirteenth century and, courtesy of the Pilgrims, it also became the basis of the family system in North America. This individualistic system, with its emphasis on the nuclear family, stands in stark contrast to the traditional extended-household, arranged-marriage, kinship-based systems to be found in societies like China and India, whose values and distinctive characteristics persist to this day, notwithstanding urbanization and a dramatic fall in the size of the nuclear family. [98] Thus, while marriage in the West is essentially a union of two individuals, in Chinese and Indian culture it involves the conjoining of two families.

Europe’s journey to and through modernity took highly specific and unique forms — the relative absence of an external threat, colonialism, the preponderance of industry, relatively slow growth, a pattern of intra-European conflict (or what I have termed ‘internal wars’), and individualism. We should not therefore be surprised that the characteristics of its modernity are also more distinctive than is often admitted. Since Europe has enjoyed such a huge influence on the rest of the world, however, distinguishing between the specific and the universal is often difficult and elusive. Europeans, unsurprisingly, have long believed that what they have achieved must be of universal application, by force if necessary. It is only with the rise of a range of new modernities that it is becoming possible to distinguish between what is universal and what is specific about the European experience.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, GDP per head in Western Europe and on the North American seaboard was perhaps twice that of South Asia and roughly on a par with Japan and the southern and eastern seaboard of China. By 1900, income per head in Western Europe and the North American seaboard dwarfed that of China by a margin of at least ten times. China was to pay dearly for its inability to overcome the economic constraints that began to bear down on it during the late eighteenth century; in contrast, Europe luxuriated in its good fortune. The key to Europe ’s transformation was the Industrial Revolution. Britain ’s was well under way before 1800; by the second half of the nineteenth century, it had been joined by much of Western Europe. Previously economic growth was of a glacial speed; now compound rates of growth ensured that Western Europe far outdistanced every other part of the world, the United States being the most important exception. Apart from North America, the old white settler colonies [99] and Japan after 1868, Europe enjoyed a more or less total monopoly of industrialization during the nineteenth century, a scenario with profound consequences for everyone else.

The economic chasm that opened up between Europe and nearly everywhere else greatly enhanced its ability to dominate the world. [100] The colonial era had started in the seventeenth century, but from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, with the progressive acquisition of India, it rapidly expanded. In the name of Christianity, civilization and racial superiority, and possessed of armies and navies without peer, the European nations, led by Britain and France, subjugated large swathes of the world, culminating in the scramble for Africa in the decades immediately prior to 1914. [101] Savage wars took place between whites and non-whites as Chinese, Indians and native peoples in North America, Australasia and southern Africa made their last stand against European assaults on their religions, rulers, land and resources. [102] Niall Ferguson writes:

Western hegemony was one of the great asymmetries of world history. Taken together, the metropoles of all the Western empires — the American, Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish — accounted for 7 % of the world’s land surface and just 18 % of its population. Their possessions, however, amounted to 37 % of global territory and 28 % of mankind. And if we regard the Russian empire as effectively another European empire extending into Asia, the total share of these Western empires rises to more than half the world’s area and population. [103]

As the world’s leading power, Britain sought to shape the new global trading system according to its interests. Its national wealth depended on exporting its manufacturing products to as many markets as possible while importing food and raw materials at the lowest possible prices. Laissez-faire was not simply an abstract principle or a disinterested policy. It was the means by which Britain tried to take advantage of its overwhelming advantage in manufacturing and prevent others from seeking to erect tariffs to protect their nascent industries. The international free trade regime championed by Britain had a stifling effect on much of the rest of the world outside north-west Europe and North America. Industrial development in the colonial world was for the most part to prove desperately slow, or non-existent, as the European powers tried to prevent or forestall direct competition for their domestic producers. ‘Whatever the official rhetoric,’ writes Eric Hobsbawm, ‘the function of colonies and informal dependencies was to complement metropolitan economies and not to compete with them.’ [104] The urban population — a key measure of industrialization — in the British and French empires in Asia and North Africa remained stuck at around 10 per cent of the total in 1900, which was barely different from the pre-colonial period, while standards of living may even have fallen over the course of the nineteenth century. [105] India — by far Britain ’s most important colony (it was colonized by the East India Company from the mid eighteenth century, and formally annexed by Britain in 1857) [106] — had a per capita GDP of $550 in 1700, $533 in 1820, and $533 in 1870. In other words, it was lower in 1870 than it had been in 1700, or even 1600. It then rose to $673 in 1914 but fell back to $619 in 1950. Over a period of 250 years, most of it under some form of British rule, India’s per capita GDP increased by a mere 5.5 per cent. Compare that with India ’s fortunes after independence: by 1973 its per capita GDP had risen to $853 and by 2001 to $1,957. [107]

Map 3. The Overseas Empires of the European Powers, 1914

Not only did Europe take off in a manner that eluded Asia after 1800, but it forcibly sought to prevent — by a combination of economic and military means — Asia from taking the same route. China was a classic case in point. The British fought the Chinese in the First Opium War of 1839-42 over the right to sell Indian-grown opium to the Chinese market, which proved a highly profitable trade both for Britain and its Indian colony. The increasingly widespread sale and use of opium following China ’s defeat predict-ably had a debilitating effect on the population, but in the eyes of the British the matter of ‘free trade’ was an altogether higher principle. China ’s ensuing inability to prevent the West from prising open the Chinese market hastened the decline of the Qing dynasty, which by the turn of the century was hopelessly enfeebled. When European and American expeditionary forces invaded China in 1900 to crush the Boxer Uprising, it was evident that little, other than imperial rivalry, stood in the way of China being partitioned in a similar manner to Africa. [108]

Paradoxically, nothing serves to illustrate the overwhelming power of Europe more vividly than the rise of Japan. Stalked by the threat of Western invasion and fearful that it might meet the same fate as China, following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 Japan embarked on a carefully calculated process of rapid modernization. It sent teams of specialists to study the European systems of education, their armies and navies, railways, postal systems and much else. It rejected the idea that it was any longer a meaningful part of Asia and instead coveted acceptance as a Western power. It even emulated the Western model of colonialism, occupying Taiwan, Korea and part of China. The Meiji project of modernization was testament to the comprehensive character of European hegemony. Every other country lived in the shadow of Europe and was obliged, willingly or unwillingly, to adapt and adopt some of its characteristics, or face the threat of colonization. The rise of Europe changed the rules of the game for everyone else. The consequences were by no means exclusively negative: above all, Europe demonstrated what was possible through industrialization and thereby confronted the world with the ineluctable choice of modernization. Although imperial powers saw their colonies as the servant of their needs, and prohibited them from competing with their masters, some, nonetheless, acquired from their colonizers a few of the building blocks of their subsequent development. India obtained a widely shared language in English, Taiwan inherited the Japanese education system, and the Chinese in the treaty ports, especially Shanghai, learnt about Western commerce. [109] But the balance of outcome was largely negative, as reflected in the economic evidence presented earlier as well as the profound popular hostility towards what was perceived by the great majority in the colonial world, then and now, as alien rule; in some cases, notably Africa, moreover, it was almost entirely negative. The one great exception was the white settler colonies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand: these were always treated entirely differently — for straightforward racial and ethnic reasons — and prospered greatly as a consequence. [110]

The high-point of European power was probably just before the First World War, although as late as the 1930s Italy still managed to annex Abys sinia. By then, however, the United States had begun to emerge as the successor power, enjoying not only great economic strength but also growing cultural and intellectual influence. The full impact of its rise, though, continued to be obscured by a combination of its isolationism and its obvious affinity with Europe. This latter perception was reinforced by the huge scale of migration from Europe to the United States between 1850 and 1930, amounting to 12 per cent of Europe’s own population by 1900. [111] The decline of Europe became manifest after 1945 with the rapid and dramatic collapse of its empires, with the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, much of Africa, IndoChina and Malaysia, for example, all gaining independence. The number of nation-states grew by three times. [112] The global map was once again redrawn, as it had been in the nineteenth century — but this time far more rapidly and in the opposite direction. Independence opened up new possibilities, although these proved to be extremely diverse and uneven. India’s performance was transformed, as the figures cited earlier for its economic growth illustrate, but Africa was left debilitated by the experience of the slave trade and then colonialism. It has been estimated that the slave trade may have reduced Africa’s population by up to a half as a result of the forcible export of people combined with deaths on the continent itself. [113]In contrast East Asia, which was far less affected by colonialism and never suffered slavery (though it did experience indentured labour), was much less disadvantaged. In the light of the economic transformation of so many former colonies after 1950, it is clear that the significance of decolonization and national liberation in the first two decades after the Second World War has been greatly underestimated in the West, especially Europe. Arguably it was, bar none, the most important event of the twentieth century, creating the conditions for the majority of the world’s population to become the dominant players of the twenty-first century. As Adam Smith wrote presciently of the European discovery of the Americas and the so-called East Indies:

To the natives, however, both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from these events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned… At the particular time when these discoveries were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries. Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another. [114]


Although American and European modernity are often conflated into a single Western modernity, they are in fact rather different. [115]The point of commonality was that the settlers, who first arrived in 1607, were Europeans. By 1790 the total population of the United States was 3,929,000, of whom 698,000 were slaves and thereby not regarded as part of American society: of the white population, 80 per cent were British (the rest being largely German and Dutch). [116] Successive waves of European settlers brought with them the values, beliefs, customs, knowledge and culture with which they had grown up. Their intention was to re-create the Old World in the New World. [117] In contrast to Europe, however, where capitalism was shaped by its feudal antecedents, the settlers were not constrained by pre-existing social structures or customs. In effect, they could start afresh, unencumbered by the past. This, of course, entailed the destruction of the native population of Amerindians in what we would now describe as a most brutal act of ethnic cleansing. [118] While Europe was mired in time-worn patterns of land tenure, the American settlers faced no such constraints and, with the decimation of the native population, enjoyed constantly expanding territory as the mythical frontier moved ever westwards. Where Europeans possessed a strong sense of place and territory, the Americans, in contrast, formed no such attachment because they had no need of it. The fact that the United States started as a blank piece of paper enabled it to write its own rules and design its own institutions: from the outset, steeped in Protestant doctrine, Americans were attracted to the idea of abstract principles, which was to find expression in the Constitution and, subsequently, in a strong sense of a universalizing and global mission.

The fact that the European settlers brought with them a powerful body of values and religious beliefs but were devoid of the class attitudes of their ancestral homes lent the white American population a feeling of homogeneity. The exclusion of African slaves from American society together with the destruction of the Amerindians imbued their identity with a strongly racial dimension. The boundless opportunities presented by a huge and well-endowed territory and a constantly moving frontier instilled the nation with a powerful sense of optimism and a restless commitment to change. The domestic market was unconstrained by the local and regional preferences and the class and status distinctions that prevailed in Europe and, being relatively homogeneous, was much more receptive to standardized products. [119] The relative scarcity of labour stimulated a constant desire to introduce labour-saving machinery and improve productivity. Unlike in Europe, there was little resistance to the process of deskilling and the routinization of tasks. The result was an economy which showed a far greater proclivity for technological innovation, mechanization, the standardization of products, constant improvement in the labour process, economies of scale and mass production than was the case in Europe. The American model was distinguished by a new kind of mass market and mass consumer, with all the attendant innovations in areas such as advertising. As a result, from the late nineteenth century American capitalism was to prove far more dynamic and innovative than its European counterparts.

In 1820, the US economy accounted for a mere 1.8 % of world GDP compared with 5.2 % and 3.9 % for the UK and Germany respectively. As indicated in the last chapter, by 1870, the US share of world GDP had risen to 8.8 % while the equivalent figures for the UK and Germany were 9.0 % and 6.5 % respectively. By 1914, the US had pulled well ahead with a share of 18.9 % compared with 8.2 % for the UK and 8.7 % for Germany. In 1950, America’s economic high noon, its share of world GDP was 27.3 %, compared with 6.5 % for the UK, 5.0 % for Germany and 26.2 % for the whole of Western Europe. [120] The damage wrought by two world wars notwithstanding, the American economy hugely outperformed the European economies in the period 1870–1950 and this underpinned the emergence of the United States as the premier global power after 1945. Largely eschewing the formal colonies which had been the characteristic form of European global influence, [121] the United States became the first truly global power: the dollar was enshrined as the world’s currency, a new constellation of global institutions, like the IMF, the World Bank and GATT, gave expression to the US’s economic hegemony, while its military superiority, based on airpower, far exceeded anything that had previously been seen. The United States succeeded in creating a world system of which it was the undisputed hegemon but which was also open and inclusive, finally reaching fruition after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and with the progressive inclusion of China. [122] By 1960, if not earlier, the United States had supplanted Europe as the global exemplar to which other societies and peoples aspired. It demonstrated a new kind of cultural power and influence, through Hollywood and its television soaps, and also through such icons of its consumer industry as Coca-Cola and Levi jeans. Its universities increasingly became magnets for the best scholars and students from all over the world. It dominated the list of Nobel Prize winners. And it was the power and appeal of the United States that lay behind the rise of English as the world’s first true lingua franca.

The United States became the new metaphor for modernity: untrammelled by the baggage of the past, gravity-free, in perpetual motion, and possessed of the spirit of the new frontier. It was born in the present and has never grown old, its lodestar an abstract set of principles enshrined in a constitution, the whole society committed to a non-stop process of reinvention, a flow of immigration constantly shifting the composition and identity of the population. The rise of Silicon Valley, the penchant for cosmetic surgery and the growing importance of the Hispanic minority are all, in their different ways, but the latest expressions of the American psyche. This is so different from Europe as to be quite alien; and yet the fact that modern America literally comes from Europe has meant that the bond between the two, that sense of affinity, particularly in the global context, has always been very powerful and is likely to remain so. Ancestry, race, history, culture, religion, beliefs and a sense of shared interest have prevailed over profound differences, as evinced by the pervasiveness of the term ‘West’, whose meaning is not simply geopolitical but more importantly cultural, racial and ethnic, as personified in the word ‘Westerner’. [123] Whatever the differences between Europe and the United States, the West is likely to retain a powerful sense of meaning and identity: indeed, it may be that the rise of non-Western countries and cultures will serve to reinforce that sense of affinity. [124] It is true, of course, that the growth of new ethnic minorities in Europe and the increasing importance of non-white minorities in the United States, epitomized by Barack Obama’s election, is steadily changing these societies, but the extent of this process should not be exaggerated. It will be a very long time, if ever, before the still overwhelming white majorities on either side of the Atlantic cease to dominate their societies.

The West has shaped the world we live in. Even now, with signs of a growing challenge from China, the West remains the dominant geopolitical and cultural force. Such has been the extent of Western influence that it is impossible to think of the world without it, or imagine what the world would have been like if it had never happened. We have come to take Western hegemony for granted. It is so deeply rooted, so ubiquitous, that we think of it as somehow natural. The historian J. M. Roberts wrote, in a somewhat triumphalist vein: ‘What seems to be clear is that the story of western civilisation is now the story of mankind, its influence so diffused that old oppositions and antitheses are now meaningless.’ [125] Not quite. Western hegemony is neither a product of nature nor is it eternal. On the contrary, at some point it will come to an end.

3. Japan — Modern But Hardly Western

Crossing a road in Tokyo is a special experience. Virtually every street, seemingly even the smallest, has its traffic lights, including one for pedestrians. Even if there is no sign of a car, people wait patiently for the lights to change before crossing, rarely if ever breaking rank, young and old alike. The pressure to conform is immense. As an inveterate jogger, I found Tokyo posed problems I had never before encountered: the sheer number of lights proved a serious obstacle to that all-important running rhythm, and yet at every red light I found myself overcome by guilt at the thought of making a bolt for it, even though there was not a vehicle in sight, perhaps not even a person. This is a society that likes moving and acting together and it is infectious.

Swimming hats appear on a certain day in all the supermarkets, just like suntan lotion and mosquito repellent, and then duly disappear when their allocated time is up. All schoolchildren wear the same uniforms, irrespective of their school or city, the only variation being according to whether the pupil is at junior high or senior high. Once a product gains acceptance among a critical 5 or 10 per cent of the population, it spreads like wildfire. Whereas it took well over twenty years for 90 per cent of Americans to acquire a colour TV, in Japan the process was compressed into less than a decade, the curve climbing almost vertically around 1970. According to Yoshiyuki, a former editor of the teen magazine Cawaii!, once 5 per cent of teenage girls take a liking to something, 60 per cent will jump on the bandwagon within a month. Although young Japanese are very style-conscious, fashion is marked by a powerful conformity and a lack of individualism, with the same basic look, whatever that might be, acquiring near universality.

Sahoko Kaiji, an economist at Keio University, explains: ‘Here you can leave your car outside in the street, even forget to lock it, and it will still be there in the morning. You can leave your stereo on the dashboard and a smart bag on the seat, and nothing will happen.’ Women happily travel on the metro with their wallets clearly visible at the top of an open handbag; men will stick their mobile phone in the back pocket of their jeans in a crowded carriage entirely confident that no one will steal it. Kaiji continues: ‘People are always nice and friendly and they keep their promises. If you order something in a store and they say it will take two weeks to deliver, they will always phone you if it arrives early, and nine times out of ten it does arrive early.’ You never see any litter anywhere, not even at Tokyo ’s Shinjuku Station, which handles two million commuters a day. The only exception I can recall is when I was at Toyahashi Station near Nagoya, where I saw a small piece of paper on the ground. When I expressed my surprise to my Japanese friend, he said, ‘Don’t worry, someone will pick it up in a minute.’

The Japanese are exquisitely polite. People invariably greet you with a pleasant acknowledgement and a gentle bow. When you arrive in a supermarket or department store, there will be someone at the entrance to welcome you. There is no surly behaviour or rudeness. Your space is respected, whether you are queuing or leaving a lift. You are made to feel that you matter. This idea of inclusivity extends to social attitudes more widely. Chie Nakane, a famous Japanese sociologist, remarked to me: ‘Unemployment is not a problem for the unemployed, it is a problem for the whole of society.’ Japan believes in taking care of the individual. At Tokyo ’s Narita Airport, a uniformed attendant will politely beckon you to the appropriate queue, and on the ground you will find painted footprints, just in case you are in any doubt as to where to stand. You can never get lost in a station or airport, however large, because the Japanese are punctilious in providing directions. This sense of consideration includes an exceptional commitment to punctuality. At a metro station, the train indicator includes not only when the next train is due but when it will arrive at every single station until it reaches the terminus. And it is invariably on time, to the nearest minute, if not second. One could safely set one’s watch by a Japanese train.

On the surface, Japan might look similar to any Western country. But inside it is very different. Or, as Chie Nakane told me: ‘ Japan is outwardly Western but inwardly Japanese.’ [126]

Japan was the only Asian country to begin industrialization in the nineteenth century, the only intruder in an otherwise exclusively Western club. By any standards, it was phenomenally successful in its attempt to emulate the West, industrializing rapidly prior to 1914, and then again before 1939; it colonized a large part of East Asia by 1945, and then overtook much of the West in GDP per head by the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Japan served as an influential economic model when the East Asian tigers began their economic take-off from the late 1950s. If we want to understand the nature of Asian modernity, Japan is the best place to start because it was first and because it remains easily the most developed example. Just because Japan is part of East Asia, however, does not mean that it is representative of the region: on the contrary, Japan is, as we shall see, in important respects unique.


Japan has been shaped by two momentous engagements with the most advanced civilizations of their time: China in the fifth and sixth centuries and the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Japan ’s early history was influenced by its proximity to China, which was a far more advanced and sophisticated country. Prior to its engagement with China, Japan had no writing system of its own, but subsequently adopted and Japanized many Chinese characters and blended them with its own invented writing system. This was an extremely difficult process because the two languages were completely different and unrelated. In the process, the Chinese literary tradition became one of the foundation stones of Japanese culture. Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism entered Japan from China via Korea more or less simultaneously around the sixth century. [127] Taoism melded with Japanese animist traditions and mutated into Shintoism, while Confucianism became, as in China, the dominant intellectual influence, especially amongst the elite, and even today, in its Japanese form, still dominates the ideology of governance. [128] Confucianism was one of the most sophisticated philosophies of its time, a complex system of moral, social, political and quasi-religious thought, its greatest achievement perhaps being to widen access to education and culture, which previously had been confined to the aristocracy. The Chinese influence was to continue for many centuries, only finally being displaced by that of the West with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Japan, thus, lived in the shadow of China for some fourteen centuries, for most of that time as one of its tributary states, paying tribute to the Chinese emperor and acknowledging the superiority of Chinese civilization. This left a deep imprint on the Japanese psyche and nurtured an underlying sense of inferiority together with a defensive, and incipiently militant, nationalism. [129]

Though Chinese influence was profound, it was refracted through and shaped by Japan’s own experience and traditions. Japanese Confucianism differed markedly in various respects from Chinese Confucianism. While the latter explicitly included benevolence amongst its core values, the Japanese instead laid much greater emphasis on loyalty, a difference that was to become more pronounced with the passage of time. Loyalty, together with filial piety and a duty to one’s seniors — based on authority, blood and age — were amongst the key defining characteristics of the hierarchical relationships that informed Japanese culture. [130] China and Japan were both ruled by an imperial family; there were, however, two crucial differences between them. First, in China a dynasty could be removed and the mandate of heaven withdrawn: there have been thirty-six dynasties in Chinese history. In contrast, the Japanese imperial family was regarded as sacred: the same family has occupied the imperial seat throughout its 1,700-year recorded history. Second, while a Chinese dynasty enjoyed absolute power, the Japanese imperial family did not. For only a third of its history has the Japanese imperial family ruled in both name and reality. For much of Japan’s history, there has been dual or even triple government, with the emperor, in practice at least, obliged to share power. [131] The most typical form was dual government, with political power effectively controlled either by shoguns (the military chiefs), or by prime ministers or chief advisors backed by military power. The price of eternity, in other words, has been a greatly diminished political role. During the Tokugawa era (1603–1867), real political power was exercised by the military in the person of the shogun. The emperor enjoyed little more than symbolic and ceremonial significance, although formally the shogun remained answerable to him. Ruth Benedict, in her classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, makes the interesting observation that ‘Japan’s conception 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. In some Pacific Islands he did and in some he delegated his authority. But always his person was sacred.’ [132] To understand Japan we need to see it in its Pacific as well as East Asian context.

The Tokugawa era, the 250-year period prior to the Meiji Restoration, saw the creation of a highly centralized and formalized feudal system. [133] Beneath the imperial family and the lords (daimyo), society was organized into four levels in such strict hierarchy that it possessed a caste-like quality: these were the warriors (samurai), the farmers, the artisans and the merchants respectively. One should also, strictly speaking, include the burakumin, Japan’s outcasts or untouchables — descended from those who worked in occupations associated with death, such as undertakers, buriers of the executed, skinners of dead animals — who were regarded and treated as invisible, just as they still are today, the exception (along with those of Chinese and Korean ancestry) to the social inclusivity described earlier. [134] One’s rank was determined by inheritance and set in stone. The head of every family was required to post on his doorway his class position and the details of his hereditary status. His birthright determined the clothes he could wear, the foods he could buy and the type of house he could live in. The daimyo took a portion of his farmers’ rice every year and out of that, apart from catering for his own needs, he paid his samurai. The samurai possessed no land: their formal function was to defend the daimyo, his land and property. They were the only members of society allowed to carry a sword and enjoyed wide and arbitrary power over the lower classes. During the Tokugawa era the daimyo were answerable to the shogun, who, in turn, was, at least formally, accountable to the emperor in his seclusion in Kyoto. Unlike Chinese Confucianism, which valued educational excellence above all (the mandarins being products of a highly competitive examination system), the Japanese, in giving pre-eminence to the samurai, and indeed the shogunate, extolled martial qualities. [135] During the Tokugawa period, China was, in effect, a civilian Confucian country and Japan a military Confucian country.

Not long after the Tokugawa family began their shogunate at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they closed Japan off to the outside world and suppressed Christianity, rejecting foreign influences in favour of Japanese customs and religious traditions. No European ships were allowed to use Japanese ports, with the exception of the Dutch, who were permitted to use the small island of Deshima in Nagasaki. The Japanese were forbidden from sailing in larger boats — it became an offence to build or operate a boat over a certain size — thereby bringing to an end extensive trading activity along the Japanese coast. The reasons appear to have been a desire to limit the activities of merchants together with a fear of outside influences, and especially the import of European firearms, which it was believed might serve to destabilize the delicate balance of power between the various provinces and the shogun. [136] Notwithstanding this retreat into autarchy, the Tokugawa era saw many dynamic changes. Japan became an increasingly unified community, standardizing its language, engendering similar ways of thinking and behaving between different provinces, and evolving a common set of rules and customs. As a result, the conditions for the emergence of a modern nation-state began to take shape. Castle towns were built along a newly constructed road network which served to further unify the country, with these towns at the centre of what became a vibrant trade. By the end of the Tokugawa period, Edo, as Tokyo was then known, was as big as London, with a population of more than a million, while Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Kanazawa also had sizeable populations. As we saw in Chapter 2, Japan ’s economy in 1800 compared favourably with that of north-west Europe although it suffered from the same intensifying resource constraints as Europe and China. Japan, like China, moreover, could not look to any colonies as a source of relief, though food and fertilizer from long-distance fishing expeditions, and the import of commodity-intensive products from its more sparsely populated regions, provided Japan with rather greater amelioration than was the case with China. On the eve of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan possessed many of the preconditions for economic take-off apart, that is, from a government committed to that goal.

One final point should detain us: the changing nature and role of the samurai. Although their original purpose had been to defend the interests of the daimyo, their role steadily broadened as they assumed growing responsibility for the administration and stewardship of their daimyo’s estates, as well as for protocol and negotiations with other daimyo and the shogun. On the eve of the Meiji Restoration they had, in effect, been transformed from a military caste into a key administrative class within Japanese society. Although steeped in the Confucian tradition of efficient administration, their knowledge and predisposition were essentially military, scientific and technological rather than literary and scholastic as was the case with their Chinese counterparts: this orientation and inclination was to have a profound impact on the nature and character of the post-1868 era.


In 1853 the relative peace and stability of the Tokugawa era was rudely interrupted by the appearance in Tokyo Bay of Commodore Perry, an American naval officer, at the head of a fleet of black ships, demanding on behalf of the United States — along with various European powers, notably Britain — that Japan should open itself to trade. [137] Japan ’s long period of isolation could no longer be sustained: like so much of the rest of the world in the nineteenth century, Japan could not ignore the West and its metamorphosis into such an expansive and predatory player. In 1858, faced with the continuing threat of invasion, Japan signed the unequal treaties which opened up the country to trade on extremely unfavourable terms, including the imposition of extra-territoriality on its main ports, which excluded Western nationals from the requirements of Japanese law. The unequal treaties represented a major restriction of Japan ’s sovereignty. In 1859 Japan was obliged to lift the ban on Christianity imposed over 300 years earlier.

The intervention of the Western nations, with the British, American, French and Dutch fleets actively involved, was bitterly resented and led to a huge wave of anti-foreigner (or anti-barbarian, as Westerners were known) sentiment. [138] In the face of growing tumult and unrest, the Tokugawa regime was beleaguered and paralysed. During a process lasting two years, culminating in 1868, the shogunate was overthrown by the combined forces of the Satsuma and Choshu clans, and a new government, dominated by former samurai, installed. The samurai were the prime movers in the fall of the shogunate and the chief instigators of the new Meiji regime (named after the emperor who reigned between 1868 and 1912). Part of the price the samurai paid for their new-found power and prominence in a government committed to the building of a modern state was the forfeiture of their old feudal-style privileges, namely their monopoly of the right to bear arms and their previous payments in kind — with the payments being commuted to cash and rapidly diminishing in value. [139]

This dramatic political change — bringing to an end two and a half centuries of shogunate rule — was driven by no political blueprint, goal or vision. In the early stages, the popular mood had been dominated by anti-Western sentiment. However, it became increasingly clear to a growing section of the ruling elite that isolation was no longer a serious option: if Japan was to be saved from the barbarians, it would have to respond to the challenge posed by the West rather than ignore it. The emergent ruling elite, which had previously shared these xenophobic and isolationist sentiments, underwent a remarkable political transformation, rapidly acquiring a very powerful sense of what needed to be done and implementing it with extraordinary speed. A modern imperial state was instituted, with a chief minister ‘advising’ the emperor, but with effective power concentrated in the former’s hands. By 1869 universal freedom of choice was introduced in marriage and occupation. By 1871 the feudal order had effectively been disbanded. In 1873 universal conscription was decreed, rendering the old samurai privilege to bear arms redundant. Almost immediately the government started to establish factories run mainly by former samurai, thereby ushering in a new and very different economic era. [140]

If Japan had previously been shaped and influenced by its exposure to Chinese civilization, the threat from the West persuaded the new ruling elite that it had to learn from the West as quickly as possible if it was to preserve the country’s independence and forestall the fate that had befallen China after the Opium Wars, with its progressive loss of sovereignty. The speed, single-mindedness and comprehensiveness with which the new government went about this task, particularly in the absence of any prior commitment or programme, is a remarkable historical phenomenon. During a breathtaking period of two decades, it drew hugely on Western experience in the construction of a range of new institutions. It sent envoys and missions to Europe and also to the United States in order to study what might be learnt, borrowed and assimilated. [141] This was done in a highly systematic way, with the object of establishing which country had most to offer in which particular area. The results were almost immediate. The education system introduced in 1873 was modelled on the French system of school districts. The navy was based on Britain ’s, the army on France ’s, and later also on Germany ’s. The railways followed the British example but the universities the American. Between 1871 and 1876 around 300 European experts were brought to Japan by interested institutions and government departments to assist in the process of design and construction. [142] The result was a patchwork of foreign influences that — in what became a typically Japanese manner — were somehow articulated into a distinctively Japanese whole.

From the late 1870s the government began to sell off its newly created factories. By so doing, it created a capitalist class. Many were former samurai who used the bonds that they had been given by the government — which had replaced the monetary stipends that they had previously received, which in turn had replaced their former feudal payments in kind — to buy the new companies. From the outset, then, the new capitalist owners had two distinguishing characteristics which have remained a hallmark of post-Meiji Japan to this day: first, they owed their existence and position to the largesse and patronage of the government, thereby creating a powerful bond of obligation; and second, the new owners were by background, training and temperament administrators rather than entrepreneurs.

The Meiji Restoration bore some of the characteristics of a revolution. The purpose was to build a modern state and shed the country’s feudal legacy. The new ruling elite was drawn not from the daimyo but primarily from the samurai, including those sections of farmers that had been latterly incorporated into the samurai class, together with some of the merchant class. There was clearly a shift in class power. And yet, unlike in Europe, the new rising class, the merchants, neither instigated the change nor drove it: in fact, for the most part, they had not come into conflict with the old regime. [143] The leaders of the Restoration, instead, were part of the existing ruling elite, namely the warrior class, whose role had steadily been transformed into one of more generalized administrative leadership. [144] To emphasize this sense of continuity and in order to consolidate popular support and provide legitimacy for the new regime, the samurai restored the emperor to a more central role in Japanese life, an act symbolized by his transfer from Kyoto to Edo, now renamed Tokyo. It was a coup by the elite rather than a popular uprising from below. [145] Thus, although it had some of the attributes of a revolution, it is best described as a restoration, an act that sought to preserve the power of the existing elite in the name of saving Japan from the barbarian threat. It was designed to preserve and maintain as much as transform, its instincts conservative as much as radical. Japan is a deeply conservative country in which the lines of continuity are far stronger than the lines of discontinuity. Even when discontinuity was needed, as in 1868, it was instituted, unlike in France and China — both notable exponents of revolution — by the elite, who, mindful of the need for radical change, nonetheless sought to preserve as much as possible of the old order. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Restoration, certainly in contrast to most revolutions, was relatively bloodless. The ruling elite was to succeed in maintaining the way of life, traditions, customs, family structure, relationships and hierarchies of Japan to a remarkable extent. The Meiji Restoration is testimony to the resilience, inner strength and adaptability of the Japanese ruling elite and its ability to change course when the situation required. [146]

There is one other fundamental difference between the major revolutions in Europe and the Meiji Restoration. The French Revolution was, amongst other things, a response to an internal development — the rise of the bourgeoisie — whereas the Meiji Restoration was a response to an external threat, that of an expansionist West. This was the fundamental geopolitical difference between Europe and the rest of the world: Europe was the leader and, therefore, the predator, while the rest of the world was, in response, obliged to find a way of dealing with Europe ’s power and expansionist intent. This difference also helps to explain why the Restoration was instigated by a section of the elite rather than a rising antagonistic group: what obliged Japan to change course was not the rise of the merchant class but the external threat from the West.


Japan was the world’s first example of reactive modernization: of a negotiated modernity in the context of Western power and pre-eminence. Japanese modernization deliberately and self-consciously walked the tightrope between Westernization and Japanization. Nonethless, compared with later examples of Asian modernization, Japan was in a relatively privileged position: it could make choices — in particular, how and in what ways to modernize — that were not open in the same way to later-comers. As a result, it is a fascinating case-study: a country whose existing elite made a voluntary and calculated decision to Westernize in order to preserve what it perceived to be the nation’s essence.

At critical junctures, notwithstanding the long period of isolation under the Tokugawa, Japan has displayed an openness to foreign influences which goes back to its relationship with Chinese civilization in the fifth and sixth centuries. This willingness to absorb foreign approaches, as and when it has been deemed necessary, has been an underlying strength of Japanese society. Instead of an outright rejection of foreign ideas, the desire to preserve the Japanese ‘essence’ has instead been expressed by attempting to delineate what the Japanese writer Kosaku Yoshino has described as ‘our own realm’, namely those customs, institutions and values which are regarded as indigenous. As Yoshino argues:

In order for ‘our realm’ to be marked, significant differences have been selected and organised not merely to differentiate between ‘us’ (the Japanese) and ‘them’ (the other countries from which cultural elements are borrowed), but, more importantly, to emphasise the existence of ‘our own realm’ and therefore to demonstrate the uninterrupted continuation of ‘our’ nation as a cultural entity. In this way, the sense of historical continuity can also be maintained. It is this cultural realm of ‘ours’ to which the Japanese claim exclusive ownership. [147]

The distinctiveness of Japan is thus defined and maintained in two ways: firstly in the notion of the Japanese realm as described, consisting of those elements regarded as exclusively and authentically Japanese; and secondly in the unique amalgam of the various foreign influences combined with those elements regarded as distinctively Japanese. As one would expect, the notion of a Japanese realm takes precedence over hybridity in the Japanese sense of self; although it embraces material objects as diverse as tatami mats, sake and sumo wrestling, Japanese uniqueness centres around how the Japanese behave differently from non-Japanese, or where the symbolic boundary between the Japanese and foreigners should be drawn. [148] The duality embraced in the juxtaposition of the indigenous and the foreign can be found in many aspects of Japanese life. Somehow the two coexist, often with little leakage between them, with the foreign influences absorbed and reformatted, blended and incorporated. [149] Japanese modernity, as a consequence, is a highly complex, incongruous and at times bizarre phenomenon. This hybridity dates back to the era of Chinese influence but has been most marked, and traumatic, during the era of Westernization. It is so deeply entrenched that it is now taken for granted as something thoroughly natural and intrinsic to Japan. Western-style clothes may be the norm, but kimonos are a common sight on Sundays, and Japanese clothes are frequently worn at home. Japanese food contains Japanese, Chinese and Western elements, with both chopsticks and cutlery commonly used. Reaching further back into history, as noted earlier, the Japanese language consists of a combination of both Chinese-derived and Japanese characters.

After periods of intense Westernization, the relationship between Japanese and Western elements in the country has been the subject of intense reflection and debate. Japan’s post-1868 history, indeed, has seen alternating phases of Westernization and Japanization. The first twenty years after the Meiji Restoration saw a furious process of Westernization on many fronts, but by 1900 this had given way to a period of introspection and an attempt to specify the nature of the Japanese essence. In this debate three characteristics were used to define Japaneseness: the emperor system, the samurai spirit, and the idea of a family society (with the emperor as father). After the defeat in the Second World War and the American occupation, there was again a frantic period of economic catch-up and Westernization followed, in the 1970s and early 1980s, by a further phase of seeking to define the nature of the Japanese realm, [150] though the conception of ‘Japaneseness’ deployed at this juncture was distinctively different from that of the early 1900s. The nihonjinron (meaning ‘discussions on the nature of the Japanese’) in the 1970s focused on Japan as a homogeneous and group-orientated society, and the Japanese as a non-verbal, non-logical people. [151] Not surprisingly, given the context of the times, these latter characteristics were essentially designed to define Japaneseness in contradistinction to the American influence that had loomed so large in Japanese life during the post-war decades.

In reality, of course, the nature of Japaneseness cannot be expressed in such reductionist terms. The nihonjinron were politically inspired cultural responses to Western influence. They tell us much about the Japanese psyche, about the desire to be different and distinct, but they only partially reveal what is continuingly and persistently different about Japan. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict argues:

In studies of Western nations one who is untrained in studies of comparative cultures overlooks whole areas of behaviour. He takes so much for granted that he does not explore the range of trivial habits in daily living and all those accepted verdicts on homely matters, which, thrown large on the national screen, have more to do with that nation’s future than treaties signed by diplomats. [152]

The distinctiveness of Japan — as with other countries, indeed — lies precisely in the stuff of the everyday and the easily overlooked, from the nature of relationships to the values that inform people’s behaviour.

Japanese relationships operate according to a strict hierarchy based on class, gender and age. Each relationship is finely graded accordingly, depending on the degree of previous contact and familiarity. The importance of hierarchy is initially learnt in the family, with the father cast as the undisputed head of the household and each member of the family occupying a preordained position. The family is regarded as a microcosm of society, with the firm, like the nation, conceived in its image. The gradations of relationships are reflected in the use of language, with different words for ‘you’, for example, depending on the status of the other person. The language is also gendered, with men and women required to use different words and modes of address. Japanese is a ‘respect language’ and its nuances are accompanied by a system of bowing, the degree of bow depending on the status of the other person. [153] Firms often advise their employees on the required extent of the bow based on the importance of the other person. [154]

Japanese conventions require not only a respect for hierarchy but also an onerous and complex system of obligations. There are two kinds of obligation, or on: the gimu, which is limitless and lifelong, and which one owes to one’s parents, for example; and the giri, which is finite. These obligations lie at the heart of Japanese society: virtuousness is defined in terms of meeting one’s obligations rather than money, which has become the typical measure of virtue in Western society. [155] If one fails to meet one’s giri, one feels a sense of shame. Broadly speaking, cultures can be divided into those that are based on guilt, like the Christian-derived West, and those that are based on shame. The sense of guilt in the former stems from the idea of original sin and the belief that left to their own devices — and inevitable base instincts — people are inherently sinful. Shame, on the other hand, is the product of monitoring one’s actions by viewing one’s self from the standpoint of others. Japanese society is rooted in shame: it is how one is regarded by others, rather than one’s own individual conscience, which is critical. A sense of guilt can be salved by an act of apology; shame, in contrast, is not nearly as easily assuaged. The consequence is very different patterns of behaviour. While in the West, for example, suicide is frowned upon as a selfish act, in Japan it is seen as the ultimate way of settling one’s giri and, therefore, as a noble act. As a result, it is far more common: [156] 35.6 male suicides per 100,000 population in Japan in contrast to 17.9 for the US, 10.8 for the UK and 19.7 for Germany. [157]

The latticework of personal relationships, based on hierarchy and obligations, informs the way all Japanese institutions work, from the extended family and the firm to school and government. Take the firm: the relationship between the large corporations and the small- and medium-sized companies that depend upon them is of a distinctly hierarchical character. Lifetime employment, which still predominates in the large corporations, embodies a conception of obligation on the part of both the company and the employee that is quite different from the narrowly contractual — and often short term — nature of employment in the Anglo-American tradition. The firm is seen as akin to a family, with the company having multifarious obligations to the employee while the employee — mainly male (women still play a relatively peripheral role in the labour force compared with the West) — in return is expected to give most of his life, in terms of both career and the hours of the day, to the company. The seniority system, widely practised in Japanese companies, where one steadily climbs the company ladder as one gets older and enjoys a rising income and growing authority, rather than being dispensed with in the manner of the Western firm, reflects the age-hierarchy of Japanese society. [158]

There are many other ways in which the distinctively Japanese culture of relationships shapes the attitude towards and conduct of institutions. The Japanese, for example, are profoundly averse to the use of the law, primarily because of a desire to avoid the kind of confrontation that characterizes the process of litigation. As a consequence, Japan does not have enough lawyers to support even a fraction of the litigation that takes place in Europe, let alone the United States. Virtually all cases of civil conflict are settled by conciliation, either out of court or before any legal judgment is made. [159]

Table 1. Japanese attitudes towards gender.

Figure 4. The Japanese commitment to work.

Figure 5. Japanese expectations of the workplace.

Figure 6. Japanese attitudes towards rules.

This picture of Japanese distinctiveness should not come as any great surprise. Even a relatively casual acquaintance with Japanese society conveys this impression. [160] As the accompanying tables and charts illustrate, Japanese attitudes and values remain strikingly different from those of Western societies, notwithstanding the fact that they share roughly the same level of development. [161] The first reason for this hardly needs restating: cultural differences have an extraordinary endurance, with Japan’s rooted in a very different kind of civilization. [162] The second is historical: because the Meiji Restoration was a relatively recent event, Japan is still strongly marked by the proximity of its feudal past. [163] Furthermore, the post-1868 ruling elite consciously and deliberately set out to retain as much of the past as possible. The fact that the samurai formed the core of the new ruling group, moreover, meant that they carried some of the long-established values of their class into Meiji Japan and onwards through subsequent history. Post war Japan — like post-Restoration Japan — has been governed by an administrative class who are the direct descendants of the samurai: they, rather than entrepreneurs, run the large companies; they dominate the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; former administrators tend to be preponderant in the cabinet; and, by definition, of course, they constitute the bureaucracy, a central institution in Japanese governance. [164]

Even the nature of governance still strongly bears the imprint of the past. Throughout most of Japan ’s recorded history, power has been divided between two or more centres, and that remains true today. The emperor is now of ceremonial and symbolic significance. The diet — the Japanese parliament — enjoys little real authority. The prime minister is far weaker than any other prime minister of a major developed nation, normally enjoying only a relatively brief tenure in office before being replaced by another member of the ruling Liberal Democrats. Cabinet meetings are largely ceremonial, lasting less than a quarter of an hour. Although formally Japan has a multi-party system, the Liberal Democrats have been in office almost continuously since the mid fifties and the factions within this party are in practice of much greater importance than the other parties. Power is therefore dispersed across a range of different institutions, with the bureaucracy, in traditional Confucian style, being the single most important. [165] Since the end of the American occupation, Japan has been regarded by the West as a democracy, but in reality it works very differently from any Western democracy: indeed, its modus operandi is so different that it is doubtful whether the term is very meaningful. [166] Japan may have changed hugely since 1868, but the influence of the past is remarkably persistent.


Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan ’s mission was to close the gap with the West, to behave like the West, to achieve the respect of the West and ultimately to become, at least in terms of the level of development, like the West. Benchmarking and catch-up were the new lodestars. [167] Before 1939 this primarily meant Europe, but after 1945 Europe was replaced in the Japanese mind by an overwhelming preoccupation with the United States. In this context, the key objective was economic growth, but Japan ’s colonial expansion, which started within six years of the Meiji Restoration, also owed much to a desire to emulate Europe: to be a modern power, Japan needed to have its own complement of colonies. These territorial ambitions eventually brought Japan to its knees in the Second World War, culminating in its defeat and surrender. It was a humiliating moment: the very purpose of the Meiji Restoration — to prevent the domination of the country by the West — had been undermined. The post-1868 trajectory had resulted in the country’s occupation, its desire to emulate the West in disaster.

Nevertheless, the war was to prove the prelude to the most spectacular period of economic growth in Japan ’s history. In 1952, Japan ’s GDP was smaller than colonial Malaya ’s. Within a generation the country had moved from a primarily agrarian to a fully-fledged industrial nation, achieving an annual per capita growth rate of 8.4 per cent between 1950 and 1970, far greater than achieved elsewhere and historically unprecedented up to that time. By the 1980s, Japan had overtaken both the United States and Europe in terms of GDP per head and emerged as an industrial and financial powerhouse. [168] It was an extraordinary transformation, but it was not to be sustained. At the end of the 1980s, Japan ’s bubble economy burst and for the following fifteen years it barely grew at all. Meanwhile, the United States found a new lease of economic life, displaying considerable dynamism across a range of new industries and technologies, most notably in computing and the internet. Japan ’s response to this sharp downturn in its fortunes was highly instructive — both in terms of what it said about Japan and about the inherent difficulties entailed in the process of catch-up for all non-Western societies.

The apogee of Japan ’s post-1868 achievement — the moment that it finally drew level with and overtook the West during the 1980s [169] — carried within it the seeds of crisis. Ever since 1868, Japan ’s priority had been to catch up with the West: after 1945 this ambition had become overwhelmingly and narrowly economic. But what would happen when that aim had finally been achieved, when the benchmarking was more or less complete, when Japan had matched the most advanced countries of the West in most respects, and in others even opened up a considerable lead? When the Meiji purpose had been accomplished, what was next? Japan had no answer: the country was plunged into an existential crisis. It has been customary to explain Japan ’s post-bubble crisis in purely economic terms, but there is also a deeper cultural and psychological explanation: the country and its institutions, including its companies, quite simply lost their sense of direction. [170]

Nor was the country endowed by its history with the ability or facility to change direction. Ever since 1868, through every historical twist and turn, it had displayed an extraordinary ability to retain its focus and maintain a tenacious commitment to its long-term objective. Japan might be described as single-path dependent, its institutions able to display a remarkable capacity to keep to their self-assigned path. This has generated a powerful degree of internal cohesion and enabled the country to be very effective at achieving long-term goals. By the same token, however, it also made changing paths, of which Japan has little experience, very difficult. The only major example was 1868 itself and that was in response to a huge external threat. [171]

Figure 7. Japanese pessimism about their international role and influence.

The post-bubble crisis, which was followed by a long period of stagnation, led to much heart-searching and a deep sense of gloom. Some even went so far as to suggest that Japan had suffered two defeats: one in 1945 and another in the 1990s. [172] The pessimism that engulfed the country revealed the underlying fragility of the contemporary Japanese psyche. Having finally achieved their goal, they were filled with doubt as to what to do next. As the United States regained its dynamism and Japan was becalmed, there was a widespread sense that its achievement was little more than a chimera, that it was always destined to live in the shadow of the West. [173] Japan’s psychological fragility in the face of the post-bubble crisis is a stark reminder of how difficult the process of catch-up — in all its many aspects — is for non-Western countries. Here was a country whose historical achievement was remarkable by any standards; which had equalled or pulled ahead of the West by most measures and comfortably outstripped the great majority of European countries that it had originally sought to emulate; which had built world-class institutions, most obviously its major corporations, and become the second wealthiest country in the world — and yet, in its moment of glory, was consumed by self-doubt.

In this context, it is important to understand the nature of Japan’s self-perception. Unlike the European or American desire to be, and to imagine themselves as, universal, the Japanese have had a particularistic view of their country’s role, long defining themselves to be on the periphery of those major civilizations which, in their eyes, have established the universal norm. As we have seen, China and the West constituted the two significant others from which Japan has borrowed and adapted, and against which the Japanese have persistently affirmed their identity. ‘For the Japanese,’ argues Kosaku Yoshino, ‘learning from China and the West has been experienced as acquiring the “universal” civilization. The Japanese have thus had to stress their difference in order to differentiate themselves from the universal Chinese and Westerners.’ [174] This characteristic not only distinguishes Japan from the West, which has been the universalizing civilization of the last two centuries, but also from the Chinese, who have seen their own civilization, as we shall explore later, in universalistic terms for the best part of two millennia.

Japan ’s post-1868 orientation towards the West was only one aspect of its new coordinates. The other was its attitude towards its own continent. Japan combined its embrace of the West with a rejection of Asia. The turn to the West saw the rise of many new popular writers, the most famous of whom was Fukuzawa Yukichi, who argued, in an essay entitled ‘On Leaving Asia’, published in 1885:

We do not have time to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbours so that we can work together towards the development of Asia. It is better for us to leave the ranks of Asian nations and cast our lot with civilized nations of the West. As for the way of dealing with China and Korea, no special treatment is necessary just because they happen to be our neighbours. We simply follow the manner of the Westerners in knowing how to treat them. Any person who cherishes a bad friend cannot escape his notoriety. We simply erase from our mind our bad friends in Asia. [175]

The Japanese did not wait long to put this new attitude into practice. In 1894-5 they defeated China, gaining control of Taiwan and effectively also Korea. In 1910 they annexed Korea. In 1931 they annexed north-west China, from 1936 occupied central parts of China, and between 1941 and 1945 took much of South-East Asia. Between 1868 and 1945, a period of seventy-seven years, Japan engaged in ten major wars, lasting thirty years in total, the great majority at the expense of its Asian neighbours. [176] In contrast, Japan had not engaged in a single foreign war throughout the entire 250-year Tokugawa era. [177] Meiji Japan was thus intent not only on economic modernization and the emulation of the West, but also on territorial expansion, as the national slogan ‘rich country, strong army’ ( fukoku kyôhei), which was adopted at the beginning of the Meiji period, implied. [178] Although Japan presented its proposal for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere during the 1930s as a way of promoting Asian interests at the expense of the West, in reality it was an attempt to subjugate Asia in the interests of an imperial Japan. [179]

Map 4. Japan’s Colonies in East Asia

Figure 8. Japanese responses to the question, ‘How do you feel about you or a member of your family marrying a foreigner?’

Japan, unsurprisingly, saw the world in essentially similar terms to the deeply hierarchical nature of its own society. [180] While looking up to the West, it looked down on Asia as backward and inferior, seeking to subjugate its own continent for the purpose of its enrichment and aggrandizement. Where once it had seen Chinese civilization as its superior, it now regarded the Chinese as an inferior race. [181] The idea of a racial hierarchy has been intrinsic to the Japanese view of the world. Even today it continues to persist, as its relations with its East Asian neighbours demonstrate. Whites are still held in the highest esteem while fellow Asians are regarded as of lesser stock. [182] Racialized ways of thinking are intrinsic to mainstream Japanese culture, [183] in particular the insistence on the ‘homogeneity of the Japanese people’ (even though there are significant ethnic minorities), the idea of a ‘Japanese race’ (even though the Japanese were the product of diverse migratory movements), and the widely held belief that the Japanese ‘blood type’ is associated with specific patterns of cultural behaviour. [184] Racial, ethnic and national categories overlap in Japanese conceptions of both themselves and, by implication, others also. [185] This is illustrated by former prime minister Nakasone’s infamous remark in 1986 that the mental level in the United States was lower than in Japan because of the presence of racial minorities — specifically, ‘blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans’. [186] Even today there is no law against racial discrimination. [187]

Over the course of the last half-century, however, East Asia has been transformed from a state of backwardness into the most dynamic region in the world: Japan is no longer alone. [188] And yet its attitudes towards East Asia remain, in large part, fixed in a Meiji time-warp. Japan would still prefer to see itself as Western rather than Asian: I vividly recall a conference on Europe and Japan in Tokyo in 1999 at which it was seriously suggested that Japan might consider applying to join the European Union. Japan’s failure to rethink its relationship with East Asia in the context of the latter’s transformation adds another important dimension to the crisis that Japan faces today, an issue that I explore more fully in Chapter 9.

Japanese modernity is an extraordinary achievement: the only non-Western country to industrialize in the nineteenth century, by far the most advanced country in East Asia, the world’s second largest economy (measured by GDP according to market exchange rates), an enviably high standard of living, arguably the best public transport system in the world; but at the same time it has succeeded in remaining highly distinctive, both culturally and socially. [189] Yet for three reasons the novelty and scale of its achievement have never received the recognition either in the West or in Asia that they deserve. First, ever since 1945 Japan has been at pains to stress its similarity with the West rather than its difference from it. Following its defeat, Japan entered the American sphere of influence, lost any independent foreign-policy voice, and became to all intents and purposes an American protectorate: under such circumstances, its approach was sotto voce, and it had no desire to emphasize its distinctiveness. Second, its deeply troubled relationship with East Asia has meant that Japan has never enjoyed anything like the political and cultural influence in the region its economic strength would suggest. In varying degrees, Japan remains problematic and tainted. Third, as Japan has always seen itself in particularistic rather than universal terms, it has not regarded itself as a model for others.

The fact remains that Japan was the first East Asian country to modernize, and much of the region has now followed in its wake. Without Japan, it is doubtful whether the Asian tigers would have begun to roar; and without the Asian tigers, China ’s modernization would certainly have been even further delayed. Japan might have been, in a host of ways, an exception, but it has been the exception that has eventually proved the rule: it is now surrounded by countries that are, in various different ways, following its example, at times to its acute discomfort. If Britain was Europe’s pioneer in modernity, so Japan has been Asia ’s.

4. China’s Ignominy

On the orders of King George III, the first British trade delegation to China left London in September 1792, bearing numerous gifts including telescopes, clocks, barometers, a spring-suspension coach and airguns. They sailed in a man-of-war equipped with sixty-six guns, accompanied by two support vessels, on a mission whose purpose was to impress and seduce the Chinese Emperor Qianlong with Britain ’s growing industrial and technological prowess. The 700-strong party, comprising diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, scientists, painters, gardeners and others, was led by Lord George Macartney, an experienced diplomat with an eye for the main chance, whether personal or national. The British government, represented by the East India Company, which organized the mission (and which acted as Britain’s de facto corporate overseas persona, ruling India until 1858), was anxious to open up the Chinese market to trade, its previous efforts having been rebuffed. The preparation was meticulous and protracted. The British mission arrived at Macao, the Portuguese enclave on the south coast of China, and then took four months to crawl northwards, as negotiations with the Emperor’s representatives dragged on, eventually reaching Beijing for the long-awaited and much-postponed audience with the Emperor.

When the meeting was finally held in September 1793, Macartney asked the Emperor for British diplomatic representation in Beijing, the ending of the system whereby foreigners were only allowed to use Canton (Guangzhou) as their point of entry and for trade, the opening up of new ports for trade, and the provision of fair and equitable tariffs. The Emperor was unmoved, his mind made up long before the mission ever arrived. Instead of informing Macartney, he sent an edict to George III, explaining that China would not increase its foreign trade because it required nothing from other countries. As Qianlong wrote:

We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures. Therefore, O King, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.

To the British, possessed of the hubris of a rising power and flush with the early fruits of the Industrial Revolution — by then well under way, though unbeknown to the 81-year-old Emperor, it would appear — the Chinese reaction was incomprehensible. Duly spurned, Macartney was obliged to leave China empty-handed by the only route available to him: over land to Canton. During the course of his journey he kept a copious journal. One entry reads, ‘The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first rate man-of-war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these one hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by bulk and appearance.’ He was thoroughly bleak about the prospects for the Celestial Empire, which he saw as destined to be ‘dashed to pieces on the shore’. In Macartney’s opinion, it was futile for China to resist the British demands because it was ‘in vain to attempt arresting the progress of human knowledge’. The sense of one era closing and another beginning was apparent not only in Macartney’s over-weaning self-confidence but also in the Emperor’s blinkered failure to recognize the potential represented by Britain’s new manufactures. Meanwhile the clash of civilizations was graphically illustrated by the lengthy and tortuous argument over diplomatic protocol for the audience with the Emperor. From a full six weeks before, the Chinese had pressured Macartney with growing intensity that he should perform the kowtow, the required gesture of deference to the Emperor: a set of three genuflections, each containing three full prostrations with the head touching the ground. Macartney offered to doff his hat, go down on one knee and even kiss the Emperor’s hand, but he declined to kowtow unless a Chinese official of similar position kneeled before a portrait of George III. For the Chinese, this was out of the question: the Emperor was the ruler of ‘all under Heaven’ and therefore could not possibly be regarded as of equal status to a mere king. Even the status of the goods that the British had brought was the subject of dispute: as required by more than a millennium and a half of Chinese convention, foreigners could only visit China as inferior vassals bearing tribute. In the eyes of the Chinese, Macartney was simply a subordinate ‘conveyor of tribute’: Macartney, for his part, insisted that they were presents from the ambassador of a diplomatic equal. No compromise was reached. Two eras and two civilizations collided without a hint of mutual understanding.

The mission ended in dismal failure. Macartney’s prediction of the fate that awaited China was to be borne out more fully than the Chinese could ever have imagined, though the British — filled with the testosterone of growing power and well versed in aggressive intent — clearly had some inkling. Already at the time of Macartney’s embassy to Beijing, the East India Company had started to export opium from India to China and this was rapidly to prove a highly profitable trade. In 1829 the Chinese government banned the import of opium, much to the fury of the British. As relations deteriorated, the British launched the First Opium War (1839-42) and bombarded south China into submission. In the Treaty of Nanjing, the Chinese were forced to hand over Hong Kong, open the first five treaty ports and pay reparations. China ’s ‘century of humiliation had begun’. [190]

If Japan was the great exception, the only non-Western country to begin its industrialization in the nineteenth century, China was an example of the opposite: a country which failed to industrialize, even though it enjoyed a similar level of development to Japan in 1800. As a result, China found itself hugely outdistanced by Europe and the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, and also by Japan towards the end of it. After 1800, and especially from the middle of the century, China suffered from growing economic weakness, near implosion, debilitating division, defeat, humiliation and occupation at the hands of foreign powers, and a progressive loss of sovereignty. Disastrous though its fortunes were in the period between 1850 and 1950, however, their consequences should not be overstated. China ’s progress after 1949, and especially since 1978, suggests that the roots of its contemporary dynamism lie in its own history rather than being mainly a consequence of its turn to the West: even if it did not appear so at the time, all was far from lost in the century of humiliation. [191] Nonetheless, this period was to leave deep psychological scars. Like Japan, moreover, China ’s modernization was to take a very different path from that of the West. [192]


China had already begun to acquire its modern shape in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ. [193] The victory of the so-called First Emperor (Qin Shihuangdi, the Western name for China being derived from his family name, Qin) marked the end of the Warring States period (475–221 BC) — an endless series of conflicts between the numerous Chinese states of the time which resembled a much later phase of European history — and the beginning of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). By 206 BC the boundaries of the Qin Empire contained much of what we now regard as the heartland of modern China, stretching to Vietnam in the south and as far as the Great Wall in the north, including the densely populated region between the Yangzi and the Yellow rivers (see Map 5). Following the fall of the Qin dynasty, the country continued to expand rapidly during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), achieving its furthest extent in the period 141-87 BC (see Map 6), when the Chinese armies penetrated into southern Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula in the north-east, and south and south-west as far as northern Vietnam. [194] Over the next millennium or so, China continued to expand to the north, north-east, north-west, south and south-east. [195] The huge size that China ultimately acquired was related to the natural borders of its continental land mass, bounded by the steppe in the north, the coastline to the south and east, and the mountainous regions to its south-east. [196]

Extensive internal migration, improving communications and many centuries of unity or near unity helped to foster a relatively homogeneous culture across what was, for its time, a massive population. The Qin dynasty, short though its life may have been, constructed over 4,000 miles of imper-ial highways, as many as the Roman Empire. [197] A centralized state, and a sophisticated statecraft, took root based on the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BC), who was to exercise a huge influence over the Chinese political and moral universe for more than two millennia. Weights, measures and currency were standardized. The distinctive customs that we associate with China — including the mandate of Heaven, a family structure resting on filial piety, a language that used common signs and symbols, and a religion based on ancestral worship — were well established by the time of the Qin dynasty. During the first millennium AD, therefore, China was to acquire — given the fact that in practice it embraced many different peoples — an unusually strong sense of cultural identity. [198] One of the most striking features of Chinese history has been that, although it has been invaded from the north many times — notably by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and the Manchu in the seventeenth — all invaders, bar the Mongols, once secure in power, sought to acquire the customs and values of the Chinese and to rule according to their principles and their institutions: a testament to the prestige enjoyed by the Chinese and the respect accorded to their civilization by their northern adversaries. [199] The persistence and steady spread of the Chinese language is a further indication of the strength of the culture: the constant invasions from the north, by obliging the population to stay mobile, kept the language from becoming atomized into different dialects, at the same time making the Chinese themselves more aware of, and therefore also protective of, both their language and culture. [200] The early emergence of a Chinese identity is, perhaps more than anything else, the key to China as we know it today, for without that, China could not have remained a relatively unified country for over two millennia and would have been shorn of its most striking characteristic: its size.

Map 5. Boundary of the Qin Dynasty at its Greatest Extent, c.206 BC

Map 6. Boundary of the Han Dynasty at its Greatest Extent, 141-87 BC

Historically, relatively advanced forms of agriculture enabled societies to sustain large populations and provided propitious conditions for the development of organized states; China was a classic example of this phenomenon. It is now believed that millet and rice first appeared in northern and southern China respectively 12,000 years ago, earlier even than in Mesopotamia, where sedentary agriculture began about 8,000 years ago. Although North China has long sustained ‘dry’ agriculture by way of cereals, barley and various kinds of millet, it was the wet cultivation of rice, which developed slowly from the beginning of the first millennium and which was in full swing by its end, that was later to give a major boost to Chinese agriculture, resulting in a shift in the economic centre of gravity from the central plain to the lower Yangzi basin. New methods of wet rice cultivation were introduced, including the planting of seedlings, early ripening varieties of rice, the systematic selection of species, new tools such as a chain with paddles which made it possible to lift water from one level to another, and sophisticated forms of irrigation. These made Chinese wet rice farming one of the most advanced agricultural techniques in the world, generating extremely high yields. [201] During the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), these advanced techniques were generalized across large tracts of the country, pushing south as the frontier was steadily extended. [202] Sustained by agrarian prosperity, the population expanded rapidly, almost doubling between 1000 and 1300. [203] Between AD 500 and 900 bricked roads were built across the middle of the Chinese empire such that the capital (known then as Chang’an, now as Xi’an) was only eight to fourteen days’ travel from any reasonably sized city. Even more significant was the spread of water transport in the form of rivers, canals and coastal shipping. These various waterway systems became part of an integral network that was to form the basis of a nationwide market that steadily took shape by 1200. As Marco Polo, a resident of Venice, Europe ’s greatest seaport, observed of the Yangzi in the late thirteenth century:

I assure you that this river runs for such a distance and through so many regions and there are so many cities on its banks that truth to tell, in the amount of shipping it carries and the total volume and value of its traffic, it exceeds all the rivers of the Christians put together and their seas into the bargain. [204]

The Chinese economy became increasingly commercialized, with paper money firmly established in both north and south China by the twelfth century. A large inter-regional trade developed in both luxuries and staples like rice. During the Song dynasty, coastal trade flourished and extended to Japan and South-East Asia. Urbanization proceeded apace, such that by the late thirteenth century Hangzhou, China’s largest city, had a population of almost 7 million, making China by far the most urbanized society in the world, its cities accounting for around 10 per cent of the population. [205] The cities were not, however, to play the same role as centres of political and personal freedom as those in Europe: autonomous urban development was constrained by China ’s centralized imperial structure, a pattern that only began to change in the twentieth century. Encouraged by the government, there was a flowering of learning and a wave of remarkable inventions during the Song dynasty, especially in the century and a half of the Northern Song (960-1126). [206] What is sometimes described as China’s Renaissance witnessed the development of a classical examination system, the birth of neo-Confucianism, the invention of gunpowder, mortars and woodblock printing, the spread of books, and major advances in mathematics, natural sciences, astronomy and geography. [207] A large spinning machine was invented that was to fall only slightly short of what might — at least theoretically — have ushered in an industrial revolution along the lines that Britain was to experience centuries later. [208] In contrast, Europe ’s Renaissance only began two centuries after the end of the Northern Song. The diffusion of books enabled by woodblock printing, the publication of large encyclopedias, the growing number of candidates who entered the examination system for the civil service, the great advances made in mathematics (particularly the development of algebra) and the emergence of a gentry-scholar class marked China out as the most literate and numerate society in the world; only Islam could compare, with Europe lagging well behind. [209] During the medieval period Europe was to borrow extensively from China ’s innovations, including paper, the compass, the wheelbarrow, the sternpost rudder, the spinning wheel and woodblock printing. [210] China was by far the most advanced civilization in East Asia, exercising a huge influence on its neighbours, many of which had long been tributary states of China, paying tribute to the emperor and acknowledging the superiority of Chinese culture.

After 1300 this efflorescence began to subside and China ’s medieval economic revolution gave way to a period of stagnation that only came to an end in 1500. The Mongol invasion marked the closure of the Song period, in many respects China ’s finest age, and led to the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) and the incorporation of China into the Mongol Empire. It was to prove traumatic, with the Chinese finding themselves under alien rule and reduced to lowly status. There were several reasons for the economic slowdown. The dynamic by which China had expanded from its heartlands southwards had involved the addition of rich new farmlands, but this area began to fill up with migrants from the north; as a consequence there was growing pressure on resources, most notably food. [211] The spectacular advances in science, meanwhile, started to dry up. The Song dynasty had placed considerable emphasis on the importance of trade and contact with foreigners, notably Japan and South-East Asia, but also beyond to Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and even the east coast of Africa. This process slowly went into reverse during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). [212] In 1371 the Ming dynasty forbade coastal people from sailing overseas because of the threat posed to Chinese shipping by large-scale Japanese piracy. An edict in 1390 declared: ‘At present the ignorant people of the Liang-Kuang, Chekiang and Fukien are frequently in communication with the outer barbarians, with whom they carry on a smuggling trade. This is therefore strictly prohibited.’ [213]There followed over the next three centuries a succession of restrictions banning first private and then government trade. By 1757 Canton was the only port from which legal trade could be conducted, as Lord Macartney was to complain.

The successful reconstruction of the Grand Canal linking northern China with the rich rice fields of the Yangzi in 1411 was a crucial moment, signalling a greatly reduced need for coastal shipping and, therefore, also for a navy. For almost four and a half centuries, from the consolidation of the Song Empire until the remarkable seafaring expeditions of the early Ming (1405-33), China was the greatest maritime nation in the world — using big compartmented ships (with up to four decks, four or five masts, and a dozen sails), steered by a sternpost rudder, guided by charts and compass, and able to carry 500 men. [214] The ships used by Zheng He for his great voyages to South-East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa in the early fifteenth century were by far the most advanced in the world. From the moment the voyages were completed, however, China ’s maritime prowess fell into steep decline. In 1436 the construction of seagoing ships was banned and the number of smaller vessels built was reduced. The reason for this growing isolation and introspection is not entirely clear. It would appear that the failure to continue with Zheng He’s great voyages was the result of several factors: a political shift in the attitude of the Ming dynasty; the moving of the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, which led to heightened sensitivities about the northern border and reduced interest in oceanic and coastal priorities; and growing concern about both the cost of the maritime voyages and the relative failure of the military expeditions against the Mongols in the north. [215] There was also an anxiety that the coastal centres, with their links to other lands, might act as an alternative source of power, the maintenance of social order and control always being a prime consideration for Chinese rulers. Perhaps also the underlying Chinese belief that their civilization was far superior to those of the barbarians (especially the nomadic cultures to its north, [216] which intensified under the Ming in an ethnic reaction to the previous Mongol rule, made such an autarchic and isolationist view seem natural.

Between 1500 and 1800, stagnation gave way to vigorous economic growth and reasonable prosperity. There was a steady increase in the food supply, due to an increase in land under cultivation — the result of migration and settlement in the western and central provinces, greater productivity (including the use of new crops like corn and peanuts) and better irrigation. [217] These developments sustained a fivefold increase in China ’s population between 1400 and 1800, whereas between 1300 and 1400 it had fallen sharply. [218] China ’s performance during this period has tended to be overshadowed by the dynamism of the earlier medieval economic revolution; unlike during the Song dynasty, this later growth was achieved with relatively little new invention. In the eighteenth century China remained the world’s largest economy, followed by India, with Europe as a secondary player. Adam Smith, who saw China as an exemplar of market-based development, observed in 1776 that ‘ China is a much richer country than any part of Europe.’ [219] It was not until 1850, indeed, that London was to displace Beijing as the world’s largest city. [220]

A model of one of Zheng He’s ships, shown in comparison to one of Christopher Columbus’s

Map 7. Zheng He’s Expeditions

As we saw in Chapter 2, Britain was able to escape the growing resource constraints at the end of the eighteenth century by deploying the resources of its colonies, together with an abundant supply of accessible domestic coal. But what exactly happened to China, which enjoyed neither? There was almost certainly enough capital available, especially given the relatively small amounts involved in the take-off of the cotton industry in Britain. Although Chinese merchants did not enjoy the same kind of independent and privileged status that they did in Britain, always being subordinate to the bureaucracy and the landowning gentry, they were widely respected and enjoyed growing wealth and considerable power. [221] There may have been rather less protection for investment in comparison with Europe, but nonetheless there were plenty of very large Chinese enterprises. China ’s markets were no less sophisticated than those of Europe and were much longer established. Mark Elvin argues that the reason for China ’s failure was what he describes as a ‘high-level equilibrium trap’. [222] China ’s shortage of resources in its densely populated heartlands became increasingly acute: there was a growing lack of wood, fuel, clothing fibres, draught animals and metals, and there was an increasing shortage of good farmland. Hectic deforestation continued throughout the nineteenth century and in some places the scarcity of wood was so serious that families burned little but dung, roots and the husks of corn. In provinces such as Henan and Shandong, where population levels were at their most dense, forest cover fell to between 2 per cent and 6 per cent of the total land area, which was between one-twelfth and one-quarter of the levels in European countries like France at the time. [223] The pressure on land and other resources was driven by the continuing growth of population in a situation of relative technological stasis. Lacking a richly endowed overseas empire, China had no exogenous means by which it could bypass the growing constraints.

With the price of labour falling, profit margins declining and static markets, there was no incentive to invest in labour-saving machinery; instead there was a premium on conserving resources and fixed capital. In such a situation there was little reason to engage in the kind of technological leap into the factory system that marked Britain ’s Industrial Revolution. In other words, it was rational for the Chinese not to invest in labour-saving machinery. As Elvin argues:

In the context of a civilization with a strong sense of economic rationality, with an appreciation of invention such that shrines were erected to historic inventors… and with notable mechanical gifts, it is probably a sufficient explanation of the retardation of technological advance. [224]

With growing markets and a rising cost of labour, on the other hand, investment in labour-saving machinery was entirely rational in the British context and was to unleash a virtuous circle of invention, application, increased labour productivity and economic growth; in contrast, China remained trapped within its old parameters. In Britain the domestic system, based on small-scale family units of production, proved to be the precursor of the factory system. In China, where such rural industrialization was at least as developed as it was in Britain, it did not. While Britain suggested a causal link between the domestic and the factory systems, this was not true in China: widespread rural industrialization did not lead to a Chinese industrial revolution. [225]


The most striking difference between Europe and China was not in the timing of their respective industrializations, which in broad historical terms was similar, separated by a mere two centuries, but rather the disparity between the sizes of their polities, which has persisted for at least two millennia and whose effects have been enormous. It is this, above all, which explains why Europe is such a poor template for understanding China. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe was never again to be ruled, notwithstanding the ambitions of Napoleon and Hitler, by an imperial regime with the capacity to exercise centralized control over more or less the entire continent. Political authority, instead, was devolved to many small units. Even with the creation of the modern nation-state system, and the unification of Germany and Italy, Europe remained characterized by its division into a multi-state system. In contrast, China retained the imperial state system that emerged after the intense interstate competition — the Warring States period — that ended in the third century BC, though this was to assume over time a range of different forms, including, as in the case of the Mongol Yuan and the Manchu Qing dynasties, various phases of foreign rule. [226] Apart from Outer Mongolia, China’s borders today remain roughly coterminous with those the country acquired during the period of its greatest geographical reach under the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). China ’s equilibrium state has been that of a unified agrarian empire in contrast to Europe, which for two millennia has been an agglomeration of states. [227]

From this follows a fundamental difference in contemporary Chinese and European attitudes: while the Chinese attach greater importance to unity than literally anything else, the Europeans overwhelmingly believe in the nation-state rather than European-wide sovereignty, the European Union notwithstanding. The underlying strength of the Chinese desire for unity is illustrated by the fact that, while the rise of nationalism in Europe in the nineteenth century resulted in the break-up of old empires and the creation of many new states, this has never happened, and shows no sign of happening, in China. The Chinese commitment to unity has three dimensions: the fundamental priority attached to unity by both the state and the people; the central role expected of the state in ensuring that this unity is maintained; and a powerful sense of a common Chinese identity that underpins this overarching popular commitment to unity. This unity could never be taken for granted: China has spent around half its history in varying degrees of division, which, in the light of the country’s size and diversity (far greater than that of Europe), is not surprising. As a result of its attachment to unity, China has largely escaped the intra-state wars that have scarred Europe ’s history over many centuries, though its periods of disunity and fragmentation have often carried a very heavy cost in terms of war and famine, notably from the mid nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, when it was chronically divided. [228] China ’s frequent experience of disunity and its baleful consequences have served to reinforce its commitment to unity, a tradition that began with Confucius — who, living during the Warring States period, was witness to the huge cost of instability and conflict, and preached the importance of harmony.

A further difference between the Chinese state and the various European states was that the former never faced competition from rival elites seeking to limit its power. By the mid tenth century, the Chinese aristocratic elites had been destroyed, with the consequence that no elite enjoyed authority independent of the state. The opposite, in fact, was the case, with the bureaucratic elite enjoying unrivalled authority and numerous privileges, and all other elites dependent for their position on the patronage of the state. [229] The key mechanism for the selection of the bureaucratic elite was the imperial examination system, which had been more or less perfected by the time of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) [230]. Although the nobility enjoyed an advantage in these exams, they were open to a wide cross-section of society, and were the means by which recruitment to the imperial elite was greatly broadened. Knowledge of the Confucian classics formed the core of the exams and served, for successful and unsuccessful candidates alike, to articulate and reinforce a common set of values. [231] Whereas in Europe the elites remained relatively autonomous, except at extreme moments like war, the Chinese elites were absorbed by and became effectively part of the state, often being called upon to act on its behalf. The imperial bureaucracy, under the aegis of the emperor, faced no challenge from a Church (after the seizure of Buddhist properties in the ninth century), a judiciary, a landed aristocracy, the military or an urban bourgeoisie. [232] The most important exception was the tradition of the literati, like Confucius himself, who were given licence to write critical things provided that they, in effect, removed themselves from everyday society.

The Chinese state was thus never constrained by independent power elites in the manner of Europe: it enjoyed universal and unchallenged authority. While the boundaries between the state and society in Europe were clearly delineated and constantly contested, this was not the case in China, where the frontiers remained blurred and fuzzy, as they still are today: there has been no need to define them because there were no competing social groups. Given the non-conflictual nature of state-elite relations, the boundaries between state and society were instead determined by practical issues of organization and resource constraints. In Europe, by contrast, autonomous, competing elites — nobles, clerics and burghers — fought to constrain the power of the state. Whereas the contest between state and elites in Europe was intimately bound up with both Church and class, in China the functional differentiation into scholars, peasants, merchants and tradesmen did not translate into independent bases of power or institutionalized voices.

With such a vast territory to govern, the Chinese state could not, and did not, depend solely or even mainly on physical coercion for the exercise of its rule. [233] It would have been neither feasible nor viable — the resources required being too enormous. In comparison with Japan, indeed, the military remained strikingly absent from Chinese life — at least until the early twentieth century. Instead, the power of the state has rested primarily on consent reinforced by forms of coercion. The Chinese state went to great lengths, in both the Ming and Qing periods, to inculcate in the population a sense of shared values and culture based on Confucian principles. Here was another contrast with Europe, where such matters were not considered to be the responsibility of the state and, until the late nineteenth century, were left in the hands of the Church. [234] The Chinese state saw moral instruction, amongst both the common people and the elites, as both desirable in itself and also as a means of exercising social control. For the elites, the state required that the Confucian classics be taught in schools as well as in preparation for the imperial exams. It promoted lectures for the common people on the virtues of Confucian behaviour, and imperial edicts frequently adopted a moral tone on issues such as social hierarchy and the payment of taxes. The state also sought to promote the worship of particular deities, while at the same time discouraging those which it saw as potential sources of social unrest. [235] On these matters, it was, with the exception of religious control, many centuries in advance of European states, which only began to concern themselves with such questions after the emergence of the modern nation-state and concomitant nationalism in the late nineteenth century. As the historian Bin Wong suggests: ‘From a Chinese perspective, the lack of concern for education and moral indoctrination in Europe constitutes a basic limitation on European rule, no less important than the absence of representative political institutions in China.’ [236] The same can be said of the manner in which the Chinese state, as a matter of course, engaged in surveillance of the population — by registration and other means — in order to be better able to anticipate sources of dissatisfaction and potential unrest. [237] A crucial mechanism in the exercise of social control was the clans or lineages, which were — and remain, even — far more important in China than they generally were in Europe. These were huge extended kinship groups, which traced their origins back to a common male ancestor (at the time of the 1949 Revolution there were still fewer than 500 surnames in China), [238] and were based on formal membership. They enjoyed huge authority, with the power of expulsion and the consequent threat of social ostracism. [239]

The imperial state was mindful of the importance of good governance and the need for restraint. This notion of good governance was intimately linked to the Confucian tradition, with its stress on the moral responsibility of the rulers: a continuing feature of imperial rule, for example, was a recognition that taxes needed to be kept low so that peasants would prosper, harmony would be promoted, resistance and rebellion avoided. [240] Nor was there a complete absence of accountability: imperial rule was always haunted by the possibility that the mandate of Heaven, and therefore its right to rule, might be withdrawn. During the Zhou dynasty (1100-256 BC) emperors claimed for the first time that their sanction to govern came from a broader, impersonal deity, Heaven ( tian), whose mandate ( tianming) might be conferred on any family that was morally worthy of the responsibility. This doctrine proclaimed the ruler’s accountability to a supreme moral force that guides the human community. The Chinese concept of Heaven differed from the Western concept of a universe created and controlled by a divine power. For the Chinese, Heaven was seen as superior to anything on earth but it was not regarded as the creator of the universe, nor was it visualized in concrete terms. Unlike a Western ruler’s accession through the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which rested solely on birth, the Chinese mandate of Heaven established moral criteria for holding power, which enabled the Chinese to distance themselves from their rulers and to speculate on their virtue and suitability. [241] A succession of bad harvests, or growing poverty, or a series of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, might bring into question in the minds of the people the right of a particular emperor to continue his rule: such a growing crisis of legitimacy could lead to and sustain huge popular uprisings, the last great example being the Taiping Uprising against the Qing dynasty in the mid nineteenth century, when tens of millions came to believe that the mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.

The moral role that the Chinese state assumed was only one aspect of a very broad conception of how it conceived of its responsibilities. The mandate of Heaven meant that the state felt obliged to intervene in ecological and economic questions and also in ensuring the livelihood of the people. A striking example was the way the Qing during the eighteenth century managed granary reserves in order to ensure that the local laws of supply and demand worked in a reasonably acceptable fashion and produced relative price stability, a practice which dated back much earlier to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and even before. [242] The state also took on responsibility for what were, by the standards of the time, huge infrastructural projects, such as the maintenance of the Yellow River in order to prevent flooding, and the construction of the Grand Canal, which was completed at the beginning of the seventh century. [243] In each of these respects, the Chinese state was very different from European states in that it assumed functions that the latter were only to regard as legitimate areas of concern many centuries later. In these instances too, then, developments in China prefigured those in Europe, and confound the idea of a single Eurocentric path of development that other states are destined to follow. If anything, indeed, quite the reverse: the Chinese state acquired many of the characteristics of a modern state, not least a large-scale bureaucracy, long before, on a European time-map, it should have done. Moreover, those forces that later drove the expansion of the nation-state in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards — the exigencies of warfare, the need for revenue and the demand for political representation — were very different from the factors that shaped China’s imperial state. In contrast to Europe, where no state dominated, China enjoyed overwhelming power over its neighbours for more than a millennium, [244] while political representation was to remain an alien concept, even after the 1911 Revolution and the fall of the Qing dynasty. The dynamics of state-creation in China and Europe were profoundly different in almost every major respect. [245]


The problems faced by the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) began to mount in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Its first taste of what lay in wait was its defeat by Britain in the First Opium War (1839-42). Then, around the middle of the century, as economic difficulties began to grow, the Qing were shaken by a series of local revolts together with four major rebellions: a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan in the south-west (1855-73), another Muslim rebellion by those of Turkic descent in the north-west (1862-73), the Nien Rebellion in the north (1853-68), and the Taiping Uprising (1850-64). [246] Of these, the Taiping was by far the most serious. With trust in the imperial regime shaken by its defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War, together with serious floods and famine in 1848-50, the conditions were ripe for rebellion. The Taiping Uprising started in southern China and laid waste to much of the rich lower Yangzi region before moving north and west, and threatening Beijing: it is estimated that the uprising resulted in the deaths of 20–40 million people. The historian Paul Cohen describes the Taiping’s ideology as ‘a bizarre alchemy of evangelical Christianity, primitive communism, sexual Puritanism, and Confucian utopianism’. [247] Initially it drew considerable support from various ethnic minorities in the south which had migrated from the north, especially the Hakka, and contained a strongly anti-Manchu element (the Qing dynasty being from Manchuria). [248] The outcome remained uncertain for several years, with the rebellion only finally being crushed by the raising of new armies by the Qing and the support of British and French troops. Although the ultimate ability of the Qing to triumph indicated that it was still a robust and powerful force, its moral authority had been seriously undermined and was never restored. [249]

Following the defeat of the Taiping Uprising, the problems posed by growing Western ambition and aggression began to move centre-stage in the 1870s and 1880s. [250] The First Opium War, in which the Qing unsuccessfully sought to resist British demands to allow the import of Indian-grown opium, led to the Treaty of Nanjing. [251] This was the first of the so-called unequal treaties and resulted in the imposition of reparations, the loss of Hong Kong, and the creation of four treaty ports in which the British enjoyed special concessions. The impact of the defeat, however, was limited. The Qing dynasty was not forced to rethink its attitudes in the light of its defeat: the imperial state, indeed, continued to perceive the British in rather similar terms to the way it regarded other foreigners, whether they were the peoples of the northern steppes and Central Asia, or its many tributary states in East Asia, like Korea and Vietnam. [252] The sense of Chinese superiority and self-confidence remained obdurate. [253] This state of affairs began to change with the Second Opium War (1857-60), which culminated in the ransacking and burning of the Summer Palace in Beijing by British and French troops and the resulting Treaty of Tianjin and the Beijing Conventions. These established a whole string of new treaty ports in which Western citizens were granted extra-territoriality; the right to foreign military bases was conceded; missionaries were given freedom to travel in the interior; and further reparations were imposed. As a result, China began to lose control over important aspects of its territory. [254] In 1884 the French succeeded in crushing the Chinese navy in a struggle for influence over Vietnam, which had long been part of the Chinese tributary system but was in the course of being colonized by France. The naval battle revealed the alarming disparity between the power of an advanced European industrial nation, even so far from its home base, and that of an overwhelmingly agrarian China. The Chinese flagship was sunk by torpedoes within the first minute of battle; in less than an hour all the Chinese ships had been destroyed and the way was clear for France to take control of Indochina. [255]

The decisive turning point was the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which, like the war with the French, concerned China ’s influence over its tributary states, in this case Korea, which had for many centuries been one of the tributary states closest to China. The Chinese suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of its rapidly industrializing and increasingly aggressive neighbour and in the Treaty of Shimonoseki was forced to pay huge reparations, amounting to three times the government’s annual income. Korea effectively became a Japanese protectorate, though not formally until 1905. China lost Taiwan and part of southern Manchuria, four further treaty ports were created, and Japan won the right to build factories and other enterprises in one of the now numerous treaty ports. Japan ’s victory also proved the occasion for further demands from the Western powers and a series of new concessions from a China impotent to resist. [256] By the turn of the century, China ’s sovereignty had been severely curtailed by the growing presence of Britain, France, Japan, Germany, the United States, Belgium and Russia on Chinese territory.

The Boxer Uprising in 1900, which received the tacit support of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who held de facto power over the Qing government between 1861 and 1908, was occasioned by growing anti-Western sentiment and resulted in widespread attacks on foreign missionaries and other Westerners. Eventually a joint foreign army drawn from British, Japanese, French and American troops marched on Beijing, suppressed the uprising and then proceeded to base itself in the Forbidden City for over a year. Further concessions were extracted from the Chinese authorities, including another round of reparations. Although China was not colonized, in effect it became a semi-colony, with foreign troops free to roam its territory, the treaty ports resembling micro-colonies, missionaries enjoying licence to proselytize Western values wherever they went, [257] and foreign companies able to establish subsidiaries with barely any taxation or duties. China was humiliated and impoverished. [258] The fact, however, that it never became a colony, even though the Japanese were later to occupy Manchuria and then conquer lands much further to the south, was of great importance for China ’s ability to revive after 1949.

Major Unequal Treaties Imposed on China

Treaty of Nanjing (1842) with the United Kingdom

Treaty of the Bogue (1843) with the United Kingdom

Treaty of Wanghia (1844) with the United States

Treaty of Whampoa (1844) with France

Treaty of Aigun (1858) with Russia

Treaty of Tianjin (1858) with France, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States

Convention of Peking (1860) with the United Kingdom, France and Russia

Treaty of Tientsin (1861) with Prussia and the German Customs Union

Chefoo Convention (1876) with the United Kingdom

Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking (1887) with Portugal

Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) with Japan

Li-Lobanov Treaty (1896) with Russia

Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory (1898) with the United Kingdom

Boxer Protocol (1901) with the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands

Twenty-One Demands (1915) with Japan

China ’s impotence in the face of growing foreign intervention stimulated a movement for reform aimed at modernizing the country. Unlike in Japan, however, it failed to command anything like a consensus, its base never extending beyond a small elite, with the consequence that reform was always a hesitant and piecemeal process. It was driven by a small coterie of imperial civil servants, together with various writers and scholars, such as Kang Youwei, a well-connected man adept at showing how new ways of thinking were compatible with traditional Confucian texts. [259] The imperial government for the most part, however, neither understood nor accepted the necessity, let alone the urgency, of modernization, remaining passive or actively opposed — unlike in post-1868 Japan, where the state was the key agent of modernization. Nonetheless, there was some reform of the armed forces and various ministries, including the establishment for the first time of a diplomatic presence in major capitals like London and Paris, while the educational curriculum was revised after the turn of the century to include Western disciplines. In 1898 the reform movement reached its apogee when it finally received the formal blessing of the imperial hierarchy, but the imprimatur only lasted for a few months. [260]

One of the major problems facing the reformers was that modernization became intimately associated with the West at a time when the latter was colonizing and humiliating the country: far from being seen as patriots, they were regarded as tainted by the West or, worse, as traitors. As a result, the growing hostility amongst the Chinese towards the West was to work against the process of reform. The fact that China enjoyed such a unitary and centralized system of government also conspired to inhibit and stifle the development of alternative reforming impulses, in contrast to Japan, where authority was more dispersed. This problem was compounded by the hegemony enjoyed by Confucian thought, which made it very difficult for other ways of thinking to gain ground and influence. Until around 1900 the idea of reform was virtually always articulated within a Confucian framework — with an insistence on the distinction between Chinese ‘essence’ and Western ‘method’ (or, in the famous phrase of Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909), ‘Chinese learning for the essential principles, Western learning for the practical applications’). [261] After the turn of the century, other modes of thought began to acquire some traction, including socialist and Marxist ideas amongst sections of the intelligentsia, [262] a process that culminated in the 1911 Revolution largely being inspired by Western thinking. [263] Although Confucianism certainly declined during this period, it did not die. Nor should it be regarded as having been, or being, inherently incompatible with, or fundamentally antithetical to, change and reform. [264] However, it was in urgent need of revitalization through a process of cross-fertilization with other ways of thinking, as had happened to it in earlier periods of history with Buddhism and Taoism.

By the early years of the twentieth century, the Qing dynasty faced an intensifying crisis of authority. Constantly required to seek the approval of the occupying powers, it enjoyed only very limited sovereignty over its territory. Its economic situation, exacerbated by the enormous reparations that it was forced to pay, which required the government to depend on loans from foreign banks in order to meet its obligations, meant that it was permanently in dire financial straits. The armies that it had depended on to crush the various rebellions, notably the Taiping Uprising, behaved in an increasingly independent manner, and the regime faced gathering disaffection and disillusionment amongst growing sections of the population, with a rising tide of anti-Manchu sentiment directed against the Qing. The Qing finally fell following the 1911 Revolution, after 266 years in power, bringing down the curtain on over two millennia of dynastic government — the most enduring political system in world history. It was replaced by the republican government of Sun Yat-sen, but, far from ushering in a new and more hopeful era, Sun’s regime proved the prelude to a further Balkanization of China, in which limited sovereignty gave way to something much worse: a chronic multiple and divided sovereignty. Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang (or Nationalist) Party was in a very weak situation, with no troops at its command or effective state apparatus at its disposal. He sought to strike a deal with the country’s most powerful military overlord, Yuan Shih-kai, but the result was to render Yuan the real power in the land and to sideline Sun. After Yuan’s death in 1916, the military governors that he had installed in the provinces quarrelled and shared out China between them, with the support of various foreign powers. The years 1916-28 were the period of warlordism. Not only was the country now — de facto if not de jure — divided, but also, for the first time for many centuries, military power, together with the continuing foreign presence, became the arbiter of China ’s future. [265]

Only between 1928 and 1937, when Chiang Kai-shek, the heir to the war-lords and leader of the Nationalist Party, a position he inherited from Sun Yat-sen, became China ’s leader and effective dictator, was China relatively united. But even Chiang Kai-shek’s power was circumscribed by a combination of the Japanese occupation of the north-east, the presence of other foreign powers and his lack of support in rural areas, together with the opposition of the Communist armies in the south (until he drove them out in the early 1930s), followed by their Long March around China in 1934-5 when they tried to evade the Nationalist offensive against them. [266] The country was to face a further trauma in 1937 with the Japanese drive southwards from their stronghold in the north-east and their seizure of the fertile eastern provinces of China, where most industry was located. The brutality of Japan ’s colonization, symbolized by the Nanjing Massacre in December 1937, when Japanese troops killed many tens of thousands of Chinese civilians and soldiers (and possibly as many as 300,000), was to leave a lasting impression on the Chinese and has continued to haunt Sino-Japanese relations to this day. [267] Chiang was now to pay dearly for his earlier preoccupation with the defeat of the Communists and his failure to offer any serious resistance to the Japanese occupation of the north-east. After 1937, it was the Communists that were seen as the patriots, the standard-bearers of the fight against the Japanese and for China ’s independence. In the 1949 Revolution, the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong finally took power. Unlike the 1911 Revolution-which in practice proved to be one of history’s commas, the prelude to almost four decades of divided authority and foreign occupation — 1949 proved to be the decisive turning point.

From this most bitter period, one is left with two crucial questions: why did China, though chronically divided, never break up; and why — despite everything — did the impact of Western and Japanese occupation prove relatively limited, at least in the long run?

In the period 1911-49, the possibility of China dividing was very real: on three occasions between 1911 and 1916 provinces actually declared independence from the central government. This, however, was done in response to particular actions by central government rather than as a matter of principle. In practice there were no alternative identities strong enough to provide a viable basis for the formation of breakaway states. There were two exceptions to this: the ultimately successful pressure for an independent Outer Mongolia between 1933 and 1941, and the de facto independence enjoyed by parts of Tibet between 1913 and 1933. But in the vast heartlands of China no such movement for separatism or independence ever acquired any serious strength. The Han Chinese identity, bolstered by new forms of anti-Manchu expression from the late nineteenth century, was simply too strong and too exclusive, while provincial identities remained ill-formed and never acquired any nationalist aspirations. Furthermore, as China entered the Western-dominated modern nation-state system, it was to experience the binding effects of modern nationalism: the centuries-old sense of cultural identity and cohesion, born of a unique kind of agrarian civilization, was reinforced by a profound feeling of grievance engendered by foreign occupation. [268]

Finally, why were the effects of foreign occupation relatively limited when elsewhere — Africa and the Middle East most obviously — they were to prove so enduring? China ’s vastness made colonizing the whole of it, or even the majority of it, a huge task which Britain and the United States saw no advantage in, although Japan and some of the other European nations favoured such an approach; [269] as a consequence, most of the country remained under Chinese sovereignty. Apart from Manchuria, it was largely the many treaty ports that experienced sustained foreign occupation and these were, in effect, small enclaves (albeit, by far the most advanced parts of the country) surrounded by China’s huge rural hinterland. This is not to detract from or underestimate the extent to which the country was undermined and dismembered by foreign occupation, but it fell far short of the kind of colonization experienced in Africa, for example. The fact that prior to 180 °China was an advanced agrarian economy, with widespread rural industrialization, considerable commercialization and sophisticated markets, meant that once foreign occupation came to an end, China could draw on this culture, knowledge and tradition for its industrialization. Furthermore, China enjoyed the world’s oldest and most sophisticated state and statecraft, a huge resource that post- 1949 China was able to utilize with great effect. This was in striking contrast to post-colonial Africa and the Middle East, where modern states had to be created more or less from scratch. Finally, the powerful sense of Chinese identity helped China resist many of the most negative cultural and psychological effects of Western and Japanese colonialism. [270] The Chinese remained bitterly hostile towards the presence of the Western powers and the Japanese, and felt deeply humiliated by the concessions they were forced to make; this was quite different from India, for example, which learnt to accommodate the presence of the British. [271] Despite everything, the Chinese never lost their inner sense of self-confidence — or feeling of superiority — about their own history and civilization. [272] This notwithstanding, the scale of China ’s suffering and dislocation in the century of humiliation has had a profound and long-term effect on Chinese consciousness, which remains to this day.

AFTER 1949

By 1949 China had suffered from an increasingly attenuated sovereignty for over a century. After 1911 it had experienced not only limited sovereignty but also, in effect, multiple sovereignty, [273] with the central government being obliged to share authority with both the occupying powers (i.e., multiple colonialism) [274] and various domestic rivals. Most countries would have found such a situation unacceptable, but for China, with its imposingly long history of independence, and with a tradition of a unitary state system dating back over two millennia, this state of affairs was intolerable, gnawing away at the country’s sense of pride. The Communists were confronted with three interrelated tasks: the return of the country’s sovereignty, the reunification of China and the restoration of unitary government. Although the Communists had played the key role in the resistance against the Japanese, it was the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War that forced their departure from China. [275] In 1949, with the defeat of the Nationalists by the Communists in the Civil War, the country was finally reunified (with the exception of the ‘lost territories’, namely, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao). The key to the support enjoyed by the Communist regime after 1949 — and, indeed, even until this day — lies, above all else, in the fact that it restored the independence and unity of China. [276] It was Mao’s greatest single achievement.

After the ravages of the previous forty years, the disintegration of the imperial state and the failure of the Nationalists, the Communists had to deal with the daunting task of establishing a new ruling system. China, ever since the rise of the West, had been faced with a range of strategic choices concerning its modernization: it could reform the traditional imperial institutions, which was attempted unsuccessfully prior to 1911; it could imitate the Western model, an experiment which failed badly between 1911 and 1949; or it could develop new institutions, drawing on foreign examples where appropriate as well as on the past. [277] The last, in effect, became the Communist project, with inspiration being sought in part from the Soviet Union, although Maoism was largely a home-grown product rather than a foreign import. [278] The Communists had already acquired some initial experience of governance in the areas over which they had enjoyed limited authority during the late twenties and early thirties, [279] then in the expanding territory they controlled during the resistance against the Japanese occupation after 1937, and finally in the regions they governed during the Civil War between 1945 and 1949. One of the key problems that faced both the late imperial state and the Nationalists, under Sun Yat-sen and then Chiang Kai-shek, was a loss of control over government revenues. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) — as the new regime was known — quickly reasserted central control over revenues and disbursements. Although the actual expenditure of revenues was to remain in local hands, as it had been since the eighteenth century, central government once again determined how they should be used; there was, in this respect, a strong continuity with the late imperial state. [280]

The backbone of the new ruling system was the Communist Party. In many respects, it proved a highly effective mechanism for governing, certainly in comparison with the late imperial state and the Nationalists. 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, he played the central role in sustaining the popularity and legitimacy of the new regime, and he remains, even today, a venerated figure in the eyes of many Chinese, even more than Deng Xiaoping, who presided over the reform period from 1978. Prior to 1949, the Communist Party’s main base of support lay amongst the peasantry, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, rather than in the cities, where the Nationalists were strong. This was very different from the Bolsheviks in the USSR, whose support was concentrated in the cities and was very weak in the countryside. [281] The underlying strength and resilience of the new regime was demonstrated by the ability of the Communist Party to renew itself after the death of Mao. [282] Despite the calamities of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, both of which Mao had been responsible for, the Communist Party succeeded in restoring its legitimacy amongst the people and then embarking on a very different kind of economic policy, which led to a sustained period of extremely rapid economic growth and a remarkable transformation in China’s situation and prospects.

Judgements about the post-1949 era have — both in China and the West, albeit in differing ways — placed overwhelming emphasis on the extent to which it represented a new departure, a rupture in the continuity and tradition of China. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. The Chinese Communists — like the communist tradition more widely — sought to underline the extent to which they represented an utterly new kind of regime marking a complete break with the past. That, after all, is what revolutions are supposed to be about, especially socialist revolutions. The Communist Party directed its venom against many Chinese traditions, from the long-standing oppression of women to Confucian notions of hierarchy, and carried out a sweeping land reform in the name of class struggle. Meanwhile the West, with the exception of a brief period during the Second World War, has, more or less ever since the 1917 October Revolution, regarded Communist regimes as the devil incarnate. As a result, too little attempt has been made to understand them in their historical and cultural context, to appreciate the continuities with previous history and not just the discontinuities. In sum, for a variety of reasons, there has been a tendency to overlook the powerful lines of continuity between post-1949 China and the dynastic period. As Bin Wong points out, while the overt differences between Confucian and Communist ideology are clear — hierarchy versus equality, conservatism versus radicalism, harmony versus conflict — there are also important similarities between the two traditions. As in the Maoist period, for example, the Confucian tradition also emphasized the need to reduce inequality, limit the size of landholdings and redistribute land. Similarly, as we discussed earlier, the state’s responsibility for moulding the outlook of the people is an old Chinese tradition, which the Communists have simply perpetuated in a distinctive form. The same can be said of the state’s role in economic and social security, which the Communists continued during the Maoist period in the form of the ‘iron rice bowl’, with state enterprises required to provide employees with housing, education and health, as well as lifelong employment. [283]

There are political parallels, too. Both the Confucian and Communist modes of rule involved an implicit contract between the people and the state: if the state failed to meet its obligations then the peasants had, according to Mencius (551–479 BC; the foremost disciple of Confucius), a right to rebel. In the imperial era this took the form of the mandate of Heaven; in the Communist era it was expressed, in the name of class struggle, in the right of the proletariat to resist and defeat the bourgeoisie, which during the Maoist era was the pretext for the many top-down mass mobilizations that eventually culminated in Mao’s own assault on the Communist state in the enormously destructive Cultural Revolution. The relationship between state and subject in both traditions was authoritarian and hierarchical, and very different from the Western tradition with its narrative of political rights and formal representative institutions. There are other examples of continuity. Confronted with the problem of the gulf between the cities and the countryside, both acknowledged the need to rule them differently. While the Confucian tradition recruited a governing elite consisting of the highly educated and literate by means of the imperial examination system, the Communists, faced with the same task, used the Party as their means of recruitment to the state. Finally, in the Communist as in the Confucian tradition, elites were seen as an appendage of the state rather than as independent groups with their own forms of organization and power. The absence of a civil society and an autonomous public realm in Communist China is not a new phenomenon: China has never had either.

There are, thus, powerful continuities between the Communist tradition and dynastic history. The PRC is an integral part of Chinese history and can only be understood in that context. [284] The historian Wang Gungwu argues that the new Communist state was ‘a replacement for the old emperor-state’, and that ‘Mao Zedong effectively restored the idea of a charismatic founder-emperor and behaved, and he was treated very much, like an emperor with almost no limits on his power.’ [285] Suisheng Zhao makes a similar point rather differently:

A Chinese nation-state was forged under the leadership of the Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism. However, it had far more to do with Chinese nationalism, with the reassertion of China ’s former glory and future modernization, than with the universal principles of communism. [286]

As we shall see in Part II, the contours of Chinese modernity bear the imprint not just of the Communist present but, far more strongly, that of the Chinese past.


Ultimately China was undermined in the nineteenth century by its failure to industrialize at more or less the same time as the Western powers and Japan. From around 1860 there were significant examples of Chinese industrial development that were comparable with those in Japan, notably in Shanghai. [287] But, given China ’s vast size, they were too limited and too scattered. China, above all, lacked two crucial ingredients of Japan ’s modernization: a strong modernizing state and a prosperous agrarian sector that could generate the surpluses needed to fund industrialization. [288] In the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese agriculture stagnated or even regressed as a result of the destruction wrought by civil war, insurrections, the rising price of silver, floods and famines. Worse, after the defeat by the Japanese in 1894, China was almost bankrupted by the terms of its reparation payments and then found itself defenceless in the face of yet further Western and Japanese demands. [289] The Western powers exploited China ’s vulnerability by carving out new spheres of influence and acquiring the so-called ‘leased territories’. [290] Foreign capital poured into China as the number of foreign businesses expanded rapidly, keen to exploit a situation where they could operate virtually without restraint or discrimination. [291] By 1920, Jacques Gernet writes:

the whole Chinese economy was dependent on the big foreign banks in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Qingdao, and Wuhan, and on powerful [foreign] companies… The customs, the administration of the salt tax, and the postal service were run by foreigners, who kept all the profits. Western and Japanese warships and merchant shipping were everywhere — in the ports, on the coast, and on the Yangzi River network. Apart from a few Chinese firms… the whole modern sector of industry (cloth mills, tobacco factories, railways, shipping, cement works, soap factories, flour mills and, in the towns, the distribution of gas, water and electricity, and public transport) was under the control of foreign companies. [292]

China’s plight during this period is illustrated by the fact that in 1820 its per capita GDP was $600, in 1850 it was still $600, by 1870 it had fallen to $530, in 1890 it was $540, rising very slightly to $552 in 1913 — still well below its level in 1820, almost a century earlier. By 1950 it had fallen to a mere $439, just over 73 per cent of its 1820 level, and lower than in 1850. [293] These figures reveal the disastrous performance of the Chinese economy over a period of 120 years, with foreign intervention and occupation being the single most important reason. It is hardly surprising that China now refers to the period 1850–1950 as the ‘century of humiliation’. Over eighty years after the Meiji Restoration — and well over a century and a half since the commencement of Britain ’s Industrial Revolution — China had barely begun its economic take-off.

Apart from restoring the country’s unity, the central task facing the PRC was industrialization. To this end, it engaged in a huge project of land redistribution and the creation of large communes, from which it extracted considerable agricultural surpluses in the form of peasant taxes, which it then used to invest in the construction of a heavy industry sector. Its economic policy marked a major break with past practice, eschewing the use of the market and relying instead on the state and central planning in the manner of the Soviet Union. Despite the wild vicissitudes of Mao’s rule, China achieved an impressive annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent between 1950 and 1980, [294] more than quadrupling the country’s GDP [295] and more than doubling its per capita GDP. [296] This compared favourably with India, which only managed to increase its GDP by less than three times during the same period and its per capita GDP by around 50 per cent. [297] China ’s social performance was even more impressive. It enhanced its Human Development Index (a measure of a country’s development using a range of yardsticks including per capita GDP, living standards, education and health) [298] by four and a half times (in contrast to India’s increase of three and a half times) as a result of placing a huge emphasis on education, tackling illiteracy, promoting equality (including gender) and improving healthcare. [299] This strategy also enabled China to avoid some of the problems that plagued many other Asian, African and Latin American countries, such as widespread poverty in rural areas, huge disparities of wealth between rich and poor, major discrepancies in the opportunities for men and women, large shanty towns of unemployed urban dwellers, and poor educational and health provision. [300] The price paid for these advances, in terms of the absence or loss of personal freedoms and the death and destruction which resulted from some of Mao’s policies, was great, but they undoubtedly helped to sustain popular support for the government.

The first phase of Communist government marked a huge turnaround in China ’s fortunes. During these years, the groundwork was laid for industrialization and modernization, the failure of which had haunted the previous century of Chinese history. The first phase of the PRC, from 1949 to 1978, reversed a century of growing failure, restored unity and stability to the country, and secured the kind of economic take-off that had evaded previous regimes. Despite the disastrous violations and excesses of Mao, the foundations of China ’s extraordinary transformation were laid during the Maoist era. The 1949 Revolution proved, unlike that of 1911, to be one of China ’s most important historical turning points.

5. Contested Modernity

Since we got there first, we think we have the inside track on the modern condition,

and our natural tendency is to universalize from our own experience. In fact, how

ever, our taste of the modern world has been highly distinctive, so much so that John

Schrecker has seen fit to characterize the West as ‘the most provincial of all great

contemporary civilizations’… Never have Westerners had to take other peoples’

views of us really seriously. Nor, like the representatives of all other great cultures,

have we been compelled to take fundamental stock of our own culture, deliberately

dismantle large portions of it, and put it back together again in order to survive.

This circumstance has engendered what may be the ultimate paradox, namely that

Westerners, who have done more than any other people to create the modern world,

are in certain respects the least capable of comprehending it.

Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History in China

When a Western tourist first sets foot in Shanghai, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur, peers up at the shiny high-rise buildings, casts an eye over the streets teeming with cars, walks around the shopping malls filled with the latest, and often familiar, goodies, his reaction is frequently: ‘It’s so modern!’, and then, with barely a pause for breath, ‘It’s so Western.’ And so, at one level, it is. These are countries in which living standards have been transformed — in a few cases, they are now on a par with those in the West. It is hardly surprising then that they share with the West much of the furniture and fittings of modernity. There is a natural tendency in all of us — an iron law perhaps — to measure the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar: we are all relativists at heart. As we see objects and modes of behaviour that we are accustomed to, so we think of them as being the same as ours. When we recognize signs of modernization and progress, we regard them as evidence that the society or culture is headed in the same direction as ours, albeit some way behind. As yet one more McDonald’s opens in China, it is seen as proof positive that China is getting more Western, that it is becoming ever more like us.

Of course these impressions are accentuated by the places frequented by Westerners. Businessmen land at an international airport, travel by taxi to an international hotel, go to meetings in the financial district and then return home. This is the ultimate homogenizing experience. Modern airports are designed to look the same wherever they may be, so give or take an abundance of Chinese eateries, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport could be Paris, Munich or Montreal. International hotels are similarly place-less, designed to meet an international formula rather than to convey any local flavour: in the lobby of an international hotel, one could be forgiven for thinking that most men on the planet wear suits, speak English and read the International Herald Tribune.

One might think that the experience of the expatriate who chooses to live in East Asia for a period is more illuminating. And sometimes it is. But all too often they inhabit something akin to a Western cocoon. A significant proportion of Westerners who live in East Asia are based in Singapore or Hong Kong, city-states which have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive to Western expats. Hong Kong, as a British colony for nearly a century and a half, still bears the colonial imprint, while Singapore, more than any other place in the region, has sought to make itself into the Asian home of Western multinationals, a kind of Little West in the heart of Asia. It is hardly surprising then that precious few expats in these city-states make any attempt to learn Mandarin or Cantonese: they feel there is no need. The great majority live in a handful of salubrious, Western-style residential ‘colonies’, enjoying a life of some privilege, such that for the most part they are thoroughly insulated from the host community: living in the Mid-Levels area on Hong Kong Island or Discovery Bay is a very different experience from Shatin in the New Territories.

The net result is that most Westerners, be they tourists, businessmen or expats, spend most of their time in a familiar, sanitized, Western-style environment, making the occasional foray into the host culture rather than actually living in it: they see these countries through a Western distorting mirror. It would be wrong to suggest that we can understand nothing from observing the hardware of modernity — the buildings, malls, consumer products and entertainment complexes: they tell us about levels of development, priorities, and sometimes cultural difference too. However, the key to understanding Asian modernity, like Western modernity, lies not in the hardware but in the software — the ways of relating, the values and beliefs, the customs, the institutions, the language, the rituals and festivals, the role of the family. This is far more difficult to penetrate, and even more difficult to make sense of.


For the first half of the twentieth century the cluster of countries that had experienced economic take-off in the nineteenth century continued to dominate the elite club of industrialized nations, with virtually no additions or alternations. It was as if the pattern of the pre-1914 world had frozen, with no means of entry for those who had missed the window of economic opportunity afforded during the previous century. [301] In the 1950s the school of ‘dependency theory’ generalized this state of affairs into the proposition that it was now impossible for other countries to break into the ranks of the more advanced nations. But there were good reasons why the economic ground froze over. While large parts of the world had remained colonized the possibilities of economic growth and take-off were extremely limited. Futhermore, two world wars sapped the energies not only of the main combatants but of much of the rest of the world as well.

From the late 1950s onwards, there appeared the first stirrings of profound change in East Asia. Japan was recovering from the ravages of war at great speed — but as a fully paid-up member of the pre- 1914 club of industrialized countries, its economic prowess was hardly new. Rather, what caught the eye was the rapid economic growth of the first group of Asian tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. They were small in number and even smaller in size — a medium-sized nation, a small country and two tiny city-states, all newly independent, apart from Hong Kong, which was still a colony. They had, in varying degrees, been debilitated by the war, in Korea ’s case also by the Korean War, and were bereft of natural resources, [302] but they began to grow at breakneck speed, with Taiwan and South Korea often recording annual growth rates of close to double-digit figures in the following three decades. [303] By the late 1970s they had been joined by Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Some of the later Asian tigers — China being the outstanding example — achieved, if anything, even faster rates of growth than the early ones. The world had never before witnessed such rapid growth. (Britain’s GDP expanded at a shade over 2 per cent and the United States at slightly over 4.2 per cent per annum between 1820 and 1870, their fastest period of growth in the nineteenth century.) [304] The result has been the rapid and progressive transformation of a region with a population of around 2 billion people, with poverty levels falling to less than a quarter by 2007 (compared with 29.5 per cent in 2006 and 69 per cent in 1990). [305]

The myth that it was impossible for latecomers to break into the club of advanced nations has been exploded. The Asian tigers have instead demonstrated that latecomers can enjoy major advantages: they can learn from the experience of others, draw on and apply existing technologies, leapfrog old technologies, use the latest know-how and play catch-up to great effect. Their economic approach, furthermore, has largely been homespun, owing relatively little to neo-liberalism or the Washington Consensus — the dominant Western ideology from the late seventies until the financial meltdown in 2008. [306] Nor is their novelty confined to the economic sphere. The Asian tigers have given birth to a new kind of political governance, namely the developmental state, whose popular legitimacy rests not on democratic elections but the ability of the state to deliver continued economic growth. [307] The rise of the Asian tigers, however, has an altogether more fundamental import. Hitherto, with the exception of Japan, modernity has been a Western monopoly. This monopoly has now been decisively broken. Modernization theory, which was very influential in American scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s, held, like Karl Marx, that the developing countries would increasingly come to resemble the developed world. [308] We can now test this proposition by reference to the East Asian experience.


A defining characteristic of all the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam) [309] has been the speed of their transformation. In 1950 they were still overwhelmingly agrarian and had barely started the process of industrialization. In 1950 79 % of South Korea ’s population worked in agriculture (relatively little changed from 91 % in 1920); by 1960 the figure was 61 %, and today it is around 10 %. In the late 1960s the farming population still comprised half of Taiwan ’s total population, whereas today it accounts for a mere 8 %. [310] The figure for Indonesia in 1960 was 75 % compared with 44 % today, for Thailand 84 % compared with 46 %, and for Malaysia 63 % compared with 18 %. [311] Eighty-five per cent of the population of China worked in agriculture in 1950, but today that figure is hovering around 50 %. A similar story can be told in terms of the shift from the countryside to the cities. In 1950 76 % of Taiwanese lived in the countryside, whereas by 1989 — in a period of just thirty-nine years — that figure had been almost exactly reversed, with 74 % living in cities. [312] The urban population in South Korea was 18 % in 1950 and 80 % in 1994; while in Malaysia, which took off later, the equivalent figures were 27 % in 1970 and 53 % in 1990. [313] In China the urban population represented 17 % of the total population in 1975 and is projected to be 46 % by 2015. [314] We could also add Japan in this context, which experienced extremely rapid growth rates following the Second World War, its GDP increasing by a factor of over fourteen between 1950 and 1990 as it recovered from the devastation of the war and completed its economic take-off with a major shift of its population from the countryside to the cities. Between 1950 and 1973, its most rapid period of growth, its GDP grew at an annual rate of 9.29 %.

Compared with Europe, the speed of the shift from the countryside to the cities is exceptional. Germany’s urban population grew from 15 % in 1850 to 49 % in 1910 (roughly coinciding with its industrial revolution), and 53 % in 1950. The equivalent figures for France were 19 % in 1850 and 38 % in 1910 (and 68 % in 1970). England’s urban population was 23 % in 1800, 45 % in 1850, and 75 % in 1910. In the United States, the urban population was 14 % in 1850, 42 % in 1910, and 57 % in 1950. [315] If we take South Korea as our point of comparison (with a population broadly similar to that of Britain and France), the proportion of its population living in cities increased by 62 % in 44 years, compared with 52 % for England over a period of 110 years, 34 % over 60 years for Germany (and 38 % over 100 years), 19 % over 60 years for France (and 49 % over 120 years), and 28 % over 60 years (and 43 % over 100 years) for the United States. In other words, the rate of urbanization in South Korea was well over twice that of Germany’s — the fastest of these European examples — and was achieved in approximately two-thirds of the time; it was three times quicker than France’s, taking roughly two-thirds of the time, and twice as quick as that of the United States in two-thirds of the time.

The shift from the countryside to the cities, from working on the land to working in industry, is the decisive moment in the emergence of modernity. From experiencing life on the land, where little changes from one year to the next, or from one generation to another, industrialization marks a tumultuous transformation in people’s circumstances, where uncertainty replaces predictability, the future can no longer be viewed or predicted in terms of the past, and where people are required to look forwards rather than backwards. In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the shift towards modernity as an increasingly mass phenomenon was confined to a small minority of the world, namely the West and Japan, but by the early twenty-first century it had become an increasingly mass phenomenon in much of East Asia too, with the change occurring far more rapidly in East Asia than it had earlier in Europe or North America. This relative speed of change had two important implications for the nature of East Asian modernities, which distinguishes them from their European and North American counterparts.

1. The Proximity of the Past

The fact that large-scale agrarian employment has been such a recent experience for the Asian tigers means that the past is heavily imprinted on the present and the legacy of tradition remains a living force in the era of mass modernity. Let me put this point in more human terms. In South Korea and Taiwan, the great majority of grandparents, around half of parents over fifty, and significant numbers of those over forty, will all have spent at least some of their lives working on the land. In China, where half the population still works on the land, that rural imprint is commensurately larger: not only will the great majority of grandparents have worked on the land, but so will the great majority of those over forty. As one would expect, this has a profound influence on the way in which people think and behave. Almost three-quarters of the inhabitants of Taipei, for instance, regard themselves as migrants: every Chinese New Year, the trains are booked for weeks in advance and Taiwan’s north-south expressway is clogged for hours on end as the vast bulk of the capital’s inhabitants make the journey south to celebrate the festival back in what they still regard as their ancestral homes. The same kind of phenomenon is repeated throughout East Asia. Shanghai is a huge metropolis of 20 million people, plus more than 3 million who move in and out of the city every day seeking work of one kind or another, including many farmers who occupy numerous pavements trying to sell their fruit and vegetables. [316] Shanghai, like many cities in the region, encapsulates a remarkable juxtaposition of the present and the past, of modernity and tradition existing cheek by jowl, as was once the case in European cities. The difference is that because East Asia is changing so quickly, the contrast between the past and the present is much more visible and far more pronounced than it was in nineteenth-century European cities.

Another expression of the imminence of the past can be found in people’s attitudes and belief-systems. On the 1st and 15th of every month, it is common for the Chinese to burn incense and worship their ancestral spirits. Walk through the streets of Taipei, or any Chinese city, on those dates and it won’t be long before you see people burning fake money as an offering to their ancestors. [317] At the Qing Ming Festival at the beginning of April, people return to their villages in huge numbers and spend the day at their ancestral graves. By Western standards, Chinese societies are not very religious, but they are extremely superstitious. Every day many Taiwanese newspapers carry tips prominently displayed on their front pages about what to do and what not to do according to the old lunar calendar. Before any important event or decision — not least, a good night’s gambling — many Chinese will visit the temple and pray to one of the deities. Even otherwise highly rational academics will have their superstitious customs. Many, for example, practise feng shui, even if they don’t particularly believe in it, because it might just make a difference. In Hong Kong, no building is finalized until a feng shui expert has been consulted about its suitability and alterations duly made. In state-of-the-art computer companies in Taiwan ’s Hsinchu Science Park, the guy with the American doctorate hotfoot from working for years in Silicon Valley will set up a table with food and fruits, burn incense and worship the spirits for good fortune. These examples cannot be explained solely in terms of the immediate proximity of the past, since they are also clearly a function of underlying cultural difference. Whatever the reason, the persistence of pre-modern ways of thinking is a striking characteristic of many East Asian cultures.

2. The Future in the Present

As discussed earlier in the prologue to Part I, modernity is the embrace of the future as opposed to a present dominated by tradition: eyes and minds are directed forwards in time rather than backwards as previously. But the extent of the phenomenon varies. It was, and remains, more marked in the United States than in Europe, partly because the American transformation was faster than its European equivalents and partly because the United States, unencumbered by any kind of pre-capitalist tradition, is not weighed down by its past in the same way. But this orientation towards the future is even truer of East Asia than the United States, not because it is unencumbered by the past — on the contrary, the past looms very large indeed both in its proximity and the richness and longevity of the region’s history — but because the speed of transformation has generated a completely different experience and expectation of change. In contrast to Europe and the United States, these countries are characterized by a form of hyper-modernity: an addiction to change, an infatuation with technology, enormous flexibility, and a huge capacity for adaptation.

Thus, if the imminence of the past is one aspect of Asian modernization, another, paradoxically, is its polar opposite, the embrace of the future and a powerful orientation towards change. This is not surprising. If an economy is growing at around 10 per cent a year — or doubling in size every seven years or so — then people’s experiences and expectations are quite different from those in a Western economy expanding at 2 per cent a year. These are not just abstract macro figures: assuming that income distribution is reasonably egalitarian, which it has been in much of East Asia [318] (though no longer in China), then turbocharged growth means a continuing revolution in the living standards of most of society, huge shifts in employment patterns, rapid urbanization, sweeping changes in the urban landscape and accelerated access to a growing range of consumer products, all within less than a generation. These are growth rates that no society has previously experienced, that transform institutions like the family, that offer enormous opportunities but also place new and immense strains on the social fabric. For Britain that kind of shift took the best part of two centuries; for the early Asian tigers it has taken less than forty years. To deal with such change requires a psychology and a mindset, both on the part of the individual and society, which is quite different from the European or North American experience. As Hung Tze Jan, a successful writer who has since become one of Taiwan ’s leading cyber entrepreneurs, philosophically remarked: ‘We have had to change our value system so many times in such a short space of time.’ [319] The result, not surprisingly, is a highly developed pragmatism and flexibility; otherwise it would be quite impossible to cope with such rapid change.

The propensity for rapid change is reflected in the distinctive character and structure of East Asian cities. Unlike European cities — or, indeed, American cities — where the height and character of buildings are carefully regulated and space arranged in zones according to use, Asian cities have no such order: they grow like Topsy, with every area having a little bit of everything and buildings coming in all shapes and sizes. While Western cities generally have a definable centre, Asian cities rarely do: the centre is in a perpetual state of motion as a city goes through one metamorphosis after another, resulting in the creation of many centres rather than one. Shanghai, for example, offers the area around the Shanghai Centre, Lujiazui, the Bund, Hongqiao and Xijiahui, as well as Pudong. Kuala Lumpur had the golden triangle, then KLCC, followed by Putrajaya. Tokyo, like Taipei and Seoul, has grown without method or concept, the product of spontaneous development. The lack of rules, regulations and order that is typical of East Asian cities produces an eclectic and intoxicating mix of benign chaos, compressed energy and inchoate excitement. People make it up as they go along. They try things out. They take risks. Seemingly the only constant is change. Scrap and build is a classic illustration, with little importance attached to conservation, in marked contrast to Europe. [320] Whereas European cities for the most part change relatively little from one decade to the next, Asian cities are constantly being turned upside down. You can rest assured that your favourite landmark in a European city — be it a cinema, a square, a building or an underground station — will still be there when you next visit; the only certainty in many Asian cities is that the furniture will once again have been rearranged so that you won’t even be able to recognize the place, let alone find the landmark. [321]

Japan represents perhaps the most extreme form of this embrace of the future, or hyper-modernity. [322] Unlike Europe or the United States, you will find few old bangers on the roads, there being little demand for used cars — or anything secondhand for that matter. Instead there is a rapacious appetite for the new. Until the post-bubble crisis, Japanese car-makers thought nothing of introducing several model changes a year, rather than the Western norm of one, while the electronics firms that Japan is famous for are constantly changing their product lines. Where the Western fashion industry is happy to turn out two collections a year, one in the autumn and one in the spring, Japanese designers seem to believe in perpetual sartorial motion as one collection follows another at bewildering speed several times a year. Japanese youth have become the cognoscenti of fad and fashion, be it a new electronic game, a new look, the latest mobile phone or another Pokemon style craze. Take your chair in a Japanese hair salon and, be you man or woman, you will immediately be handed a very thick catalogue offering a seemingly infinite range of possible hairstyles and colours from which to choose. Japan is the virtuoso of consumer technology. Constant improvement and innovation are a national pastime: the scooter whose lights automatically switch on as it gets dark, the business card-holder whose lid spontaneously flips open, the toilet seat with its dazzling array of dials and controls, the virtual theme park with rides beyond one’s imagination, and the dance machine which renders the need for a partner redundant.


In his book The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens seeks to draw a distinction between the characteristics of modernity and pre-modernity. Speaking of pre-modern society, he argues:

The orientation to the past which is characteristic of tradition does not differ from the outlook of modernity only in being backward-looking rather than forward-looking… Rather, neither ‘the past’ nor ‘the future’ is a discrete phenomenon, separated from the ‘continuous present’, as in the case of the modern outlook. [323]

In East Asian modernity, however, the present and the past are not ‘discrete’, in terms of perceptions, in the way Giddens suggests, nor is the future: on the contrary, the present is layered with both the past and the future. In other words, the past and the future are combined in East Asian modernity in a way that is quite distinct from Western modernity. It is, at one and the same time, both very young and very old. This paradox is at its most extreme in China, the oldest continuous civilization in the world and yet now, in cities like Shanghai and Shentzen, also one of the youngest. There is a sense of enormous ambition, a world without limits, symbolized by Pudong, one of the most futuristic cityscapes, with its extraordinary array of breathtaking high-rise buildings. [324] According to Gao Rui-qian, professor of philosophy at East China National University in Shanghai, ‘China is like the adolescent who is very keen to become an adult. He can see the goal and wants to reach it as soon as possible. He is always behaving as if he is rather older than he actually is and is constantly forgetting the reality of his situation.’ [325] East Asian modernity, then, is a unique combination, in terms of social and economic realities, attitudes and consciousness, of the present, the past and the future. These countries might be described as ‘time-compression societies’, where the past and the future are squeezed and condensed into the present. Two hundred years of experience and history elsewhere are seemingly contained within the same place and the same moment of time. Everything is rushed. There is no time to reflect. Generational differences are a gaping chasm, society like a living geological formation.

Giddens also argues that with modernity, ‘Kinship relations, for the majority of the population, remain important, especially within the nuclear family, but they are no longer the carriers of intensively organized social ties across time-space.’ [326] That may be true of the West but it is certainly not the case in mainland China, or Taiwan, or the Chinese diaspora: in each instance ‘kinship relations’, especially in the form of the extended family, are frequently ‘the carriers of intensively organized social ties across time-space’. The Chinese diaspora, for example, has relied on the extended family as the means by which to organize its globally dispersed business operations, whether large or small. Taiwan, the Chinese diaspora and the more advanced parts of China are, moreover, unambiguously part of the modern world. [327] The fact is that kinship has always been far more important in Chinese than Western societies, whatever their level of development. Or take belief-systems. In his second BBC Reith Lecture in 1999, Giddens argued:

Such views, of course, don’t disappear completely with modernization. Magical notions, concepts of fate and cosmology still have a hold but mostly they continue on as superstitions, in which people only half-believe and follow in a somewhat embarrassed way. [328]

This certainly does not apply to modern Chinese societies: superstition and traditional beliefs — as we saw earlier with the worship of ancestral spirits and the prayers offered to various deities in the hope of good fortune — remain an integral part of the thinking and behaviour of most Chinese. [329]

The arrival of modernization in different parts of the world and in diverse cultures obliges us, therefore, to rethink what is meant by modernity and to recognize its diversity and plurality. We can no longer base our concept of modernity simply on the experience of North America and Europe. Our understanding of modernity is changed and expanded by the emergence of new modernities. The Chinese scholar Huang Ping argues that Chinese civilization has been so different from Western societies in so many ways that it is impossible to comprehend it, and its modernity, simply by the use of Western concepts. ‘Is it not a question of whether the concepts/theories are far away from Chinese reality? China ’s own practice,’ he concludes, ‘is capable of generating alternative concepts, theories, and more convincing frameworks. ’ [330]


In his book East and West, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, writes: ‘I find myself driven to the conclusion that what we see when we compare West and East is a consequence more of time lags than of profound cultural differences.’ [331] The implication of his argument is that timing is a relatively transient question and that culture matters little. As we have seen, however, the timing and speed of industrialization and urbanization, far from being merely transient phenomena, have real and lasting effects. More fundamentally, it is a mistake to believe that cultural difference does not have a far-reaching impact on the nature of modernity. When countries are much less developed than the West — before or in the early stages of economic take-off — then it is plausible to argue that the disparities are primarily a function of their backwardness rather than any cultural difference. But the transformation of the Asian tigers, with countries like Taiwan and South Korea now at least as developed as many European nations, means that the proposition that cultural difference counts for little can now be tested in practice. The classic exemplar is post-war Japan. As we saw in Chapter 3, Japan remains, notwithstanding the fact that it is at least as advanced as the West, very different from its Western counterparts in a myriad of the most basic ways, including the nature of social relations, the modus operandi of institutions, the character of the family, the role of the state and the manner in which power is exercised. By no stretch of the imagination can Japanese modernity be described as similar to, let alone synonymous with, that of the United States or Europe. [332]

The same can be said of China. Its path towards and through modernity has been entirely different from the route followed by the West. The state is constructed in a different way and plays a different kind of role. The relationship between the present and the past is distinct, not simply because of the way in which the past bears on the process of modernization but also because, more than any other society, China is deeply aware of and influenced by its history. [333]

The long-term persistence of cultural difference is deeply rooted. In April 1998, I interviewed two Chinese-Americans in Beijing for a television programme: they had decided to go and work in China for a year, where they had never been before, to find out what it was like and to discover more about themselves. One of them, Katherine Gin, who was in her mid twenties and had spent all her life in San Francisco, made the following observation:

I think one of the biggest differences between the Americans and the Chinese is that Americans are always trying to re-create themselves, always feel it is important to be the first person to do this or do that. Even America as a nation is always trying to re-create itself. The Chinese rarely even ask these questions, and as a nation seem to have more of a sense of where they come from. Of course, they are changing fast, but they don’t ask who they are, or constantly compare themselves with others. [334]

The irresistible conclusion is that the reason why the Chinese have a deep sense of their own identity is to be found in their long, continuous and rich history; in contrast, as products of a relatively new and young nation, Americans are in constant search of their identity.

The recognition that the Chinese exhibit certain cultural traits which can be explained by their history does not imply cultural essentialism, the idea that all nations and ethnic groups have a bundle of characteristics which remain fixed and unchanged over time. On the contrary, identities are constantly changing and being renegotiated. But that does not mean that cultural characteristics stemming from profound and very long-run influences — like climate, patterns of agriculture, language, the environment, family structure, cosmological beliefs or the longevity of history — don’t persist from the past and leave their mark on the present. According to Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, who have extensively researched the relationship between cultural and genetic evolution, ‘an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence suggests that culturally transmitted traits are stable over time and in the face of changing environments.’ [335]


Walk around Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and virtually every street name is printed in English as well as Chinese. Switch on Taiwanese television and the most popular sports are basketball and baseball. Go to a movie on Saturday night and most of them, in a country internationally renowned for its film directors, are products of Hollywood. Go window-shopping in the underground mall below People’s Square in Shanghai, and many of the models used in the fashion photographs are Caucasian. Wander round the huge Ba Bai Ban department store in Pudong, and you’ll probably see many banners written in English. The top students at Shanghai ’s Fudan University want to do postgraduate studies at American universities or work for American multinationals in Shanghai. Middle-class Malaysians in their thirties are far more likely to have visited Europe or Australia than Japan and China. Go on a shopping spree in Tokyo ’s fashionable Harajuka or Shibuya districts and it won’t be long before you find yourself singing along to a Western pop song blaring out from a boutique or coffee shop.

I vividly recall a softly-spoken Malaysian lawyer telling me: ‘I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films, and today is whatever date it is because you say so.’ [336] Even the term ‘ Asia ’ was a European invention. Everywhere you go in the region, you feel the presence of the West. The sheer power and dynamism of Western modernity has set, and reset, the agenda for East Asia for almost two centuries. From colonialism to Hollywood, from the English language to basketball, from the solar calendar to Microsoft, from the Vietnam War to the IMF, the West has been, and is, present in the East in a way that the East has never been present in the West. Only in the form of Japan has Asian modernity, until the recent rise of China, exercised a significant impact on the West. Otherwise, the presence of the East in the West is largely confined to the mainly post-colonial migration of large numbers of Chinese, Indians, Koreans and others to North America and Europe and their consequent impact on the West in terms, first and foremost, of food, but also language, religion and culture. The constant imperative, both past and present, for Asian nations to negotiate with Western power, influence and presence — first in the era of colonialism (with every East Asian country colonized apart from Japan and Thailand) and then in the post-war era of American hegemony — constitutes a fundamental difference between East Asian and Western modernity.

This brings us to two critical questions. Firstly, to what extent have East Asian societies been influenced and shaped by Western modernity? Secondly, in the process of modernization are they becoming more Western, or less Western, or even, paradoxically, both at the same time? These questions do not lend themselves to simple answers. They vary from one society to another and from one sphere to another in any given society. History, as one would expect, affects the answers a great deal — in particular, whether or not a country was colonized, and if so when and for how long. At the one extreme lie the Philippines — first colonized by the Spanish in 1542, then by the United States in 1899, achieving independence only in 1946 — and Hong Kong, seized by the British after the First Opium War in 1842 and only returned to China in 1997; at the other lies Japan, which managed to escape colonization altogether.

In order to explore the extent of Western influence, and whether or not it is increasing, let us consider four very different examples — language, the body, food and politics.


The language that a group shares is precisely the medium in which memories of their joint history can be shared. Languages make possible both the living of a common history and the telling of it… Every language is learnt by the young from the old, so that every living language is the embodiment of a tradition. [337]

Languages are not simply a means of communication, but embody and articulate a culture. To lose one’s language — and thousands of languages are likely to become extinct over the course of this century as they did in the last — is also to lose, in very large measure, one’s culture. As Hung Tze Jan, the successful Taiwanese publisher, puts it:

Language is essential to form an idea — as long as you keep your unique language, you keep your way of creating ideas, your way of thinking. The traditions are kept in the language. Language was an obstacle to us going out, but it also prevented others getting inside. Language was our Great Wall. [338]

East Asia is home to almost half the top twenty most widely spoken languages in the world today. Unlike the European languages, which were essentially spread by overseas conquest (the reason why the number of English, Spanish or Portuguese speakers now greatly exceeds the population of the countries they originated from), East Asian languages have grown organically in their densely populated, rice-growing homelands, as a result of demographic trends and/or land-based territorial expansion. They are spoken overseas overwhelmingly as a result of migration and consequently only on a relatively small scale. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, far exceeding English, but the vast majority of Mandarin speakers live in China; English, by contrast, has flown the nest.

Figure 9. The world’s top twenty languages.

The spread of English since 1945, driven by the global pre-eminence of the United States, has not affected the popularity of the main East Asian languages in their homelands. Not only has English failed to weaken or displace the main North-East Asian languages (Mandarin, Japanese and Korean), the languages themselves have also been relatively little touched by it. Japanese, it is true, has acquired many English loanwords, mainly nouns, but this reflects the typically Japanese way of adding foreign elements to their culture while leaving the Japanese core fundamentally untouched and unaffected. [339] It is fashionable in Japan — as elsewhere in the region — to wear T-shirts bearing an English phrase, or to have shops with English names, or to see advertising with English slogans, but this has no bearing on the extent to which the Japanese speak, or even desire to speak, English. Despite an enormous cohort of English teachers and many years of compulsory English at school, the vast majority of Japanese are unable to speak English with either enthusiasm or facility. [340] Like the English, they remain linguistically insular and unembarrassed by the fact. The Chinese, on the other hand, have become hugely enthusiastic learners of English during the last decade or so and many young educated Chinese speak the language with impressive fluency. One teacher has taken to conducting his classes in huge stadiums with over 20,000 all chanting English phrases in unison. But this Chinese enthusiasm for English in no way reflects a decline in the popularity of Chinese. On the contrary, English remains a strictly second language, acquired for the purpose of conversing with foreigners, an interlocutor language for the young, well-educated and ambitious urban elite. Chinese, unlike Japanese, possesses relatively few English loanwords — or indeed loanwords from any language — and relatively little external structural influence. It has been influenced by the rise of English, for example, in the greater use of polysyllabic words, but only in a limited way: [341] a proposal, several decades ago, to romanize Chinese by replacing characters with Pinyin transliteration came to nothing. [342]

Map 8. The Main Chinese Languages

We should not be surprised by the continuing strength and resilience of Chinese. It is a language that dates back over three thousand years. Its pictographic writing system is shared by all the various Chinese — or Sinitic — languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu and Min: over 70 per cent of Chinese, well over 800 million people, speak just one of those languages, namely Mandarin, a figure which includes various dialects like Shanghainese, and the number is steadily rising as a result of the growing influence of television and the education system. [343] The fact that all Chinese languages and dialects share the same written script, even though they are often unintelligible to each other as spoken (being comparable in their diversity to the Romance languages), has been extremely important in maintaining a wider sense of Chinese identity. Chinese managed to survive long periods of foreign occupation by the Mongols and Manchus. Although both spoke different languages, they not only failed to impose them on the Chinese, but ended up being linguistically assimilated themselves. The influence of Chinese on the neighbouring but different languages of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese has been immense. Each originally developed writing systems for their own languages by transforming or adding Chinese characters — known as hanja and kanji in the Korean and Japanese writing systems respectively. Even though these languages are quite different in linguistic structure from Chinese, such was the prestige of ancient Chinese scholarship that, over time, they became replete with Chinese vocabulary and have remained so ever since. Those who speak Chinese often refer to it as zhongguohuo, or ‘centre realm speech’: Sino-centrism, or what I will describe later as the Middle Kingdom mentality, even extends to how the Chinese perceive their language. Chinese has even managed to survive the onslaught of the alphabetic age, though in reality, of course, it would be well-nigh impossible to create an alphabetic language which could act as the writing system of so many different Chinese languages and a fifth of the world’s population. [344]

The only East Asian countries in which English has acquired a central role are Hong Kong and Singapore, where it is an official language; Malaysia, where it is very widely spoken although the official language is Bahasa Malaysia; and the Philippines, where English is still an official language alongside Tagalog. Apart from the Philippines, which was an American colony, these are all former British colonies. The popularity of English in Singapore and Malaysia owes much to the fact that English — as in India — has acted as a useful common language in a highly multiracial and multilingual environment. In the Philippines, English is used as a language of instruction in schools (from the age of twelve) in what is a complex linguistic archipelago, with Tagalog coexisting with many island dialects. The main language of Indonesia — a patchwork quilt of hundreds of languages — is Bahasa Indonesia, with the old colonial language, Dutch, now insignificant. Similarly, in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all former French colonies, French, once the official language in administration and education, has long since faded into relative obscurity.

This brings us to a further question. To what extent is English now permanently established as the global second language of choice? [345] It has been steadily strengthening its position in this respect more or less everywhere, often rapidly, with East Asia no exception. At an ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) meeting, or an international academic conference in Beijing, English is likely to be the main, or one of the main, languages of the proceedings. Throughout the region, there is a very strong desire to learn English. [346] There are several reasons why it is believed that the position English has acquired is unlikely to be reversed. Very considerable amounts of both social and personal capital have already been invested around the world in its acquisition and use, which constitute a powerful reason for its continuation and extension. English has established itself as the dominant language of a global media whose influence and penetration is likely to continue to grow. [347] The global ascendancy of the United States ensures that English will remain the foremost language in most fields, from international business and science to the internet and diplomacy. Finally, as the vehicle for the promotion and transmission of the values and norms of a culture, the Anglo-Saxon world has a major vested interest in ensuring the perpetuation of English as the lingua franca, which provides it with considerable economic, political and cultural benefits. [348]

Although English enjoys a formidable battery of assets, these do not render its position impregnable. The international penetration of a language is closely linked to the power and influence of its major patron. The United States may still be globally hegemonic, but, as we saw in Chapter 1, its relative global economic position is being eroded, and this is bound to impact on the fortunes of English in the longer term. English’s dominant position on the internet is already under serious challenge and will certainly not be sustained even in the relatively short run, with the number of Chinese users now exceeding those in the United States. [349] Although English remains the overwhelmingly dominant language of the global media, this situation is unlikely to continue indefinitely as new non-Western players enter the global media market and the main Western providers increasingly use local languages as a means of expanding their market. This process, in fact, is already well under way. Al-Jazeera, the independent Qatar-based Arab news channel, for example, broadcasts in multiple languages, as does the Indian-owned Zee TV, while Star TV in East Asia and Phoenix TV in China, both of which are owned by the Murdoch empire, broadcast in the local languages. [350] Finally, while English has enjoyed a privileged position with new technology — especially in computing — the growing diversification of technological innovation, together with the fact that computers are now able to support a large range of languages, means that English’s hitherto preponderant position in this field is by no means assured. [351]

The position of English as the global lingua franca, which is a very recent development, could therefore prove to be a relatively transient phenomenon. It is not difficult to imagine English’s dominance slowly being eroded and replaced by a rather more diverse scenario. As China ’s influence grows in East Asia, Mandarin is becoming more widely spoken, not just by Chinese around the region, but also, as a second language, by other nationalities and ethnic groups. Mandarin is being offered as an optional or compulsory language at schools in a growing number of countries, including Thailand and South Korea, and is increasingly regarded as the language of the future. In a much weaker way, this trend can also be seen in North America and Europe. As China becomes the economic centre of East Asia, a process already well under way (as we shall see in Chapter 9), there is a compelling reason why Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians and Malays — to name but a few — should want to speak Chinese. The main languages of North-East Asia — Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese — moreover have far more in common with Chinese, from which they are partially derived, than they do with English. [352] It seems rather likely that in fifty years’ time Chinese will have replaced, or at least joined, English as an interlocutor language in the region. If that happens, it will be the first time in China ’s modern history that the most widely spoken language in the world will also have acquired the status of a major second language outside its own borders.

As far as language is concerned, then, it would be quite wrong to see East Asia as subject to a one-way process of growing Westernization. The old imperial European languages, with the exception of English, are now of only marginal significance. The region’s main languages remain as influential as ever in their homelands. English has, and is, greatly strengthening its position as the dominant second language, but there are reasons to doubt whether this is likely to continue indefinitely, especially given the decline of the United States and the rise of China, with its implications for the popularity of Mandarin. [353] I will discuss the rise of Mandarin more fully in Chapter 11.

The Body

The body — by which I mean its physical characteristics, especially skin colour, together with style of dress — tells a very different story. The influence of the West in these respects has been profound, especially in North-East Asia, and, to a lesser extent, South-East Asia. In Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, everyday dress as worn by both men and women is highly Westernized — by which I mean the wearing of trousers, shirts, suits, jeans, T-shirts, skirts, blouses and dresses, for example — with traditional clothes, especially in Chinese societies, almost completely confined to relatively ceremonial occasions like weddings. The reason for the virtual disappearance of traditional attire is not obvious; after all, it is not the case in India, where the sari and salwar-kameez (Punjabi suit) for women and the kurta-pajama (loose top and trousers) and bund-gala (jacket) for men, for instance, remain ubiquitous, notwithstanding the fact that Western styles of dress are common, especially in the ‘new economy’ urban centres like Bangalore.

In Japan, Western dress began to spread after the Meiji Restoration. Western clothes were worn by government servants and at official ceremonies, but it was not until much later that they became popular amongst ordinary people. During wartime austerity between 1930 and 1945, simplified Japanese clothes replaced the kimono, which was seen as impractical. During the American occupation after the war, a period of large-scale Westernization, many people switched directly from wartime clothing to Western dress. Starting around 1960, Western dress became the preferred choice of the great majority of Japanese, with the kimono largely reserved for special occasions and, in simplified form (especially for men), for relaxing at home. The traditional kimono has far from disappeared, however. On Sundays it remains a common sight in Japanese cities and is worn by women at weddings, rites-of-passage ceremonies and funerals. It has also become a working uniform in restaurants and hotels. [354]

The Western-style dress now preferred by the Japanese nonetheless retains important elements of national individuality. One example is the ubiquitous soft hat with round brim much favoured as casual wear by Japanese women. The choice of dress and footwear is also influenced by the fact that the Japanese are relatively small. Young Japanese women dress with a marked femininity, reflecting the conservative gender roles that still characterize Japanese society. For men and women alike, in dress as in so much else, there is also a strong group mentality, with less stress on individualism than is the case in the West. Thus, up to a point, there is a distinctive Japanese look, as exemplified by the kawaii child-woman cuteness, a girlie look which has also enjoyed some popularity outside Japan in recent years. [355] The three most famous Japanese design houses — Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake — all of which arrived on the global fashion scene in the 1970s — lie broadly within the Western tradition. However, they demonstrate a marked distinctiveness in comparison with European and American designers. Although each is very different, they are all distinguished by a strong emphasis on materials, the use of sombre and austere colours, a greater willingness to play with the boundaries, and an extremely rapid cycle of collections. While Western fashion is preoccupied with clothes that reveal and emphasize the female form, for these designers the shape of the body and the display of flesh are of much less concern. Indeed, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo avoids representing the body as overtly sexual. Collectively they can be seen as representing a modestly distinctive Japanese sartorial aesthetic within a global fashion world which remains Western-dominated. [356]

The Chinese story is different from the Japanese but ends up in a rather similar place. For thousands of years, Chinese dress was deeply entwined with social hierarchy, being one of its more important and visible expressions. Only the emperor, for example, was allowed to wear yellow; his sons were required to wear golden yellow, while nobles wore blue-black. [357] As Valerie Steel and John S. Major write:

Clothing was considered a matter of great importance in ancient China. It was an instrument of the magical aura of power through which the emperor ruled the world: in addition, it served to distinguish the civilized from the barbarous, the male from the female, the high from the base, the proper from the improper — in short, it was an instrument of order in a society dedicated to hierarchy, harmony and moderation. [358]

It is not surprising, therefore, that the 1911 Revolution, which overthrew dynastic rule, was also the occasion for a sartorial revolution. The demise of the Qing court led to the dissolution of the old rules. Foot-binding for women, which had persisted for a thousand years, disappeared as did the tradition of male queues (hair worn in a long ponytail), which had been introduced by the Manchus. Chinese dress had been the subject of growing Western influence after the Opium Wars and the establishment of the treaty ports, but the rise of nationalism after 1911 made Western dress more problematic for both sexes. [359] The result was a hybrid, the most famous example being the woman’s qipao, better known in the West as the cheongsam, which combined Chinese, Manchu and Western elements, and which became indelibly associated with Shanghai in the 1930s. Its heyday was between 1930 and 1950, though it persisted for rather longer amongst the overseas Chinese, especially in Hong Kong. [360]

The 1949 Revolution ushered in a new sartorial era. The Communist regime regarded the old styles of Chinese dress as a relic of the feudal past. In their place, the regime encouraged an egalitarian mode of dress that was loosely based around the Sun Yat-sen uniform, wrongly described in the West as the Mao suit. The Sun Yat-sen uniform, featuring a high-collared tunic, was, like the qipao, a hybrid style, and drew on Japanese, German and Soviet military influences. The ubiquitous Maoist style of dress, in contrast, was partly inspired by the traditional trousers, tunic and black cotton shoes of the Chinese peasant. There were no government edicts concerning dress, but the new Maoist style clearly reflected the egalitarian principles of the regime, as well as the poverty of the country. [361] Only after 1978 did this state of affairs slowly begin to change to the point where Chinese cities are now overwhelmingly dominated by Western-style dress. [362] The Maoist style of dress has almost entirely disappeared, as has the Sun Yat-sen uniform previously worn by government officials — to be largely replaced by the Western suit. The only element of traditional Chinese dress that persists amongst ordinary people is the Chinese jacket, which still remains popular, especially amongst the old. Trousers are very widely worn by women, more so than in the West, which is in part a continuation of a much older Chinese tradition, trousers never having had the masculine connotation they once did in the West. [363] Otherwise there is little evidence of traditional Chinese wear, in either traditional or modernized form, for men or women. The only exception is a recent minor revival of the quipao amongst waitresses and hotel staff.

Various designers have sought to reintroduce traditional themes into modern Chinese dress. The best known example is David Tang’s Shanghai Tang label, but it has experienced only limited success, with the clothes in its Hong Kong shops mainly bought by Westerners. Blanc de Chine, another Hong Kong firm, has similar ambitions, as does Shiatzy Chen in Taipei. Designers like Vivienne Tam, Amy Chan and Anna Sui — based mainly in the West — have also explored the use of Chinese elements in their designs. Notwithstanding these efforts, the striking feature of modern Chinese dress — certainly in contrast to India — is how Westernized it is and how little it incorporates traditional Chinese elements. [364] Over the last decade, meanwhile, various features, such as the distinctive Chinese-style collar and buttons, have become increasingly conspicuous in Western women’s fashion, reflecting the growing influence of a Chinese aesthetic. [365] In addition, the enhanced importance of the East Asian market has also led to a small rise in the use of models from the region in Western fashion. [366]

Why have the Japanese and Chinese so comprehensively abandoned their sartorial traditions? Clearly the influence of Western modernity — in this case primarily European — has extended to what people choose to wear. If people want to be modern they feel they must dress in a Western way: Western dress is the sartorial badge of modernity. Another frequently offered explanation is practicality: that traditional forms of dress are seen as largely impractical for modern living. But that does not explain why traditional elements have not found expression in a popularized and modernized form: that is what, after all, has happened with the relentlessly innovative tradition of Western dress. Long dresses and petticoats, doublets and breeches, top hats and tails, may all have disappeared, along with much else, but the Western tradition of dress thrives and prospers. In the Japanese case, traditional (and simplified) forms of dress never came to be regarded as fundamental to the Japanese way of life, or Japanese ‘realm’, [367] as Kosaku Yoshino puts it, unlike language, food, sake (rice wine) and tatami mats, for example. As a consequence, dress was one of the elements that the Japanese were prepared to forsake and see Westernized as part of the process of post-Meiji modernization. In China, in contrast, traditional forms of dress were condemned to virtual extinction by their association with the old dynastic order. After 1978, it was a relatively short sartorial journey from the ubiquitous style of dress of the Maoist era to the Western styles of today.

A similar picture of Western influence holds throughout North-East Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan. Much the same is true of most of South- East Asia as well. The main exception is Malaysia (and to a lesser extent Indonesia), where a majority of Malay women now cover their head with the tudung (headscarf) and wear the baju kurung (a Malay style of dress consisting of sarong and upper tunic). With rapid urbanization and in a highly multiracial environment, this represents a strong statement of cultural identity. In part the style represents a return to Malay tradition, but it is also an appropriation of various Islamic traditions, which have been given a distinctively Malay flavour by the use of strikingly bold colours: [368] Malays have a highly developed sense of fashion, certainly when compared with Indian and especially Chinese Malaysians, with their somewhat drab mimicry of Western dress codes.

If Western dress has been widely adopted in China, Japan and elsewhere for the reasons outlined, why has this not been the case in India, or amongst Malay women, for example? It would seem that in both instances religion has played a crucial role in sustaining traditional forms of dress. A distinctive feature of both China and Japan — and North-East Asia generally — is the lack of any strong tradition of organized religion. This contrasts markedly with India, where Hinduism and to a lesser extent Islam, for example, exercise an extremely important cultural influence. In both, dress plays at least two roles: first, it is a reflection of religious teaching, not least in the rules governing gender dressing, and second, it may act as a means of distinguishing followers of a religion from others. Both these considerations, for example, apply to Malay women and also to Punjabi men, with their uncut hair and turban. Religion has proved a formidable obstacle to Western-style dress in South Asia, whereas in China and Japan it barely constitutes a factor in dress codes.

Tokyo fashion shows use many white models, as well as Japanese, but rarely anyone of darker skin. Comme des Garçons only ever uses white models at its shows. [369] White models are common at Hong Kong fashion week, along with Chinese, but there are rarely, if ever, black or brown models. The local fashion magazines — which are often versions of Western magazines like Vogue or Elle — carry text in the vernacular but the models are overwhelmingly white. [370] A majority of fashion advertising in Hong Kong — though no longer in Japan — uses white (rather than Chinese) models, as does Giordano, the local equivalent of Gap; black or brown models are never to be seen. A walk around the underground shopping mall beneath People’s Square in central Shanghai paints a not dissimilar picture: the advertising mainly features Chinese models but there are plenty of Caucasians and never anyone of darker skin. In India, on the other hand, the models on the catwalks and in the fashion magazines are overwhelmingly Indian, usually of fair complexion. [371]

In an interview with Yang Qingqing, a beauty expert and cult figure amongst Shanghai women, I sought to understand the profusion of white models and the total absence of models with darker skin.

Chinese culture is very open. We can accept things from outside. When we look at a foreigner we will be more tolerant of their beauty. But if they are Chinese we will be more critical. Maybe distance generates an appreciation of beauty, that’s why we like Western features. [372]

Despite my best efforts, she refused to be drawn on why this apparent openness did not include women of darker skin. Mei Ling, a Taiwanese beauty expert who advises Max Factor and acts as a consultant to Chinese pop singers and film stars, was altogether more forthcoming:

In Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, Chinese girls like white skin products. They think white is beautiful. People have a dream and it is about the West. We are yellow, but we don’t want to be. For Max Factor, Lancôme and the rest, every season it is the same colour — white. It is very boring. We try and sell them a new colour each season, but they just want white. Asians like white skin. For seventy years — the period of make-up — the choice has always been the same — white. Because of the shape of the Chinese face — a small nose, high cheek bones, narrow eyes and absence of facial hair — skin is more important to the Chinese than to Westerners. [373]

There is a huge demand for such whitening products amongst Chinese, Japanese and Korean women and they dominate cosmetic advertising on television and in the press. [374] It is estimated that the Japanese market for whitening products was worth $5.6 billion in 2001, with China (the fastest growing market) valued at $1.3 billion. Much of the advertising aimed at Asian women by Western cosmetic companies uses images and narratives with implicit references to the aesthetic ‘inferiority’ of the ‘dark’ and ‘yellow’ skin tones of Asian women. [375] It is not unusual to see Chinese and Japanese women smothered in white foundation cream and looking — to Western eyes — somewhat ghostly. The racial subtext of all this is clear: black is repel lant, yellow is undesirable and white is good. The desire for whiteness takes other forms. On a sunny day in China, Japan, Singapore and elsewhere, it is very common to see Chinese or Japanese women using parasols and umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun; they do not want to have tanned skin. [376]

The Japanese have long sought to distinguish themselves from other races in East Asia, especially the Chinese. In manga comics and animation films, the Japanese portray themselves in a highly Westernized manner, with big (sometimes blue) eyes, brightly coloured — even blond — hair and white skin, even though black hair, narrow brown eyes and a yellowish skin are more or less universal. [377] Generally lighter than the Chinese, they like to see themselves as white; certainly not yellow, which is how they perceive the Chinese and Koreans. For both the Japanese and the Chinese, black skin has a highly negative connotation and it is not uncommon to see black people portrayed in a derogatory way. [378] A popular advert for San Miguel beer in Hong Kong around 2000 featured a black person as little more than an imbecile. According to Mei Ling, ‘They don’t like to see black skin, only white skin, in the make-up catalogues that I am responsible for compiling.’ [379] A senior executive for one of the top American film studios told me that there was little demand in the region for Hollywood films or TV series with black stars. The most popular look on Japanese or Chinese television or in film might best be described as Eurasian — Japanese or Chinese with Western features. Jackie Chan is a case in point. For both Japanese and Chinese women, white boy-friends can enjoy a certain cachet, but the same is certainly not true of black or brown partners: they are an extremely rare sight and any such decision would require great courage.

The Western form — above all, skin colour, the defining signifier, but also other Caucasian features such as fair hair, large eyes and height — has had a profound and enduring impact on East Asian societies over the last two hundred years. It is something that is rarely commented upon and yet it is more pervasive, more psychologically far-reaching, and more fundamental in terms of identity, than most questions normally discussed in this context. For a Japanese to look in the mirror and wish to see a white person, or to emphasize those features which resemble those of a Caucasian — not easy given the profound physical differences between the two — is a powerful statement of self-image, of how a person feels about him or herself, of their sense of place in the world. It is not uncommon for the Japanese to feel physically inadequate in comparison with Westerners, complementing the sense of national inferiority and insecurity discussed in Chapter 3. The Chinese harbour similar emotions about their physical appearance, but this is less common than amongst the Japanese.

It would be wrong to regard the predilection in East Asia for whiteness, however, as simply a product of Western influence. The desire to be white also has powerful indigenous roots. For both the Japanese and Chinese, whiteness has long carried a powerful class connotation. If you are dark, it means you work on the land and are of a lower order; such a prejudice is deeply embedded in their respective national psyches and has been accentuated by modernization and urbanization, with white a symbol of urban living and prosperity and brown a metaphor for the countryside and poverty. Perceptions of different skin colours are used to define and reinforce national differences, as well as relations between races in the same country, and even between different shades within the same race. Since the Meiji Restoration, skin colour has been used by the Japanese to distinguish them from their Chinese and Korean neighbours. More widely, this hierarchy of colour is reproduced in the relationship between the fairer North-East Asia and the darker South-East Asia, and within South-East Asia between the indigenous population, the Chinese diaspora and the smaller Indian diaspora, for instance. More or less everywhere in East Asia, skin colour is a highly sensitive subject that arouses powerful feelings, perceptions and prejudices, with a near-universal desire to be fairer. The power of the Western racial model is precisely that it reinforces and interacts with very long-established indigenous views about colour. I will return to these themes in Chapter 8 in the context of China.


It is fashionable to cite the spread of McDonald’s in East Asia as a sign of growing Westernization. In 2008 there were 950 McDonald’s stores in China (the first being opened in Shenzhen in 1990) and in 2004 there were approximately 3,500 in Japan and 300 in Malaysia. Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut also have numerous outlets in the region: in 2008 KFC had more than 2,200 stores in China and in 2006 Pizza Hut had 140. A 1999 memo on fast food by McCann Erickson, which handled the advertising account in China for McDonald’s, set out its appeal as follows:

It’s about modernity. The fast-food restaurant is a symbol of having made it. The new ‘Western’ fast-food restaurants (though predominantly the Golden Arches) become status symbol locations for the new middle class. It becomes initially their link with showing that they can live the Western (read usually ‘American’) lifestyle. [380]

The combined total of all US fast food stores, however, represents a very tiny fraction of the restaurants and eating places in these countries. They may attract a great deal of publicity but this gives a distorted picture of eating habits in East Asia. The overwhelming majority of people continue to consume the food indigenous to their country. Almost everyone taking lunch or dinner in Beijing or Chongqing will invariably eat Chinese food; the same can be said of the Japanese. Western fast food — including the most popular Western fast food of all, the sandwich — lives at the margins of mass eating habits. Nor do Western-style eateries enjoy a monopoly of the idea of fast food. On the contrary, Chinese and Japanese fast food restaurants — familiar to Westerners in the guise of sushi bars and noodle bars, for example — are infinitely more common.

In his seminal study Food in Chinese Culture, K. C. Chang suggests that ‘the importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability — variability that is not essential for species survival.’ [381] People from different cultures eat very differently; even within the same culture there is usually considerable variation. [382] Furthermore, people display enormous attachment towards the food that they have been brought up on and with which they are intimately familiar. The instincts are tribal: in the food hall at the National University of Singapore, I was struck by how the Chinese students ate Chinese food, the Indians ate Indian, and the Malays ate Malay, with little crossover. The same can be said in the West: we might like the occasional Indian, Chinese or Mexican meal, usually heavily adapted for the local palate, but our staple diet is Western — breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At the centre of East Asia’s food tradition, as with language, is China, which enjoys one of the world’s most sophisticated food cultures, with an extremely long documented history, probably at least as long as that of any other food tradition of similar variety. [383]Chinese cuisine, like all food cultures, has been shaped by the ingredients available and China has been particularly rich in the diversity of its plant life. Since ingredients are not the same everywhere, Chinese food acquired an indigenous character simply by virtue of those used. [384] Given the country’s size and population, there are, not surprisingly, huge regional variations in the character of Chinese food; indeed, it is more appropriate to speak of Chinese cuisines rather than a single tradition, with four schools often identified, namely Shandong, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Guangdong; and sometimes eight, with the addition of Hunan, Fujian, Anhui and Zhejiang; or even ten, with the further addition of Beijing and Shanghai. [385] From very early on, Chinese cuisine incorporated foreign foodstuffs — for example, wheat, sheep and goat from Western Asia in the earliest times, Indonesian spices in the fifth century, and maize and sweet potato from North America from the early seventeenth century — all of which helped to shape the food tradition. [386] The preparation of Chinese food involves, at its heart, a fundamental division between fan — grains and other starch foods — and ts’ai — vegetable and meat dishes. A balanced meal must involve the requisite amount of fan and ts’ai.

The Chinese way of eating is characterized by flexibility and adaptability, a function of the knowledge the Chinese have acquired about their wild plant resources. When threatened by poor harvests and famine, people would explore anything edible in order to stay alive. Many strange ingredients such as wood ears and lily buds, and delicacies such as shark fins, were discovered in this way and subsequently became an integral part of the Chinese diet. Chinese cuisine is also abundantly rich in preserved foods, another consequence of the need to find a means of survival during famines and the bleak winters of northern China. [387] The Chinese attitude towards food is intimately bound up with the notion of health and the importance of eating healthily, the underlying principles of which, based on the yin- yang distinction, are specific to Chinese culture. [388] Arguably few cultures are as food-orientated as the Chinese, who, whether rich or poor, take food extremely seriously, more so even than the French. [389] For thousands of years food has occupied a pivotal position in Chinese life. The importance of the kitchen in the emperor’s palace is amply demonstrated by the personnel roster recorded in Zhou li (the chronicle, or rites, of the Zhou dynasty, which ruled 1122- 256 BC). Out of almost 4,000 people who had the responsibility of running the emperor’s residential quarters, 2,271 of them handled food and wine. [390] While a standard greeting in English is ‘How are you?’ the Chinese equivalent is not infrequently ‘Have you eaten?’ K. C. Chang suggests that ‘the Chinese have shown inventiveness in [food] perhaps for the simple reason that food and eating are among things central to the Chinese way of life and part of the Chinese ethos.’ [391] Jacques Gernet argues, with less restraint, that ‘there is no doubt that in this sphere China has shown a greater inventiveness than any other civilization.’ [392]

To this picture we should add Chinese tea. No one is quite sure when tea-drinking in China began. It was already highly developed during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) but it certainly dates back much earlier than that. Chinese tea culture is as sophisticated, multifarious, discerning and serious as European wine culture. A traditional tea-house has no equivalent in Western culture; the diversity of teas on offer is bewildering, the ways of preparing and imbibing are intricate, the rituals elaborate, and the surroundings often fine. Although coffee is becoming more popular, tea remains overwhelmingly the national drink. [393] With the growing appetite for things Chinese, it seems likely that Chinese tea-houses will become a common sight in many Western cities before too long.

It seems faintly absurd, therefore, to suggest that Chinese food (or drink, indeed) is being Westernized by the likes of McDonald’s. Of course, Chinese food has been influenced by the West, for example in terms of ingredients (the chillies characteristic of Sichuan food were originally introduced by the Spanish), but the impact has been very limited. The exceptional attachment of the Chinese to their food — in contrast to some other aspects of their culture, like clothing and architecture, which they have been largely prepared to relinquish — is illustrated by the fact that overseas Chinese communities, from South-East Asia to North America, continue to eat Chinese food as their main diet. [394]

Japanese food has been subject to rather greater Western influence. Japan abounds with homespun, Western-based food, much of which was invented in the wake of the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese elite sought to imitate French cuisine in the late nineteenth century, and after the First World War Western dishes began to enter middle-class kitchens, albeit in a highly indi genized form. Essentially, foreign dishes were accommodated into the Japanese meal pattern as side dishes — thereby also mimicking the ways in which Japanese society accepted, and also cordoned off, foreign influences more generally. [395] According to Katarzyna Cwiertka:

The basic rules concerning the blending of Japanese and Western foodstuffs, seasonings, and cooking techniques were set around the third decade of the twentieth century and have continued to be followed to this day, as Japanese cooks carry on with the adaptation of foreign elements into the Japanese context. Some combinations catch on to eventually become integral parts of the Japanese diet. Others are rejected, but they may reappear again a few decades later, advocated as new and fashionable. [396]

While the languages of East Asia are still overwhelmingly spoken within the region but not outside, this is not true of its food. Poor migrants have taken their food with them — Chinese restaurants, for example, have been the mainstay business of Chinese migrants, certainly in the early decades of settlement, as any Chinatown in the world will testify. While European food had only a limited impact on East Asia, mainly as a result of colonialism, reverse migration, from East Asia to the West, much of it over the last forty years, has enjoyed far greater culinary influence. Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Malaysian restaurants — and, of course, Indian — have become a familiar sight in the West. [397] Over the last twenty-five years, Japanese food has become very popular on the West Coast of the United States, leading to the creation of new Japanese-American hybrid dishes like the California roll. [398]

Rather than the Westernization of East Asian eating habits, it would be more appropriate to speak of the reverse, the Asianization of the Western diet. The reason has much to do with migration but is also a consequence of the sheer richness and quality of many cuisines in the region when compared with the great majority of their counterparts in Europe and North America. Take the case of Britain, the world’s greatest colonizer, whose own food culture can only be described, in its contemporary state, as impoverished and threadbare. The vacuum that was British cuisine after the Second World War has largely been filled by a myriad of foreign influences, in the first instance European, especially Italian and French, but also Asian, notably Indian and Chinese. As a consequence, its cuisine has become a hybrid: in the realm of food, Britain resembles a developing country, retaining something of its own while borrowing extensively from elsewhere. The same can be said of the United States, though of course it started life as a European hybrid in the first place. All cuisines in the era of globalization are becoming more hybrid, but the extent of this should not be exaggerated. In East Asia food remains essentially indigenous and only hybrid at the margins, with the obvious exception of a multiracial country like Malaysia, where there has been enormous cross-fertilization in food between the Malays, Chinese and Indians, resulting in a very distinctive national cuisine.

Politics and Power

It has been widely assumed in the West that all political systems are gravitating, or at least over time will gravitate, towards a similar kind of polity, one characterized by Western-style democracy. There is also a view, based on a belief in the universal relevance of Western history, experience and practice, that power is exercised, or should be exercised, in broadly the same way everywhere. In fact, the nature of political power differs widely from one society to another. [399] Rather than speaking of a political system — with its abstract, machine-like connotations — it is more fruitful to think in terms of a political culture. The reason for this is simple: politics is rooted in, and specific to, each culture. It is, moreover, profoundly parochial. A businessman may ply his trade and skills across many different national borders, a renowned academic can lecture at universities all around the world, but a politician’s gift, in terms of building a popular support base and the exercise of power, is rooted narrowly and specifically in the national: the skills and charisma don’t travel in the same way, they are crafted and chiselled for the local audience, shaped by the intimate details of the national culture. Of course, particular leaders of major nations may be admired and appreciated across national boundaries, as Margaret Thatcher was in the 1980s, and Barack Obama presently is, and Vladimir Putin was, interestingly, in China in the noughties, but that is an entirely different matter from building a domestic base and governing a particular country.

There is a profound difference between the nature of power in Western societies and East Asian societies. In the former, it is driven by the quest for individual autonomy and identity. At the centre of East Asian culture — both North-East Asian (in other words Confucian-based culture) and South-East Asian — is the individual’s desire for a group identity: the individual finds affirmation and recognition not in their own individual identity but in being part of a group; it is through the membership of a group that an individual finds security and meaning. Further, Western governance rests, in theory at least, on the notion of utility: that government is required to deliver certain benefits to the electorate in return for their support. East Asian polities are different. Historically the function of government in East Asia has been more opaque, with, in contrast to the West, a separation between the concepts of power and responsibility: it was believed that there were limits to what a government could achieve, that other forces largely beyond human control determined outcomes, and that the relationship between cause and effect was complex and elusive. Rather than being based on utility, power was seen as an end value in itself, as intimately bound up with the collective well-being of society. Government had an essentially paternalistic role and the people saw themselves in a relationship of dependency. Although, under the pressures of modernization and economic growth, societies have been obliged to become more utilitarian — as the idea of the developmental state suggests — the traditional ways of thinking about government remain very strong. [400] This is reflected in the persistence of paternalistic one-party government in many states in the region, even where, as in Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, there are regular elections.

Although these generalizations apply to both South-East and North-East Asia, there are marked differences between the two. Here I will concentrate on the Confucian-based societies of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Chinese were extremely unusual in that from very early on they came to see government in primarily secular terms. Rather than presenting itself as the expression of divine authority, Confucian rule was based on the idea of an ethical order. Rulers were required to govern in accordance with the teachings of Confucius and were expected to set the highest moral standards. [401] There was an elaborate political hierarchy that presumed and required an ascending ladder of virtue on the part of office-holders. The political structure was seen as synonymous with the social order, the overall objective being a harmonious and balanced community. [402] These principles informed Chinese governance in varying degrees from the Qin through to the fall of the Qing.

The model of both society and government was based on the family, an institution intimately familiar to everyone. The individual was seen as part of society and the state in the same way as he or she belonged to his or her own family. The Confucian family was possessed of two key characteristics. The first was filial piety, the duty of the offspring to respect the authority of the father who, in return, was required to take care of the family. As the state was modelled on the family, the father was also the role model for the state, which, in dynastic times, meant the emperor. Second, although the Chinese were not by and large religious, they shared with other Confucian societies a transcendental belief in ancestral spirits: that one’s ancestors were permanently present. Deference towards one’s ancestors was enacted through the ritual of ancestral worship, which served to emphasize the continuity and lineage of the family and the relatively humble nature of its present living members. The belief in ancestral spirits encouraged a similar respect for and veneration of the state as an immortal institution which represented the continuity of Chinese civilization. The importance of the family in Chinese culture can be gleaned from the special significance — far greater than in Western culture — that attaches to the family name, which always comes before the given name. [403]

Socialization via the family was and remains a highly disciplining process in Confucian societies. Children learn to appreciate that everything has its place, including them. People learn about their role and duties as citizens as an extension of their familial responsibilities. It is through the family that people learn to defer to a collectivity, that the individual is always secondary to the group. Unlike Western societies, which, historically at least, have tended to rely on guilt through Christian teaching as a means of constraining and directing individual behaviour, Confucian societies rest on shame and ‘loss of face’. Discipline in Confucian societies is internal to the individual, based on the socialization process in the family, rather than externally induced through religious teaching, as in the West, though that tradition has weakened in an increasingly secular Europe. [404]

Such is the power of this sense of belonging — to one’s own family, but then by extension to society, the nation and the state — that it has resulted in a strong sense of attachment to, and affinity with, one’s race and nation — and, by the same token, a rejection of foreigners as ‘barbarians’, or ‘devils’, or the Other. All the Confucian countries share a biological conception of citizenship. The strong sense of patriotism that characterizes each of these societies — China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam — has generally been ascribed to a reaction to overbearing Western pressure, including colonialism. But this is only part of the picture, and the rather less important part: the power of identity, the rejection of outsiders and the strength of native racism is primarily a consequence of the nature of the indigenous process of socialization. [405]

The role of the family is to provide security, support and cohesion for its members. In Confucian societies, in other words, government is modelled on an institution whose focus was not on the achievement of external goals but on its own well-being, self-maintenance and self-perpetuation. It is not surprising, therefore, that a powerful feature of these societies has been the stress on unity and stability and on continuity, cohesion and solidarity. Confucian societies, thus, have a rather different conception of government to that which we are familiar with in the West, where the state is viewed as an essentially artificial construct, an external institution that people seek to hold to account, which they view with a certain suspicion, whose powers they constantly seek to define, limit and constrain. For the Chinese — and the same can broadly be said of the other Confucian societies — the state is seen as a natural and intrinsic part of society, as part of the wider common purpose and well-being. The state, like the family, is subject to neither codification nor constraint. The Chinese state has never been regarded in a narrowly political way, but more broadly as a source of meaning, moral behaviour and order. That it should be accorded such a universal role is a consequence of the fact that it is so deeply rooted in the culture that it is seen as part of the natural order of things. [406]

It is difficult for Westerners to appreciate and grasp the nature of Confucian political culture because it is so different from what they are familiar with; moreover, Westerners, accustomed to running the world for so long, are not well versed in understanding and recognizing difference. East Asian polities, as a result, are usually seen only in a very superficial light. Japan is regarded as democratic because it has elections and competing parties; yet the Japanese system works entirely differently from those in the West. Post- 1949 China has been explained overwhelmingly in terms of its Communist government, with a consequent failure to understand the continuity between the Communist regime and the long thread of Chinese history. In fact, we should not be surprised either by the highly idiosyncractic nature of Japanese politics or the umbilical cord that links Communist rule and dynastic rule. Both are examples of the way in which politics is rooted in culture. [407]

Given that East Asian polities operate by very different customs and practices to those of the West, can we draw any conclusions as to their merits and demerits? This is a tricky question, for Westerners, however broad-minded they may be, inevitably tend to apply Western criteria. They are inclined to see dependency as a negative, while East Asians veer towards the opposite view and see it as a positive. Who is right? It is impossible to make a judgement. The downside of East Asian societies might be seen as a tendency, given the strength of dependency and the paternalistic conception of government, towards authoritarianism and one-party government. On the other hand, such paternalistic leadership also has certain strengths. Because government and leaders enjoy a different kind of trust, they are given much more latitude to change direction and policies. They are not hemmed in and constrained in the same manner as Western leaders. In some ways East Asian political leaders are also more accessible and more approachable because they view their accountability to society in a more holistic way and people take a similar attitude towards them. Their greater all-round authority, rooted in the symbiotic relationship between paternalism and dependency, can also enable them to take a longer-term attitude towards society and its needs.

The highly distinctive characteristics of East Asian polities may be rooted in history, but are they declining with modernization? In some ways they are getting stronger. As the ideology of anti-colonialism has weakened, there has, if anything, been a reversion to more traditional familial attitudes. Moreover, while the family itself is changing — in China, it is far less patriarchal than previously — it remains very different to the Western family, especially in terms of values and attitudes: [408] indeed, family customs have been amongst the slowest of all Asian institutions to change. Such is the profundity of the forces that have served to shape East Asian politics that it is impossible to envisage these societies somehow losing their political distinctiveness. [409]


The picture that emerges from these four examples is not the scale of Westernization but, for the most part, its surprisingly restricted extent. The subjects considered, moreover, could hardly be more fundamental, taking us, in contrasting ways, to the very heart of societies. We can draw two general conclusions. First, if the impact of Westernization is limited, then it follows that these societies — and their modernities — remain individual and distinctive, rooted in and shaped by their own histories and cultures. It also follows that their modernization has depended not simply or even mainly upon borrowing from the West, but on their ability to transform and modernize themselves: the taproots of modernization, in other words, are native rather than foreign. Japan, the first example of Asian modernity, is a classic illustration of this. It may have borrowed extensively from the West, but the outcome was and is entirely distinctive, an ineluctably Japanese modernity. Second, if the process of modernization is simply a transplant then it cannot succeed. A people must believe that modernity is theirs in order for it to take root and flourish. The East Asian countries have all borrowed heavily from the West or Japan, usually both. Indeed, an important characteristic of all Asian modernities, including Japan ’s, is their hybrid nature, the combination of different elements, indigenous and foreign. But where the line of demarcation lies between the borrowed and the indigenous is crucial: if a society feels that its modernity is essentially imposed — a foreign transplant — then it will be rejected and fail. [410] This must be a further reason — in addition to the fact that colonial powers deliberately sought to prevent their colonies from competing with their own products — why, during the era of colonialism, no colonial societies succeeded in achieving economic take-off. The problem with colonial status was that by definition the colony belonged to an alien people and culture. The only exceptions were the white-settler colonies, which, sharing the race and ethnicity of the colonizing power, namely Britain, were always treated very differently; and Hong Kong, which, to Britain ’s belated credit, from the late fifties (a full century after its initial colonization), succeeded in becoming the first-ever industrialized colony, with the tacit cooperation of China.

Given China ’s long history and extraordinary distinctiveness, it is self-evident that China ’s modernization could only succeed if it was felt by the people to be a fundamentally Chinese phenomenon. This debate was played out over the century after 1850 in the argument over ‘Chinese essence’ and ‘Western method’ (as it was also in Japan), and it remains a controversial subject in present-day China. The conflict between Chinese tradition and Western modernity in China ’s modernization is well illustrated by a discussion I organized almost a decade ago with four students in their early twenties from Shanghai ’s Fudan University, one of China ’s elite institutions. It is clear from the exchange that maintaining a distinct Chinese core was non-negotiable as far as these students were concerned: the two women, Gao Yi and Huang Yongyi, were shortly off to do doctorates at American universities, while the young men, Wang Jianxiong and Zhang Xiaoming, had landed plum jobs with American firms in Shanghai. [411]They were the crème de la crème, the ultimate beneficiaries of Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy, Chinese winners from globalization.

Wang: In the last century Chinese culture became marginal while Western culture became dominant. The Chinese have been much more preoccupied with the past, with their history, than the West. We have to understand why we are behind other countries, why we haven’t been able to develop our country. The West has won a very great victory and this has meant a big crisis for Chinese civilization.

Gao: Our traditional values are always in conflict with modern Western values. We are always at a loss as to how to deal with this. These two value systems are always in conflict. We constantly feel the need to return to our long history to understand who we really are. The reason why we pay so much attention to our history is because the traditional way remains very powerful.

Are you more optimistic for the future? Do you think that Chinese culture will remain marginal?

Wang: Our civilization is entering a critical period. In the last century we used Western thinking to develop Chinese society and culture. That is not good. We must build up our own knowledge, our own methodology, in order to develop the country and our culture. We must build up our own things, not just bring Western thoughts to our country. That’s mostly what we have done in the twentieth century. But this century I think the Chinese will develop their own knowledge.

If China does this, can it become more central and important in the world?

Wang: Not the centre of the world, but China will realize its own modernity, which will not be the same as that of the United States, nor, by the way, will it be like the Soviet Union. It will be something new.

What will be distinctive about it?

Wang: We can build our own modernity based on Chinese culture. Of course, we will use some elements of Western culture but we can’t transplant that culture to China. A mistake that Western countries make, especially the United States, is to want to transplant their systems and institutions to other countries. It’s wrong because it ignores the cultural core of a country. I always like to focus on the cultural core: to transform or remove the cultural core is impossible.

And the cultural core is…?

Wang: Five thousand years of history.

What are the values of this cultural core?

Wang: It’s composed of many elements: our attitude towards life, the family, marriage and so on. During the long history of Chinese civilization — because our country is so big — we have developed many different ideas and attitudes.

You and Zhang are both studying international finance and yet your argument is all about the distinctiveness of China.

Wang: Globalization is Westernization. But it should be a two-way process: we accept Western ideas while at the same time people in Western countries should seek to understand and maybe accept some of our ideas. Now it is not like that: we just accept Western ideas, there’s no movement in the opposite direction. That’s the problem. As a result, we lose something from our own culture, which worries us a lot. Now we are afraid of losing our own culture. We accept Western ideas not because they are good for us but because of their novelty. They are new to us so we accept them. But on the whole I don’t think they will be good for us. Maybe in twenty years’ time we will give them up.

Zhang: Historically, there is a part of the Chinese that wants to change and a part that wants to remain the same. We are in a state of conflict, both as individuals and as a society. In the Qing dynasty we shut ourselves off from the outside world, mainly because we wanted to keep our culture and our civilization. Part of the reason for this was unacceptable: we thought we were superior to the rest of the world. When we finally opened our doors, we found that we were backward compared with Western countries. Now we have opened our doors again and with this openness we are, and will be, more and more influenced by Western countries. We are afraid we will lose our culture, our characteristics. I want to change, because the current situation in China is not so satisfactory, but at the same time I worry that when we eliminate the shortcomings in our culture maybe we will also lose the essential part of our culture, the good part of our culture.

Huang: Even now, when Western influence is considerable and intrusive, I don’t think the Chinese will lose their culture because this represents a very thick accumulation of history. It cannot change easily, even if some of the surface things change. There is a very strong core culture inside every one of us. Even if our way of life changes, that culture will not change. Our long history constantly reappears and recurs. Now we are in a period of loss. I cannot deny that. We are lost because of the underlying conflict between modernity and tradition. But I believe that something new will come out of this: a unique China will remain.

Gao: We have been through worse periods, for example when we were colonized. I am more confident. We are in a new period when we are not being invaded but we are being influenced by the West. But for sure we will not be Westernized, the core culture will still be there.


The balance of power in the world is changing with remarkable speed. In 1973 it was dominated by a developed world which consisted of the United States, Western Europe and Japan, together with what Angus Maddison describes as ‘Western offshoots’ like Australia: between them, they accounted for 58.7 % of the world’s GDP but only 18.4 % of the world’s population. By 2001, the share of global GDP accounted for by these countries had fallen to 52.0 % while their share of the world’s population had declined to 14.0 %. The most dramatic change was the rising share of global GDP accounted for by Asia, which, excluding Japan, increased from 16.4 % in 1973 to 30.9 % in 2001, while its share of the world’s population rose from 54.6 % in 1973 to 57.4 % in 2001. [412] This picture will change even more dramatically over the next few decades. It is estimated that by 2032 the share of global GDP of the so-called BRICs, namely Brazil, Russia, India and China, will exceed that of the G7, namely the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. And by 2027 it is projected that China will overtake the United States to become the world’s largest economy. [413] To illustrate how increasingly diverse the world is likely to become, it is envisaged that the combined GDP of another eleven developing countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam) could reach two-thirds of the level of the G7 by 2050. [414] Meanwhile, the developing world’s share of the global population will steadily rise, though Asia’s will remain relatively constant at just below 60 %, with that of India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, enjoying a combined share of 37.3 % in 2001, [415] projected to fall very slightly. The proportion of the world living in the developed countries, meanwhile, will continue to fall steadily.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries marked the Age of the West. But this era is now coming to an end. By the middle of this century, when the West will be responsible for a great deal less than half the world’s GDP, the Age of the West will have passed. The rise of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Taiwan and many other developing countries marks a huge shift in the balance of economic power, but it also has much wider implications. Economic prosperity serves to transform the self-confidence and self-image of societies, thereby enabling them to project their political and cultural values more widely. A striking characteristic of the Asian tigers has been the way in which, during the process of modernization, they have steadily shifted from a seemingly insatiable desire for all things Western as the symbol of the modernity they so craved — combined with a rejection of the indigenous, which was seen as synonymous with poverty and backwardness — to a growing affirmation of the indigenous in place of the Western. In the 1970s, for example, few Taiwanese would entertain the idea of traditional Chinese furniture, but by the early nineties this attitude was starting to be superseded by a growing interest in traditional artefacts. Similarly in pop music, for example, Western influences were replaced over the same period by local and regional mando-pop (Chinese-composed pop music sung in Mandarin). [416] In other words, tradition, rather than being rejected, has been progressively rearticulated as part of a new and native modernity. [417] The same general picture applies across the whole of East Asia, including China. In 1980 few knew or cared much about other countries in the region: all eyes were turned to the global mecca, the United States. The lines of communication were overwhelmingly east- west — in terms of information, music, politics, technology, education, film, aspiration and desire. Most East Asians knew far more about what happened in New York, Washington or London than in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing or Kuala Lumpur. East Asians still remain remarkably intimate with what emanates from the United States — certainly compared with the overwhelming ignorance that Americans display towards East Asia — but the situation has changed markedly. Hung Tze Jan, the Taiwanese publisher quoted earlier, well describes this changed mentality: ‘When I was at high school and university, we focused all our efforts on Western literature and ideas. My son is in his early teens and in contrast to me he has the opportunity to create something new — to read both Chinese and Western literature.’ [418]

In the future, then, instead of there being one dominant Western modernity (itself, of course, a pluralistic phenomenon), there will be many distinct modernities. It is clear that we have already entered this era of multiple modernities: by the middle of the century we will be firmly ensconced in it. Hitherto, we have lived in a Western-made and Western-dominated world, in which the economic, political and cultural traffic has been overwhelmingly one-directional, from the West to others. That is already beginning to change, becoming a two-way, or more precisely a multi-directional process. An interesting illustration of how the old pecking order is steadily being disrupted, even inverted, can be found in the world of cricket. Formerly, cricket was largely dominated by England, together with two former white settler colonies, Australia and New Zealand. But in 2008 India, which already accounted for around 80 per cent of the game’s revenues, established the Indian Premier League and its eight teams, representing various Indian cities and states, proceeded to sign up many of the world’s best cricketers, much to the chagrin of the English cricket authorities, who have always thought of themselves as the centre of the game. The future of cricket now manifestly belongs on the Indian subcontinent, where the character, flavour and evolution of the game will increasingly be determined. [419] If Manchester United and Liverpool enjoy a global fan base in football, then the likes of Punjab and Chennai may well blaze a similar trail in cricket.

The Age of the West was not only marked by economic and military dominance but by Western ascendancy in more or less every field, from culture and ideas to science and technology, painting and language to sport and medicine. Western hegemony meant anything associated with the West enjoyed a prestige and influence that other cultures did not. White skin colour has been preferred globally — in East Asia too, as we saw earlier in this chapter — because it was synonymous with Western power and wealth. Western-style clothes have been widely adopted for the same reason. English is the global lingua franca because of the overweening importance of the United States. The history of the West — in particular, the United States and Western Europe — is far more familiar to the rest of the world than that of any other country or region because the centrality of the West has meant that everyone else is obliged, or desires, to know about it. Western political values and ideas are the only ones that enjoy any kind of universalism for a similar reason. But now that the West is no longer the exclusive home of modernity, with the rest of the world cast in a state of pre-modernity, the global equation changes entirely. Hinduism will no more be a byword for backwardness. Nor will Indian clothes. It will no longer be possible to dismiss Chinese political traditions as an obsolete hangover from the days of the Middle Kingdom, nor equate the Western family with modernity and dismiss those of India and China as remnants of an agrarian age. To growing numbers of people outside the West, Chinese history will become as familiar as Western history is now, if not more so. The competition, in other words, between the West and the rest will no longer be fundamentally unequal, pitting modernity against tradition, but will take place on something that will increasingly resemble a level playing field, namely between different modernities. We can already see this in the corporate world, where Korean, Japanese and Chinese companies, bearing the characteristics of the cultures from which they emanate, compete with their rather different Western counterparts, often with considerable success.

The twentieth century was characterized by the ideological cleavage between socialism and capitalism, an era ushered in by the October Revolution in 1917 and which found expression in the onset of the Cold War after 1945, until finally coming to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989- 91. That world, where every conflict and division was refracted through the prism of this wider ideological schism, then proceeded to evaporate with great speed. American neo-conservatives believe that the new global divide is the war on terror — what they like to describe as the Fourth World War (the third having been the Cold War) — but this represents a basic misreading of history. The era we are now entering, in fact, can best be described as one of contested modernity. Unlike the Cold War, it is not defined by a great political or ideological divide but rather by an overarching cultural contest. The emergence of new modernities not only means that the West no longer enjoys a virtual monopoly on modernity, but that the histories, cultures and values of these societies will be affirmed in a new way and can no longer be equated with backwardness or, worse still, failure. On the contrary, they will experience a new sense of legitimacy and, far from being overawed by or deferential towards the West, will enjoy a growing sense of self-confidence.

Hitherto the world has been characterized by Western hubris — the Western conviction that its values, belief systems, institutions and arrangements are superior to all others. The power and persistence of this mentality should not be underestimated. Western governments feel no compunction or restraint about lecturing other countries on the need for, and overwhelming virtue of, their versions of democracy and human rights. This frame of mind is by no means confined to governments, who, for the most part, simply reflect a popular cultural consensus. Many Western feminists, for example, tend to assume that gender relations in the West are more advanced than elsewhere, and that they are more liberated and independent than women from other cultures. There is a deeply embedded sense of Western psychological superiority which draws on powerful economic, political, ideological, cultural and ethnic currents. The rise of a world of multiple modernity challenges that mentality, and in the era of contested modernity it will steadily be eroded and undermined. Ideas such as ‘advanced’, ‘developed’ and ‘civilized’ will no longer be synonymous with the West. This threatens Western societies with an existential crisis of the first order, the political consequences of which we cannot predict but will certainly be profound. The assumptions that have underpinned the attitudes of many generations of Westerners towards the rest of the world will become increasingly unsustainable and beleaguered. The West has thought itself to be universal, the unquestioned model and example for all to follow; in the future it will be only one of several possibilities. This is a scenario that, at least until very recently, [420] the West has been almost entirely unprepared for, as Paul A. Cohen, cited at the very beginning of this chapter, suggests. In future it will be required to think of itself in relative rather than absolute terms, obliged to learn about, and to learn from, the rest of the world without the presumption of underlying superiority, the belief that ultimately it knows best and is the fount of civilizational wisdom. The bearer of this change will be China, partly because of its overwhelming size but also because of the nature of its culture and outlook. China, unlike Japan, has always regarded itself as universal, the centre of the world, and even, for a millennium and more, believed that it actually constituted the world. The emergence of Chinese modernity immediately de-centres and relativizes the position of the West. That is why the rise of China has such far-reaching implications.

Part II. The Age of China

Although parts of China are already prosperous and developed, around half of the population still lives in the countryside. China remains very much a developing country. As a consequence, Chinese modernity can only be regarded as work in progress. Some of its characteristics are already evident, others are only in embryonic form, while others still are not yet visible. It is abundantly clear, however, that Chinese modernity will differ markedly from Western modernity. The reasons for this lie not only in the present, but even more tellingly in the past. China has little in common with the West. It comes from entirely different cultural coordinates. Its politics, its state and its moral outlook have been constituted in a highly singular way, likewise its relationship with its neighbours. The fact that for many centuries the Chinese regarded themselves as constituting the world, as ‘all land under Heaven’, only serves to underline the country’s unique character. Unlike most developing countries, furthermore, China was never colonized, even though many of its cities were. Colonization was a powerful means by which countries were Westernized, but in China its absence from vast swathes of the country meant this never happened in the same manner that it did in India or Indochina, for example. The sheer size of China, both as a continental land mass and, more importantly, in terms of population, were, of course, indispensable conditions for enabling the Chinese to think in such autarchic and universalist terms. It might be argued that all these considerations lie in the past, but it is history that shapes and leaves its indelible mark on the present. Modernity is not a free-floating product of the present, but a function of what has gone before.

The fact that China, ever since 1949, but more significantly since 1978 and the beginning of the reform period, has been single-mindedly focused on the task of modernization — and, with remarkable self-discipline, allowed itself no distractions — has served to emphasize the extent to which China’s modernization is convergent with the West rather than divergent. Here, China ’s experience closely resembles that of its more developed East Asian neighbours. But as China progresses further down the road of modernization, it will find itself less constrained by the imperatives of development, increasingly at ease with the present, and anxious to find inspiration from its past for the present.

6. China as an Economic Superpower

In August 1993, I visited Guangdong province, north of Hong Kong, for the first time. The experience is engraved on my memory. The road from Shenzhen to Guangzhou (the provincial capital, known as Canton in colonial times) was sometimes made up, occasionally little more than a mud track. Although we were in the middle of the countryside, the road was overflowing with pedestrians and vehicles of every conceivable kind. Played out before my eyes was the most extraordinary juxtaposition of eras: women walking with their animals and carrying their produce, farmers riding bicycles and driving pedicabs, the new urban rich speeding by in black Mercedes and Lexuses, anonymous behind darkened windows, a constant stream of vans, pick-ups, lorries and minibuses, and in the fields by the side of the road peasants working their small paddy fields with water buffalo. It was as if two hundred of years of history had been condensed into one place in this single moment of time. It was a country in motion, its people living for the present, looking for and seizing the opportunity, as if it might never be offered again. I was engulfed by an enormous torrent of energy, creativity and willpower. The British Industrial Revolution must have been a bit like this: speculative, chaotic, dynamic — and a complete bloody mess. Guangdong was certainly a mess. Everywhere you looked there was construction — seemingly everything was in the process of being changed: the half-made road along which we were travelling, the countless half-finished buildings, the land being cleared as far as the eye could see. Guangdong was like a huge construction site.

Just over two years later I tried to retrace my steps with a television crew. There was not a single familiar sight I could find. The dynamic chaos had given way to order. There were brand-new motorways, bridges, factories, warehouses, and a lot more cars; and little sign of the juxtaposition of eras that had so fascinated me two years earlier. I enlisted the help of a couple of officials, but as I described the scenes I wanted to recapture on film they shrugged as if to suggest that they lay in the distant past. For me it was just two years ago; for them it could have been a different century. Guangdong, the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping, was well on the way to becoming the industrial centre of China, full of factories, many Hong Kong-owned, making cheap, mass-produced goods for the global market. This is how and where China ’s economic transformation started.

Now Guangdong, just fifteen years after that first volcanic eruption, is turning over a new page in its history. It can no longer sustain its old comparative advantage. Labour has become too expensive, too demanding, the expectations of its people transformed. Its factories are no longer able to compete with those in Vietnam or Indonesia. In 2007 alone, no less than 1,000 shoe factories closed in Guangdong, one-sixth of the total. [421] Their owners are moving production to the interior provinces, where living standards are as low as they once were in Guangdong, if not lower. And in their place, Guangdong is seeking to move up the value ladder, develop its service industries and shift into new areas of production that rely on design and technology rather than the perspiration of its people and the migrant workers from faraway provinces. Shenzhen and Guangzhou, like many cities in Guangdong, now look prosperous and well maintained, a far cry from former days when they resembled China ’s Wild West. Shenzhen may not yet enjoy Hong Kong ’s Western-style living standards, but it has significantly closed the gap. In little more than two decades, Guangdong has gone from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to something not too far short of the less developed parts of Western Europe.

At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, who would have predicted that China stood on the eve of a most remarkable period of economic growth that would entirely transform the face and fortunes of the country? Virtually nobody. It was as unpredictable and unpredicted as another enormously significant event — 1989 and the collapse of European Communism. China had been torn apart by the Cultural Revolution, in which the cadre that had largely steered the party through the 1950s and early 1960s had been vilified and banished by a ‘popular’ coup d’état staged at Mao’s behest, involving the mobilization of tens of millions of young people in the Red Guard. The movement was opposed to privilege — whether by virtue of family history or Party position — and super-egalitarian in its philosophy: a very Chinese phenomenon with echoes of the Taiping Uprising in the mid nineteenth century. By the time of Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution had subsided and stood largely discredited, but the country’s future direction remained deeply uncertain. The vacuum created by Mao’s death was soon filled by the return of those same old leaders who had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, with Deng Xiaoping at the helm. They were confronted by the economic ravages and political dislocation that were the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, but free at last to pursue their instincts and inclinations, unimpeded by the wild extremes and excesses of Mao, albeit in a situation where the party faced a severe crisis of legitimacy.

There was one favourable omen. By the end of the seventies China ’s relatively modest growth rate constituted something of an exception in East Asia. Many countries in the region were on the economic move: Japan was booming; South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong had already experienced take-off; Malaysia, Thailand and others were in its early stages. The Chinese diaspora — centred on Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in Singapore and Malaysia — were key players in this economic transformation. There were, in other words, examples around China ’s borders of the possibilities that now beckoned. The country’s East Asian hinterland was being transformed by a region-wide economic revolution based on catch-up. Of course China faced unique problems, in particular its vastness and diversity, together with the legacy of civil war, turmoil and occupation. In addition it had been isolated, a condition partly self-imposed and partly a result of an American embargo (involving a total ban on all transactions with China until 1971), plus the withdrawal of all Soviet aid and personnel in 1959. The challenges facing the new Chinese leadership, therefore, were far more formidable than those that had confronted Taiwan or South Korea, especially as these had enjoyed considerable American patronage and munificence during the Cold War.

The process of reform began in 1978 with the creation of a handful of special economic zones along the south-eastern seaboard, including Guangdong province, in which the rural communes were dismantled and the peasants were given control of the land on long-term leases and encouraged to market their own produce. It was based on a step-by-step, piecemeal and experimental approach. If a reform worked it was extended to new areas; if it failed then it was abandoned. Such down-to-earth pragmatism stood in sharp contrast to the grand ideological flourishes that informed the Cultural Revolution era and the Maoist period more generally. As Deng put it, in the time-honoured tradition of pithy and popular quotes by Chinese leaders from Confucius onwards: ‘Seek truth from the facts’; ‘Truth is to be found in practice’; and ‘Cross the river by feeling for the stones’. The new economic approach involved a new kind of mindset and way of thinking in the Party and government, which necessitated a massive change of personnel, starting at the top and working rapidly downwards. In 1978 Deng declared: ‘To make revolution and build socialism we need large numbers of path-breakers who dare to think, explore new ways and generate new ideas.’ [422] The People’s Daily later commented that political reform was:

a gigantic social systems engineering project, which involves straightening out the relationships between the Party and the government, power and judicial organs, mass organizations, enterprises and institutions, and between central, local and grassroots organizations; it concerns hundreds of millions of people. This is an arduous and protracted task. [423]

The reform project has usually been seen in narrowly economic terms, as if it had few political implications. In fact Deng’s project involved not just an economic revolution, but also a largely unrecognized political revolution, which entailed a complete overhaul of the state, both in its modus operandi and its personnel, with the universalist, ideological model of the Maoist era being replaced by something closer to the developmental model of the East Asian tigers. An essential element in this transformation was the decentralization of the state, which was seen as a precondition for the reform of the economic system and economic growth. Decision-making, including the granting of de facto property rights and fiscal power, was decentralized to different levels of local government. [424] As a consequence the central government budget, as a share of GDP, shrank considerably. [425]

Almost from the outset, economic growth rates were transformed from the 4–5 per cent of the Mao period to an annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent between 1978 and 1992. [426] The momentum of reform, however, was seriously disrupted in 1989, little more than a decade after it began, by a massive student demonstration in Tiananmen Square that was brutally suppressed by the army. With the Party leadership seriously divided, it seemed likely that the reform process would be derailed, perhaps indefinitely. In the event, there was only a short hiatus before, in the grand style of Chinese emperors, and to coincide with the Chinese New Year in 1992, Deng made a ‘Southern Expedition’ to the coastal heartland of China’s economic revolution, during which he made a statement in Shenzhen — a brand-new city neighbouring Hong Kong — that not only reaffirmed the central importance of the market reforms but made a clarion call for the process to be intensified and accelerated, suggesting, in a famous passage, that there was nothing wrong in allowing the rich to get richer (and then eventually paying higher taxes to help the poor). [427] Until this point the reform process had largely been concentrated in the south, but now it began to move to the interior provinces and, most crucially of all, to Shanghai and the Yangzi Delta, China ’s former economic powerhouse. There was a further wave of foreign investment, largely from the Chinese diaspora based in Hong Kong and Taiwan (which to this day remains the largest single source of foreign inward investment), while Chinese exports, mainly to the United States, increased rapidly. An economic fever began to grip the country, encouraged by Deng’s call to embrace the market economy and fuelled by the annual double-digit growth rate. Nothing more graphically symbolized the ‘new frontier’ economic spirit than the tens of millions of rural migrants, China ’s reserve army of labour, who left their farms and villages in search of the work and glitz of the city. [428] The Red Guards were now but a distant memory. There was barely a Mao suit in sight.

From the outset, Japan and the Asian tigers had been an important influence on China ’s economic reform. [429] These countries shared with Deng a pragmatic and non-doctrinal view of how to conduct economic policy. It was recognized, however, that none of them could, in themselves, provide a suitable model: the conditions, especially those flowing from China ’s enormous size and diversity, were simply too different. In the era of globalization that began around 1980, moreover, it was no longer possible for China, unlike Japan and the Asian tigers earlier, to grow its industries and companies behind a wall of tariffs until they were ready to compete in the international market. A further complicating factor was that China, as a Communist country, was still viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by the United States: as a result, its entry into the WTO took fifteen years and was the subject of the most detailed agreement ever made with any country — contrasting strongly, for example, with the far less demanding terms required of India a few years earlier. China, for a variety of reasons, had to invent its own way. [430]

Although China enjoyed nothing like the intimacy of South Korea and Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, it recognized the crucial importance of winning American support and cooperation in its pursuit of economic growth. Just as its approach to economic reform was informed by pragmatism, so too was its attitude towards the United States. The Mao- Nixon accord of 1972 marked a profound change in their relationship, with the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1979, the settlement of property claims, the unfreezing of assets and the granting to China of most-favoured nation treatment. These steps created the conditions for China subsequently to join the IMF and the World Bank in 1986 and be granted observer status to GATT in 1982. The value of the United States to China was increasingly evident during the 1980s: it became the most important destination for Chinese exports; growing numbers of Chinese students went to study there, including many sons and daughters of the Party elite; while the US model of capitalism came to exercise a growing influence. The collapse of the Soviet Union only served to accentuate that influence, and the US’s prestige was further enhanced by the economic dynamism associated with Silicon Valley and the internet. Increasingly during the nineties, however, there was a rising tide of nationalist sentiment directed against the US, which found expression in the bestseller The China That Can Say No and the demonstrations against the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. [431] American influence on China’s modernization, nonetheless, remained considerable. Even China’s own economic path and popular mood was to bear some of the signs of neo-liberalism: the worship of wealth, the embrace of entrepreneurs, acquiescence in growing inequality, the retreat of the state from the provision of public goods such as education and health, the rapid lowering of tariff barriers and the adoption of an extremely open trade regime [432] — all of which were closely associated with the reign of Deng’s pro tégé and successor, Jiang Zemin.

The approach of the Chinese leadership, following Deng’s emergence as the paramount leader, had been built on caution and pragmatism, notwithstanding the obvious radicalism of the reform process. They eschewed shock treatment and grand gestures. Although drawing on elements of neo-liberalism, they resisted the Washington orthodoxy and instead pursued a very home-grown approach. [433] They were painstakingly meticulous in the way that they sought to introduce reforms by a gradual process of constant testing and trial and error. The state, in the time-honoured Chinese fashion, remained at the heart of this process of reform, even though the latter was to involve a drastic contraction in its economic role, with the share of government revenue decreasing from around one-third of GDP in 1978 to 17 per cent in 2005. [434] For the Chinese leadership, the objective of economic reform was never Westernization, but rather a desire to restore the Party’s legitimacy after Mao through economic growth, [435] and thereby to build a strong nation and state. [436] Political stability was accorded the highest priority. ‘[China ’s] modernization,’ Deng stated, ‘needs two prerequisites. One is international peace, and the other is domestic political stability.’ [437] The disintegration of the Soviet Union after 1989 only served to reinforce Deng’s belief in the vital importance of economic reform, an area in which the Soviet Union had palpably failed, and the need to avoid destabilizing political reforms, a trap which they saw Gorbachev as having fallen into. [438] The Asian financial crisis in 1997- 8 similarly confirmed the Chinese leadership in its aversion to shock treatment: that China should move with great caution in its financial reform and resist any premature liberalization of the capital account that would allow the free movement of capital into and out of China, and consequent floating of the Chinese currency, the renminbi (also called the yuan), which might lead to speculative attacks on the currency and the consequent destabilization of the economy, as happened to South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia — to their great cost — during the Asian crisis. [439] (As a consequence, the renminbi remains, unlike the dollar, yen and euro, for example, a non-tradeable currency.)

In response to the challenge posed by an increasingly globalized economy, the Chinese leadership, mindful of the need to accelerate the process of reform, did, however, opt for one important element of shock treatment. During the nineties, by dismantling tariff barriers and allowing huge flows of foreign direct investment — in contrast to the economic strategy pursued by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — they created a brutal competitive environment in which domestic companies desperately sought to survive against far richer and more advanced Western and Japanese rivals. This rapid opening up enabled the Chinese economy to take advantage of enormous flows of foreign capital and had the merit of forcing Chinese companies to learn from the outside world, [440] but the cost was high, with many struggling to survive. While their North-East Asian neighbours enjoyed a prolonged period of protection from external competition, during which their companies were given time to develop, China, in comparison, had none. Chinese companies were obliged to sink or swim, and the conditions attached to China ’s subsequent membership of the WTO meant the state faced various restrictions on the extent to which it was permitted to help state-owned enterprises, although it found various ways of circumnavigating some of them. [441]

Figure 10. The role of foreign direct investment in China compared with other Asian tigers.

Although the earlier phase of reform concentrated on stimulating the growth of the rural economy, by the end of the eighties the centre of gravity had decisively shifted to the cities and the industrial economy. Already, during the eighties, the Guangdong economy became a microcosm of the future shape and comparative advantage of the fast-changing Chinese economy, with Hong Kong entrepreneurs moving their manufacturing operations out of the city-state to neighbouring Guangdong province in order to take advantage of far cheaper labour; as a result, Guangdong rapidly became Hong Kong ’s manufacturing base. This process quickly spread north and east-wards during the course of the nineties, its magnitude transformed by the flood of Western and Japanese direct investment at the end of that decade in anticipation of China ’s membership of the WTO in 2001. Just as China pursued an open policy on trade, it adopted a similar approach towards inward investment. Since 1978 China has received $500 billion in foreign direct investment, ten times the total accumulated by Japan between 1945 and 2000. In 2003 China became the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, overtaking the United States. [442] The inward investment was mainly ploughed into the local subsidiaries of foreign multinationals with the purpose, following the example of Hong Kong, of exploiting the huge resources of cheap labour in order to make exports as globally competitive as possible. Foreign firms are now responsible for up to 60 per cent of all Chinese exports, and dominate high-tech exports with a share of around 85 per cent. [443] China, in the process, has become the ‘workshop of the world’, by far the cheapest national base for low- and medium-end manufacturing on the planet.

As a result of the systematic lowering of tariffs, one of the singular features of the Chinese economy is its huge exposure to foreign trade, which accounts for around 75 per cent of GDP, far in excess of other major economies like the United States, India, Japan and Brazil, where the figure is 30 per cent or less. [444] Such exposure makes China that much more significant in the global economy; it also leaves the country more vulnerable to external shocks such as a global downturn, a US recession or growing protectionist sentiment in the West.

China is in the midst of what Marx described — writing of the British Industrial Revolution — as primitive accumulation, or what we now know as economic take-off: the process in which the majority of the working population moves from the land to industry, from the countryside to the cities. Between 1952 and 2003, agriculture’s share of GDP fell from 60 per cent to 16 per cent and its share of employment from 83 per cent to 51 per cent. [445] Although it took China only 10 years to double its per capita output (1977- 87) — a measure of the speed of economic take-off — compared with 58 years for the UK, 47 for the US and 11 for South Korea, after three decades of economic growth averaging 9.5 per cent, [446] around half the people still work on the land. It is estimated that even 20 years hence around 20 per cent of the population will still live in the countryside. [447] A crucial consequence of this relatively ‘limitless’ supply of rural labour is that wages for unskilled work will remain depressed for several decades to come: in other words, for much longer than was the case with the earlier Asian tigers. [448] This does not mean that wages in the more developed regions like Guangdong will remain low: on the contrary, as we have seen, they have already risen considerably. [449] But in the poor, still largely rural, interior provinces they will continue to be much lower, which is the reason why low-end manufacturing is steadily relocating there. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy since 1978 has largely been a function of the extremely high rate of investment, in the region of 40 per cent of GDP for many years, presently edging closer to 45 per cent, and soon to approach 50 per cent. [450] Such an extremely high rate of investment has been possible because of the similarly high rate of domestic savings, running at around 40 per cent of GDP, which, together with inward investment, has provided the main funds for China ’s take-off. In 2001 the average Chinese household saved 25.3 per cent of its disposable income, compared with 6.4 per cent in the US in 2002. The huge savings made by Chinese families have played a key role in funding the country’s rise (see Figure 11). [451]

Figure 11. China’s savings rate from 1981.

It is instructive to compare the experiences of China and Russia because both were confronted with the problem of how to move from a command to a market economy. Russia relied on the preferred Western prescription of shock therapy, which in the nineties led to hyper-inflation, large-scale capital flight, currency collapse and default on foreign debt. In contrast China, by pursuing a more gradualist approach, avoided hyper-inflation, the government remained internationally creditworthy and there was no capital flight. While in Russia the state sector was sold off at knock-down prices to assorted cronies, the state sector in China, rather than being subject to wholesale privatization, was contracted by a slow process of attrition. In Forbes Magazine ’s listing of the world’s 100 richest billionaires in 2007, thirteen were in Russia and none in China. In 1990, China’s GDP was less than twice as big as Russia’s; by 2003 it was more than six times as large. The subsequent rebound in the Russian economy, prior to the global downturn, was largely a result of the increase in the price of its oil and gas exports. The Chinese leadership has displayed great patience and considerable competence at tackling a succession of difficult and elusive problems. At the end of the nineties, for example, the government was faced with three extremely difficult domestic issues: closing a very large number of loss-making state enterprises; overhauling the state banks, which were saddled with a large and rising proportion of non-performing loans, mainly to indebted state enterprises; and strengthening the weak fiscal position of central government. A decade later, the government is well on the way to overcoming these problems, having greatly reduced the problem of indebted state enterprises, transformed the condition of the banking system and improved its own finances. [452]

Figure 12. Economic performance of China and the USSR compared.

Given its scale and speed, China ’s economic transformation is surely the most extraordinary in human history, notwithstanding the sheer novelty of Britain ’s as the first. The government’s economic strategy, shrewd and far-sighted, has been very successful, [453] resulting in stellar economic growth and a rise in per capita income from $339 in 1990 to over $1,000 in 2003, with the not unrealistic aim that this will be doubled within ten years. [454] Economic growth is no longer confined to a few ‘islands’ but has spread out in waves to most provinces of China, albeit in sharply varying degrees. In a remarkably short space of time, China has become the centre of global manufacturing. ‘Made in China ’ has become synonymous with a host of mass-produced consumer products throughout the world. It produces two-thirds of the world’s photocopiers, shoes, toys and microwave ovens; half its DVD players, digital cameras and textiles; one-third of its DVD-ROM drives and desktop computers; and a quarter of its mobiles, television sets, PDAs and car stereos. [455] The country has borne witness to the greatest poverty-reduction programme ever seen, with the number of people living in poverty falling from 250 million at the start of the reform process in 1978 to 80 million by the end of 1993 and 29.27 million in 2001, thereby accounting for three-quarters of global poverty reduction during this period. [456]

Figure 13. The decline in poverty in China.

Although foreign multinationals dominate the country’s exports, home-grown Chinese firms like Haier, Konka, TCL, Huawei and Galanz have done well in such sectors as domestic appliances, television and telecommunications. Encouraged by the ‘Go Global’ campaign initiated by the government, the larger Chinese firms have begun to invest abroad and establish overseas subsidiaries. [457] China has made astounding economic progress, but its transformation is far from complete. It remains a work in progress. Although it is already the world’s second largest economy in terms of GDP (measured by purchasing power parity), this is primarily a consequence of population size rather than economic sophistication. Can China fulfil its enormous potential and become an economic superpower?


At the centre of any discussion about China ’s future role in the world — let alone talk of a Chinese century — lies the country’s economic prospects. A commitment to a growth rate of around 10 per cent remains fundamental to the government’s strategy. China needs to create 8 million jobs a year for its expanding urban population, plus another 15 million or so for the new rural migrants who seek urban employment every year. [458] Rapid economic growth will therefore remain at the heart of government strategy, with any serious and sustained drop below 8 per cent carrying the threat of serious social unrest. But, after a quarter-century, can this kind of growth rate be sustained? What are the limits to China ’s present growth path? Could its present strategy go badly wrong? And, crucially, what will be the impact of the global contraction that has transformed the short-term outlook for China?

The basic global competitiveness of the Chinese economy — the remarkable performance of its exports, which have driven economic growth and made the country such an attractive destination for foreign investment — will persist for many years to come because the condition on which it rests, the huge migration of rural labour into the cities, is destined to continue for several decades. Even if labour costs rise, as is already happening in the coastal regions and the Shanghai area, the inland provinces, fuelled by migrant rural labour, will help to contain inflationary pressures. [459] China ’s present economic path, thus, can potentially be sustained, at least in its broadest outlines, subject to significant reform, for at least the next five to ten years, perhaps longer. [460] But there are no guarantees. Yu Yongding, one of China ’s top economists, suggested in an interview in 2006 that there was a 30 per cent chance of things going seriously wrong. [461] The economy, given its high degree of exposure to trade, is very sensitive to exogenous developments. The global recession will be a major test of the extent to which the Chinese economy can maintain rapid economic growth in a situation where it can no longer depend to the same extent on Western export markets — prior to the global crisis, the European Union accounted for around 22 per cent of Chinese exports and the United States 18 per cent. [462]

In the context of the gathering recession, China ’s economic growth rate is estimated to have been 9 per cent in 2008 and is projected to fall to 6–8 per cent in 2009, from 12 per cent in 2006 and 2007, and an average of well over 10 per cent since 2002. The government is seeking to compensate for falling Western demand by encouraging domestic consumption, which accounts for around one-third of total output, and engaging in large-scale public expenditure, mainly on infrastructure, education and health. The government is fortunate in enjoying very strong finances and is therefore in a position to lavish considerable resources on stimulating the economy. The contrast, here, between the debt-laden, cash-impoverished, low-growth Western economies and the cash-rich, fast-growth, surplus-generating Chinese economy could hardly be greater, not to mention the fact that while the Western financial sector is effectively bankrupt, that of China is deposit-rich. This notwithstanding, the problems facing the Chinese economy are severe. In early 2009, it was estimated that 20 million migrant workers had already lost their jobs, with the prospects for those many millions planning to leave the countryside in search of work in the cities bleak. It is possible that the government’s efforts to compensate for the drastic fall in exports and declining foreign investment by increased public spending on infrastructure and social services, together with increased consumer expenditure, will ameliorate the effects of the downturn. Much will depend on the gravity of the recession in the West. If it results in a major contraction in the size of their economies, as seems possible, and if the recession persists for several years, the consequences for the Chinese economy are likely to be severe, with growth rates falling below 6–7 per cent, and perhaps even lower. In such circumstances, the government might face rising social unrest as unemployment escalates. The most benign scenario is one in which the Western recession is not too deep and relatively short-lived, and the Chinese government’s counter-measures are relatively effective. The most pessimistic scenario is one in which the Western recession bears strong echoes of the slump in the 1930s, both deep and protracted, the US resorts to protectionist measures against China and the Chinese government’s compensatory policies simply cannot cope with the collapse of its exports and inward foreign investment; such an outcome could presage social instability and might weaken the government’s own position.

One advantage that the government enjoys in this situation is that the renminbi is a non-tradeable currency and therefore not subject to volatile movement or speculation. The government has hitherto resisted the temptation to liberalize the capital account and allow the renminbi to float, which would have the effect of enhancing the renminbi’s role, promoting China ’s financial position and making it easier for Chinese firms to invest abroad. The main downside with such a strategy is that the savings which have underpinned China’s huge level of investment might be undermined as savers go abroad in search of rates of return far in excess of the paltry levels they can find at home, thereby denying the country the funds for investment that it has hitherto enjoyed, with the inevitable consequence that the growth rate would decline. In addition, a floating renminbi would be vulnerable to the kind of speculative attack suffered by the Korean won, Thai baht and Indonesian rupiah in the Asian financial crisis. [463] Although Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese premier, intended to begin the liberalization of the capital account in 2000, the Asian financial crisis persuaded him that such a change would be imprudent. The present global financial turmoil only goes to confirm the wisdom of the Chinese leadership in continuing to regulate the capital account, despite persistent calls from the West to deregulate. In due course, a gradual liberalization could well be initiated, indeed there are already clear signs of this, but the Chinese government is aware that the existing system provides the economy with a crucial firewall, especially given its open character and consequent exposure to external events. [464]

Whatever the consequences of the global recession, there are powerful reasons for believing that the present growth model is unsustainable in the long run, and probably even in the medium term. Indeed, there has been a growing recognition amongst Chinese policy-makers and advisors that important modifications already need to be made to the model ushered in by Deng and intimately associated with his successor Jiang Zemin. [465] That process, championed by Hu Jintao, has already begun, with a shift away from the neo-liberal excesses of the nineties and towards a more harmonious society, echoing an older Confucian theme, with a new emphasis on egalitarianism, greater weight attached to social protection, a desire to lessen the importance of exports and increase that of domestic consumer spending, and a turn away from the influence of the United States — or ‘de-Americanization’, as it has become known. [466] Such changes are likely to be hastened by the global crisis and attempts to mitigate its effects.

Economic growth cannot depend upon a constantly rising proportion of GDP being devoted to investment, as is presently the case, because it would absorb an increasingly untenable proportion of the country’s resources, thereby imposing unsustainable pressures on consumption, for example. There needs to be a greater emphasis on the efficiency of capital and improving labour productivity, rather than an overwhelming dependence on investment, too much of which is wasteful: if not, economic growth will inevitably decline as the limits to higher and higher volumes of investment assert themselves. The ability to move up the technological ladder is fundamental to this. There is considerable evidence that this is already happening, with exports of cheap-end products like toys falling in the global recession and those of high-tech products rising. Similarly China will have to reduce its present level of exposure to foreign trade, which has made it highly vulner-able to cyclical movements in the global economy, as the global depression has shown. There is a danger too, especially in the context of a depression, that China ’s export drive will provoke a hostile reaction and moves towards protectionism. [467] Instead, it is already abundantly clear that China will have to attach greater weight to domestic consumption.

A growing problem is that the priority attached to breakneck economic growth above all else has resulted in China moving in a very short space of time from being a highly egalitarian society to becoming one of the most unequal in the world. [468] The causes of that inequality are threefold: the growing gulf between the coastal and interior provinces, with the richest province enjoying a per capita GDP ten times that of the poorest (compared with 8:1 in Brazil, for example); [469] between urban and rural areas; and between those in the formal economy and those dependent on informal economic activities. [470] This is leading to growing social tension — evident, for example, in the relationship between migrant workers and local residents in the cities — which threatens to undermine the cohesiveness of society and the broad consensus that has hitherto sustained the reform programme. [471] The government has already begun to pay much greater attention to promoting a more egalitarian approach, though so far with limited effect.

A key question here is the financial ability of the state to act in the ways that are needed. In the early reform period, decentralization was deliberately encouraged, with central revenue falling from 34 per cent of GDP in 1978 to a mere 6 per cent in 1995, according to the Chinese economist Hu Angang. [472] The state found itself increasingly shorn of many of its old sources of revenue and responsibility. [473] Expenditure by the central state, in its turn, came to account for a rapidly declining proportion of GDP: 31 per cent in 1978, reaching a trough of around 11 per cent in 1995. By the mid nineties there was deep concern about the loss of central state capacity that this involved, including the latter’s ability to promote balanced development between the regions, and a determined attempt was made to reverse the process. There were even fears that individual provinces were beginning to operate like independent countries, with an increase in their external trade and a decline in trade flows between them. [474] As a result, the government introduced major tax reforms including, for the first time, taxes specifically earmarked for central government; previously, central government was dependent on a share of the taxes raised in the provinces, based on a process of bargaining between the two. The central government also acquired its own tax-collecting capacity, with a large majority of revenue now being collected centrally, some of which is then redistributed to the provinces. [475] Not surprisingly, the rich provinces strongly resisted paying higher taxes to central government. [476] By 1999, however, state expenditure had risen to 14 per cent of GDP and by 2006 to around 22 per cent. [477] Crucially, the state needs to be able to fund its new social security programme in order to provide for the tens of millions of workers made redundant by the state-owned enterprises which had previously been responsible for virtually all of their employees’ social needs, including education, health and housing. [478] The problem is particularly severe with education and health, which have suffered from very serious public under-investment during the last decade, a cause of deep popular concern and resentment. [479] The government is deeply aware of these problems and in 2008 alone education expenditure was budgeted to rise by 45 per cent. [480] During the Maoist period, the state was responsible for almost 100 per cent of health expenditure: the figure is now around 16 per cent compared, for example, with about 44 per cent in the United States and over 70 per cent in Western Europe. As a result, a majority of the population can no longer afford healthcare. In April 2009 the government announced a major reform of the health system, including the short-term goal of providing basic insurance cover for 90 per cent of the population. The lack of a decent safety net and the threadbare character of key public goods fuel a sense of deep insecurity amongst many people, acting as a powerful incentive for them to save, even though the living standards of the vast majority, especially in the cities, have greatly improved. [481]

Finally, China ’s growth has been extremely resource-intensive, demanding of land, forest, water, oil and more or less everything else. Herein lies one of China ’s deepest problems. [482] The country has to support an extremely large and, for the most part, dense population in a situation where China is, and always has been, poorly endowed with natural resources. It has, for example, only 8 per cent of the world’s cultivated land and yet must sustain 22 per cent of the world’s population; in contrast, with only a fifth of China ’s population, the United States enjoys three times as much arable land and its farmland has been under human cultivation for one-tenth of the time of China ’s. [483] China ’s development, moreover, is rapidly exhausting what limited resources it possesses. Over the last forty years almost half of China ’s forests have been destroyed, so that it now enjoys one of the sparsest covers in the world. In 1993 it became a net importer of oil for the first time and now depends on imports for almost half its oil needs.

Figure 14. China’s growing dependency on oil imports.

As a result, China is becoming increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for the huge quantities of raw materials that it needs for its economic growth. It is already the world’s largest buyer of copper, the second biggest buyer of iron ore, and the third largest buyer of alumina. It absorbs close to a third of the global supply of coal, steel and cotton, and almost half of its cement. It is the second largest energy consumer after the US, with nearly 70 per cent produced from burning coal. In 2005 China used more coal than the US, India and Russia combined. In 2004 it accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the increase in the world demand for oil. [484] If the Chinese economy was to continue to expand at 8 per cent a year in the future, its income per head would reach the current US level in 2031, at which point it would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest and its demand for paper would double the world’s current production. If it were to enjoy the same level of per capita car ownership as the US does today, it would have 1.1 billion cars compared with the present worldwide total of 800 million; and it would use 99 million barrels of oil a day compared with a worldwide total production of 84 million barrels a day in 2006. [485] Of course, such a level of demand would be unsustainable in terms of the world’s available resources, not to mention its global environmental impact, which would be dire.


The effects of China ’s great paradox — namely, a huge abundance of human resources and extremely sparse natural resources — are being experienced throughout the world via the global market. China ’s surfeit of labour has meant that the prices of manufactured goods it produces have fallen drastically while the prices of those commodities that China requires rose dramatically until the onset of the credit crunch. Together these constitute what might be described as the new China-era global paradigm. The great beneficiaries of China ’s growth, hitherto, have been the developed countries, which have enjoyed a falling real price for consumer goods, and those nations which are major producers of primary products. The present global recession has seen a sharp fall in commodity prices, but there is little reason to believe that their rise will not be resumed once economic conditions start to improve again, driven by demand from China and India. The International Energy Agency has forecast that oil prices will rebound to more than $100 a barrel as soon as the world economy recovers and exceed $200 by 2030. [486] The resumption of rising commodity prices will make the present resource-intensive Chinese growth model increasingly, and ultimately prohibitively, expensive. Beyond a certain point, therefore, it will be impossible for China to follow the resource-intensive American model of progress; and that will happen long before China gets anywhere near the US’s present living standards. Indeed, it is already clear that China has decided to pursue a less energy-intensive approach.

China, however, will find it extremely difficult to change course. For centuries it has pursued a highly extractive approach towards a natural environment which, compared with that of most nations, is extremely poorly endowed with resources, most obviously arable land and water, as measured by population density. China, for example, has only one-fifth as much water per capita as the United States. Furthermore, while southern China is relatively wet, the north, home to about half the country’s population, is an immense parched region that threatens to become the world’s largest desert. [487] The Chinese state, from the great canals of the Ming dynasty to the Three Gorges Dam of the present, has long viewed the environment as something that can be manipulated for, and subordinated to, human ends. [488] The level of environmental awareness, on the part of government and people alike, has been very low, though this is changing rapidly, especially in the main cities. The poorer a society, moreover, the greater the priority given to material change at the expense of virtually all other considerations, including the environment. It is much easier for a rich society to make the environment a priority than a poor society — and China remains a relatively poor society. By 2015 China will only have reached the same standard of living as most Western countries achieved in 1960 and the latter, able to draw either on their own natural resources or those of their colonies, enjoyed the luxury of being able to grow without any concern for environmental constraints until they were already rich. [489] In European terms, China has torn from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century in little more than three decades, pursuing a similar resource-intensive strategy, with the environment never more than a footnote. The result is a huge ecological deficit of two centuries accumulated in just a few decades: growing water shortages, over three-quarters of river water that is unsuitable either for drinking or fishing, 300 million people lacking access to clean drinking water, rampant deforestation, sixteen of the world’s twenty worst-polluted cities, acid rain affecting a third of Chinese territory, desert covering a quarter of the country, and 58 per cent of land classified as arid or semi-arid. [490]

China, still poor though it may be, will not have the option of postponing until the time it has achieved rich-country status two of its most pressing environmental issues. Willy-nilly, it will be obliged by cost pressures to shift towards less resource-intensive technologies. With the price of oil likely to increase considerably, at least in the medium term, China has already begun to seek ways of limiting its consumption of oil by, for example, imposing heavier taxes on gas-guzzlers and encouraging the development of alternative car technologies: [491] in Shanghai, which is China’s environmental leader, it now costs around £2,700 to register a new car. [492] Chinese economist Yu Yongding is certain the country will take action: ‘A billion Chinese driving gas-hogging SUVs is just a fantasy. Believe me, the Chinese are not so stupid. China has to and will reduce its reliance on oil imports.’ [493] The other irresistible environmental challenge is global warming. This will in due course oblige China to seek ways of limiting its production of CO 2 in the same manner that, in time, it will force every other country to seek alternative forms of growth. [494] Like India, China has resisted the idea that it should be subject to the same constraints as rich countries, on the grounds that the latter have been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for much longer and therefore bear a much greater responsibility for global warming. The major contributor to China ’s energy consumption, moreover, is not the domestic consumer, whose needs are minimal, but the export trade. The reality is that 40 per cent of China ’s energy goes into producing exports for Western markets: in other words, the West has, in effect, exported part of its own greenhouse emissions to China. [495] The minimal historical contribution made by the developing world to global warming was recognized in the Kyoto Protocol, which excluded them from its provisions, but the refusal of the United States and Australia to participate rendered the accord largely ineffectual. But with China having overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter of CO2 in 2007 [496] (even though its per capita CO2 emissions remain one-seventh of those of the US), [497]the idea that countries such as China and India can be excluded from any future agreement is no longer plausible, especially as the effects of global warming — already very evident in China itself, with accelerating desertification, reductions in agricultural yields, changing patterns of precipitation, the increased incidence of storms and droughts, and extreme weather like the prolonged snowfalls in central China in 2008 [498] — grow ever more serious. The environmental impact of energy use in China is particularly adverse because its dependence on coal — of a particularly dirty kind — is unusually high (60 per cent compared with 23 per cent in the US and 5 per cent in France) and carbon emissions from coal are proportionately much greater than from oil and gas. [499] Although the Chinese leadership has resisted the idea that the country should be subject to internationally agreed emission targets, it has accepted the scientific argument concerning global warming and, in both speeches and the growing volume of new environmental regulations, is displaying a heightened awareness of the problem. [500] In fact on paper China already has some of the most advanced laws in the world on renewable energy, clean production, environmental impact assessment and pollution control, though these still remain widely ignored in practice. [501] The government continues to resist the idea that environmental considerations should detract from the priority of rapid economic growth, but there is, nonetheless, widespread recognition of their urgency at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership. [502] The need for China to embrace a green development strategy, rather than relying on the old intensive model, has been powerfully argued by the influential Chinese economist Hu Angang. [503]

Figure 15. CO2 emissions compared.

Figure 16. Growing concern over environmental problems.

China ’s position on climate change is evolving rapidly. The two targets it has adopted as part of its 2007 energy security strategy will have a significant impact on reducing the growth in emissions — namely, decreasing the energy intensity of the Chinese economy by 20 per cent by 2010 and increasing the use of renewables from 5 per cent to 20 per cent of energy production by 2020. It is already the world’s largest user of alternative energies, including wind power. [504] It is making huge investments in a wide range of clean-technology innovations, especially in wind, solar and hydrogen. Such is the scale of these investments that whatever technologies China develops in clean and renewable energies are likely in practice to become the new global standard. It could easily become the world’s leading manufacturer of renewable energy plants, and at a price, furthermore, affordable to other developing countries. [505] It is widely believed that in the relatively near future some of the most exciting potential breakthroughs in photovoltaics (the use of solar cells for the generation of electricity) and hydrogen-powered vehicles may come out of China rather than the United States. [506] The two largest Chinese car producers are in the process of launching hybrid models, and, encouraged by the government, they, together with other manufacturers, have ambitious plans to become world leaders in electric and other alternative-energy vehicles. [507] Just as its economic development combines both the backward and the advanced, so the same could well prove to be the case with the environment, as the drastic action taken by the central government in advance of the Beijing Olympics to try and improve the capital’s appalling air quality, including major restrictions on the use of cars, illustrated. [508]


At present, China’s comparative advantage lies in low-end manufacturing, where it is able to exploit the huge supply of cheap unskilled labour and thereby produce at rock-bottom prices — or ‘China prices’, as the new global benchmark has become known — for the world market. [509] In the longer run, there are two inherent problems with this. First, in terms of the total costs of getting a product to market, the proportion represented by manufacturing is very small — around 15 per cent of the final price — with the bulk of costs being creamed off by design, marketing, branding and so forth, tasks which are still overwhelmingly carried out in the developed world. [510] Second, most of China ’s exports are produced by Western and Japanese multinationals, with Chinese manufacturers cast predominantly in the role of subcontractors. In other words, China ’s role is basically as the low-end manufacturing subcontractor in the multifarious global operations of multinationals based in the developed countries. [511]

There is, however, plenty of evidence that China is steadily climbing the technological ladder. Like all newcomers, it has been obliged to make it up as it goes along and find its own distinctive path. One avenue used by China to gain access to new technologies has been a combination of copying, buying, and cajoling foreign partners in joint-ventures to transfer technology in return for being granted wider access to China ’s market. The lure of the latter has proved a powerful bargaining counter, especially with second-tier multinationals. [512] In a short space of time, China has already overtaken many South-East Asian countries in important areas of technology, and its ability to drive a hard bargain with foreign multinationals has been a major factor in this. While Proton, Malaysia ’s national car company, has been unable to persuade any of its various foreign partners — most notably Mitsubishi — to transfer key technology, the Chinese car companies have, one way or another, been rather more successful. The bargaining counter of size carries great clout: China has fifty times the population of Malaysia. [513] There is another route by which China has been negotiating its way up the technological ladder: when foreign multinationals move their manufacturing operations to China, there is a strong tendency for other functions to follow so as to take advantage of economies of scale, for reasons of convenience, and because highly skilled Chinese labour is plentiful and cheap. [514] The textile industry in Italy, for instance, has progressively migrated to China, starting with manufacturing, followed by more value-added processes like design. [515] Microsoft, Motorola and Nokia have all established major research and development centres in Beijing, while Lucent-Alcatel has done the same in Nanjing. As a consequence, Chinese professionals will become increasingly important players in the R & D activity of such leading-edge multinationals. [516]

In the longer term, however, the key to China ’s technological potential will lie in its ability to develop its own high-level research and development capacity. Because China ’s growth has hitherto relied overwhelmingly on imported technologies, only 0.03 per cent of Chinese firms own the intellectual property rights of their core technologies. Moreover, Chinese companies spend on average only 0.56 per cent of turnover on research and development, and even in large firms this only rises to 0.71 per cent. [517] However, enormous efforts are being made to change this state of affairs, with the aim of increasing R & D spending from $24.6 billion (1.23 per cent of GDP) in 2004, to $45 billion (2 per cent of GDP) in 2010, and $113 billion (2.5 per cent of GDP) in 2020. [518] Considerable progress has already been made in a very short space of time. China has become a major player in the production of scientific papers, its contribution rising from around 2 per cent of world share in 1995 to 6.5 per cent in 2004. [519] Citation rates, although very low, are also rising exponentially. [520] The overall figures hide strengths in particular areas, most notably material science, analytical chemistry and rice genomics. A recent analysis of nanoscience publications shows that China ranked second behind only the US in 2004. [521] Not surprisingly, publications are concentrated amongst a handful of elite centres such as the Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing University and Tsinghua University (also in Beijing), which China is seeking to develop as world-class institutions. [522]

Among China ’s strengths is the fact that it possesses a large number of highly educated professionals as well as a strong educational ethos. [523] The country is now producing over 900,000 science, engineering and managerial graduates every year. In addition a significant number of Chinese students are educated at the top American universities, although a sizeable proportion choose to stay on and work in the US afterwards: Chinese, for example, account for around one-third of all professional and technical staff in Silicon Valley. [524] The Chinese government has been intensifying its efforts to persuade overseas Chinese to return home: 81 per cent of the members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 54 per cent of the Chinese Academy of Engineering are now returned overseas scholars. [525] Overall, it is estimated that around 20 per cent of Chinese professionals working overseas have now returned, thus repeating a similar pattern that occurred with earlier Korean migration. [526]

Figure 17. Lenovo commands largest share of China’s PC market.

Figure 18. Percentage of multinationals with R & D centres in various countries in 2006.

The technological picture, as in virtually every other aspect of China ’s development, is extremely uneven, combining the primitive, the low-tech, the medium-tech, and pockets of advanced, even very advanced, technology. [527] There is, however, little reason to doubt that China will scale the technological ladder. [528] This, after all, is exactly what happened with other Asian tigers, most obviously Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which started on the lowest, imitative rungs, but which now possess impressive technological competence, with Japan and South Korea well in advance of most European countries. The evidence is already palpable that China is engaged in a similar process and with the same kind of remarkable speed. [529] It is an illusion to think that China will be trapped indefinitely in the foothills of technology. In time it will become a formidable technological power.

China ’s growing ability to climb the technological ladder, however, does not imply that it will be successful in building a cluster of successful international firms. Until very recently, China fared very poorly in the Fortune Top 500 global firms. Of the world’s top ten brands, only one, China Mobile, is Chinese, and of the top 100, only four are Chinese. [530] However, the picture is beginning to change. In 2006, 2 °Chinese firms featured in the Fortune Top 500, by 2007 the number had risen to 24, and by 2008 to 29, including four state-owned banks, the largest construction companies and the oil giant Sinopec. This compares with 153 from the US, 64 from Japan, 39 from France, 37 from Germany, 34 from the UK, and 15 from South Korea. Major Chinese manufacturers like Haier, Galanz and Konka, which have cornered the lion’s share of the domestic market in consumer appliances and also made serious inroads in many developing markets, however, still remain, in comparison with their American, European, Japanese and Korean competitors, very weak in terms of size, management, governance, and research and development. [531]

Unlike the early Asian tigers, Chinese firms were unable to postpone their move into foreign markets and production until they had acquired a solid financial foundation, technical competence, a well-established brand and high profitability based on domination of their home market; the major motive for many Chinese companies going abroad, in contrast, has been their desire to escape the cut-throat competition — much of it foreign — and sparse profits of the domestic market following China’s accession to the WTO. [532] Peter Nolan, an expert on Chinese business, has argued that it will be extremely difficult for Chinese companies to make the A-list of multinationals precisely because they have not had the chance to build themselves up domestically behind a protectionist wall. He also suggests that over the last twenty years there has been a global business revolution, as a result of which Chinese companies, far from catching up, have fallen even further behind the top international firms, making their task even more difficult. [533]

If China fails to produce a cluster of major international firms it will stand in sharp contrast to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. [534] But it is premature to think in these terms. However difficult and different the circumstances China faces, it is already busy inventing its own path of development, as Britain did as the pioneer country, the United States as the inventor of mass production, and Japan as the innovator of a new kind of just-in-time production. What might this be? In the Chinese car market, the more expensive sectors are overwhelmingly the preserve of European, American and Japanese firms, but emergent Chinese firms like Chery and Geely dominate the lowest segment. [535] Chinese firms are able to produce cars much more cheaply than foreign producers because they use a modular, or mix and match, approach rather than the integrated method of production for which Japanese firms are renowned. Firms such as Geely and Chery utilize a range of parts which are borrowed, copied or bought from foreign companies. The end product is of relatively low quality but extremely cheap. The Chevrolet Spark, which is very similar to the Chery QQ, sells for twice the price. A similar kind of approach can be seen with the Tata Nano in India, which sells for less than $2,500, half the price of the next cheapest car on the market. [536] Modular — or open architecture — production is extremely well suited to a developing country, being relatively labour-intensive and very difficult, if not impossible, for Western and Japanese firms to imitate. In the Chinese case, it was first developed by the motorcycle, truck and consumer appliance industries and then adapted by the domestic car firms. [537] The fact is that in China, as in most other developing countries, the low end of the market will remain by far the largest sector for many years to come. Despite fearsome competition from foreign producers, Chinese car manufacturers have very slowly been increasing their share of the Chinese market, currently the world’s second largest: in 2006 their combined market share was 25.6 per cent, just behind the total Japanese share of 25.7 per cent and ahead of the aggregate European share of 24.3 per cent, with Chery and Geely, the two largest, enjoying a combined share of around 10 per cent.

Figure 19. How to make a cheap car, Indian-style: the Tata Nano.

Figure 20. Sales of Chery cars, 2004-7.

This suggests that we should expect Chinese firms to enter at the bottom end of the global market for mass consumer goods, initially mainly in the developing world — of which there is already clear evidence [538] — but later moving into the developed world. It will take time for firms like Chery and Geely to establish themselves in Western markets, where standards and tastes are very different from the ‘cheap-end’ advantage presently enjoyed by Chinese firms. Indeed, both have postponed their American launch dates until around 2009 or later. A cautionary tale in this respect is provided by TCL, the Chinese TV manufacturer, which entered into a joint European venture with the French firm Thomson. It made a number of serious miscalculations based on its ignorance of the European market and announced in 2006 that it would close its European operations. [539] But TCL is an exception: Chinese electrical appliance firms have overwhelmingly chosen to establish their overseas manufacturing subsidiaries in developing rather than developed countries. There is a certain parallel, in this context, between Chinese firms initially targeting the developing world and the earlier experience of Japan and Korea. Japanese companies, for example, first dominated the then relatively poor local East Asian markets and only later began to make serious inroads into Western markets. In Europe and the United States, furthermore, both Japan and South Korea started at the cheap end of the market then steadily worked their way up. The same will be broadly true of China, except it will probably prioritize the developing world even more strongly. Chinese exports to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America have recently been growing far more rapidly than those to the United States. China sent more than 31 per cent of its exports to the US in 2000 but that figure had dropped to just over 22 per cent by early 2007 and is now 18 per cent. [540]

Although China is already making significant progress in low- and medium-technology industries such as white goods and motor vehicles, it is also intent, in the longer term, on becoming a major player in a high-tech industry like aerospace. China will shortly begin production of its own regional passenger jet, [541] while Airbus has announced its intention of shifting some of its manufacturing capacity to China. [542] Possibly as a way of leapfrogging the development process, the main Chinese aerospace group was reported in 2007 to be considering investing in, or bidding for, six of Airbus’s European plants that had been deemed surplus to requirements, although in the event no offer materialized. [543] Given time, it is inconceivable that China — already the second largest aircraft market in the world [544] — will not become a major aircraft producer in its own right. The fact that it is steadily developing its space programme — it conducted a successful manned space flight in 2003, launched a lunar orbiter in 2007 and plans to launch its own space station in 2020 — indicates that China is intent on acquiring highly sophisticated technical competence in the aerospace field. [545]

Looking into the future, therefore, one can anticipate a number of broad trends regarding the development of Chinese companies. We will continue to see the slow but steady emergence of Chinese multinationals in areas which play to their domestic comparative advantage, such as white and electrical appliances, motorcycles, trucks and cars. [546] We can expect Chinese brands to emerge in fields such as sports equipment (for example Li-Ning) [547] — linked to China ’s growing strength as a sporting nation — and Chinese medicine. We are likely to see Chinese firms become major competitors in high-tech areas such as aerospace (AVIC 1), telecommunications (China Mobile and Huawei), computers (Lenovo) [548] and perhaps in renewable energy (for example, Suntech Power Holdings). China ’s banks, construction companies and oil companies are already rapidly emerging as global giants, helped by the scale of the Chinese market and the resources at their disposal. In 2007 the boom on the Shanghai Stock Exchange saw PetroChina briefly overtake Exxon as the world’s largest company. By the end of 2007 China possessed three of the world’s five largest companies, by value though not by sales, namely PetroChina, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and China Mobile. [549] We can also anticipate some of the big Chinese firms seeking to expand overseas by taking over foreign firms. There have already been examples of this with Lenovo acquiring IBM Computers and the Chinese oil giant CNPC unsuccessfully seeking to buy the US oil firm Unilocal; awash with cash and eager to shortcut their expansion, it is not difficult to imagine this happening on a much wider scale. An obvious area is commodities, with Chinalco’s stake in Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining group, an example. [550] With many Western companies suffering from a serious shortage of cash as a result of the credit crunch, the takeover opportunities for cash-rich Chinese companies, the oil companies in particular, are likely to be considerable, with Western political opposition weakened by the recession. [551] Meanwhile the establishment of the China Investment Corporation, armed with funds of $200 billion, of which some $80 billion is for external investment, could give China growing potential leverage over those foreign companies in which it decides to invest. [552] Finally, we should not forget the increasing importance of Chinese subcontractors as ‘systems integrator’ firms in the global supply chain of many foreign multinationals, a development which might, in the long term at least, prove to have a wider strategic significance for these multinationals in terms of their management, research capability and even ownership. [553]

Crucial to the creation of international firms is overseas direct investment. One forecast has suggested that as early as 201 °China ’s outward direct investment will overtake foreign direct inward investment. It is estimated that overseas investment in 2008 was over $50 billion, a huge increase compared with 2002; official figures indicate that in 2006 60 % went to Asia, 16 % to Latin America, 7 % each to North America and Africa, 6 % to Europe and roughly 4 % to Australasia. [554] (See Figure 21.)


The transition from a command economy to a market economy, involving a major diminution in the role of the state, has understandably focused attention on the similarities between the Chinese economy and Western capitalist economies. It is becoming evident, however, that just as the Japanese and Korean economies have retained distinctive characteristics in comparison with the West, the same also applies to China. Given that the Chinese leadership consciously chose to follow the path of market reform, rather than having it imposed upon them by force majeure, as in the instance of Russia, this is not surprising. The key difference in China’s case concerns the role of the state. This should be seen as part of a much older Chinese tradition, as discussed in Chapter 4, where the state has always enjoyed a pivotal role in the economy and been universally accepted as the guardian and embodiment of society. The state in its various forms (central government, provincial government and local government) continues to play an extremely important role in the economy, notwithstanding the market reforms.

Figure 21. Growth of Chinese overseas investment.

Around the time of the Asian financial crisis in the late nineties, it appeared that China was on the verge of drastically contracting the role and number of its state-owned enterprises (many of which were highly inefficient and heavily subsidized), and following the well-worn path of privatization trodden by many other countries. In fact, a decade later, a rather different picture is emerging. Certainly, the number of state-owned enterprises has been severely reduced, from 120,000 in the mid nineties to 31,750 in 2004, a process which has been accompanied by major restructuring and pruning, with tens of thousands of jobs cut. [555] Rather than root-and-branch privatization, however, the government has sought to make the numerous state-owned enterprises that still remain as efficient and competitive as possible. As a result, the top 150 state-owned firms, far from being lame ducks, have instead become enormously profitable, the aggregate total of their profits reaching $150 billion in 2007. This has been part of a broader government strategy designed to create a cluster of internationally competitive Chinese companies, most of which are state-owned. Unlike the approach most countries have followed with regard to state-owned firms, which has seen them enjoying various degrees of protection, and often quasi-monopoly status, the Chinese government has instead exposed them to the fiercest competition, both amongst themselves and with foreign firms. They are also, unlike in many Western countries, allowed to raise large amounts of private capital. Of the twelve biggest initial public offerings on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2007, all were by state enterprises and together they accounted for 85 per cent of the total capital raised. Some of the largest have foreign stakeholders, which, despite tensions, has usually helped them to improve their performance. China ’s state-owned firms can best be described as hybrids in that they combine the characteristics of both private and state enterprises. [556] The leading state enterprises get help and assistance from their state benefactors but also have sufficient independence to be managed like private companies and can raise capital in the same way that they do. This hybrid approach also works in reverse: some of the largest privately owned companies, like the computer firm Lenovo and the telecommunications equipment maker Huawei, have been considerably helped by their close ties with the government, a relationship which to some extent mirrors the Japanese and Korean experience. Unlike in Japan or Korea, however, where privately owned firms overwhelmingly predominate, most of China ’s best-performing companies are to be found in the state sector. [557] The steel industry has been awash with private investment, but the industry leader and technologically most advanced producer is the state-owned Baosteel. Chinalco, also state-owned, has become one of the world’s largest producers of aluminium, and has designs on becoming a diversified metals multinational. Shanghai Electric is increasingly competing with Japan ’s Mitsubishi and Marubeni in bidding to build new coal-fired plants in Asia. China ’s two state-owned shipbuilding firms, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation and China State Shipbuilding Corporation, are growing rapidly and starting to close the technological gap with their Korean and Japanese competitors. Chery, the state-owned car producer, with the fifth largest market share, has proved an extremely agile competitor and, given its limited resources, technologically ambitious and innovative. For the most part, it is these state-owned enterprises which are increasingly competing on the global stage with Western and Japanese companies.

The emergent Chinese model bears witness to a new kind of capitalism where the state is hyperactive and omnipresent in a range of different ways and forms: in providing assistance to private firms, in a galaxy of state-owned enterprises, in managing the process by which the renminbi slowly evolves towards fully convertible status and, above all, in being the architect of an economic strategy which has driven China’s economic transformation. China ’s success suggests that the Chinese model of the state is destined to exercise a powerful global influence, especially in the developing world, and thereby transform the terms of future economic debate. The collapse of the Anglo-American model in the wake of the credit crunch will make the Chinese model even more pertinent to many countries.


The combination of a huge population and an extremely high economic growth rate is providing the world with a completely new kind of experience: China is, quite literally, changing the world before our very eyes, taking it into completely uncharted territory. Such is the enormity of this shift and its impact on the world that one might talk of modern economic history being divided into BC and AC — Before China and After China — with 1978 being the great watershed. In this section I will concentrate on the economic implications of China ’s size.

When the United States began its take-off in 1870, its population was 40 million. By 1913 it had reached 98 million. Japan ’s population numbered 84 million at the start of its post-war growth in 1950 and 109 million by the end in 1973. In contrast, China ’s population was 963 million in 1978 when its take-off started in earnest: that is, twenty-four times that of the United States in 1870 and 11.5 times that of Japan in 1950. It is estimated that by the projected end of its take-off period in 2020, China ’s population will be at least 1.4 billion: that is, fourteen times that of the United States in 1913 and thirteen times that of Japan in 1973. If we broaden this picture, India had a population of 839 million in 1990 when it started its major take-off, nearly twenty-one times that of the United States in 1870 and ten times that of Japan in 1950. [558]

Total population is only one aspect of the effect of China ’s scale. The second is the size of its labour force. Although China ’s population presently accounts for 21 per cent of the world’s total, the proportion of the global labour force that it represents is, at 25 per cent, slightly higher. In 1978, when the great majority of its people worked on the land, China only had 118 million non-agricultural labourers. In 2002 that figure had already increased to 369 million, compared with a total of 455 million in the developed world. By 2020 it is estimated that there will be 533 million non-agricultural labourers in China, by which time it will exceed the equivalent figure for the whole of the developed world by no less than 100 million. In other words, China’s growth is leading to a huge increase in the number of people engaged in non-agricultural labour and, as a consequence, is providing a massive — and very rapid — addition to the world’s total non-agricultural labour force.

The third effect of China ’s rise concerns the impact of its economic scale on the rest of the world. China ’s average annual rate of growth of GDP since 1978 has been 9.4 per cent, over twice the US ’s growth rate of 3.94 per cent between 1870 and 1913. It is projected that the duration of their respective take-offs may be roughly similar: 43 years in the case of the US, 42 years for China, because, although the latter’s growth rate is much faster, its population is also far larger. When the US commenced its take-off in 1870, its GDP accounted for 8.8 per cent of the world’s total, rising to 18.9 per cent by 1913. In contrast, China ’s GDP represented 4.9 per cent of the world’s total in 1978, but is likely to rise to 18–20 per cent by 2020. In both instances, their GDP growth has had a major impact on the expansion of global GDP. In the 1980s, for example, the United States made the biggest single contribution of any country, accounting for 21 per cent of the world’s total increase; in the 1990s, however, China, even at its present limited level of development, surpassed the US, which remained at 21 per cent, while China contributed 27.1 per cent to the growth of global GDP.

The fourth effect is the impact China will have on world trade. Before the Open Door policy, China was one of the world’s most closed economies. In 1970 its export trade made up only 0.7 per cent of the world’s total: at the end of the seventies, China ’s imports and exports together represented 12 per cent of its GDP, the lowest in the world. China ’s economic impact on the rest of the world was minimal for two reasons: firstly, the country was very poor, and secondly, it was very closed. But since 1978 China has rapidly become one of the world’s most open economies. Its average import tariff rate will decline from 23.7 per cent in 2001 to 5.7 per cent in 2011, with most of that fall having already taken place. [559] Although its trade dependency (the proportion of GDP accounted for by exports and imports) was less than 10 per cent in 1978, by 2004 it had risen to 70 per cent, much higher than that of other large countries. China has now overtaken the United States to become the second largest exporter in the world, while in 2004 it ranked as the world’s third largest importer, accounting for 5.9 per cent of the global total. By 2010 a developing country, in the shape of China, will for the first time become the world’s biggest trader.

Each of these scale effects — population, labour, economy and trade — clearly has a mainly positive impact on the rest of the world, stimulating overall global growth and the expansion of national economies. But the fifth effect, China’s consumption of resources, has a largely negative global impact: because the country is so poorly endowed with natural resources, its population so enormous and its economic development so intensive, its demand for natural resources has the double effect of raising the price of raw materials and depleting the world’s stock of them, a process that, on the basis of recent trends, is likely to accelerate in the future.


Although China remains a poor country, its per capita GDP only reaching $1,000 in 2003, it is already having a profound impact on the world. Along with the United States it has been the main engine of global economic growth, contributing no less than one-third of the world’s growth in real output between 2002 and 2005. It has been widely credited with having pulled Japan out of its long-running post-bubble recession, having been responsible for two-thirds of the growth in Japan ’s exports and one-quarter of its real GDP growth in 2003 alone. [560] The emergence of China as the world’s cheapest producer of manufactured goods has resulted in a sharp global drop in their prices. The price of clothing and shoes in the US, for example, has fallen by 30 per cent over the last decade. Major gainers from this have been consumers in the developed world, while the rise in commodity prices consequent upon Chinese demand had a beneficial effect on primary producers — many of which are based in the developing world — until the global downturn intervened. Anxious to secure sufficient supplies of raw materials to fuel its booming economy, China has been highly active in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, concluding major agreements with Iran, Venezuela and the Sudan amongst many others. Another net gainer has been Russia, which is a major producer of many commodities, notably oil and gas; and, though rather less trumpeted, Australia. It is China ’s shortage of raw materials that has driven a major diplomatic offensive with many African and Latin American countries, including the ambitious China- Africa summit in Beijing in November 2006. [561] The main losers have been those developing countries, like Mexico, whose comparative advantage lies in similar labour-intensive production and that find themselves in direct competition with China. [562] They have also lost out to China in terms of foreign direct investment, with many international firms relocating their operations from these countries to China. The other obvious losers are blue-collar workers in the developed world who have found their jobs being outsourced to China.

By far the greatest impact of China ’s rise has been felt in East Asia. The main gainers have been the developed Asian tigers of North-East Asia — South Korea and Taiwan, together with Japan. They have been the beneficiaries of cheap manufactured goods produced in China while at the same time enjoying growing demand from China for their knowledge and capital-intensive products. [563] Their own companies have relocated many of their operations to China to take advantage of much cheaper labour, as in the case of the Taiwanese computer industry. [564] The losers have been the same as those in the West, namely those workers displaced by operations outsourced to China. Unlike the United States, which has a huge trade deficit with China, all of these countries enjoy large surpluses with China. The nearest example in the region to a grey area is South-East Asia, whose economies are not so dissimilar to that of China, though Singapore and Malaysia, in particular, are rather more developed. Over the last decade, the ASEAN countries have seen a large slice of the foreign direct investment they previously received going to China. They have also lost out to China in the mass assembly of electronic and computer equipment — Singapore and Malaysia being notable examples — and have, as a consequence, been forced to move up the value chain in to order to escape Chinese competition. [565] The country that has suffered the greatest is Indonesia, whose economy most closely resembles that of China. Indonesia has lost out to China in terms of direct investment by foreign multinationals, which have opted for China rather than Indonesia as their preferred production base. On balance, however, China’s growth has greatly benefited the ASEAN countries too, with China now comfortably ensconced as their largest trading partner, one of their biggest markets (if not the biggest), and in many cases their main provider of inward investment. [566]

A measure of China’s growing impact on the world is the leverage that it enjoys in its relationship with the United States (notwithstanding the fact that the United States still enjoys a much larger GDP than China and an immensely higher GDP per head) as a result of the economic imbalances which lie at the heart of their relationship. China is comfortably the largest exporter to the US, with Americans displaying an enormous appetite for Made in China consumer products. As the United States exports relatively little to China, the latter has enjoyed a large and rising trade surplus which has grown very rapidly since 1999. [567] China has invested this surplus in various forms of US debt, including Treasury bonds, agency bonds and corporate bonds — in effect, a Chinese loan to the US — thereby enabling American interest rates to be kept artificially low to the benefit of American consumers and especially, until the credit crunch, holders of mortgages. Although the US was deeply in debt, China’s continuing large-scale purchase of Treasury bonds (which I will use as shorthand for various forms of US assets held by China) allowed Americans to continue with their spending spree, and then partially helped to cushion the impact of the credit crunch. In September 2008 China ’s foreign currency reserves totalled $1.81 trillion — a sum greater than the annual economic output of all but nine countries. [568] The rapid growth of its foreign exchange reserves has made China a colossus in the financial world. The importance of this has become even more apparent with the Western financial meltdown. While Western financial institutions, many Western companies and even some countries have found themselves starved of liquidity, China, in contrast, is blessed with an abundance of it. Strategically this puts China in a potentially powerful position to enhance its international financial and economic influence during the global recession, for example by buying foreign companies, especially oil and mineral firms.

How China deploys its reserves remains a matter of great concern, especially to the United States, since most are invested in US dollar-denominated debt. If China transferred significant amounts into other currencies — it is believed that it holds rather more than 60 per cent of its reserves in dollars (with less than 30 per cent in euros), though this is a tightly guarded secret [569] — it would have the immediate effect of depressing the value of the dollar and forcing US interest rates to rise: the larger the sum transferred, the bigger the fall in the dollar and the larger the rise in interest rates. But the government is also faced with something of a dilemma. It would certainly make good economic sense for China to transfer a large slice of its reserves out of US Treasury bonds: the dollar’s value fell steadily in 2006- 8, then recovered somewhat, but there remains the strong possibility that its price might fall even further, perhaps precipitously so. China ’s vast dollar investments in US Treasury bonds furthermore earn miserable rates of return, which makes precious little sense for what is still a poor country. [570] However, if it tries to transfer significant sums of its reserves into other currencies, thereby provoking a further fall in the value of the dollar, then the value of its own dollar reserves will also decline. China is in a catch-22 situation. The two great, but utterly unlike, economic powers of our time find themselves — at least for the time being — in a position of bizarre mutual dependence. [571] This was graphically illustrated in the darkest days of the financial meltdown in September 2008, when it is believed that the Chinese were pressing the US government to rescue Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and subsequently AIG out of concern for its holdings in them, and the Americans were understandably afraid that China might otherwise sell off some of its dollar reserves, with dire consequences for the value of the dollar and its role as a reserve currency. [572]

Before these tumultuous events, China had already been exploring other ways of using its vast reserves. In early 2007 the government announced the formation of the China Investment Corporation, a new state agency to oversee investment of $200 billion of China ’s foreign currency reserves — similar to Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government’s successful investment agency, which manages a $108 billion global portfolio of investments. [573] To test the water, the new agency placed $3 billion of its holdings with Blackstone, the US-based private equity group, thereby signalling Beijing ’s intention to switch some of its investments from US Treasury bonds into more risky equity holdings. [574] In fact it has since emerged that the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which oversees China ’s reserves, has itself been investing rather more widely than was previously believed. [575] These moves herald China ’s rise as a major global financial player. [576] In the second half of 2007, as the credit crunch began to bite, China Development Bank took a significant stake in the UK-based Barclays Bank [577] and Citic Securities formed a strategic alliance with the US investment bank Bear Stearns before the latter went bust. [578] Three Chinese banks were also in talks about acquiring a stake in Standard Chartered, the UK-based emerging markets lender. [579] But most of this came to nought as the Chinese increasingly realized the likely severity of the credit crunch and the potential threat it represented to any stakes in Western financial institutions that it might purchase. When the financial meltdown came in September 2008, the Chinese found themselves relatively little exposed. Nonetheless, the enormous funds enjoyed by Chinese banks, based on the fact that the average household saves more than a quarter of its income and has nowhere else to invest it, mean that Chinese banks will become an increasingly formidable global force.

The relationship between the United States and China needs to be set in a broader global and historical context. The belated acceptance of China as a member of the WTO in 2001 marked the biggest extension of the world trading system since the beginning of the contemporary phase of globalization in the late 1970s. As the largest recipient of foreign direct investment and soon to be the biggest trading nation, China ’s admission immediately transformed the nature and dynamics of the trading system. By acquiring a low-cost manufacturing base and extremely cheap imports, the developed world has been a major beneficiary of China ’s accession. But China itself has also been a big gainer, achieving wider access to overseas markets for its exports and receiving huge flows of inward investment, thereby helping it to sustain its double-digit growth rate. [580] Thus, so far, China ’s integration into the global economy has been perceived in terms of a win-win situation. Is that likely to continue?

China’s impact on the global trading system is so huge, and also in the longer term so uncertain, that this is a difficult question to answer. There are already tensions over China’s relationship with the WTO: on the one hand, there are accusations from the developed countries that China is failing to implement WTO rules as it ought to, while on the other hand, both the US and the European Union are using anti-dumping clauses (designed to prevent countries selling at unfair prices) as a pretext for deploying protectionist measures against Chinese goods. [581] There has been constant controversy around Chinese exports to the US. During 2007 these were concentrated on the safety of Chinese products, notably food and toys, as well as China’s failure to observe intellectual property rights. [582] So far these skirmishes have been at the relative margins of their trading relationships but they could be a harbinger of growing tensions in the future. Although the present era of globalization was designed by and is the creature of the West, above all the United States, the greatest beneficiary has been East Asia, especially China. [583] If the West should decide at some point that China has been the chief beneficiary — and to the West’s growing detriment — then the latter is likely to become increasingly protectionist and the present global system will be undermined. The process of globalization has already ground to a halt with the failure of the latest World Trade Organization Doha Round and is extremely unlikely to be revived. [584] But it remains to be seen whether this will be the prelude to a wider breakdown.

Hitherto, the main losers in the Western world have been those unskilled and semi-skilled workers who have been displaced by Chinese competition. But their grievances have been dwarfed by the winners — the multinationals which have used China as a cheap manufacturing base and the many consumers who have benefited from China prices. What will decisively change this political arithmetic is when China, as it rapidly moves up the value chain, starts to enter spheres of production which threaten the jobs of skilled manual workers and growing numbers of white-collar workers and professionals. The process of upgrading is already taking place in a limited way, as the example of textiles in Prato and Como in Italy illustrates, with design following manufacturing to China. [585] How quickly China upgrades its technological capacity thus lies at the heart of the likely Western response: the quicker that process proceeds, the more likely it is that the political arithmetic will change and that protectionist barriers might be erected; the slower it happens then the more likely it is that trade tensions can be managed and in some degree defused. The first scenario seems at least as likely as the second.

The economic rise of China has already led to a multiple redistribution of global economic power: from South-East Asia to China, from Japan to China, and from Europe and the United States to China. Given that China is only a little over halfway through its take-off phase, with over 50 per cent of the population still living in the countryside, it is clear that we are only in the early stages of this process. [586] It is inconceivable that one-fifth of the world’s population, embracing all the various scale effects that we have considered, can join the global economy with — by historical standards — enormous speed without ramifications which are bound to engender tension and conflict. So far China ’s incorporation has been relatively conflict-free. But the present aura of win-win that has surrounded this process seems unlikely to continue. The political arithmetic will shift in the West as the number of losers rises, with the entirely plausible consequence that the West — the traditional proselytizer for free trade — will lead the charge towards protection and the end of the era of globalization that began in the late 1970s. [587]

These considerations have now been recast in a new context: the most serious recession since the Great Depression of 1929- 33. Global trade is rapidly contracting, capital flows likewise, and unemployment is rising steeply across the world. The present era of globalization has come to a shuddering halt — and gone into reverse. How far this process will go remains entirely unclear. Almost everywhere governments are seeking to provide forms of assistance and subsidy for their threatened industries. There are growing demands for protection, evident in the ‘buy American’ pressure within the US Congress. China, as the world’s second biggest exporter (just behind Germany), will inevitably be a key target of such demands. In these circumstances, a trade war, accompanied by a withdrawal into rival trading blocs, is a distinct possibility. [588] The world is in new territory. The global parameters of China ’s economic rise have, at least for the time being, changed profoundly.

7. A Civilization-State

Hong Kong used to be a byword for cheap labour and cheap goods. It lost that reputation when its employers started to shift their operations north of the border into the similarly Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province. Hong Kong had moved too far up the value chain: the expectations of its workers had become too great to tolerate miserable working conditions, indecently long hours and poverty wages. The old textile factories decamped north along with everything else that required the kind of unskilled labour which Hong Kong once possessed in abundance and which China, as it finally opened its borders, now enjoyed in seemingly limitless numbers. The checkpoints and fences that were thrown up around the new towns in Guangdong were eloquent testimony to the countless rural labourers who were willing to leave their villages, whether they were nearby or in a distant interior province, for the bright lights of the city and what seemed to them, though no longer those over the border in Hong Kong, like untold riches.

Guangzhou railway station was crammed with such bounty-hunters, a human tide of migrants, from morning to night, 24/7. This was the Wild East. No matter the pitiful wages and terrible conditions, welcome to the province of opportunity. Young migrant girls barely out of school, often hundreds, even thousands, of miles from home, would work crazy hours performing the simplest of repetitive tasks, making clothes, toys or fireworks for Western markets that they could not even imagine, and then retire for a few hours’ sleep in their floor-to-ceiling bunk beds in cubby-hole-sized rooms in drab factory dormitories before resuming the drudgery on the morrow. But for them it was far better than eking out a much smaller pittance working the land from which they came.

Just as Hong Kong had earlier climbed the value escalator and seen living standards transformed in just a few decades, the same now began to happen in Guangdong. The expectations of locals grew and their opportunities expanded. From the most humble of beginnings, people began to make their way up their version of the career ladder. Meanwhile, as China ’s own standards and expectations changed, there was growing unease about the merciless exploitation of unskilled workers and migrant labour. They enjoyed no legal protection, with the official trade unions shackled and ineffectual. After years of discussion and debate, a labour law was finally introduced in 2008. It was bitterly resisted by many employers, who claimed that it would make their firms uncompetitive and drive them out of business.

Hong Kong employers were particularly prominent amongst these. Astute businessmen, enormously hard-working and pitiless to boot, they did not cross the border to escape the rising labour costs in Hong Kong in order to find themselves hamstrung by an armful of new regulations and a clutch of new expectations in southern China. Of an estimated 90,000 factories in the Pearl Delta region, nearly 60,000 are Hong Kong-owned. Many mainland Chinese employers supported them. Dubbed the country’s richest woman entrepreneur, Zhang Yin, chairwoman of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, one of the world’s biggest paper-making and recycling firms, complained that workers were being given an ‘iron rice bowl’, a reference to the workers’ contract under Mao. The powerful All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce joined the opposition, warning of more labour disputes and companies going out of business. American firms with factories in China expressed their concern; the reason why they had gone there in the first place, after all, was the dirt-cheap labour. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions finally found a voice and rejected any concessions to the employers.

The new law is a sign of changing times. China, just like Hong Kong, will not always be a byword for cheap goods, even cheaper labour and miserable working conditions. The universal desire to improve one’s lot spells the eventual demise of an economic regime based on the cheapest labour in the world, wholly unprotected either by trade unions or the law, and exposed to the most brutal market forces. China is in the process of moving to a new stage in its development and its political world is beginning to reflect this. Laissez-faire attitudes are being replaced by the recognition that workers’ rights need to be protected.

There is still a widespread view in the West that China will eventually conform, by a process of natural and inevitable development, to the Western paradigm. [589] This is wishful thinking. And herein lies the nub of the Chinese challenge. Apart from Japan, for the first time in two centuries — since the advent of industrialization — one of the great powers will be from a totally non-Western history and tradition. It will not be more of the same — which is what the emergence of the United States largely represented in the late nineteenth century. To appreciate what the rise of China means, we have to understand not only China ’s economic growth, but also its history, politics, culture and traditions. Otherwise we will be floundering in the dark, unable to explain or predict, constantly disconcerted and surprised. The purpose of this chapter is to explain the nature of China ’s political difference. It is a task that is going to occupy, and tax, the Western mind for the next century.


China, by the standards of every other country, is a most peculiar animal. Apart from size, it possesses two other exceptional, even unique, characteristics. China is not just a nation-state; it is also a civilization and a continent. In fact, China became a nation-state only relatively recently. One can argue over exactly when: the late nineteenth century perhaps, or following the 1911 Revolution. In that sense — in the same manner as one might refer to Indonesia being little more than half a century old, or Germany and Italy being not much more than a century old — China is a very recent creation. But, of course, that is nonsense. China has existed for several millennia, certainly for over two, arguably even three, thousand years, though the average Chinese likes to round this up to more like 5,000 years. In other words, China’s existence as a recognizable and continuing entity long predates its status as a nation-state. Indeed it is far and away the oldest continuously existing country in the world, certainly dating back to 221 BC, perhaps rather longer. This is not an arcane historical detail, but the way the Chinese — not just the elite, but taxi drivers too — actually think about their country. As often as not, it will crop up in a driver’s conversation, along with references to Confucius or Mencius, perhaps with a little classical poetry thrown in. [590] When the Chinese use the term ‘China’ they are not usually referring to the country or nation so much as Chinese civilization — its history, the dynasties, Confucius, the ways of thinking, their relationships and customs, the guanxi (the network of personal connections), [591] the family, filial piety, ancestral worship, the values, and distinctive philosophy. The Chinese regard themselves not primarily in terms of a nation-state — as Europeans do, for example — but rather as a civilization-state, where the latter is akin to a geological formation in which the nation-state represents no more than the topsoil. There are no other people in the world who are so connected to their past and for whom the past — not so much the recent past but the long-ago past — is so relevant and meaningful. Every other country is a spring chicken by comparison, its people separated from their long past by the sharp discontinuities of their history. Not the Chinese. China has experienced huge turmoil, invasion and rupture, but somehow the lines of continuity have remained resilient, persistent and ultimately predominant, superimposing themselves in the Chinese mind over the interruptions and breaks.

The Chinese live in and through their history, however distant it might be, to a degree which is quite different from other societies. ‘Of what other country in the world,’ writes the historian Wang Gungwu, ‘can it be said that writings on its foreign relations of two thousand, or even one thousand, years ago seem so compellingly alive today?’ [592] The Chinese scholar Jin Guantao argues that: ‘[China ’s] only mode of existence is to relive the past. There is no accepted mechanism within the culture for the Chinese to confront the present without falling back on the inspiration and strength of tradition.’ [593] The Chinese scholar Huang Ping writes:

China is… a living history. Here almost every event and process happening today is closely related to history, and cannot be explained without taking history into consideration. Not only scholars, but civil servants and entrepreneurs as well as ordinary people all have a strong sense of history… no matter how little formal education people receive, they all live in history and serve as the heirs and spokesmen of history. [594]

The author Tu Wei-ming remarks:

The collective memory of the educated Chinese is such that when they talk about Tu Fu’s (712- 70) poetry, Sima Qian’s (died c. 85 BC) Historical Records [the first systematic Chinese historical text, written between 109 and 91 BC, recounting Chinese history from the time of the Yellow Emperor until the author’s own time], or Confucius’s Analects, they refer to a cumulative tradition preserved in Chinese characters… An encounter with Tu Fu, Sima Qian, or Confucius through ideographic symbols evokes a sensation of reality as if their presence was forever inscribed in the text. [595]

The earliest awareness of China as we know it today came with the Zhou dynasty, which grew up along the Yellow River Valley at the end of the second millennium BC. Already, under the previous Shang dynasty, the foundations of modern China had begun to take shape with an ideographic language, ancestor worship and the idea of a single ruler. Chinese civilization, however, still did not have a strong sense of itself. That was to happen a few centuries later through the writings of Master Kong, or Confucius (to use his Latinized name). [596] As discussed in Chapter 4, by this time the Chinese language was used for government and education, and the idea of the mandate of Heaven as a principle of dynastic governance had been firmly established. Confucius’s life (551–479 BC) preceded the Warring States period (403 BC- 221 BC), when numerous states were constantly at war with each other. The triumph of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) brought that period to an end and achieved a major unification of Chinese territories, with the emergence of modern China typically being dated from this time. [597] Although Confucius enjoyed little status or recognition during his lifetime, after his death he was to become the single most influential writer in Chinese history. For the next two thousand years China was shaped by his arguments and moral precepts, its government informed by his principles, and the Analects became established as the most important book in Chinese history. Confucianism was a syncretic mode of thinking which drew on other beliefs, most notably Taoism and Buddhism, but Confucius’s own ideas remained by far the most important. His emphasis on moral virtue, on the supreme importance of government in human affairs, and on the overriding priority of stability and unity, which was shaped by his experience of the turbulence and instability of a divided country, have informed the fundamental values of Chinese civilization ever since. [598] Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did his influence begin to wane, though even during the convulsions of the twentieth century — including the Communist period — the influence of his thinking remained persistent and tangible. Ironically it was Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader most hostile to Confucius, who was to pen the Little Red Book, which in both form and content clearly drew on the Confucian tradition. [599]

Two of the most obvious continuities in Chinese civilization, both of which can be traced back to Confucius, concern the state and education. The state has always been perceived as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilization, which is why, in both the dynastic and Communist eras, it has enjoyed such huge authority and legitimacy. Amongst its constellation of responsibilities, the state, most importantly of all, has the sacred task of maintaining the unity of Chinese civilization. Unlike in the Western tradition, the role of government has no boundaries; rather like a parent, with which it is often compared, there are no limits to its authority. Paternalism is regarded as a desirable and necessary characteristic of government. Although in practice the state has always been rather less omnipotent that this might suggest, there is no doubting the reverence and deference which the Chinese display towards it. [600] Similarly, the roots of China ’s distinctive concept of education and parenting lie deep in its civilizational past. Ever since Mencius (372–289 BC), a disciple of Confucius, the Chinese have always been optimistic about human nature, believing that people were essentially good and that, by bringing children up in the right manner through the appropriate parenting and education, they would acquire the correct attitudes, values and self-discipline. In the classroom, children are expected to look respectfully upwards towards the teacher and, given the towering importance of history, reverentially backwards to the past in terms of the content of their learning. Education is vested with the authority and reverence of Chinese civilization, with teachers the bearers and transmitters of that wisdom. A high priority is placed on training and technique, as compared with the openness and creativity valued in the West, with the result that Chinese children often achieve a much higher level of technical competence at a much younger age in music and art, for example, than their Western counterparts. Perhaps this stems partly from the use of an ideographic language, which requires the rote learning of thousands of characters, and the ability to reproduce those characters with technical perfection. [601]

In stressing the continuity of Chinese civilization, it can reasonably be objected that over a period of more than two millennia, it has been through such huge and often violent disruptions and discontinuities that there can be little resemblance between China now and two millennia ago. At one level, of course, this is true. China has changed beyond recognition. But at another level the lines of continuity are stubborn and visible. This is reflected in the self-awareness of the Chinese themselves: the way in which Chinese civilization — as expressed in history, ways of thinking, customs and etiquette, traditional medicine and food, calligraphy, the role of government and the family — remains their primary point of reference. [602] Wang Gungwu argues that ‘what is quintessentially Chinese is the remarkable sense of continuity that seems to have made the civilization increasingly distinctive over the centuries. ’ [603] Given that since 221 BC China has been unified for 1,074 years, partially unified for 673 years, and disunited for 470 years, while experiencing several major invasions and occupations over the last millennium, this is, to put it mildly, remarkable. [604] Yet the very nature of those occupations points to the strength of Chinese culture and its underlying resilience and continuity: the proto-Mongol Liao dynasty (AD 907- 1125) was the first non-Chinese dynasty in north China; the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) were Mongol; the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) were also Mongol and the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) were Manchu, but they all sooner or later went native and were Sinicized. In each instance Chinese culture enjoyed very considerable superiority over its invaders. Even the earlier Buddhist ‘invasion’ from India in the first century AD was to culminate in the Sinification of Buddhist teachings over a period of hundreds of years. [605]

The challenge of the West from around 1850 was an entirely different proposition: key aspects of Western culture, notably its scientific orientation and knowledge, were patently superior to traditional Confucianism and plunged it into a deepening crisis as the Chinese reluctantly sought some kind of reconciliation between traditional and Western values. Between 1911 and 1949 virtually no institution of significance (constitution, university, press, Church, etc.) lasted in its existing form for more than a generation, such was the gravity and enduring nature of China ’s impasse. The Western challenge de-centred Chinese assumptions. Eventually, when all else had failed, the Chinese turned to Communism, or more specifically Maoism, which involved the explicit rejection of Confucianism. Yet during the Maoist period, Confucian values and ways of thinking continued to be influential, albeit in a subterranean form, remaining in some measure the common sense of the people. Even now, having succeeded in reversing its decline and in the midst of modernization, China is still troubled by the relationship between Chinese and Western cultures and the degree to which it might find itself Westernized, as we saw in the discussion amongst the students in Chapter 5. Somehow, however, through the turbulence, carnage, chaos and rebirth, China remains recognizably and assuredly Chinese. As it moves once more into the ascendant, its self-confidence inflated by its recent achievements, China ’s search for meaning is drawing not simply on modernity, but also, and as always, on its civilizational past. Confucian ways of thinking, never extinguished, are being actively revived and scrutinized for any light that they might throw on the present, and for their ability to offer a moral compass.

For many developing countries, the process of modernization has been characterized by a crisis of identity, often exacerbated by the colonial experience, a feeling of being torn between their own culture and that of the West, linked to an inferiority complex about their own relative backwardness. The Chinese certainly felt a sense of humiliation, but never the same kind of overwhelming and hobbling inferiority: they have always had a strong sense of what it means to be Chinese and are very proud of the fact. Such is the strength of Chineseness, indeed, that it has tended to blur and overshadow — in contrast to India, for example — other powerful identities such as region, class and language. This sense of belonging is rooted in China ’s civilizational past, [606] which serves to cohere an enormous population otherwise fragmented by dialect, custom, ethnic difference, geography, climate, level of economic development and disparate living standards. ‘What binds the Chinese together,’ Lucian Pye argues, ‘is their sense of culture, race, and civilization, not an identification with the nation as a state.’ [607]

To describe China in terms of a nation-state, thus, is largely to miss the point. ‘ China is a civilization pretending,’ Pye argues, ‘to be a nation-state.’ [608] The consequences of the fact that China is really a civilization-state are manifold. [609] The civilization-state generates, as we shall see later, a very different kind of politics from that of a conventional nation-state, with unity, rooted in the idea of civilization rather than nation, the overriding priority. As a civilization-state, China embodies and allows a plurality of systems, as exemplified by Hong Kong, that is alien to the nation-state, which demands and requires a much greater degree of homogeneity. The civilization-state has engendered distinctively Chinese notions of race and ethnicity, with the Han race regarded as more or less coterminous with ancient Chinese civilization, as we shall see in the next chapter. The civilization-state embodies a far more intimate relationship not simply with China’s relatively recent history, as in the case of the average nation-state, but, most strikingly, with at least two millennia of history, such that the latter is constantly intervening in and acting as a guide and yardstick in the present. And it is the civilization-state which serves as a continuous reminder that China is the Middle Kingdom, thereby occupying, as the centre of the world, a quite different position to all other states. The term ‘civilization’ normally suggests a rather distant and indirect influence and an inert and passive presence. In China ’s case, however, it is not only history that lives but civilization itself: the notion of a living civilization provides the primary identity and context by which the Chinese think of their country and define themselves.

Table 2. Characteristics of China’s provinces in 2005.


If the notion of civilization helps to explain how China ’s past bears on its present, the fact that it is a continent in size and diversity is critical to understanding how the country functions in practice. There is an essential coherence to the life of the great majority of nation-states that is not true of China. Something major can happen in one part of the country and yet it will have little or no effect elsewhere, or on China as a whole. Major economic changes may appear to have few political consequences and vice versa. The traumatic events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for example, had surprisingly little impact on the country as a whole. Of course, there are always effects, but the country is so huge and complex that the feedback loops work in strange and unpredictable ways. That is why it is so difficult to anticipate what is likely to happen politically. [610] It also perhaps helps to explain a particularly distinctive feature of modern Chinese leaders like Mao and Deng. Whereas in the West consistency is regarded as a desirable characteristic of a leader, the opposite is the case in China: flexibility is seen as a positive virtue and the ability to respond to the logic of a particular situation as a sign of wisdom and an indication of power. Such seeming inconsistency is a reflection of the sheer size of the country and the countless contradictions that abound within its borders. It also has practical benefits, enabling leaders to experiment by pursuing an ambitious set of reforms in a handful of provinces but not elsewhere, as Deng did with his reform programme. Such an approach would be impossible in most nation-states.

Instead of seeing China through the prism of a conventional nation-state, we should think of it as a continental system containing many semi-autonomous provinces with distinctive political, economic and social systems. There are huge variations between what are, in terms of population, nation-sized provinces. The disparity between the per capita incomes of different provinces is vast, the structure of their economies varies greatly — for example, in their openness to the outside world and the importance of industry — their cultures are distinct, and the nature of their governance is more diverse than one might expect. [611] In many respects, the provinces should be seen as akin to nation-states. [612] In fact China ’s provinces are far more differentiated than Europe’s nation-states, even when Eastern Europe and the Balkans are included.


Map 9. China’s Provinces

It would be impossible to run a country the size of China by centralized fiat from Beijing. In practice, the provinces enjoy great autonomy. Governance involves striking a balance between the centre and the provinces. Of course everyone recognizes that ultimate power rests with Beijing: but this often means little more than feigned compliance. [613] The provinces and cities accept Beijing ’s word, while often choosing to ignore it, with central government fully aware of this. [614] Although China has a unitary structure of government, in reality its modus operandi is more that of a de facto federal system. [615] This is true in terms of important aspects of economic policy and is certainly the case with the maintenance of social order: the regime expects each province to be responsible for what happens within its borders and not to allow any disruption to cross those borders. The fundamental importance of the relationship between Beijing and the provinces is well illustrated by the fact that the dominant fault line of Chinese politics is organized not around the idea of ‘progress’ — which is typically the case in the West, as evinced by the persistent divide between conservatives and modernizers — but around the question of centralization and decentralization. [616] Whether or not to allow greater freedom to the media, or to expand or restrict the autonomy of the provinces, is the dominant pulse to which Beijing beats. One of the key reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping, as discussed in the last chapter, was to grant more freedom to provincial and local governments as a means of encouraging greater economic initiative. The result was a major shift in power from Beijing to the provinces which, by the nineties, had become of such concern to central government that it was largely reversed. [617]


The most impoverished area of debate on China concerns its politics. Any discussion is almost invariably coloured by a value judgement that, because China has a Communist government, we already know the answers to all the important questions. It is a mindset formed in the Cold War that leaves us ill-equipped to understand the nature of Chinese politics or the current regime. In the post-Cold War era, China already presents us with an intriguing and unforeseeable paradox: the most extraordinary economic transformation in human history is being presided over by a Communist government during a period which has witnessed the demise of European Communism. More generally, it is a mistake to see the Communist era as some kind of aberration, involving a total departure from the continuities of Chinese politics. On the contrary, although the 1949 Revolution ushered in profound changes, many of the underlying features of Chinese politics have remained relatively unaffected, with the period since 1978, if anything, seeing them reinforced. Many of the fundamental truths of Chinese politics apply as much to the Communist period as to the earlier dynasties. What are these underlying characteristics?

Politics has always been seen as coterminous with government, with little involvement from other elites or the people. This was true during the dynastic Confucian era and has remained the case during the Communist period. Although Mao regularly mobilized the people in mass campaigns, the nature of their participation was essentially instrumentalist rather than interactive: top-down rather than bottom-up. In the Confucian view, the exclusion of the people from government was regarded as a positive virtue, allowing government officials to be responsive to the ethics and ideals with which they had been inculcated. We should not dismiss these ideas, inimical as they are to Western sensibilities and traditions: the Confucian system constituted the longest-lasting political order in human history and the principles of its government were used as a template by the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, and were closely studied by the British, French and, to a lesser extent, the Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century. Elitist as the Confucian system clearly was, however, it did contain an important get-out clause. While the mandate of Heaven granted the emperor the right to rule, in the event of widespread popular discontent it could be deemed that the emperor had forfeited that mandate and should be overthrown. [618]

The state has consistently been seen as the apogee of society, enjoying sovereignty over all else. In European societies, in contrast, the power of government has historically been subject to competing sources of authority, such as the Church, the nobility and rising commercial interests. In effect government was obliged to share its power with other groups and institutions. In China, at least for the last millennium, these either did not exist (there was no organized and powerful Church) or were regarded, and saw themselves, as subordinate (for example, the merchant class); the idea that different sources of authority could and should coexist was seen as ethically wrong. [619] The nearest to an exception were the great teachers and intellectuals who, though always marginal to the centre of power, could, under certain circumstances, be more influential than ministers, acting as the cultural transmitters and guardians of the civilizational tradition and the representatives of the people’s well-being and conscience — even, in tumultuous times, as the emissaries and arbiters of the mandate of Heaven. Only two institutions were formally acknowledged and really mattered: one was the government and the other the family. The only accepted interest was the universal interest, represented by a government informed by the highest ethical values, be it Confucian teaching or later Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. In reality, of course, different interests did exist but they were not politically recognized and did not press to be so recognized: rather they operated out of the limelight and on an individualistic basis, lobbying government and seeking personal (rather than corporate or collective) favours which might give them exemption or advantage. Not even the merchant class were an exception to this. In the Confucian order they ranked last in the hierarchy and in practice have never sought to break ranks and organize collectively. That apolitical tradition remains true to this day. They have seen themselves as a bulwark of government rather than as an autonomous interest seeking separate representation. This was the case during the Nationalist period, following the Tiananmen Square tragedy, and is exemplified by the manner in which they have been indistinguishable from government — indeed, an integral part of it — in post-handover Hong Kong. Given this lack of any kind of independent tradition of organization either in the Confucian period or more recently in the Communist period, it is hardly surprising that China has failed to develop a civil society. [620] That may slowly be changing but the burden of history weighs heavily on the present, whatever political changes we may see.

Throughout the debate and struggles over modernization, from the late nineteenth century until today, the Chinese have sought to retain the fundamental attributes of their political system above all else; indeed, the political system has proved more impervious than any other sphere of society to Westernizing influence, both in the imperial and Communist periods. This is in contrast to most developing societies, where government has often been strongly linked to modernizing impulses and leaders were frequently drawn from the Westernized elite — as in India, for example, with the Nehru family. That was never the case in China, with leaders like Mao and Deng having had very little contact with the West. To this day, even over the last three decades, the ability of China ’s political world, unlike other institutions, to survive relatively unchanged is remarkable, a testament to its own resilience and the place it occupies in the Chinese psyche.

Chinese politics has traditionally placed a very high premium on the importance of moral persuasion and ethical example. Public officials were required to pass exams in Confucian teaching. They were expected to conform to the highest moral standards and it was to these, rather than different interest groups or the people, that they were seen as accountable. In the Communist period, Confucian precepts were replaced by Marxist (or, more accurately, Maoist) canons, together with the iconic heroes of the Long March and socialist labour. This commitment to ethical standards as the principle of government has combined with a powerful belief in the role of both family and education in the shaping and moulding of children. By the standards of any culture, the highly distinctive Chinese family plays an enormously important socializing role. It is where Chinese children learn about the nature of authority. The word of the parents (traditionally, the father’s) is final and never to be challenged. In the family, children come to understand the importance of social hierarchy and their place with it. Through a combination of filial piety, on which the Chinese place greater stress than any other culture, a sense of shame, and the fear of a loss of face, children learn about self-discipline. [621] In a shame (rather than a Christian guilt) culture, Chinese children fear, above all, such a loss of face. The Chinese family and Chinese state are complementary, the one manifestly a support for the other. It is not insignificant that the Chinese term for nation-state is ‘nation-family’. As Huang Ping suggests, in China ‘many would take for granted that the nation-state is an extended family’. [622]

Whereas in the West the idea of popular sovereignty lies at the heart of politics, it remains largely absent in China. The concept of the nation-state was imported from Europe in the mid to late nineteenth century, with a section of the Chinese elite subsequently becoming heavily influenced by European nationalism. There was, though, a fundamental difference in how national sovereignty was interpreted. In the case of European nationalism, national sovereignty was closely linked to the idea of popular sovereignty; in China the two were estranged. While national sovereignty was accorded the highest importance, popular sovereignty was replaced by state sovereignty. [623] That was not surprising. First, as we have seen, there was a very powerful tradition of state sovereignty in China but no tradition of popular sovereignty. Second, nation-statehood was acquired at a time when China was under threat from the Western powers and Japan. In such circumstances, the overwhelming priority was national sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty. The birth of the Chinese nation-state took place in entirely different conditions from those of Europe. The European nation-states were never obliged to contend with a threat to their national sovereignty from outside their continent, as China, in common with more or less every country outside Europe, faced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Predictably, the colonial threat served to reinforce and accentuate China ’s enduring strong-state complex. [624] The imperialist threat and the domestic political tradition thus combined to infuse China ’s emergence into nationhood with the twin concepts of national sovereignty and state sovereignty.

One of the most fundamental features of Chinese politics concerns the overriding emphasis placed on the country’s unity. This remains by far the most important question in China ’s political life. Its origins lie not in the short period since China became a nation-state, but in the experience and idea of Chinese civilization. [625] The fact that China has spent so much of its history in varying degrees of disunity, and at such great cost, has taught the Chinese that unity is sacrosanct. The Chinese have an essentially civilizational conception of what constitutes the Chinese homeland and the nature of its unity: indeed, there is no clearer example of China ’s mentality as a civilization-state. The Chinese government has attached the highest priority to the return of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, even though they had passed out of Chinese hands (in the case of Macao and Hong Kong) a very long time ago. Furthermore, little or no weight has been given to the preferences of the people who live there. [626] Their belonging to China is seen exclusively in terms of an enduring and overriding notion of Chineseness that goes back at least two millennia if not longer: all Chinese are part of Chinese civilization, and therefore China. [627] Choice is not an issue.

Great weight is also accorded to political stability. Like Confucius indeed, Deng Xiaoping, as cited in the last chapter, was in no doubt about its importance: ‘[China ’s] modernization needs two prerequisites. One is international peace, and the other is domestic political stability… A crucial condition of China ’s progress is political stability.’ [628] The priority attached to political stability is reflected in popular attitudes. [629] In a recent survey, stability was ranked as the second most important consideration, far higher than in any other country. [630] The priority given to stability is understandable in the light of China ’s history, which has regularly been punctuated by periods of chaos and division, usually resulting in a huge number of deaths, both directly through war and indirectly through resulting famines and disasters. The country lost as much as a third of its population (around 35 million people dead) in the overthrow of the Song dynasty by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. It has been estimated that the Manchu invasion in the seventeenth century cost China around one-sixth of its population (25 million dead). The civil unrest in the first half of and mid nineteenth century, including the Taiping Uprising, resulted in a population decline of around 50 million. Following the 1911 Revolution and the fall of the Qing dynasty, there was continuing turbulence and incessant civil war, with a brief period of relative calm from the late twenties until the Japanese invasion, and then, after the defeat of the Japanese, a further civil war culminating in the 1949 Revolution. [631] Given this history, it is not surprising that the Chinese have a pathological fear of division and instability, even though periods of chaos have been almost as characteristic of Chinese history as periods of order. [632] The nearest parallel in Europe was the desire that consumed the continent after 1945 never to wage another intra-European war. The huge price China has paid in terms of death and bloodshed is in part perhaps the cost of trying to make a continent conform to the imperatives of a country, while Europe has paid a not dissimilar price for the opposite, namely bitter national rivalry and an absence of continent-wide identity and cohesion.


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, though important areas of the world, notably the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and, of course, China, are still, at least in practice, exceptions. There is little doubt that some kind of democracy is a desirable system if the circumstances are ripe and if it can take serious root in a culture. If, however, democracy amounts to little more than an alien transplant, as has been the case in Iraq, where it was imposed via the barrel of an Anglo-American gun, then the cost of that imposition, for example in terms of resistance, alienation or ethnic conflict, is likely to turn out to be far higher than any benefits it may yield. Democracy should not be regarded as some abstract ideal, applicable in all situations, whatever the conditions, irrespective of history and culture, for if the circumstances are not appropriate it will never work properly, and may even prove disastrous. Nor should it be seen as more important than all the other criteria that should be used to assess the quality of a country’s governance. For developing countries in particular, the ability to deliver economic growth, maintain ethnic harmony (in the case of multi-ethnic societies), limit the amount of corruption, and sustain order and stability are equally, if not rather more, important considerations than democracy. Democracy should be seen in its proper historical and developmental context: different societies can have different priorities depending on their circumstances, histories and levels of development. [633]

Very few countries, in fact, have combined democracy as it is now understood with the process of economic take-off. [634] Britain ’s Industrial Revolution took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even by 1850, however, only around one-fifth of men had the right to vote. It was not until the 1880s that most men gained the right, and not until 1918, over 130 years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that women (over thirty) won the same right. Broadly speaking this picture applies to other West European countries, all of which experienced take-off without democracy. In fact the most common form of governance during Europe ’s industrial revolutions was the monarchical state, absolutist or constitutional. The American experience was significantly different. By 1860 a majority of white men enjoyed the right to vote, but most blacks did not acquire it, in practice, until 1965, while women only won it in 1920: during America ’s economic take-off, thus, only a minority enjoyed the right to vote. In Japan, universal male suffrage was not introduced until 1925, well after the economic take-off that followed the Meiji Restoration. [635] In sum, the right to vote was not established in the developed world, except for a very small and privileged minority, until well after their industrial revolutions had been concluded (white men in the United States constituting the nearest to an exception). The European powers, furthermore, never granted the vote to their colonies: it was still seen as entirely inappropriate for the vast tracts of the world that they colonized, even when it had become an accepted fact at home. The only exceptions in the British case were the so-called dominions like Australia and Canada, where shared racial and ethnic characteristics were the underlying reason for the display of latitude. It was not until after the great majority of former colonies gained independence following the Second World War that they were finally able to choose their form of governance. Much hypocrisy, it is clear, attaches to the Western argument that democracy is universally applicable whatever the stage of development.

Some form of democratic governance is now universal in the developed world, where economic take-off was achieved a century or more ago. In contrast, the picture predictably remains uneven in the developing world, with democracy for the most part either unusual or, at best, somewhat flawed. A similar pattern concerning democracy and levels of development broadly prevails in East Asia. Japan, as we have seen, did not achieve anything like widespread suffrage until well after its economic take-off. None of the first Asian tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — achieved take-off under democratic conditions: South Korea and Taiwan were governed by far-sighted military dictatorships, Hong Kong was a British colony devoid of democracy, while Singapore enjoyed what might be described as a highly authoritarian and contrived democracy. All, though, were blessed with efficient and strategic administrations. As developmental states, the legitimacy of their governments rested in large part on their ability to deliver rapid economic growth and rising living standards rather than a popular mandate. Each of these countries has now achieved a level of development and standard of living commensurate with parts of Western Europe. Hong Kong, under Chinese rule since 1997, enjoys very limited elements of democracy; Singapore ’s governance remains a highly authoritarian democracy; while South Korea and Taiwan have both acquired universal suffrage and multi-party systems. These last examples, together with Japan, confirm that industrialization and economic prosperity generally provide more propitious conditions for the growth of democratic forms.

In this light it seems misconceived to argue that China is now ready for, and should become, more or less forthwith, a multi-party democracy based on universal suffrage. The country is only halfway through its industrial revolution, with over 50 per cent of the population still living and working in the countryside. It is true that India remains much less developed than China and yet possesses what, by historical standards, is a remarkable democracy; but in this respect India has so far been history’s great exception. An interesting example is Indonesia, which, though an extremely diverse archipelago, now enjoys a fragile democracy. China ’s overriding priority at present is economic growth. It is determined to allow nothing to distract it from this goal. By seeking to avoid getting into an unnecessary conflicts and pursuing good relations with the United States, its foreign policy since 1980 has been directed towards ensuring that all its energy is focused on this objective. There is also a more general point. There is an inherent authoritarianism involved in the process of take-off and modernization — the need to concentrate society’s resources on a single objective — which, judging by history, people are prepared to tolerate because their own lives are dominated by the exigencies of economic survival and the desire to escape from poverty. In a sense, the attitude of the people mirrors that of government: political authoritarianism complements the authoritarian and compulsive circumstances of everyday life, with its inherent lack of choice. This helps to explain why authoritarianism rather than democracy has been the normal characteristic of economic take-off. As many have observed, there is little demand for democracy from within China. Indeed, if anything, there has been a turn away from democracy since Tiananmen Square. A combination of a fear of instability following the events of 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and what are seen as the difficulties experienced by Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan as democracies — and also the Philippines and India — have reinforced the view of many Chinese that this is not an immediate issue: that, on the contrary, it is liable to represent a distraction from the main task of sustaining the country’s economic growth. [636] Implicit in this is the not misplaced view that any move towards democracy is likely to embroil the country in considerable chaos and turmoil.

Those Westerners — what we might call the ultra-democrats — who believe that democracy is more important at all times than any other matter, would, of course, take issue with this. Bruce Gilley, for example, argues that Russia could end up better off, at least in the long run, than China because it has already addressed the issue of democracy. Given China ’s hugely more impressive economic growth and Russia ’s somewhat precarious democracy, this judgement seems tenuous to say the least. Gilley also suggests that: ‘Debates about issues like compulsory voting, fair electoral systems, money in politics, judicial review, and the like will be the dominant “historical” issues of our time.’ [637] Major issues in the West, for sure, but in a world grap pling with the problem of one superpower, increasingly preoccupied with how to handle the rise of China, and also perhaps India, where ethnic conflict often presents nation-states with their greatest challenge and where for many the task of economic take-off remains all-consuming, the idea that a cluster of issues revolving around democracy will be the dominant global issue of our time betrays a highly parochial Western mentality.

While there is little sign of any significant pressure in China for what might loosely be described as Western-style democracy, there is, nonetheless, a continuing and growing demand for the accountability of government at local, provincial and national levels. So how should we approach the question of democracy in China? China is roughly at the halfway point of its economic take-off, perhaps beyond. Even twenty years hence, it is estimated that around 20 per cent of its population will still work on the land. There are many imponderables, but assuming that economic growth continues at a relatively rapid rate and political stability is broadly maintained, then it seems reasonable to expect serious moves towards democratization within that kind of timescale, possibly less. [638] In developmental terms, this would still be rather sooner than was the case with the other Asian tigers or the West. It should also be borne in mind that the political traditions of China are neither favourable nor orientated towards democracy. There is a very weak tradition of popular accountability, and state sovereignty has been preferred to popular sovereignty: government is, in effect, answerable to itself via the feedback loop of ethical norms. This is reflected in the central values that govern political behaviour, which can be summarized as sincerity, loyalty, reliability and steadfastness, [639] all of which derive from the influence of Confucianism, and, to a lesser extent, Communism. In contrast, the equivalent Western values are accountability, representation and participation. There is, moreover, as we have seen, no tradition of independent organization and only a very weak notion of civil society. Power resides overwhelmingly in the state. Interest groups, rather than aspiring to represent themselves collectively, seek to advance their claims by private lobbying and achieving some kind of accommodation with the state. Instead of making demands on or confronting government, interest groups prefer to associate with power on an individual basis.

What serves to greatly complicate the question of democracy is that China has the size and diversity of a continent, although the site of democracy, globally speaking, has always been, and remains, exclusively the nation-state. There are no multinational, regional or global institutions that could be described as democratic. [640] Their invocation to a modicum of representivity is invariably via the nation-states that comprise them. The classic example of this phenomenon is the European Union, which makes no real claim to be democratic other than by virtue of its member-states — the European Parliament being elected but largely powerless. One of the reasons that democracy has worked in India, which is also of a continental scale, might in part be because it is far looser and more decentralized than China, so that individual states can act, in some degree, like quasi nation-states. This is certainly not the case in China, which for thousands of years has prided itself on its centralized and unitary status, even though, as we have seen, this has in practice involved a high degree of negotiated decentralization. While the more developed provinces, notably those on the eastern and southern seaboard, may already be in a position to embrace a more democratic form of polity, their progress in that direction is bound to be constrained by the far less developed condition of the majority of the country. It is possible, however, that more developed cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai may be allowed to introduce democratic reforms in advance of the rest of the country. In 2008 the Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng claimed that direct voting would in future account for 70 per cent of the city’s residential and village committees. [641] Meanwhile, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued a ruling at the end of 2007 that it would consider allowing direct elections for Hong Kong ’s leader in 2017; at present half its Legislative Council is elected. As a civilization-state that has always allowed and been characterized in practice by considerable diversity, such a development is not inconceivable.

Finally, we should bear in mind that China is the home of Confucian thought and practice, and consequently has experienced Confucianism in a more complete and doctrinaire form than Japan and Korea, where it was a Chinese import and therefore never enjoyed quite the same degree of overweening influence as in China. As a result, it was easier for these countries to embrace democracy by, in effect, adding a new political layer to coexist along with the older Confucian traditions and practices. It will certainly be possible for China to do the same, but the weight of what might be described as Confucian orthodoxy is likely to make it more difficult. [642]

In the long run it seems rather unlikely, given the underlying pressures for democracy that exist within increasingly sophisticated, diverse and prosperous societies, that China will be able to resist the process of democratization. The interesting question is what democracy might look like in China. There is a strong tendency in the West to view democracy in terms of a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In fact, the form of democracy varies greatly according to the history, traditions and culture of a society. There is no reason to believe, except on grounds of Eurocentrism, that the very specific conditions that shaped European society (and European-derived nations like the United States), and therefore European democracy, will result in the same kind of democratic structures elsewhere. [643] This is abundantly clear in the case of Japan. It certainly possesses some of the trappings of democracy that we are familiar with in the West — not surprisingly, given that the US authored Japan ’s post-war constitution following its defeat — most notably universal suffrage and a multi-party system. Yet it is immediately evident that in practice the system works very differently. The Liberal Democrats have been almost continuously in power since the mid fifties. The other parties, apart from the occasional period of coalition government, have found themselves in permanent opposition and wield rather less power and enjoy rather less importance in the political life of the country than the various factions within the Liberal Democrats. Moreover, as Karel van Wolferen has observed, much of the real power is vested in the civil service, especially in particular ministries, rather than in the government itself: in other words, in that part of the state that is permanently constituted rather than in that part that is elected. The cabinet, for example, barely meets and when it does its business is largely ceremonial. [644] Given these underlying continuities, the significance that attaches to elections — and, therefore, popular sovereignty — is much less than in the Western case. Reflecting the hierarchical character of society and Confucian influence, power has a permanent and unchanging quality that is relatively unaffected by the electoral process.

Whatever democratic political system evolves in China will bear the heavy imprint of its Confucian past. It is more difficult to judge the longer-term impact of Communism because its duration will have been far more limited. There are, though, important continuities between Confucianism and Communism — for example, in the notion of a special caste of political leadership, Confucian in the one case, Leninist in the other. [645] In North-East Asia — for these purposes, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam — the continuing influence of the Confucian tradition is palpable in the emphasis on education, the structure of the family, the central role of the bureaucracy and the commitment to harmony. [646] Because of the presence of a Communist government, this was, until 1978, perhaps less apparent in China, but there has been a marked revival in Confucian influence since then, a process initiated by the government during the nineties, [647] but which has increasingly acquired a momentum of its own. [648] Reflecting Confucian influence, an editorial in the People’s Daily argued that in order to build a market economy, it was necessary to promote ‘the rule of virtue while developing the rule of law’. [649] In March 2007 the prime minister Wen Jiabao remarked: ‘From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, the traditional culture of the Chinese nation has numerous precious elements, many positive aspects regarding the nature of the people and democracy. For example, it stresses love and humanity, community, harmony among different viewpoints, and sharing the world in common. ’ [650] Communist Party officials in Henan province are now, amongst other things, assessed on the basis of Confucian values such as filial piety and family responsibility, while secondary school children are once more being taught the Confucian classics [651] and Confucius’s birthday is again being celebrated. [652] On a practical level, the Party is now placing a new kind of emphasis on the importance of the obligations and duties shown by its cadres towards the people they represent. As part of their training, they are given test cases in which they are expected not just to consult their superiors as before, but also, more importantly, to listen to the people. This new attitude has been reflected in the way in which public officials have apologized for their failures in the Sichuan earthquake and milk scandal — in a manner reminiscent of the behaviour of shamed Japanese government and corporate leaders — and resigned. Significantly, the government has chosen to use the name Confucius Institutes for the numerous Chinese cultural and language centres which it has been establishing around the world. With the decline of Marxism, the turn towards Confucius in a country so steeped in its ethical and moral discourse is predictable. [653] It can be argued, in any case, that those parts of Marxism that have had most impact in China were the ones that most chimed with the Confucian tradition — for example, self-criticism (mirroring the Confucian idea that one should direct criticism at oneself before others), the idea that rulers should be morally upright and the invoking of model workers as an example to others; by the same token, those Marxist ideas that failed were those that were most inimical to Confucianism. Even the fact that Chinese political leaders dye their hair black can be traced back to the Mencian proposition that white-haired people should be cared for rather than engaged in heavy work. Most importantly of all, Confucian ideas remain embedded in the fabric of the culture: filial piety is still widely practised and endorsed, including the legal requirement that adult children care for their elderly parents. A favourite theme of Chinese soaps concerns relationships with elderly parents. An obvious and striking characteristic of Chinese restaurants, in contrast to Western ones, is the frequency with which one sees the extended family eating together, a tradition reflected in the ubiquity of the large circular table. [654]

Confucianism should not be seen as a fixed entity, having been through many mutations during its history. Like all philosophies and religions, its longevity has depended in part upon its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and times. [655] The fact that Confucianism is a syncretic tradition has served to enhance its flexibility and adaptability. One of the most outstanding examples was the manner in which the Neo-Confucians of the Song period (AD 960-1279) assimilated Buddhism and Taoism, which were then sweeping China. [656] It would be wrong, moreover, to regard Confucianism as entirely inimical to democratic ideas. For example, Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 Revolution and the founding father of the Republic of China, said: ‘Our three-min principles [nationalism, citizen rights and the welfare of human beings] originate from Mencius… Mencius is really the ancestor of our democratic ideas.’ [657] The mandate of Heaven, in recognizing the right of the people to rebel if the emperor failed them, was certainly a more democratic idea than its European counterpart, the divine right of kings. [658] The emperor was required to rule in a virtuous and benign way according to the ethical strictures that constituted the guidelines for his conduct, while the hierarchical structure demanded a certain degree of reciprocity, suggesting implied rights as well as duties. [659] The government was expected to grant society considerable independence from the state, and in important respects this was the case — not least in the economic sphere, as the early development of a sophisticated market illustrates. Although civil society remains very weak in China, there is a powerful tradition of min-jian society, or folk culture, composed of age-old Chinese customs and support systems, which to this day still represents an important area of autonomy from government. [660] In sum, Confucianism certainly lends support and succour to an authoritarian system of government, but it is also imbued with democratic and popular elements. [661]

There are a number of ways in which Confucian ideas are likely to inform a democratic China: [662] the nodal role of the state and its bureaucracy; the centrality of the family, and extended networks like clans (which help, for example, to relieve the state of some of the tasks of social welfare); the importance of guanxi (the web of personal relationships which informs Chinese society); the Confucian preference for resolving conflicts by mediation rather than litigation, suggesting that the resort to law and the judicial process will always be far less significant in China (and Japan) than it is in the West; and the significance that is attached to values and morality as the lodestar of people’s behaviour. [663] These age-old belief systems have a profound effect on the way a society operates. China, like Japan and Korea, has a quite different sense of public order and behaviour compared with the norms that prevail in the West, a situation reflected in the much lower levels of crime in these societies. Indeed, these deeper societal traditions have undoubtedly helped China — and other East Asian societies — to cope with the combined vicissitudes of globalization and modernization, in effect acting as shock absorbers. [664]

Chinese democracy will share certain universal characteristics with democracies elsewhere, but will also of necessity be highly distinctive, expressive of its roots in Chinese society and traditions. Given the cultural context of Confucianism and Communism, together with the extraordinary demands of governing a continent, the invention and evolution of Chinese democracy will require enormous novelty and ingenuity. [665] There is no reason to believe, in a country which is home to the world’s oldest and most sophisticated statecraft, that this will prove impossible. But there seems little reason to believe that this process is in any way imminent. Nor will innovation in governance be a matter of one-way traffic. Just as China can learn from the American federal system and the European Union (in which it is presently showing growing interest) in governing such a vast country, so China, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s population, can also offer the rest of the world a model for large-scale governance, which is likely to become increasingly important in a globalized world.


The coincidence of the collapse of Soviet Communism with the suppression in Tiananmen Square persuaded most Western observers that the Chinese Communist Party would meet a similar fate. They could not have been more wrong. In contrast to Soviet Communism, which suffered from a growing state of paralysis and ossification, the Chinese party, under Deng Xiaoping, displayed great creativity and flexibility, responding to the crisis it inherited from Mao by initiating a process of reform that has transformed the living standards of the great majority of the people. The rule of the Communist Party is no longer in doubt: it enjoys the prestige that one would expect given the transformation that it has presided over. The feel-good factor, and a concomitant mood of confidence that has been engendered, is clear from Figure 22. The uncertainties of 1989 are now a distant memory. The nature of the Party’s support and legitimacy has changed in the process: this is no longer primarily a function of ideology but depends increasingly on its ability to deliver economic growth. In that sense, China has come to resemble other East Asian developmental states, though in all these cases, as discussed in Chapter 5, the nature of governmental authority is also deeply embedded in the culture. Even though support for the Communist Party is now more contingent, there is little cause to believe that it is fragile or vulnerable. On the contrary, it is reasonable to presume that its rule is rather more secure than it has been at any time since the death of Mao, which is not surprising given its success as a governing party, and is reflected in the fact that over the last decade 20 million people have applied to join annually, even though only 2 million have been admitted each year. There is pressure for more radical political reform, as illustrated by the Charter 08 manifesto, but it remains relatively isolated and heavily policed by the state.

If the reform process has been characterized by the boldness of its economic measures, it has also been distinguished by the relative conservatism of the political changes. This is not to underestimate them. There has been the gradual spread of competitive elections to the great majority of villages and to some towns, for example in Guangdong and Fujian, where mayoral elections have been held. [666] There has been reform of the civil service, the decentralization of power to local government, and a limited rejuvenation of national and local parliaments. There has been a growing trend, largely as a result of economic necessity, towards rule by law (that is, the determination of issues according to a legal code) and, to a far lesser extent, towards the rule of law (that the law applies irrespective of the view of government), [667] which, according to one Chinese expert, applies in only 10–20 per cent of instances. [668] Given that the latter would require the Party’s power to be constitutionally limited, thereby necessitating a fundamental change in its role, its significant extension remains both problematic and unlikely. There has been a formalization of procedures such that, for example, the president can now only serve for two terms. Relations between the military and civil power have been normalized. Compared with the pre-reform period, there is far greater political space for open discussion and serious critique, [669] with the internet now the most important arena for public debate, greatly exceeding what is possible in the conventional media. [670] There have also been major reforms within the Party. Leaders are now required to retire rather than being allowed to die in office. The Sixteenth Congress in 2002 saw the first orderly transfer of power, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. Contested elections for delegates to the Party congress take place in some provinces. [671] The Party has broadened its membership, most notably, following Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents reform, to include private capitalists. And the party leadership at all levels, including the top, is more professional and better educated than it was previously. [672]

Figure 22. Percentage of population dissatisfied/satisfied with the condition of their country.

China ’s political reform has occurred gradually and incrementally. Unlike the economic reforms, the intention has never been to effect a systemic change, and certainly not to introduce Western-style democracy — rejected as incompatible with both China ’s traditions and present needs in the White Paper on Democracy published in 2005 [673] — but rather to modernize and codify political and administrative processes, thereby seeking to promote efficiency while maintaining political stability. The purpose of village elections, for example, has been good governance and functional efficiency rather than any move towards a wider process of democratization. [674] On the other hand, there has been a major expansion in civil liberties and human rights. Hong Kong opinion, which has traditionally been very sensitive to the lack of such rights in China, has become increasingly positive about trends to the north. In a 2008 survey in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the crack-down in Tiananmen Square, 85 per cent of respondents believed that human rights in China had improved since 1989, up from 78 per cent a year earlier. And the proportion who thought that they would improve further in the following three years rose to 77 per cent from 67 per cent a year earlier. Only 2 per cent thought that China ’s human rights record had worsened since 1989. [675] The boundaries of what it is now possible to say and do in China have expanded greatly, unless they concern the most sensitive subjects like Taiwan, Tibet, the Falun Gong religious sect, or the role of the Communist Party. This is most clearly apparent on the internet, which, although heavily policed in a manner that contradicts the utopian idea of the internet as a censorship-free zone, still allows a wide-ranging and frank discussion on all but the most delicate topics. [676]

There is also growing pressure for accountability with regard to the conduct of officials. In 2005 there were 87,000 ‘mass incidents’ (demonstrations, strikes, occupations, etc.) recorded by the Ministry of Public Security, many of which concerned the appropriation of land from farmers through sweetheart deals between developers and local government, from which officials benefited financially. Although these cases usually have little or nothing to do with the national authorities, the government has been seeking, in the face of gathering unrest, to strengthen farmers’ land rights in order to prevent such seizures. Details of a proposed new rural reform package that were divulged in October 2008 suggested that the rights of farmers would be strengthened by enabling them to trade in their thirty-year land-use contracts, a move which ought to have the effect of bolstering their security of tenure. [677] Similarly, in an attempt to improve labour conditions, the government introduced a new labour law in 2008 which enhanced the role of labour unions and made it harder for employers to fire workers or rely on casual labour; it was widely expected that the new laws would significantly improve workers’ wages and conditions. Meanwhile the government has predictably resisted the formation of independent labour associations.

The Maoist period involved the politicization of more or less the whole of society. The old Maoist slogan of ‘politics in command’ aptly summed up the nature of Communist rule until Mao’s death in 1976, with its constant calls for mass campaigns, symbolized most dramatically by the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, during the reform era there has been a steady process of depoliticization, accompanied by a steep decline in the importance of ideology. The highly politicized and obtrusive Maoist state has given way to what now looks more like a technocratic state, in the manner of other East Asian developmental states, [678] although the powers of the Chinese state remain wide-ranging, from the one-child policy and internal migration to history books and the media. [679] As the Party has shifted from ideological to instrumental rule, from a political to a technocratic approach, its relationship with the people has become less intrusive. There is, in effect, a new kind of social compact between the Party and the people: the task of the Party is to govern, while the people are left free to get on with the business of transforming their living standards. [680] Far from interesting themselves in politics, people have increasingly retreated into a private world of consumption. Money-making, meanwhile, has replaced politics as the most valued and respected form of social activity, including within the Party itself. The Party has actively encouraged its officials to enter business, not least as a means of galvanizing and mobilizing society. ‘Political loyalty’ has in some degree been replaced by ‘money’ as the measure of the political worth of Party cadres, resulting in a decline in the Party’s identity, a loss of its spiritual appeal and a process of internal decay. [681]

The Party has increasingly sought to transform itself from a revolutionary organization into a ruling administrative party. [682] It prioritizes technical competence, entrepreneurship and knowledge over, as previously, revolutionary credentials, military record and class background, with a technocratic class rather than revolutionaries now in charge of the Party. [683] There have been drastic changes in the social composition of the Party leadership over the last twenty years. Between 1982 and 1997 the proportion of the central committee who were college-educated rose from 55.4 per cent to 92.4 per cent. By 1997 all seven members of the standing committee of the central committee’s political bureau (the top leadership) were college-educated in technical subjects like engineering, geology and physics, while eighteen of the twenty-four political bureau members were also college-educated. [684] The Party has opened its doors to the new private capitalists in an effort to widen its representativeness and embrace the burgeoning private sector. By 2000 20 per cent of all private entrepreneurs were members of the Party. [685] This is not surprising given that by 1995 nearly half of all private capitalists had previously been Party and government officials. [686] The large-scale shift of Party and government officials into the private sector has almost certainly been the biggest single reason for the enormous increase in corruption, as some of them exploited their knowledge and connections to appropriate state property, gain access to cash reserves, and line their own pockets. The problem poses a grave challenge to the Party because, if unchecked, it threatens to undermine its moral standing and legitimacy. Despite a series of major, high-profile campaigns against corruption, of which the most prominent casualty so far has been the former Communist Party chief in Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, the evidence suggests that the problem remains huge and elusive because its roots lie deep within the Party itself and the myriad of guanxi connections. [687]

As the country gravitates towards capitalism, changes are also taking place in China ’s class structure that are bound, in the longer term, to have far-reaching political implications. For the time being, however, the technocratic leadership will continue to dominate both the Party and the government, with little immediate prospect of a challenge to their position. The peasantry, though increasingly restive in response to the seizure of their land, remain weak and marginalized. [688] The working class has seen a serious diminution in its status and influence, with its protests limited to piecemeal, factory-by-factory action. The new class of private entrepreneurs, meanwhile, seems to be conforming to the traditional role of merchants, seeking an accommodation with, and individual favours from, the government, rather than an independent role of its own. [689]

In the longer run there are four possible political directions that Chinese politics might take. [690] The first is towards a multi-party system. This, for the time being, seems the least likely. The second would be the de facto recognition of factions within the Party. To some extent this process has, at least tacitly, been taking place, with former general secretary Jiang Zemin’s power base resting on what came to be known as the Shanghai faction, who were associated with super-growth, privatization, pro-market policies and private entrepreneurs, in contrast to Hu Jintao’s constituency, which has given greater priority to sustainable growth, social equality, environmental protection, and state support for education, health and social security. [691] The third would be reforms designed to instil more life and independence into the People’s Congress and the People’s Consultative Conference, which are state rather than Party institutions. If all three of these directions were followed, they would result in an outcome not dissimilar from that in Japan, where there is a multi-party system in which only one party matters, where the various factions within the Liberal Democrats count for rather more than the other political parties, and where the diet enjoys a limited degree of autonomy. Another possible scenario, in this same context, is that of Singapore — in whose arrangements Deng Xiaoping showed some interest [692] — where the ruling party dominates an ostensibly multi-party system, with the opposition parties dwarfed, harassed and hobbled by the government. The fourth direction, which has been advocated by the Chinese intellectual Pan Wei, puts the emphasis on the rule of law rather than democracy, on how the government is run rather than who runs it, with state officials required to operate according to the law with legal forms of redress if they do not, and the establishment of a truly independent civil service and judiciary, a proposal which, overall, bears a certain similarity to governance in Singapore and Hong Kong. [693] Should this route be pursued then it would mark a continuing rejection of any form of democratic outcome and an affirmation of a relatively orthodox Confucian tradition of elitest government committed to the highest ethical standards.

None of these scenarios seems particularly imminent. For the foreseeable future the most likely outcome is a continuation of the process of reform already under way, notwithstanding the growing problems of governance consequent upon social unrest and chronic corruption. [694] The worst-case scenario for both China and the world would be the collapse and demise of the Communist Party in the manner of the Soviet Union, [695] which had a disastrous effect on Russian living standards for over a decade. The ramifications, nationally and globally, of a similar implosion in China, which has a far bigger population, a much larger economy and is far more integrated with the outside world, would be vastly greater. A period of chaos would threaten the country’s stability, usher in a phase of uncertainty and conflict, threaten a premature end to its modernization, and potentially culminate in a return to one of China ’s periodic phases of introspection and division. The best prospect for China, and the world, is if the present regime continues to direct the country’s transformation on a similar basis of reform and mutation until such time as there can be a relatively benign transition to a different kind of era. Given China ’s huge success over the last thirty years, this remains by far the most likely scenario.


After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (which marked the end of the Thirty Years War and initiated a new order in Central Europe based on state sovereignty), the European nation-state slowly emerged as the dominant unit in the international system. The rise of China poses an implicit challenge to this idea. For the West the key operational concept is the nation-state, but for the Chinese it is the civilization-state. At a minimum this will present the world with formidable problems of mutual understanding. This can be illustrated by the linguistic differences: whereas in English there are different words for nation, country, state and government, these are not only relatively recent in Chinese, but the Chinese still largely use the same character for ‘country’ and ‘state’. [696] The real difficulty, of course, lies not in linguistic differences but in the different cultural assumptions and meanings that are attached to those words in the two languages. The same word can have a very different meaning for an American or a French person in contrast to a Chinese, even though they might appear to be singing from the same sheet. Huang Ping believes that this cultural difference ‘is going to be a huge problem’. [697] In a world hitherto dominated by Western concepts, values, institutions and propositions, to which China has been obliged to adapt, this has been a far bigger problem for China than for the West. But fast-forward to the future and it becomes clear that, as China ’s power and influence grow apace, it will become the West’s problem more than China ’s. [698]

In such circumstances it is pointless to think that China is going to change and adopt Western cultural norms: the practices and ways of thinking are simply too old and too deeply rooted for that to happen. Far from China converging on the Western model and thereby conforming to the established patterns of the nation-state, there is likely to be a rather different scenario. This is not necessarily because China will want to change things: on the contrary, it has been at pains to assure the global community that it certainly does not see itself as an agent of change anxious to overthrow the established international order. But countries naturally and inevitably see the world according to their own history and experiences, an outlook that is tempered only by the constraints of geopolitics and realpolitik. The European powers, the major architects of the international system as we know it today, brought their own traditions and history to bear on the shaping and design of that system, at the core of which lay the nation-state, a European invention. The way in which the United States sees the world reflects both its European ancestry and the specific characteristics of its own formation and growth. The fact that it expanded by a continuous process of conquest and that, as a settler-nation, it had to invent itself from scratch has imbued the country with a universalizing and missionary conception of its role. [699] The rules that govern the international system may be universal in application, but that does not mean that they were universal in creation, that they emerged magically out of the international ether: on the contrary, they were the invention of those nations that were strong and dominant enough to enforce their will and to ensure that their interests were those that triumphed. As China becomes a global power, and ultimately a superpower, probably in time the dominant superpower, then it, like every other previous major power, will view the world through the prism of its own history and will seek, subject to the prevailing constraints, to reshape that world in its own image. Above all, that means that China will see the world in terms of its identity and experience as a civilization-state, with its attendant characteristics and assumptions, rather than primarily as a nation-state.

There is another related sense in which China’s emergence is bound to change the international system as we know it. The European nation-states that constituted the original founding core of the international system were all, roughly speaking, of a similar kind: namely, in global terms, small to medium sized. Following the Second World War, the number and diversity of nation-states was dramatically transformed as a result of decolonization (and then again after 1989 with the break-up of the USSR). The second half of the twentieth century was dominated by the US and the USSR, which were both far larger than even the biggest European nation-states. Partly as a result, the West European states were encouraged to combine their power in what we now know as the European Union, a grouping of nation-states. It has become common to see such unions of nation-states as the way forward, ASEAN and Mercosur (a regional trade agreement between four South American countries) being further examples, though neither as yet involves any pooling of sovereignty. The American perspective, for obvious reasons, has invariably placed the major emphasis on the nation-state. But the rise of China and India threatens to transform the picture again. In one sense, of course, it marks the reassertion of the nation-state. These are no ordinary nation-states, however, but states on a gargantuan scale. If this century will increasingly belong to China and India, in conjunction with the United States, then it should also be seen as the Age of the Megastate. [700] This does not mean that unions of nation-states will go out of fashion, but their primary raison d’être is likely to be as a counterweight to the megastate, both the old (the United States) and especially the new (China and India).

Quite where this will leave the old Westphalian system is difficult to say. States of the scale, size and potential power of China and India will dwarf the vast majority of other countries. This will not be an entirely new phenomenon. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both established unequal relations with their subordinate allies to an extent which frequently undermined or greatly detracted from the sovereignty of the latter. This is the case, in varying degrees, of the US ’s present relationship with many countries. But China and India are on a different scale even to the United States: China has more than three times the population and between them India and China comprise around 38 per cent of the world’s population. As both are still only at the earliest stages of their transformation, it is impossible at present to conceive what this might mean in terms of their relationship with other states. The Westphalian system may well survive the emergence of China and India as global powers, but it will certainly look very different from any previous stage in its history.

There is one other aspect of China’s emergence as a global power that is also novel. Hitherto, ever since the onset of industrialization in the late eighteenth century, the most powerful countries in the world have shared two characteristics. First, they have enjoyed one of the highest (if not the highest) GDPs of their time. Second, they have also had an extremely high GDP per head: the richest nations have also had the richest populations. That was true — in rough chronological order — of Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Japan. The only exception, arguably, was the USSR. That situation is about to change: China will share only one of these characteristics, not both. It already has a high GDP — the third highest in the world measured by market exchange rates. But even when it overtakes the United States in 2027, as predicted by Goldman Sachs, it will still have a relatively low GDP per head, and even in 2050 it will still only belong to the ‘upper middle group’ rather than the ‘rich club’ (see Figure 23). Welcome to a new kind of global power, which is, at one and the same time, both a developed — by virtue of the size of its GDP — and a developing country — by virtue of its GDP per capita.

Figure 23. Future income per capita of major countries.

The implications of a potential superpower being both a developed and a developing country are profound and multifarious. Previously the distinction between developed and developing countries was clear and unambiguous. Indeed between 1900 and 1960 there was a fundamental cleavage between those countries that industrialized in the nineteenth century and those that did not, a situation which persisted until the rise of the Asian tigers from the late fifties. This distinction between developing and developed will in future be more shaded. The continental-sized states, namely China and India, are likely to belong to both categories for many decades: their huge populations mean that they will continue to embrace very diverse levels of development and living standards within their borders. And they are in the process of being joined by other more populous developing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, with Russia already belonging in this category.

The fact that China and India will be both developed and developing countries suggests that they will also enjoy diverse interests, namely the motives and concerns of both developed and developing countries: in effect, they will have a foot in both camps. Hitherto, trade relations have been dominated by the interests of the developed world on the one hand and the developing world on the other. Where will China and India fit in this game? Will they lean towards the developed world or the developing world, or both, depending on the issue involved? [701] It is reasonable to assume that over the next twenty years or so, both will frequently make common cause with the developing world: this can already be seen in the role of and cooperation between China, India, Brazil and South Africa in the World Trade Organization.

In the longer run, though, this will change. Assuming that both China and India continue to enjoy rapid growth for some time to come, the centre of gravity of their interests and concerns is likely to shift steadily over time from the ‘developing’ sectors of their economies to the ‘developed’, a process which will be accompanied by the growing power of those associated with the more modern parts of their economies. This is already evident in China with the increasing power of entrepreneurs and the steady decline of the farmers. A byproduct of these trends might be to embed fundamental divisions in these countries between the developed and developing parts, disparities that are a function of historic differences, reinforced and accentuated by their relationship to the inequalities and dynamics of the global economy.

China will also share another characteristic with India as a major power. China was partially colonized and India was completely colonized. The club of advanced countries — those that began their industrialization in the nineteenth century or, in the case of Britain, earlier — were those that did the colonizing. The United States, of course, also started life as a colony, but because its settler population consisted of migrants from Europe, especially Britain, its relationship to Britain as an imperial power was very different to those colonies whose people were of a different race and culture. [702] The US, moreover, was also later to acquire its own colonies. China and India will be the first major powers that were previously colonized and are composed of non-white races and cultures. In other words, China and India can identify with those who have been colonized in a way that the imperialist powers obviously cannot. This has greatly assisted China in its courtship of Africa, as we shall see in Chapter 9. Here is another powerful change in the texture and symbolism of global politics represented by the rise of China and, in this case, especially India. [703]

8. The Middle Kingdom Mentality

The journey from Fudan University on the north side of Shanghai to the Shanghai Museum in the centre must have taken the best part of an hour, perhaps longer. A decade ago the roads were not only congested but also in variable states of repair. Quite frequently in the course of my city travels, I found that taxi drivers had only a rather vague idea of where my destination might be and it was not entirely unusual to be left high and dry in what one hoped was the general vicinity of it: the city was changing so quickly that road maps were out of date before they were published, giving a whole different meaning to what in London the cabbies call ‘the knowledge’. On this occasion, though, there was no such problem; being a famous landmark in the central area of Shanghai assured familiarity.

My companion on the journey to interview the founder of the magnificent Shanghai Museum was a sociology student, Gao, who was in her final year at Fudan University before leaving to pursue a doctorate at one of the top American universities. She had been asked by her professor to assist me during my month’s stay at Fudan and she had proved wonderfully supportive. She was one of the most intelligent and committed undergraduates I had ever met and was extraordinarily well read. More than that, she was very pleasant and agreeable company, full of suggestions, always prepared to meet my requests, as well as having plenty of ideas of her own. She helped to make my stay in Shanghai a real pleasure. On this occasion she was coming with me to help with any translating that might be required during the interview.

In the taxi we talked about the interview, the Museum, which I had visited on a couple of previous occasions, and the interviews planned before my return home to Hong Kong in just over a week’s time. Then our conversation drifted on to other subjects. Gao was naturally excited about the prospect of studying in the United States and suddenly said: ‘Did you know that some Chinese students that go to America marry Americans?’ I told her about the television programme I had made the previous year about the overseas Chinese, including an interview with such a mixed-race couple living in San Francisco. ‘Actually, three weeks ago I saw a mixed couple at the supermarket checkout at the end of our road,’ I said. ‘A Chinese woman and an American guy.’ Then I added after a pause: ‘He was black.’ Why did I say that to her? I guess there were several reasons. In Hong Kong such a couple was a rare sight — indeed it was the only time I had ever seen one, and it had stuck in my mind. And my wife was Indian-Malaysian, possessed of the most beautiful dark brown skin, but I was painfully aware that not everyone perceived her colour in the way that I did, especially the Hong Kong Chinese.

I was totally unprepared for Gao’s reaction. Her face became contorted and she reacted as if she had just heard something offensive and abhorrent. She clearly found the very thought repellent, as if it was unnatural and alien, akin to having a relationship with another species. Her reaction was a demonstration of prolonged physical repulsion the like of which I had never previously witnessed. For her the idea was simply inconceivable. Gao was a highly educated and intelligent woman; and an extremely nice one. I was shocked. I asked her what the matter was as she writhed in disgust, but there was no answer and no possibility to reason with her. That was more or less the beginning and end of our conversation on the subject. The memory of that journey has remained with me ever since. There was, alas, no reason to think that Gao’s reaction was unusual or exceptional. This was not simply the reaction of an individual but the attitude of a culture. And she was surely destined to become a member of China ’s elite.

What will China be like as a great power? The traditional way of answering this question is in terms of geopolitics, foreign policy and interstate relations. In other words, it is seen as a specialist area of foreign ministries, diplomacy, bilateral talks, multinational negotiations and the military. A concentration on the formal structures of international relations, however, fails to address the cultural factors that shape the way a people think, behave and perceive others. The geopolitical approach informs how a state elite reasons and acts, while a cultural analysis, rooted in history and popular consciousness, seeks to explain the values, attitudes, prejudices and assumptions of a people. In the short run, the former may explain the conduct of relations between countries, but in the longer run people’s values and prejudices are far more significant and consequential. [704] Ultimately, nations see the world in terms of their own history, values and mindset and seek to shape that world in the light of those experiences and perceptions.

Take the example of the United States. Fundamental to any understanding of American behaviour over the last three centuries is that this was a country established by European settlers [705] who, by war and disease, largely eliminated the indigenous population of Amerindians; who, having destroyed what had existed before, were able to start afresh on the basis of the European traditions that they had brought with them; who engaged in an aggressive westward expansion until they came to occupy the whole of the continent; and who were to grow rich in large measure through the efforts of their African slaves. [706] Without these building blocks, it is impossible to make any sense of subsequent American history. They help us to understand the basic contours of American behaviour, including the idea of the United States as a universal model and the belief in its manifest destiny. It is clear that race and ethnicity are fundamental to this picture. Consciously or unconsciously, they lie at the heart of the way in which people define themselves and their relationship to others. [707]

This more cultural approach is, if anything, even more important in China’s case because it has only very recently come to see itself as a nation-state and engage in the protocol of a nation-state: most Chinese attitudes, perceptions and behaviour, as we saw in the last chapter, are still best understood in terms of its civilizational inheritance rather than its status as a nation-state. If we want to comprehend how China is likely to behave towards the rest of the world, then first we need to make sense of what has made China what it is today, how it has evolved, where the Chinese come from, and how they see themselves. We cannot appreciate their attitude towards the rest of the world without first understanding their view of themselves. Once again, history, culture, race and ethnicity are central to the story.


China, or at least the land mass we now call China, was once, like any other huge territory, occupied by a great multitude of races. [708] Today, however, China sees and projects itself as an overwhelmingly homogeneous nation, with over 91 per cent of the population defined as Han Chinese. True, the constitution defines China as a unitary, multi-ethnic state, but the other races compose less than 9 per cent of the population, a remarkably small percentage given its vast size. A tourist who visits the three great cities of Guangzhou in the south, Shanghai in the east and Beijing in the north-east, however, ought to have no difficulty in noticing that there are very marked physical differences between their inhabitants, even though they all describe themselves as Han Chinese. While Beijingers are every bit as tall as Caucasians, those from Guangzhou tend to be rather shorter. Given that modern China is the product of a multiplicity of races, this is not surprising. The difference between China and other populous nations has not been the lack of diversity, but rather the extraordinary longevity and continuity of Chinese civilization, such that the identity of most races has, over thousands of years, been lost through a combination of conquest, absorption, assimilation, intermarriage, marginalization and extermination.

Like all racial categories, the Han Chinese — a product of the gradual fusion of many different races — is an imagined group. The term ‘Han Chinese’, indeed, only came into existence in the late nineteenth century. But such has been the power of the idea, and its roots in the long history of Chinese civilization, that it has spawned what can only be described as its own historical myth, involving the projection of the present into the distant past. That myth holds that the Chinese are and always have been of one race, that they share a common origin, and that those who occupy what is China today have always enjoyed a natural affinity with each other as one big family. [709] This has become an integral part of Chinese folklore and is shared by the Confucian, Republican and Communist traditions alike. [710] A recent official Chinese publication on patriotic education declared: ‘Patri otism is a fine tradition of our Chinese nation. For thousands of years, as an enormous spiritual force, it continuously stimulated the progress of our history.’ [711] There is a commonly held view amongst the Chinese that Chinese civilization commenced with the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di), who, as legend has it, was born in 2704 BC and ruled a kingdom near the Yellow River on the central plain that is regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Many Chinese, both on the mainland and overseas, believe that they are genealogically descended from the Yellow Emperor. [712] Although Mao rejected the idea, it has staged something of a revival since the mid eighties. In a speech in 1984, Deng Xiaoping suggested that the desire for the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan was innately ‘rooted in the hearts of all descendants of the Yellow Emperor’. [713] A well-known intellectual, Su Xiaokang, has written: ‘This Yellow River, it so happens, bred a nation identified by its yellow skin pigment. Moreover, this nation also refers to its earliest ancestor as the Yellow Emperor. Today, on the face of the earth, of every five human beings, there is one that is a descendant of the Yellow Emperor.’ [714] This statement implies that the Chinese have different origins from everyone else. Like the Japanese, the Chinese have long held, albeit with significant dissenting voices, a polygenist view of the origins of Homo sapiens, believing that — in contrast to the generally held view that we all stem from a single ancestry in Africa — humanity has, in fact, multiple origins. [715] Peking Man, discovered in Zhoukoudian near Beijing in 1929-30, [716] has been widely interpreted in China as the ‘ancestor’ of the Mongoloid race. [717] In 2008 a further important discovery was made of skull fossils of a hominid — Xuchang Man — at the Xuchang site in Henan province, [718] which was believed to date back 80-100,000 years. An article in the China Daily claimed that ‘the discovery at Xuchang supports the theory that modern Chinese man originated in what is present-day Chinese territory rather than Africa.’ It continued, ‘Extraordinary archaeological discoveries are critical to maintaining our national identity as well as the history of our ancient civilization.’ [719] While internationally archaeological findings are regarded as part of a worldwide effort to understand the evolution of the human race, in China, where they are given unusual prominence, they are instead seen as an integral part of national history and are used ‘to promote a unifying concept of unique origin and continuity within the Chinese nation’. [720]

Chinese historians generally describe the process of Chinese territorial expansion as one of ‘unification’ rather than ‘conquest’, with expansion being seen as a progressive evolution towards a preordained and inevitable unity. Territory, once taken, has been regarded as immutably Chinese. [721] There is a powerful underlying assumption that the numerous races and nationalities have always demonstrated undivided loyalty to the imperial regimes. [722] The truth, in fact, is rather different. Far from China’s expansion to its present borders being a harmonious and natural process, the realization of a nation always waiting to be born, it was in fact, as one would expect, a complicated process of war, rivalry, ethnic conflict, hegemony, assimilation, conquest and settlement. [723] The embryo of contemporary China was born out of the military victory of the Qin kingdom (221–206 BC), following the Warring State period during which over 100 states fought for supremacy in north and central China. The Qin dynasty — which, prior to its triumph, roughly coincided with the present north-west province of Shaanxi — eventually emerged victorious over six other kingdoms and succeeded in expanding its territory sixfold. [724] During the 2,000 years that followed the Qin victory, China expanded southwards to the South China Sea, northwards to incorporate much of the steppe lands, and westwards into Central Asia. Far from this enormous geographical expansion being characterized by a natural process of fusion, peace and harmony, it predictably entailed much conflict and many wars. [725]

The growth of China is the story of the outward expansion of the northern Chinese. The best-known area of conflict concerns the region to the north of Beijing, bordering on what we now know roughly as Mongolia and Manchuria. For thousands of years this region was contested between the northern horse-bound nomads of the steppes and the agrarian-based Chinese. The picture painted by official Chinese histories is of aggressive, rampaging nomads and peace-loving Chinese peasants. [726] While it is true that the Chinese were constantly preoccupied with the security of their northern borders — until the Qing dynasty, the steppe nomads showed themselves to be highly effective fighters — the Chinese frequently sought to conquer and hold the steppe lands to their north. Rather than seeing the Great Wall as a line of fortified defence against the nomads, in fact, it is more appropriate to regard it as the outer perimeter of an expanding Chinese empire. [727] The names of the fortifications reveal the nature of the Chinese intent: ‘Tower for Suppressing the North’ and ‘Fort Where the Barbarians are Killed’. The Chinese saw the nomads as much their inferior, referring to them as barbarians. It was the long-running conflict between the Chinese and the steppe nomads that shaped the Chinese sense of cultural superiority, gave rise to the distinction between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, and largely conditioned Chinese thinking about ‘self’ and ‘the other’. [728] The cleavage is not surprising: settled agricultural communities everywhere looked down on nomads as backward and primitive. Nevertheless, the Chinese and the steppe nomads, although more or less constantly at war, also experienced something of a symbiotic relationship. On many occasions, the ‘barbarians’ successfully conquered China and became its rulers, most famously in the case of the Mongols and later the Manchus of the Qing dynasty. Indeed, as testimony to the extent of mutual incursion and interaction over the millennia, the ruling Chinese caste was essentially a racial mix of the northern Chinese and the nomadic steppe tribes. [729] The ascendancy of the Chinese, however, is illustrated by the manner in which both the Mongols and the Manchus — and all other conquerors of China from the steppes — invariably, sooner or later, went ‘Chinese’ once in power. The historian Wang Gungwu has suggested that ‘in the last thousand years, the Chinese can only claim to have ruled their own country for 280 of those years’, yet in every case the ‘foreign’ rulers adopted Confucian culture and the Confucian system of governance. [730] There is no more powerful demonstration of the advanced nature of Confucian civilization and the hegemonic influence that it exercised over the peoples around its borders.

The conquest of the lands to the south is less well known. It took place over a period of nearly three millennia and involved the movement of whole populations, the intermixing of races, and the disappearance or transformation of cultures. Some races vanished altogether, while substantial kingdoms were either destroyed or subject to a process of absorption and assimilation. The rich foliage of these subtropical lands lent themselves to guerrilla warfare and the Han rulers, during the Qin and Han dynasties in particular, were kept in a more or less permanent state of insecurity. [731] By far the largest single expansion — and certainly the most rapid — took place in the early phase of the Manchu-controlled Qing dynasty, from 1644 until the late eighteenth century, when the territory under Chinese rule more than doubled. This involved the conquest of lands to the north, notably those occupied by the Mongols, and to the north-west, the homelands of the diverse Muslim populations of Turkestan. [732] Many of the peoples conquered, particularly in Central Asia and Tibet, had little or nothing in common with the Han Chinese. These lands became colonial territories of the Qing empire, huge in extent, sparsely populated and rich in some natural resources. China ’s expansion usually involved a combination of military force and cultural example. This was certainly true of the southern and central parts of China as well as the steppe lands. But the Qing conquest of the north-west and west was different, being achieved by the use of particular force and brutality. [733] Most of the Zunghars, for example, who occupied much of what we now know as Xinjiang, were exterminated. [734]

The expansion of the Chinese empire over such a long historical period involved what might be described as a steadily moving frontier or, to be more precise, many moving frontiers. One of the characteristics of Chinese expansion was the resettlement of enormous numbers of people across China, with population movement, always highly regulated, being an important instrument of government policy. The Qin, for example, deployed it on a massive scale to occupy and pacify their greatly expanded territory. One of the most remarkable examples was the huge resettlement of Sichuan province in the south-west, whose population had fallen to around half a million by 1681, but which reached 207 million in 1812 as a result of the movement of migrant-settlers, organized and orchestrated by the Qing dynasty. [735] This process is still evident today, with the steady influx of Han migrants into Inner Mongolia, where they now constitute a very large majority, and into Tibet and Xinjiang, where they represent substantial minorities, possibly even a majority in the case of the latter. Resettlement has been a key tool in the process of Chinese expansion and Hanification.

It is important, in this context, to distinguish between a land-based expansion like China ’s and a maritime-based expansion such as those of the European empires of Britain and France. The European colonies never acquired any degree of permanence because, except in those cases where there was overwhelming white settlement, as for example in Australia and North America, it was impossible to assimilate races and cultures which, by virtue of place and distance, were entirely alien. This was quite different from China, which, because of its land-based expansion, always enjoyed the advantage of proximity, thereby enabling, if need be, the process of absorption and incorporation to take thousands of years. [736] As a consequence, in terms of the consciousness of its multitudinous component groups, the Chinese empire is no longer an empire, except at its northern and especially north-western and western edges, with the population of these areas representing only 6 per cent of China ’s total. [737] China thus only confronts difference, for the most part, at its perimeter. On the other hand, in terms of land these regions are extremely important, accounting for around 64 per cent of China ’s land mass. Territorially speaking, China remains an empire.


Until its engagement with Europe in the nineteenth century, China saw itself in terms quite different from those of a nation-state. China believed that it was the centre of the world, the Middle Kingdom, the ‘land under Heaven’ ( tianxia), on an entirely different plane from other kingdoms and countries, not even requiring a name. [738] It was the chosen land not by virtue of God, as in the case of Israel or the United States, but by the sheer brilliance of its civilization. Perhaps the best way to illustrate imperial China’s mentality is by the maps of the period. These consisted of a series of concentric circles or rectangles, with Beijing at the epicentre, the core formed by the northern Chinese, then progressively moving outwards across China, from those fully accepted as Chinese, to the inner barbarians, the outer barbarians, the tributary states, and finally to those condemned to outer darkness, deemed incapable of being civilized, who lived in distant lands and continents (see illustration on p. 242). [739] Imperial China, in short, embraced an utterly Sinocentric view of its place in the global order. This was not a world with a common measure, as in a system of nation-states, but instead a bifurcated world, consisting of a single ‘civilization’ surrounded by many ‘barbarians’, the latter arranged according to their cultural proximity to civilization, as in a spectrum of deepening shadows. As the ‘land under Heaven’, imperial China was a universe in its own right, above and distinct from the rest of the world, superior in every respect, a higher form of civilization achieved by virtue of the values, morals and teachings of Confucianism and the dynastic state that embodied them. Its ideal was universalism, which was the rationale for its expansion. [740]

Unlike a nation-state, its frontiers were neither carefully drawn nor copiously policed, but were more like zones, tapering off from civilization through the various states of barbarianism. [741] It is not surprising that the centre of the world did not require a name, for the Middle Kingdom needed no further explanation or description. Its mode of expansion was a combination of conquest and cultural example, its ideological justification that of a ‘civilizing mission’. [742] The Chinese system exercised an extraordinary hegemonic influence on the entire surrounding region: on the distant island of Japan and on the Korean Peninsula, which, as we have seen, both adopted Chinese characters for their writing systems and used a form of Confucianism for their moral tenets and system of governance; on the tribal nomads of the northern steppes, most of whom, when circumstances enabled or dictated, came under the Confucian spell; on what we now know as Vietnam, which was thoroughly Confucianized while fiercely defending its independence from the Chinese over many centuries; and finally, as we have seen, on the progressive Sinicization of the diverse peoples that comprise what we know as China today. Whatever the role of force, and it was fundamental, there is no brooking the huge power, influence and prestige of Chinese thinking and practice.

The Ancient Chinese view of the world

The classic ancient Chinese account of the world, dating from the sixth century BC, was the Yugong, a chapter of the Shujing (Classic of History). This highly influential document describes five major concentric geographical zones emanating outwards from the capital: royal domains, princely domains, a pacification zone, the zone of allied barbarians, and the zone of savagery. These zones have conventionally been portrayed in rectangular form, in line with the cosmological notion of a square earth.

Traditional Western political theory has been at pains to draw a firm and categoric distinction between agrarian-based dynastic regimes and nation-states. China, which has adopted many of the key characteristics of a nation-state while remaining essentially a civilization-state, confounds these kinds of traditional distinctions, as the lines of continuity between the Celestial Kingdom and modern China as a civilization-cum-nation-state indicate. [743] Thus imperial China already enjoyed, in elemental form, some of what we understand, in a broader comparative context, to be the crucial building blocks and incipient characteristics of a nation-state. In Confucianism, for example, it possessed a state ideology par excellence, by far the most advanced of its time, which imbued the outlook of the elite and also influenced the wider population. [744] The mandarin bureaucracy — schooled in the precepts of Confucianism, devoted to the idea of service and endowed with a powerful credo of administration — was the most sophisticated civil service of its time. And the country already enjoyed a shared written language: many dialects may have been spoken across China, most of which could be understood only by their own speakers, but all the spoken versions shared a common written script and this acted as a source of affinity, identity and cohesion across the population. [745] Finally, Sinocentrism — the idea of the Middle Kingdom, the view that China was the centre of the world, the belief that Chinese civilization was the most advanced in the world — provided what might be described as a primordial form of patriotism. [746] This was not the kind of patriotism that we associate with the nationalism of the modern nation-state, but rather a belief in their own universalism, the relevance and applicability of their culture to all peoples and societies, and its inherent superiority in relation to others. Implicit in this feeling of pre-eminence, as we shall see, was an inchoate notion of racial, as well as cultural, superiority, such that the two became intimately entwined.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, under growing threat from the European powers and Japan, the Qing dynasty was increasingly obliged to operate according to the rules of a nation-state-based international system. The haughty view that it had previously maintained of its elevated role in relation to that of other states foundered on the rock of European superiority. The ‘land under Heaven’ was brought down to earth. The Middle Kingdom became just another state, now with a name, China, like any other. An elite and a people schooled in the idea of their cultural superiority entered a prolonged crisis of doubt, uncertainty and humiliation from which, a century and a half later, they are only now beginning to emerge. China, besieged by foreign powers, was forced to begin the process of defining its frontiers with the same kind of precision as other states, though such was the length of these borders and the number of its neighbours that even today those with India remain unresolved.

The belief in their cultural superiority shaken and undermined, the Chinese began a long and agonized search for a new sense of identity as circumstances grew more precarious and desperate at the end of the nineteenth century. It was during this period that the nationalist writer Zhang Taiyan introduced the term ‘Han people’ ( Hanren) to describe the Chinese nation, and it rapidly acquired widespread popularity and usage. [747] ‘Qin Chinese’ might have been chosen, but Han was preferred, probably because the Han dynasty, which immediately followed the Qin (the first unified Chinese empire), lasted much longer: 400 years compared with a mere fifteen. The term ‘Han Chinese’ was an invention, nothing more than a cultural construct: there was no such race; the Han Chinese were, in reality, an amalgam of many races. [748] The purpose of the term was overtly racial, a means of inclusion and exclusion. It was used as a way of defining the Chinese against the Manchus, who formed the Qing dynasty and who, after 250 years in power, increasingly came to be seen, as their rule began to crumble, as an alien and objectionable presence. It was also directed against the Europeans, who controlled most of the treaty ports and who were seen as undermining the fabric of China and Chinese life. The deep resentment against Europeans, who were increasingly referred to in derogatory racial terms, was graphically illustrated by the xenophobic and nativist Boxer Uprising (1898–1901), [749] which marked the early beginnings of a popular Chinese nationalism, though it was not until the Japanese invasion in 1937 that this became a genuinely mass phenomenon. There are many expressions of Chinese nationalism today, most notably directed against the Japanese — as in the demonstrations in 2005 — and also against various Western powers, especially the United States; as a result, it has become commonplace to refer to the rise of Chinese nationalism. The problem is that this suggests it is essentially the same kind of phenomenon as other nationalisms when, in fact, Chinese nationalism cannot be reduced to nation-state nationalism because its underlying roots are civilizational. Imperial Sinocentrism shapes and underpins modern Chinese nationalism. It would be more accurate to speak of a dual phenomenon, namely Chinese civilizationalism and Chinese nationalism, the one overlapping with and reinforcing the other.


Racism is a subject that people often seek to avoid, it being deemed too politically embarrassing, any suggestion of its existence often eliciting a response of outraged indignation and immediate denial. Yet it is central to the discourse of most, if not all, societies. It is always lurking somewhere, sometimes on the surface, sometimes just below. Nor is this the least bit surprising. Human beings see themselves in terms of groups, and physical difference is an obvious and powerful signifier of them. It is but a short distance to ascribe wider cultural and mental characteristics to a group on the basis of visible physical differences: in other words, to essentialize those physical differences, to root culture in nature, to equate social groups with biological units. [750] There is a widely held view, not least in East Asia, that racism is a ‘white problem’: it is what white people do to others. In both China and Taiwan, the official position is that racism is a phenomenon of Western culture, with Hong Kong holding a largely similar view. [751] This is nonsense. All peoples are prone to such ways of thinking — or, to put it another way, all races harbour racial prejudices, engage in racist modes of thought and practise racism against other races. Racism, in fact, is a universal phenomenon from which no race is exempt, even those who have suffered grievously at its hands. Each racism, however, while sharing general character-istics with other racisms, is also distinct, shaped by the history and culture of a people. Just as there are many different cultures, so there are also many different racisms. White racism has had a far greater and more profound — and deleterious — effect on the modern world than any other. As white people have enjoyed far more power than any other racial group over the last two centuries, so their influence — and their prejudices — have reached much further and have had a greater impact, most dramatically as a result of colonialism. But that does not mean that other peoples do not possess similar attitudes and prejudices towards races that they believe to be inferior. [752]

This is certainly the case in East Asia. Although rarely recognized, in many parts of the region, especially in North-East Asia, the notion of identity is highly racialized. Many terms have been used in China and Japan since the late nineteenth century to represent these countries as biologically specific entities. In China these include zu (lineage, clan), zhong (seed, breed, type, race), zulei (type of lineage), minzu (lineage of people, nationality, race), zhongzu (breed of lineage, type of lineage, breed, race), renzhong (human breed, human race); while those used in Japanese include jinshu (human breed, human race), shuzoku (breed of lineage, type of lineage, breed, race) and minzoku (lineage of people, nationality, race). [753] Even in South-East Asia, which is racially far more heterogeneous, racial identities remain very powerful. In short, a racialized sense of belonging is often at the heart of national identity in East Asia. [754]

The importance of racial discourse in China and other Confucian societies like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam begs the question of why this is the case. The answer is almost certainly linked to the centrality of the family, which has been a continuing and crucial thread in the Chinese tradition (as in all Confucian societies), and which, together with the state, is the key societal institution. The family defines the primary meaning of ‘we’, but the family is also closely linked to the idea of lineage, which serves to define a much larger ‘we’. People in China have long had the habit of thinking of people with the same name as sharing a common ancestry. Since the Ming dynasty, it has been common for different lineages with the same surname to link ancestors and establish fictitious kinship ties through a famous historical figure, as in the case of the Yellow Emperor. ‘The entire Chinese population,’ suggests Kai-wing Chow, ‘could be imagined as a collection of lineages, since they all shared the same Han surnames.’ [755] And the fact that there are relatively few surnames in China has served to magnify this effect. In Chinese custom, lineage, like the family, is intimately associated with biological continuity and blood descent (an idea which enjoys core cultural significance in Confucian societies) as is, by extension, the nation itself. [756] This is reflected in the notion of citizenship, with blood the defining precondition in all these societies: indeed, it is almost impossible to acquire citizenship in any other way. [757]

Far from racism being a Western invention, it has ancient roots in both China and Japan. There is written evidence cited by Jared Diamond going back to at least 1000 BC which shows that the Chinese regarded themselves as superior to the non-Chinese and that the northern Chinese saw those in southern China as barbarians. [758] In ancient China, the ruling elite measured groups by a cultural yardstick according to which those who did not follow Chinese ways were considered to be barbarians, though the latter could subsequently be reclassified depending on the degree of their cultural assimilation. [759] Within the Middle Kingdom, the barbarians were typically divided into two categories: ‘raw barbarians’ ( shengfan), who were seen as savage and resistant, and ‘cooked barbarians’ ( shufan), who were regarded as tame and submissive. [760] Cooked barbarians were deemed as on the cusp of being civilized, raw barbarians as being beyond assimilation. Those living outside the borders of China were regarded as either raw barbarians or, worse, as akin to animals. The distinction between man and animal in Chinese folklore was blurred, with alien groups living outside China frequently regarded as savages hovering on the edge of bestiality and often described by the use of animal radicals (radicals are a key component of written Chinese characters), thereby identifying different non-Chinese peoples with various kinds of animals. [761] It is clear from this that the Chinese sense of superiority was based on a combination of culture and race — the two inseparably linked, the relative importance of each varying according to time and circumstance. [762] Frank Dikötter, who has written the major study in the English language on Chinese racism, argues:

On the one hand, a claim to cultural universalism led the elite to assert that the barbarian could be ‘sinicized’, or transformed by the beneficial influence of culture and climate. On the other hand, when the Chinese sense of cultural superiority was threatened, the elite appealed to categorical differences in nature to expel the barbarian and seal the country off from the perverting influences of the outside world. [763]

For the most part, however, the expansive rather than the defensive view prevailed.

Skin colour assumed an early significance. From the most ancient times, the Chinese chose to call themselves white, with a light complexion highly valued and likened to white jade. [764] By the beginning of the twelfth century, the elite attached a heightened meaning to being white, with colour consciousness amongst the elite sensitized by the maritime contacts established during the Southern Song dynasty (AD 1127–1279). During this period even the newly popular image of Buddha was converted from a ‘swart half-naked Indian to a more decently clad divinity with a properly light complexion’, rather as Jesus was whitened in the Western Christian tradition. [765] Of course, not all Chinese had light complexions. In particular, those who laboured long and hard in the fields under a fierce sun were weather-beaten and dark-skinned. The symbolic distance, and distinction, as represented by class, and made visible in skin colour, was thus projected by the Chinese elite onto the outside world as they came into growing contact with other peoples and races. White was regarded as the centre of the civilized world, embodied by the Middle Kingdom, while black represented the negative pole of humanity, symbolized by the remotest parts of the known world. As the Chinese became familiar with more distant lands during the Ming dynasty, notably through Zheng He’s voyages to Africa and South-East Asia in the fifteenth century, so their perception of skin colour and physical difference became more variegated, with Africans and aboriginals invariably placed at the bottom, and Malays and Viets just above them. [766]

During the Qing dynasty, racial categories became a central and explicit factor in the characterization of the barbarian. This represented an important shift from the cultural norms that had previously tended to prevail, even though the racial element had always been significant. [767] New racial taxono mies and classifications were elaborated, stimulated by the bloody wars of expansion that the Chinese fought in the west, which had brought them into contact with peoples very different from themselves who, throughout much of the second half of the nineteenth century, they struggled to subdue, with only partial success. [768] But it was the increasing presence and power of Europeans following the Opium Wars, and the growing crisis of the Qing dynasty that this provoked, which was to prove the rudest shock of all and produce the biggest change in Chinese attitudes, not just amongst the elite, but also at a popular level. From the 1890s, the cultural racism of ancient China was articulated into a new and popular racist philosophy by a rising class of academics and writers, who were influenced by the racial theories and social Darwinism prevalent in the West at the time. Racism now became an integral part of popular thinking, articulated in a whole range of widely circulated publications, especially amongst the urban population of the treaty ports. The new racial discourse covered every aspect of physical difference, from skin colour and hair to height, size of nose, eye colour, size of feet and body odour: no racial stone was left unturned, each physical detail explored for its alleged wider mental and cultural significance. Barbarians had routinely been described as ‘devils’ since earlier in the century, but now they were distinguished according to their skin colour, with Caucasians referred to as ‘white devils’ ( baigui) and those of darker skin as ‘black devils’ ( heigui), terms that are still in common usage. Not all devils were regarded in the same way, however: white devils were perceived as ‘rulers’ and black devils as ‘slaves’. [769] The literature of the treaty ports was filled with contempt for those from Africa and India.

During this period, which coincided with the growing popularity of the term ‘Han’, the Chinese began to describe themselves as yellow rather than white, in an effort to distinguish themselves from Europeans on the one hand and those of darker skin on the other. As China sought to resist the growing European threat, the world was seen in social-Darwinist terms of the survival of the fittest, with those of darker skin perceived as having failed and thereby being condemned to inevitable oblivion, and the yellow races, headed by the Chinese, being engaged in a desperate battle for survival against the dominant white race. [770] Yellow enjoyed a strongly positive connotation in the Chinese world, given its association with the Yellow River and the Yellow Emperor. In 1925 the poet Wen Yudio, who spent some time in the United States, wrote a poem entitled ‘I am Chinese’, which captures the swelling sense of racially inspired Chinese nationalism, heightened in this case by his experiences in the West:

I am Chinese, I am Chinese,
I am the divine blood of the Yellow Emperor,
I came from the highest place in the world,
Pamir is my ancestral home,
My race is like the Yellow River,
We flow down the Kunlun mountain slope,
We flow across the Asian continent,
From us have flown exquisite customs,
Mighty nation! Mighty nation! [771]

The pervasiveness of racialized ways of thinking is underlined by Frank Dikötter, who chronicles countless examples, adding:

It would be wrong to assume that these clichés have been gathered… simply by sieving printed material through a filter that retains racial utterances. A dredger would be needed to gather up all the racial clichés, stereotypes and images which abounded in China [as well as the West] between the wars. These clichés were the most salient feature of a racial discourse that was pervasive and highly influential; moreover it was rarely challenged. They were adopted and perpetuated by large sections of the intelligentsia. [772]

While this racism was clearly a product of imperial China ’s worsening predicament, an expression of a crisis of identity and a desire for affirmation and certainty, it was also a function of the cultural racism that had been such a strong feature of the Celestial Kingdom over a period of almost three millennia. The rigour of the racial hierarchies that now became endemic bore a striking resemblance to the cultural hierarchy of the Confucian social order — an illustration of the complex interplay between cultural and racial forms of superiority in Chinese society.

This racialized thinking heavily influenced the nationalists, led by Sun Yat-sen, who overthrew the Qing dynasty in the 1911 Revolution. Sun saw the Chinese as a single race and believed in the inevitable confrontation of the yellow and white races:

Mankind is divided into five races. The yellow and white races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution… among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and white races. China belongs to the yellow races. [773]

Elsewhere he wrote: ‘The greatest force is common blood. The Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the bloodstock of the yellow race. The blood of ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force.’ [774] Initially, he dismissed the Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus and others as numerically insignificant: he was a Han nationalist who saw the Chinese exclusively in terms of the Han, and therefore as a nation-race. But after the Revolution he was confronted with the reality of inheriting a Qing China in which, though their numbers might have been small, the ethnic minorities occupied over half the territory of China. If China was defined only in terms of the Han, then the government would be confronted with the prospect of ethnic rebellion and demands for independence — which, in the event, is what happened. In the face of this, Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist government backtracked and redefined China in terms of one race and five nationalities, namely the Han, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Hui: in other words, China was recognized as a multinational state, though still composed of one race, all sharing the same Chinese origins. Chiang Kai-shek continued with the general lines of this approach, but took a strongly assimilationist line, suppressing the ethnic minorities in the belief that they should be forced to adopt Han customs and practices as speedily as possible. [775]

The 1949 Revolution heralded a major shift in policy. The racist discourse which had been rife since the late nineteenth century was now officially abolished and Han nationalism firmly discouraged. China was described as a unitary multi-ethnic state, although the government, after briefly offering ethnic minorities (described as nationalities) the right of self-determination, rapidly withdrew this offer. [776] Instead they encouraged ethnic minorities to apply for official recognition of their ethnic identity status, with fifty-six eventually being accepted (including the Han). They were extremely diverse in nature: some had a very powerful sense of ethnic identity, combined with separatist aspirations (the Uighurs and Tibetans), some had a strong and continuing sense of ethnic identity but no separatist ambitions (for example, the Yi), [777] some had an extremely weak sense of ethnic identity (such as the Miao, Zhuang and the Manchus), [778] while others, hangovers from a distant past before their more or less total assimilation by the Han, barely existed except as a bureaucratic entry (for example, the Bai and the Tujia). [779] This last category, in fact, encapsulates mainstream Chinese history, with the slow but remorseless process of Hanification. Those ethnic minorities with the strongest identity were granted a measure of autonomy with the establishment of five autonomous regions (known as the Inner Mongolian, Xinjiang Uighur, Guangxi Zhuang, Ningxia Hui and Tibet Autonomous Regions), enjoying limited powers of their own, including the right of the minority to appoint the chief minister; it was never intended, however, as a means by which ethnic minorities could exercise some form of autonomous rule. [780] There are three ethnic groups that, over the last century, have sustained strong separatist movements, namely, the Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs in Xingjiang province. The Tibetans enjoyed considerable autonomy until the Chinese occupation in 1951, while Xinjiang, which means ‘new territory’, saw brief independence as East Turkestan, or Uighurstan, in 1933. Each enjoys the status of an autonomous region, though in practice that autonomy is attenuated. In the Mongolian Autonomous Region there are four times as many Han as Mongols, thereby rendering the latter relatively impotent: indeed, the homelands of China’s old conquerors, the Mongols and the Manchus, are both now overwhelmingly Han. In the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Han are still outnumbered by Tibetans, while in Xingjiang, which is China’s leading producer of oil and gas, they now account for at least 40 per cent and perhaps more than half, compared with 6 per cent in a 1950s census. [781] Each of these regions thus has been subject to the classic and oft-repeated process of Han settlement, which has changed, and is continuing slowly but surely to change, their ethnic balance. Not surprisingly, relations between the Han and the Tibetans, and the Han and Uighurs, who are mainly Muslims and speak a Turkic language, remain suspicious and distant. [782]

By curbing Han chauvinism, eschewing the claim that the Han represent the core of China and granting the ethnic minorities full legal equality, [783] the Communist government has avoided the worst assimilationist excesses of the Nationalist period. Under Mao, the language of race was replaced by that of class. However, the underlying attitudes of the Han have remained little changed. There is an ingrained prejudice amongst great swathes of the Han Chinese, including the highly educated, towards the ethnic minorities. According to Stevan Harrell, a writer on China ’s ethnic minorities, there is ‘an innate, almost visceral Han sense of superiority’. [784] He quotes the example of a Han official who had worked on a government forestry project in the middle of a Yi area and who, despite living there for twenty years, had never tried Yi food on the grounds that it was dirty and would make him sick. Far from the ethnic minorities being seen as equals, they are regarded as inferior because they are less modern. There is an underlying belief that they have to be raised up to the level of the Han, whose culture is considered as a model for the minorities to follow and emulate. [785] Their cultures are recognized at a superficial level, for example in terms of traditional dress and dance, but not treated as the equal of the Han in more substantive matters. In essence, this is not so different from the kind of Confucian ethnically infused cultural hubris that informed the imperial era. Although racialized ways of thought became less explicit after the 1949 Revolution, they never disappeared, remaining an integral, if subterranean, part of the Chinese common sense; and, since the beginning of the reform period, they have been on the rise in both popular culture and official circles. [786]


Xingjiang and Tibet provide the best insight into Chinese attitudes towards difference, with over half the population Uighur or Tibetan respectively, and in both instances ethnically and racially very different from the Han. The anti-Han riots by Tibetans in Lhasa, and in neighbouring provinces to Tibet, in March 2008 were the worst seen for many decades and a powerful reminder of the simmering tensions that exist between Tibetans and Han. There were over 120 separate protests in the various Tibetan areas, the great majority non-violent.

Tibet was originally brought under loose Chinese influence by the Qing dynasty in the early decades of the eighteenth century, but its rule grew weaker until towards the end of the century the Qing intervened again and established a form of tributary rule. In the nineteenth century Chinese influence slowly waned until the Qing eventually reasserted control in 1910. Tibet enjoyed considerable autonomy in the decades after the 1911 Revolution, when China was in a state of division. Following the Chinese invasion in 1950 a new agreement was reached, but the promised autonomy never mat erialized and the resulting tension culminated in a major uprising in 1959 which was crushed by China, with the Dalai Lama, together with some 80,000 Tibetans, going into exile. Most countries now recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, including the UK as of October 2008. The Dalai Lama, who accepts Chinese sovereignty, claims a much larger territory as Tibet than is presently contained within the Tibet Autonomous Region: the TAR is an administrative rather than ethnic region, with around half of Tibetans living in neighbouring provinces, as well as in India and Nepal.

Map 10. Tibet

The Chinese strategy towards Tibet has comprised a range of different approaches. It has pursued a strategy of repression and forced assimilation, which has included refusing to recognize the Dalai Lama, restricting the role of Buddhist priests, and forbidding Tibetan students and government workers from visiting monasteries or participating in religious ceremonies. The six-year-old boy who was named Panchen Lama, the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, by the Dalai Lama in 1995 was apprehended by the Chinese authorities and has not been seen or heard of since, the Chinese instead nominating a different boy. In addition, China has encouraged large-scale Han migration to Tibet in an effort to alter the ethnic balance of the population and thereby weaken the position of the Tibetans, who for the most part live in the rural areas and in segregated urban ghettos, whereas the Han, who comprise over half the population of Lhasa, are concentrated in the urban areas. Given the rapid pace of Han migration, encouraged by the new direct rail link between Beijing and Lhasa, it is possible that the proportion of Han in the TAR could rise rapidly in the future. In what appears to have been a typical case of divide and rule, China chose to dismember the Tibetan population by putting heavily Tibetan areas under non-Tibetan jurisdiction in the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. On the other hand, China has made a major effort to generate economic growth and raise living standards in the belief that this would help win the acquiescence of Tibetans, with Tibet being heavily subsidized by Beijing. Since 1950 Tibetan living standards and life expectancy have been transformed, with economic growth averaging 12 per cent over the last seven years and incomes rising by more than 10 per cent over the last six years. The Tibetans are widely viewed by the Chinese as a backward and primitive people who should be grateful for the fact that the Chinese are seeking to bring them civilization and development. [787] This is eloquently illustrated by the Confucian-like pronouncement of Zhang Qingli, Communist Party secretary of the TAR, that: ‘The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need… the central party committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans.’ [788]

The riots of 10 March 2008, which took place on the anniversary of the failed uprising in 1959 and were by far the worst since that occasion, show that this strategy has singularly failed. Tibetan rioters attacked Han shops and businesses in the old Tibetan quarter of Lhasa, setting them alight and killing many Chinese. The protests continued for five days, with around 100 Tibetan and Chinese deaths. The government blamed the riots on a conspiracy led by the Dalai Lama, accusing him, in traditional Chinese racial terms, of being a ‘wolf in monk’s robes’, ‘a wolf with a human face and heart of a beast’, ‘a jackal wrapped in a habit’ and the ‘scum of Buddhism’. [789] The prime minister Wen Jiabao asserted that the protests were ‘organized, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique’. [790] The two biggest Tibetan grievances concern their lack of cultural and religious freedom, and Han migration. They believe that they are systematically being turned into a minority in their own homeland and deeply resent their lack of cultural and religious freedom. The Tibetans see the Han population as having been by far the biggest beneficiaries of the economic prosperity: the Han live in the urban areas where economic change has been concentrated, run most of the businesses and shops, and dominate positions of power and privilege in the administrative apparatus. Relations between the Chinese and Tibetans are characterized by disdain, distrust and resentment, ‘by stereotyping and prejudice and, among Tibetans, by deep feelings of subjugation, repression and fear’. [791] ‘Our government has wasted our money in helping those white-eyed wolves,’ commented Wang Zhongyong, a Han manager of a Lhasa handicraft shop that was destroyed in the riots. ‘The relationship between Han and Tibetan is irreconcilable,’ said Yuan Qinghai, a Lhasa taxi driver. ‘We don’t have a good impression of them, as they are lazy and they hate us, for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in their life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable.’ [792]

The rioting, destruction and burning of Han property, and resulting Han deaths, which were shown repeatedly on Chinese television, led to a wave of anger and indignation across China. The consequence was to stoke up further Han resentment against the Tibetans and potentially lay the basis for more draconian measures, although the government, concerned about the effect the riots might have on international opinion in the build-up to the Olympics, agreed to reopen talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama. It is inconceivable that Tibet will ever be granted independence — which is not a demand of the Dalai Lama in any case — given China ’s attitude towards its unity and the strategic importance of Tibet. In fact, it is not difficult to sketch out the terms of a potential settlement: the Dalai Lama would renounce his vast territorial claims to Greater Tibet, which are spurious in any event, and refrain from continuing his Western-orientated anti-Chinese campaign, while the Chinese would allow the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa as spiritual leader, grant limited self-rule and genuine religious and cultural autonomy, while restricting Han migration. There is a precedent for such an approach: Hu Yaobang, the former secretary of the Communist Party, visited Tibet in 1980 and apologized for the behaviour of the previous thirty years, promising more autonomy and less direct Chinese rule in Tibet, although nothing materialized. [793] In practice, the kind of settlement outlined would mark a huge change not just in the policy of the Communist government but more importantly in age-old Han attitudes towards ethnic minorities.


Claims that racism is common in Chinese societies are invariably greeted with a somewhat indignant denial, as if it was a slur against the Chinese. [794] In a very interesting — and rather unusual — exchange between Chinese-Malaysians on a Malaysian website, which was initiated by a writer who attacked Chinese racism, one participant wrote: ‘[the claim] that racism had been an element in China’s 5,000 years civilization is intellectually ignorant and by selling such unfounded statements to the non-Chinese and to Chinese friends who read no classical Chinese, it is dangerous.’ Another wrote: ‘The Chinese have been persecuted and been victims of racism the world over. We certainly don’t need our own kind to accuse us of racism.’ [795]

The standard view amongst most Chinese, indeed, is that they are not racist, that racism is essentially what happens to the Chinese in Western societies, and that Chinese societies are more or less unaffected by it. [796] To cite one example of many, in 1988 the then general secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, told a meeting on national unity that racial discrimination is common ‘everywhere in the world except in China ’. [797]

The pervasiveness of racism applies not only to China but also to Taiwan, [798] Singapore, Hong Kong and even the overseas Chinese communities. Thus it is not simply a function of parochialism, of China ’s limited contact with the outside world. Take Hong Kong, for example, which, in contrast to China, has enjoyed a highly cosmopolitan history as a result of colonialism. Although in 2001 the then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa typically described racism as a minor problem, requiring no more than an extremely low-budget, low-profile educational campaign, in fact, it is endemic amongst the Hong Kong Chinese, who comprise around 96 per cent of the population. [799] In a survey of South-East Asians, South Asians and Africans in Hong Kong conducted by the Society of Community Organizations in 2001, around one-third said they had been turned down for a job on the basis of their ethnicity, a similar proportion had been refused rental of a flat, one-third reported that the police discriminated against them on the streets, while nearly half had experienced racial discrimination in hospital. [800] The most common targets are foreign ‘helpers’, usually known as ‘maids’, mainly Filipinas and Indonesians, who are frequently required by their Chinese domestic employers to work absurdly long hours, are treated abysmally, paid little, granted scant freedom, and, in a significant minority of cases, subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Their conditions not infrequently resemble a latter-day form of indentured labour, as is also true in Singapore and Malaysia. [801]

It might reasonably be argued that Hong Kong Chinese racism is a legacy of British rule. After they took possession of the colony following the First Opium War, the British practised systemic racism: English was the sole official language until 1974, the Chinese were prohibited from living in the exclusive Peak area from 1902, there was a miscellany of petty apartheid laws — such as the requirement, until 1897, that Chinese carry night passes — and they were excluded from high-level public employment until as late as the 1970s and, in some departments, until the mid 1990s. [802] With a truly breathtaking disregard for the truth, in 1994 the British had the gall to claim that ‘racial discrimination in Hong Kong is not a problem’. [803] The fact that racism was the currency of British rule only encouraged the Chinese to behave in a similar way towards those whom they regarded to be their inferiors, namely those of darker skin. It would be naive, however, to think that British behaviour was the main cause of Chinese racism: it was clearly a contributory factor, but the fundamental reason lies in Chinese history and culture. After a major campaign in response to the death, in 2000, of Harinder Veriah, a Malaysian of Indian descent, who complained about serious racial discrimination in a Hong Kong hospital, the government was finally forced to acknowledge that racism was a serious problem and in 2008, mainly as a result of this case, belatedly introduced anti-racist legislation for the first time. [804] But Hong Kong, cosmopolitan and international as it is, remains an essentially biracial city, with whites enjoying a privileged status, along with the Chinese, and those of darker skin banished to the margins as second-class residents or migrant workers. [805]

So what of racism in China itself? When a people and government are in denial of their own racism, then evidence of that racism depends on the witness of those who are the object of it and, as a consequence, predominantly on anecdote rather than anything more systematic. Once there is an established culture of anti-racism — as opposed to simply a culture of racism, which is the situation in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong — it becomes possible to paint a more accurate picture of the incidence of racism, though even then the great bulk of it still remains hidden from view. In Chinese societies, and China in particular, there is no culture of anti-racism except at the very margins because the dominant discourse of Han chauvinism has never been seriously challenged. [806] Racist attitudes are seen as normal and acceptable rather than abnormal and objectionable. As M. Dujon Johnson, a black American scholar of China, puts it:

In Chinese society one of the reasons that the issue of race and racism is rarely discussed openly… is because racism is universally accepted and justified… Racism is… an issue that is not addressed among Chinese because most Chinese see themselves as superior to darker-skinned people. Therefore, within the Chinese mindset it would be a waste of time to address an obvious fact of darker-skinned people’s inferiority. [807]

In the Chinese perception there is a clear racial hierarchy. White people are respected, placed on something of a pedestal and treated with considerable deference by the Chinese; in contrast, darker skin is disapproved of and deplored, the darker the skin the more pejorative the reaction. [808] People from other East Asian countries, traditionally regarded as inferior, are not immune. A Filipina friend studying at Beijing University was shocked by the level of discrimination she experienced. Unlike her white colleagues, who were treated with respect, she often found herself ignored in restaurants, with waiters refusing to serve her. Local Chinese would audibly refer to her as ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’. One day she was refused entry on to a bus by the conductor in a manner that suggested that she was afflicted with a disease that the other passengers might catch; after such public humiliation she avoided travelling by bus. Dujon Johnson, who conducted a survey of the experience of black Americans and Africans in China and Taiwan based on interviews with them, describes how people frequently moved seats when a black person sat next to them on public transport, or proceeded to rub that part of their body that a black person had innocently brushed against in a crowded place as if it required cleansing. Most depressingly of all, African interviewees indicated that they tried to avoid contact with the Chinese public as much as possible and ‘normally venture out only when it is necessary’. [809]

There has been a long history of discrimination against African students in China. Emmanuel Hevi, a Ghanaian who studied there in the early sixties, wrote: ‘In all their dealings with us the Chinese behaved as if they were dealing with people from whom normal intelligence could not be expected.’ [810] In December 1988, after an incident between Chinese and African students at Heihai University in Nanjing, there was a march of over 3,00 °Chinese students to protest against the presence of African students, with demonstrations subsequently spreading to Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere. [811] On some of these marches, the climate was so hostile towards African students that a number of universities decided to move them out of their dormitories because of a perceived threat to their physical safety. No attempt was made by the authorities to halt or prevent the demonstrations, which went on for many days, suggesting that they perhaps enjoyed a certain measure of tacit official sympathy. [812] At Wuhan Industrial College, students marched demanding that ‘all blacks be removed from China ’. [813] According to Dujon Johnson, the race riots and demonstrations in 1988 were by no means unique: similar events occurred in Shanghai in 1979 and 1980, in Nanjing in 1979, 1980, 1988 and 1989, and in Beijing in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989. [814] In September 2007 there was a report that a group of at least twenty black men, including students, tourists and the son of a Caribbean diplomat, had been arrested by a team of police in black jumpsuits in a Beijing night-club and severely beaten. A white American witness reported that: ‘He had never seen anything so brutal. There was blood on the streets. They were basically beating up any black person they could find.’ [815] It should be borne in mind that a black face remains an extremely rare sight in China: in 2006, there were reported to be 600 Africans in Beijing, 500 in Shanghai, 100 in Shenzhen, and over 10,000 in Guangzhou (with a population of 12 million), mainly as a result of the growing trade with Africa. [816] No doubt this lack of familiarity with black people may partly explain the Chinese sense of suspicion and mistrust, but it cannot be the main explanation for the deep-seated racism. Dujon Johnson’s account of the black experience in China avoids recounting his own experiences except at the very end when he writes, ‘[my experiences] demonstrated to me on a daily basis how life in Chinese society is racially segregated and in many aspects similar to a system of racial apartheid.’ [817]

In response to the visit of Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, to Beijing in 2005, there was a flurry of racist postings on the various nationalist websites. The veteran Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was moved to write in protest:

I have browsed China ’s three biggest portals’ BBS articles [blogs] about Rice’s six-nation visit… Just take Sina as an example. I examined over 800 BBS articles… excluding repetitions, there were over 600 articles. Among them, there were nearly 70 articles with racial discrimination, one-tenth of the total… There were only two with a gentle tone, the rest were all extremely disgusting. Many stigmatized Rice as ‘really ugly’… ‘the ugliest in the world’… ‘I really can’t understand how mankind gave birth to a woman like Rice’… Some directly called Rice a ‘black ghost’, a ‘black pig’… ‘a witch’… ‘rubbish of Humans’… Some lament: Americans’ IQ is low — how can they make a ‘black bitch’ Secretary of State… Some, of course, did not forget to stigmatize Rice with animal [names]: ‘chimpanzee’, ‘bird-like’, ‘crocodile’, ‘a piece of rotten meat, mouse shit, [something] dogs will find hard to eat’. [818]

Eventually, the Chinese government felt impelled to shut down these blogs and some of the sites. [819]

The rising tide of popular nationalism in the late nineties, as evinced by the various The China That Can Say No books, the student response to the US bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy, and the nationalist outpourings on leading websites, also contained a significant racial dimension. [820] One of the most influential nationalist writers has been Wang Xiaodong, who co-authored China’s Path under the Shadow of Globalization, published in 1999, which became a bestseller. Wang argued that the rise of Chinese nationalism represented a healthy return to normality after the abnormal phenomenon of what he describes as ‘reverse racism’ in the eighties [821] — ‘the thinking that Chinese culture is inferior and the Chinese people an inferior race’ [822] — when, according to him, many Chinese intellectuals looked to the United States for inspiration and denigrated their own culture. Bizarrely, Wang argues that such reverse racism ‘is not very different from Hitler’s racism’, a remark which suggests that his own view of what constitutes racism is highly idiosyncratic and betrays little understanding of Nazism. [823]

Wang argued, in an article published after the embassy bombing in 1999, that conflict between China and the United States was inevitable because it would be racially motivated: in the eyes of the Americans and West Europeans, ‘oriental’ people are inferior, and he predicted that the ‘race issue will become even more sensitive as biological sciences develop’.

the United States might manufacture genetic weapons that would successfully deal with those radicals who are racially different from Americans and who commit acts of terrorism against the United States. Because it is genetically much easier to differentiate Chinese from Americans than to differentiate Serbians from Americans, genetic weapons targeting the Chinese most likely would be the first to be made. [824]

In similar vein, Ding Xueliang, a Hong Kong-based Chinese scholar, has argued that racial and cultural differences between the United States and China, together with their different political systems and national capacities, would mean that the United States would see China as its major enemy. [825] Such examples are a powerful reminder that race remains a persistently influential factor in Chinese thinking and underpins much nationalist sentiment.


The overseas Chinese have suffered from widespread racism in their adopted countries, including the United States, Australia and Europe, and are rightly very sensitive about the fact. A notable characteristic of the overseas Chinese is the extent to which they tend to keep to themselves as a community. Notwithstanding the serious racism that they have historically experienced in the United States, they did not join with black Americans in the major civil rights campaigns. [826] The most important and largest Chinese communities are in South- East Asia, where they often constitute sizeable minorities — most notably Malaysia, where they account for over a quarter of the population. Historically the overseas Chinese in South-East Asia have suffered various forms of discrimination and this has been a continuing problem since these countries acquired independence following the Second World War. It is important, however, to see the wider context. The Chinese in this region invariably control a large proportion of the non-state economy, often more than half, and enjoy on average a rather higher standard of living than the indigenous ethnic majority. It is common for them to look down on the majority race, and even avoid mixing with them more than is necessary, although many in my experience do not share such prejudices. There are, thus, two sides to the coin: the Chinese, as a minority, experience various forms of discrimination, but at the same time regard themselves as superior to the indigenous majority, hold chauvinistic attitudes towards them, and use their economic power to favour their own and discriminate against the ethnic majority. [827] Indonesian-Chinese writer and successful businessman Richard Oh described the attitude of the Chinese towards Indonesians: ‘The Chinese community tends to recoil from society and makes very little effort to integrate. Although frightened, they are very arrogant and haughty. Where do they get this feeling of being a superior race?’ [828] He volunteered that he preferred the company of Indonesians for this reason.

Such is their sense of Chinese being the norm, and every other race being a deviation from that norm, that the overseas Chinese frequently refer to the host population as foreigners. The British author and journalist James Kynge cites a fascinating example of a Chinese community newspaper in Prato in northern Italy, which ran a front-page story about ‘three foreign thieves’ responsible for various burglaries in the local Chinatown. When Kynge rang the editor he discovered that not only were the ‘foreign thieves’ actually Italian, but that anyone who was not Chinese was automatically regarded as a foreigner, and that the same convention was used in all Chinese-language papers around the world. [829] Lucian Pye explains: ‘The Chinese see such an absolute difference between themselves and others that even when living in lonely isolation in distant countries they unconsciously find it natural and appropriate to refer to those in whose homeland they are living as “foreigners”.’ [830]

A particularly striking feature of overseas Chinese communities is the extent to which, wherever they are living, they seek to retain their sense of Chineseness. In many South-East Asian countries, Chinese often prefer to send their children to a Chinese rather than a local school, with the Chinese community often sponsoring a large number of such schools. In many Western countries, where their relative numbers are much smaller, the Chinese community organizes Chinese Sunday schools at which their children can become conversant in Mandarin and familiar with Chinese culture. In San Francisco, which has a large Chinese population, there is an extensive ‘Roots’ project, where Chinese-Americans visit their ancestral villages in China in order to find out about and hopefully meet their distant relatives. [831] One of the participants in 1997, Evan Leong, then a student at the University of California, writes fascinatingly about his experiences and feelings.

Even though my great-great-great-grandfather came to the United States more than 125 years ago, I have not homogenized to become an ‘American’. No matter what people call me, what clothes I wear, what food I eat, what my tastes are, what race my friends are, or what girls I date, I still know that I am Chinese. [832]

He writes:

The general sentiment among both groups [US-born Chinese and those newly arrived from China] was shared — that China and Chinese people were far superior to any other race. [833]

The newly arrived enjoyed greater kudos than those born in the US because they were seen as more authentically Chinese, the opposite to what often happens with migrants from the developing world in the developed world. He also describes his family’s attachment to Chinese customs:

Even though I am so distant and different from my blood relatives in China, my American ancestors have continued to practice many Chinese customs. Our extended families gather together often for holidays and birthdays. We clean and prepare our houses and wear new clothes for Chinese New Year rituals. We pay our respects to my grandfather’s grave… during Ching Ming and other important dates. [834]

The cohesive ties of Chinese identity have found expression in the notion of Greater China, a cultural and civilizational idea rather than a territorial or political entity. [835] Greater China is seen as embracing all Chinese, with China at the centre, circled by Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Singapore, together with the numerous Chinese communities around the world, and has become an increasingly popular concept amongst Chinese over the last quarter century. The strength of these bonds is rooted in a shared inheritance of Chinese civilization, thereby adding a further dimension to the notion of China as a civilization-state. Despite the legacy of political differences, the overseas Chinese, especially those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have made a formidable contribution to Chinese economic growth through huge investments in the mainland. [836] In contrast, Russian émigrés chose to shun the Soviet Union, and the Indian diaspora has historically made a much less significant contribution to Indian growth than its Chinese counterpart. Strong centripetal forces operate in Greater China, as within China itself, with the Chinese, wherever they are, feeling a powerful sense of attachment to the homeland.

This found a new form of expression during the torch relay that was staged around the world as part of the build-up to the Beijing Olympics. In London, Paris, Athens and San Francisco, the celebrations were overshadowed by counter-demonstrations in protest at Chinese policy over Tibet. But elsewhere the picture was very different. In Canberra 10,000 demonstrated in favour of the Games, hugely outnumbering the protesters. In Seoul, thousands turned out in support of the Olympics, as they did in Nagano in Japan, in both cases dwarfing the number of protesters; likewise in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong. Everywhere those demonstrating their support for the Beijing Games were overwhelmingly Chinese, either students from the mainland or people from the local Chinese community. [837]

Not surprisingly, the overseas Chinese feel enormous pride in China ’s rise. After two centuries during which their homeland was synonymous with poverty and failure, China has risen to a position of great global prominence and allure in a remarkably short space of time. Television channels the world over are pouring out programmes about China and in many countries people are signing up in large numbers to learn Mandarin. The gravitational pull exercised by China on its overseas communities has increased markedly as a result. My son’s Sunday Mandarin School decided to cancel lessons for the day in order to join the London festivities for the Olympic relay. For them China was coming home and being embraced by their adopted city. There was real delight in China ’s achievement and the global recognition that the Olympics signified.

In taking to the streets in support of the Beijing Olympics in so many cities around the world and in such large numbers, the overseas Chinese proved a powerful political force in their adopted countries, as well as for the Chinese government. This kind of phenomenon, of course, is neither new nor particularly Chinese: diasporas in many countries have long played a significant role in support of their homeland, the most potent post-war example being that provided by the Jewish diaspora for Israel. The Chinese diaspora, however, has several characteristics which together mark it out as somewhat distinct. It is numerically large and spread all around the globe, from Africa to Europe, East Asia to the Americas; for historical and cultural reasons, it enjoys an unusually strong identification with the Middle Kingdom; and China is already a global power, and destined to become the most powerful country in the world. As its rise continues and Chinese worldwide interests grow, the Chinese diaspora is likely to greatly expand, become increasingly prosperous, buoyed by China’s own economic success, enjoy enhanced prestige as a result of China’s rising status, and feel an even closer affinity with China.


China will, like other great powers, see the world in terms of its own history and values, and seek to shape the world in accordance with them. The world, however, contains great diversity and difference. No country, not even one as large as China, can even vaguely be regarded as a microcosm of it. The attitude of China towards difference — the diverse cultures, histories, ethnicities, races and values embodied by other peoples — is therefore of great consequence. How will the Chinese treat people who are different from them? To what extent will a rising China respect them and seek to understand them? Will its own history allow an outlook that enables it to appreciate the very different experiences of others? These are difficult questions to answer, firstly because China has spent virtually all of its history isolated from the rest of the world — excepting its regional neighbours — and secondly because the answers obviously still lie in the future: China’s present behaviour can only be regarded as a partial indicator, simply because its power and influence remain limited compared with what they are likely to become. From the foregoing discussion, there are a number of elements that should be considered.

China ’s own experience of race is unique. Although once comprised of countless races, China is now dominated by what the Chinese regard to be one race, the Han Chinese, with the other races — described as ‘nationalities’ — accounting for less than 9 per cent of the population (though this is still 105 million people). [838] ‘The Chinese may have different origins,’ argues Wang Xiaodong, ‘but 95 per cent of them believe they are from the same race.’ [839] This melding is a function of China’s extraordinarily long and continuous history, the slow and long-drawn-out process by which the Han Chinese were created and came to represent and embody the overwhelming bulk of the population. The Chinese writer Huang Ping puts it like this: ‘The process by which the Chinese [within China] became hegemonic was the process which also resulted in the subordination and dissolving of ethnic difference — the process of the formation of Chineseness.’ [840] As a consequence, the Chinese tend to downplay or disregard ethnic difference, holding it to be largely transient. There is, as a result, a lack of recognition of other ethnicities, which are seen as subordinate, inferior, and not deserving of equal respect. The idea of overwhelming racial homogeneity, in the context of a huge population, makes the Chinese, in global terms, unique. As Jared Diamond points out, four of the world’s other most populous countries — India, the United States, Brazil and Indonesia — are not only relatively recent creations but are also ‘ethnic melting pots’ comprising many races and languages; in contrast, China is neither recent nor a melting pot. [841] Many Han Chinese, in contrast, believe that they are not only of one race, but that they share a common and distinct origin, and that, at least figuratively speaking, they are descended from the Yellow Emperor in northern China. The perception and the ideology are quite different from anywhere else in the world and inevitably pose the question as to the ability of the Chinese to understand and respect the very different formation and make-up of other countries. The world’s other most populous countries, in particular India, the US, Brazil and Indonesia, recognize their diverse origins and the heterogeneity of their contemporary populations; indeed, in varying degrees, they celebrate their diversity. In China ’s case, there is a de facto coincidence of race and nation — except, relatively speaking, at the margins — which is simply not true of the other most populous countries. [842] In practice, though not formally, the Han Chinese think of themselves overwhelmingly as a nation-race.

China ’s own unique experience inevitably influences its perception of others. ‘Because the Han Chinese see themselves as all the same,’ argues Huang Ping, ‘is also the reason why they see everyone else, for example Indians and Africans, in the same terms.’ [843] China, in other words, faces a profound problem in trying to comprehend the nature of ethnic difference in the outside world. As we have seen, the problem is graphically illustrated by the attitude towards the Tibetans and Uighurs: the Han have pursued a policy of absorption, assimilation and settlement based on a belief in their own virtue and superiority rather than a respect for and acceptance of ethnic and cultural difference. Huang Ping argues:

China has a lot of learning to do, not least… learning who we are, where we came from and how it happened… People should not take it for granted that people are Chinese. This has been the result of a historically-constructed process. They take it as a given when it is not. We can do a bit of teaching [to the outside world], but only after we have done a lot of learning. [844]

Given how historically entrenched these attitudes are, however, any serious change is bound to take an extremely long time. In the meantime, China’s ethnic mentality will inevitably exercise a powerful influence over its attitude and behaviour towards other peoples: the Chinese will tend to see the world in terms of a complex racial and cultural hierarchy, with the Chinese at the top, followed by whites, and, notwithstanding the anti-imperialist line of the Maoist era, those of darker skin somewhere at or near the bottom.

Another notable feature of the Chinese is their enormous sense of self-confidence, born of their long history and the dazzling success of their civilization for so much of it, a self-confidence which has withstood quite remarkably the vicissitudes and disasters of the century between the Opium Wars and the 1949 Revolution. These, nonetheless, have left their mark. In a book entitled The Ugly Chinaman, which was widely circulated in China in 1986, Bo Yang, a Taiwan-Chinese, described the Chinese as constantly wavering between two extremes — ‘a chronic feeling of inferiority and extreme arrogance. In his inferiority, a Chinese person is a slave; in his arrogance, he is a tyrant. In the inferiority mode, everyone else is better than he is… Similarly, in the arrogant mode, no other human being on earth is worth the time of day.’ [845] This captures the way in which the ‘century of humiliation’ has affected the Chinese psyche, and the consequent brittleness of emotion. It would be wrong, however, to suggest, as Bo Yang does, that the Chinese have ever felt inferior to everyone: towards whites at times, but never towards those of darker skin. Nonetheless, what remain most striking are not the periods of doubt but, given the problems that have beset the country for most of the modern era, the fact that the Chinese have continued to regard themselves as being at the summit of the global hierarchy of race. True, in moments of vulnerability, the Chinese sometimes acknowledge that they are second to whites, or perhaps equal with them, but this is only regarded as a temporary situation before normality is again restored. Chen Kuan-Hsing argues:

This universal chauvinism… has provided a psychic mechanism for the Han to confront imperialist intervention and to make life more bearable and more live-able — ‘These (white) foreign devils can beat us by material force, but can never conquer our mind’ — … but at the same time, exactly the same logic of racist discrimination… can be utilized to discriminate against anyone living at the periphery of China. A sharp-edged shield can be used for self-defence, but can also be a weapon to kill… [846]

Another Taiwanese writer, Lu Liang, is unambiguous about underlying Chinese attitudes: ‘Deep down the Chinese believe that they are superior to Westerners and everyone else.’ [847] No other people from a developing country possess anything like this sense of supreme self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

It would be wrong to regard this feeling of superiority as purely or perhaps even mainly racial in character. Rather it is a combination of both cultural and racial, and has been such for thousands of years. [848] The steady expansion of the Chinese empire rested firstly on a process of conquest and secondly on a slow process of absorption and assimilation. As we have seen, Chinese attitudes fluctuated between regarding other races as incapable of adaptation to Chinese ways, or alternatively believing they could be assimilated, depending on how self-confident the Chinese felt at the time and the precise balance of power. Expansion, in other words, was a hegemonic project, a desire to absorb other races, to civilize them, to teach them Chinese ways and to integrate them into the Chinese self. Given that the notion of ‘Chinese’ was constantly being redefined in the process of expansion and absorption — including the case of those dynasties, like the Qing, that were not Chinese — it is clear that the idea of ‘race’ was not — and could not be — static or frozen: it was steadily, if very slowly, mutating. Thus, while race is a particularistic and exclusionary concept in the present, this did not prevent the process of hegemonic absorption and assimilation in the long run.

The fact that the Chinese regard themselves as superior to the rest of the human race, and that this belief has a strong racial component, will confront the rest of the world with a serious problem. It is one thing to hold such attitudes when China is relatively poor and powerless, quite another for those attitudes to inform a country when it enjoys huge global power and influence. Of course, there is a clear parallel with European and Western attitudes, which have similarly been based on an abiding sense of superiority rooted in cultural and racial beliefs. [849] There are, though, two obvious differences: first, China ’s hubris has a much longer history and second, the Chinese represent one-fifth of the world’s population, a far larger proportion than, for example, Britain or the United States at their zenith have ever constituted. Precisely how this sense of superiority will inform China ’s behaviour as a global superpower is a crucial question.

The Chinese believe that China ’s rightful place is as the world’s leading power, and that the last two centuries represent a deviation from the historical norm. Every Chinese leader over the last century has regarded it as their historic task to overcome the national humiliation represented by the colonial era and to restore China to its lost grandeur. [850] A nation like Germany may have felt a need to right past wrongs, but these grievances were invariably of relatively recent origin; uniquely, China ’s have lasted well over a century. The idea of China ’s restoration is rather succinctly expressed by Yan Xuetong, one of China ’s leading international relations experts:

The rise of China is granted by nature. The Chinese are very proud of their early achievements in the human history of civilization. In the last 2,000 years China has enjoyed superpower status several times, such as the Han dynasty, the Tang dynasty and the early Qing dynasty… This history of superpower status makes the Chinese people very proud of their country on the one hand, and on the other hand very sad about China’s current international status. They believe China ’s decline is a historical mistake which they should correct… The Chinese regard their rise as regaining China ’s lost international status rather than as obtaining something new. [851]

Or, as Lucian Pye puts it: ‘The most pervasive underlying Chinese emotion is a profound, unquestioned, generally unshakeable identification with historical greatness. Merely to be Chinese is to be a part of the greatest phenomenon of history.’ [852] The rise of China and its restoration as the number one nation in the world is widely regarded as a matter of historical inevitability.

The roots of China ’s sense of difference, superiority and greatness lie not in its recent past as a nation-state — indeed, its period as a nation-state largely overlaps, at least until very recently, with its historical ignominy and humiliation — but in its much longer history and existence as a civilization-state. There are two key elements to this. First, there is China ’s belief in its cultural superiority, which dates back at least two millennia and which underpinned the expansion of the Chinese empire. Second, there is the idea of China ’s racial superiority, which is closely linked to its cultural hubris and which anchors the latter in nature, that to be born Chinese, rather than as a ‘for eigner’, ‘barbarian’ or ‘foreign devil’, carries a special status and significance. Together they constitute what might be described as the Middle Kingdom mentality. The historically arresting fact is simply how old these beliefs and convictions actually are. The obvious parallel is with Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations: but it is unimaginable that modern Egyptians, Greeks or Italians would believe that the efflorescence of their civilizations in ancient times would offer any guide or solace as to their present or future fortunes — yet that is precisely what the Chinese almost universally believe. This is not to suggest that the Chinese identity is fixed: on the contrary, the creation of a Chinese modernity is subjecting ‘Chineseness’ to a process of restless change, disorientation, reconstruction and turmoil. [853] That these belief systems date back to antiquity, however, suggests that they not only possess extraordinary historical stamina and resilience but that they are unlikely, in important respects, to change in the near future: rather, China ’s rise is likely to strengthen them.

The problem with Western commentary on China has been its overwhelming preoccupation with China ’s polity, in particular the lack of democracy and its Communist government, and, to a lesser extent, its potential military threat. In fact, the challenge posed by the rise of China is far more likely to be cultural in nature, as expressed in the Middle Kingdom mentality. Or, to put it another way, the most difficult question posed by the rise of China is not the absence of democracy but how it will handle difference. A country’s attitude towards the rest of the world is largely determined by its history and culture. The power of each new hegemonic nation or continent is invariably expressed in novel ways: for Europe, the classic form was maritime expansion and colonial empires, for the United States it was airborne superiority and global economic hegemony. Chinese power, similarly, will take new and innovative forms. The Chinese tradition is very distinct from that of the West, even though there are certain affinities, notably a shared belief in universalism, a civilizing mission and a sense of inherent superiority. Although the Chinese steadily augmented their territory as a result of land-based expansion, there has been no equivalent of Western overseas expansion or the European colonization of large tracts of the world. The most likely motif of Chinese hegemony lies in the area of culture and race. The Chinese sense of cultural self-confidence and superiority, rooted in their long and rich history as a civilization-state, is utterly different from the United States, which has no such legacy to draw on, and contrasts with Europe too, if less strongly. The Chinese have a deeply hierarchical view of the world based on culture and race. As a consequence, the rise of China as a global superpower is likely to lead, over a protracted period of time, to a profound cultural and racial reordering of the world in the Chinese image. As China draws countries and continents into its web, as is happening already with Africa, they will not simply be economic supplicants of a hugely powerful China but also occupy a position of cultural and ethnic inferiority in an increasingly influential Chinese-ordered global hierarchy.

9. China’s Own Backyard

In the early nineties books about China were relatively few and far between. The story was still, for the most part, the Asian tigers, and most Western writers seemed to park themselves in Hong Kong and Singapore and view China and the region through that prism. My first visits to the region followed a similar pattern: both island-states always seemed to be on my itinerary, partly because they provided a ready-made network of contacts and partly because English was widely spoken. Given this cultural baggage, it is not surprising that China was generally seen in derivative terms: it was all a question of when and to what extent China would become infected with the Hong Kong bug. When Hong Kong was finally returned to China in 1997, the British, self-congratulatory almost to a person, were deeply sceptical as to whether the territory would thrive in the way that it had under the British; predictably they believed that China ’s future hung on the extent to which it became like Hong Kong. In this view, China ’s prospects depended on learning from everyone else, with the recommended direction of wisdom invariably proceeding from the outside inwards rather than from within outwards. This contained a kernel of truth: the transformation of the region had, indeed, begun outside China. The role and importance of Hong Kong and Singapore in this wider process, however, is a moot point; far more significant were Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which looked far less like, and owed much less to, the West than these micro-states.

In fact, this mindset was deeply patronizing towards China. It suggested that China was an empty vessel that needed filling up with Western ideas and know-how. Certainly China had much to learn from the West, but its subsequent transformation has been more home-grown than Western import. In fact, if China ’s growth in the 1980s had relied heavily on the resources and knowledge of Hong Kong and Taiwanese entrepreneurs, by the nineties the direction of influence was in the process of being reversed, with the Middle Kingdom once more becoming the centre of influence, power and wealth. A map of East Asia in the eighties might reasonably have had the lines of influence and capital running from a miscellany of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the overseas Chinese into China itself. Now it is the opposite. The hubs no longer lie around China ’s borders but are congregated within.

While Hong Kong is still recognizably Hong Kong, economically it has been remade by China, the size of its stock exchange now comfortably surpassed by Shanghai ’s. Who now would choose to go to Hong Kong when you can find the real thing in Beijing or Shanghai? For more than a decade Taiwan has needed China more than China has needed Taiwan, with its economy suffering increasingly from its relative isolation from China. Meanwhile the reversal of the lines of causation between China on one hand and Hong Kong and Taiwan on the other are being repeated on a far grander scale across the region. Everywhere the magnet is China. Where previously the story was outside China, now all roads lead to China. China ’s growth and dynamism are spilling over its borders, infecting countless other countries far and wide, from Laos and Cambodia [854] to South Korea and Japan, from Indonesia and Malaysia to the Philippines and even Australia. East Asia is being reconfigured by China ’s rise. The agenda of the region is being set in Beijing.

The rise of China is best seen not from the vantage point of the United States or Europe, or for that matter Africa or Latin America, but East Asia. It is in China ’s own backyard that the reverberations of its rise are already being felt most dramatically and in the most far-reaching ways. If we want to understand China ’s rise, and what it might mean for the world, then this should be our starting point. The way in which China handles its rise and exercises its growing power in the East Asian region will be a very important indicator of how it is likely to behave as a global power. [855]

It is difficult to achieve the status of a global power without first becoming the dominant power in one’s own region. Britain is unusual in this respect: it acquired global hegemony in the nineteenth century even though it didn’t succeed in achieving a decisive pre-eminence in Europe. In contrast, the United States, confronted with no serious rivals, achieved overwhelming dominance in the Americas prior to becoming a global superpower in the second half of the twentieth century. China faces a far more formidable task in seeking to become the premier power in East Asia. The region accounts for one-third of the world’s population and China has to contend with two rivals, namely Japan and the United States, which stand in the way of its ambitions. Japan is the most advanced as well as largest (as measured by GDP according to exchange rates) economy in the region, while the United States, by virtue of its military alliances, bases and especially naval presence, remains the most powerful military force in East Asia. Furthermore, China shares borders with Russia to its north and India to its south-west, both of which are powerful players. China ’s path to regional pre-eminence will be paved with difficulty and is bound to be a complicated process.

History, however, offers some succour for China ’s ambitions. Until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, China enjoyed overwhelming regional dominance: it was to the Middle Kingdom that all others, in varying degrees — depending on their distance from Beijing — paid homage, acknowledging their status as the Celestial Kingdom ’s inferior. It was a hierarchical system of relations whose tentacles stretched across much of East Asia, with China at its centre. In the tributary system, as it was known, non-Chinese rulers observed the appropriate forms and ceremonies in their contact with the Chinese emperor. Taken together, those practices constituted the tribute system. During the Qing period they included receiving a noble rank in the Qing hierarchy, dating their communications by the Qing calendar, presenting tribute memorials on statutory occasions together with a symbolic gift of local products, performing the kow-tow at the Qing court, receiving imperial gifts in return and being granted certain trading privileges and protection. [856] If a ruler recognized the superiority of Chinese civilization and paid tribute to the emperor, then the emperor generally pursued a policy of non-interference, leaving domestic matters to the local ruler. It was thus an essentially cultural and moral rather than administrative or economic system. The emperor exercised few coercive powers but maintained control for the most part symbolically. The fact that Chinese hegemony was exercised in such a light and relatively superficial way enabled it to be maintained over a huge and very diverse population for long periods of time. The tributary system was far from universal, but Korea, part of Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar all paid tributes to China, while a large number of South-East Asian states, including Malacca and Thailand, either paid tribute or acknowledged Chinese suzerainty. Those countries that were closer to China in terms of geography and culture were considered to be more equal than those that were not. So, for example, China was considered the big brother, Korea a middle brother and Japan a younger brother.

Given the extent of the system, the diversity of the countries and cultures embraced, and the vast time-period involved, it would be wrong to conceive of the tributary system as uniform or monolithic. Varying from country to country and from dynasty to dynasty, [857] the Chinese world order might appropriately be described, in the Chinese historian William A. Callahan’s words, as ‘one civilization, many systems’. [858] Although they shared things in common, the tributary system worked very differently, for example, for Japan and Korea, with Japan enjoying much greater autonomy from China than Korea, and from time to time even rebelling against the tributary system. No doubt this partly explains why later Japan was able to display such remarkable independence of action in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration, with its rejection of the Sinocentric world and its turn to the West. [859] Perhaps it also helps to explain South Korea ’s recent turn towards China. Notwithstanding these variations, however, the common thread running through the tributary system was an acceptance of China ’s cultural superiority. This was the reason why the acceding states voluntarily acquiesced in an arrangement which they regarded to be in their interests as well as the Middle Kingdom’s. [860] The relative stability of the tributary system over such a long historical period was partly a function of its flexibility but, above all, because China was overwhelmingly dominant within it: inequality, in other words, served to promote order. [861] From the second half of the nineteenth century, with the growing power of the European nations and the decline of China, the European-conceived Westphalian system, together with its colonial subsystem, steadily replaced the tributary system as the organizing principle of interstate relations in the region, or, more accurately, perhaps, was superimposed upon the existing system. [862]

Given that it constituted the regional system in East Asia for more than 2,500 years, the tributary system remains deeply embedded in the historical memory of the region. Most countries in East Asia had some experience of it, often as recently as a century ago, and certainly not more than a century and a half ago. Even as it began to break down towards the end of the century, elements of the tributary system continued to survive until well into the twentieth century. While it seems inconceivable that any future Chinese hegemony in East Asia could take the form of the old tributary system, it is certainly reasonable to entertain the idea that it could bear at least some of its traces. There is still an overwhelming assumption on the part of the Chinese that their natural position lies at the epicentre of East Asia, that their civilization has no equals in the region, and that their rightful position, as bestowed by history, will at some point be restored in the future. China still frequently refers to its Asian neighbours as ‘periphery countries’, suggesting that old ways of thinking have not changed as much as one might expect. [863] Former habits and attitudes have a strange way of reasserting themselves in new contexts. It would not be entirely surprising, therefore, if elements of the old tribute system were to find renewed expression as China once again emerges as the dominant centre of the East Asian economy. [864]

We are, thus, confronted with a number of intriguing questions. Will China regain its regional pre-eminence? How long is that likely to take? How might it be achieved? What might that regional pre-eminence look like, what forms will it take, and to what extent might it bear strong echoes of the past?


At the beginning of the 1990s China, with the reform era already a decade old, still existed for the most part in a state of splendid isolation, a condition that it had inherited from the Maoist era. The suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstration exacerbated this state of affairs, leading to China ’s estrangement by the West and its condemnation by Japan. [865] Throughout the nineties, China steadfastly refused to countenance being a party to any regional multilateral arrangements, [866] fearing that it would be obliged to play second-fiddle to Japan, aware that the United States was strongly opposed to regional organizations from which it was likely to be excluded [867] and, not least, still imbued with that traditional regional aloofness born of its pervasive sense of superiority. It was only in the early 1990s that China had established diplomatic relations with South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. [868] By the end of the decade, however, China had determined on a very different strategy, one that it was to implement with breathtaking speed.

Already, in 1994, it had established the Shanghai Five with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union in Central Asia and a desire to engage with Russia and foster co operation on its traditionally troublesome north-western border. It was not until 2001, however, with the formal establishment of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), that this was to be translated into something more thorough-going, with a permanent office in Shanghai, the addition of Uzbekistan and the acquisition of new and more extensive functions. [869] The purpose of the SCO would appear to be threefold: to promote cooperation in Central Asia, to counter Islamic extremism and to resist American influence in the region. Over the subsequent years, India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan have acquired observer status, while representatives are also invited from ASEAN and the CIS (composed of the former Soviet Republics). SCO’s future is difficult to assess but it certainly represents a powerful bloc of Central Asian countries and, significantly, remains outside the aegis of American influence. The heart of China ’s new strategy, though, lay not to its north-west but to its south-east, a region towards which, in comparison, China had for centuries displayed for the most part benign neglect and traditional indifference. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the fulcrum of China ’s strategy in East Asia — certainly as it has evolved over the last decade — came to hinge on a volte-face in its attitude towards ASEAN, the organization of the ten nations of South-East Asia that was formed in 1967. [870]

How do we explain China ’s belated embrace of multilateralism? First and foremost, its dramatic economic growth after 1978 generated a growing sense of self-confidence and enabled the country to entertain new and more ambitious perspectives. Second, by the turn of the century China was on the verge of membership of the World Trade Organization, thereby marking its entry into the global international system and signalling its global acceptance of multilateralism. Third, China felt increasingly comfortable about its position in the region and confident that it would not be required to play the role of subordinate to Japan. Finally, as a consequence of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-8, which ravaged the economies of South-East Asia (and South Korea), China found itself thrown into an increasingly close relationship with them. As they struggled to emerge from the effects of the crisis, now rudely aware — after a long period of spectacular economic growth — of their vulnerability to global volatility and bruised by the damaging effects of the US and IMF-imposed solutions to the crisis, the ASEA N countries began to see China in a new light. [871] From being a rival to be feared, its motives always the subject of suspicion, China increasingly came to be seen as a friend and partner, primarily because it refrained from devaluing the renminbi, a move which would have inflicted even further pain on their economies, together with its willingness to extend aid and interest-free loans during the crisis. [872] The Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad remarked in 1999: ‘Chi na’s performance in the Asian financial crisis has been laudable, and the countries in this region… greatly appreciated China ’s decision not to devalue the yuan [renminbi]. China ’s cooperation and high sense of responsibility has spared the region a much worse consequence.’ [873]

A decade earlier a rapprochement between ASEAN and China would have been inconceivable; now it had a certain air of inevitability. But it required, on the part of the Chinese, a leap of imagination, a new kind of mindset, a willingness to abandon old ways of thinking, and a boldness that had previously characterized their economic reform programme, though not their conduct of regional relations.

What was surprising was not simply that China was suddenly prepared to embrace multilateralism in the region but also the manner in which it did so. This, after all, was the country that down the ages, from Tang to Mao, had regarded its neighbours with a sense of superiority and indifference: China did not need its neighbours, but they needed it. Yet China was prepared to engage with ASEAN, an organization composed — broadly speaking — of the weakest nations in East Asia, and to do so on its terms rather than China ’s. China ’s approach, in other words, was informed by a new and unfamiliar humility. Historically, North-East Asia, home to old and powerful civilizations like Japan and Korea as well as China, has been overwhelmingly predominant over the much less developed South-East Asia, where a lower level of economic development, ethnic diversity and a weak sense of nationhood have long been manifest. [874] There was now a remarkable inversion, at least in terms of diplomacy, of this traditional state of affairs.

From the ASEAN perspective, the origins of the new rapprochement lay in two initiatives. The first was the decision taken in 1992 to establish AFTA — the ASEAN Free Trade Area — which required the ten member states to remove all barriers to free trade by 2010. [875] The second was a call made by Mahathir Mohamed in 1990 that East Asia should establish an East Asian Economic Group, later termed the East Asian Economic Caucus, as a means of offsetting the negative effects of the Western-dominated international economic order. [876] The proposal was supported by ASEAN but opposed by Japan, and it was only after the Asian financial crisis that it gained serious momentum. Mahathir’s initiative stemmed from his conviction that membership of East Asian bodies should be confined to countries within the region and his antipathy to APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), which included non-Asian members like the US and Australia. In fact Mahathir’s position prefigured what was to become an increasingly important fault line within the region — the exclusion or inclusion of the United States — with Japan always favouring inclusion and China, sotto voce, tending to favour — though not always — exclusion.

The shift in China ’s approach took place between 1997 and 2001. [877] At a China-ASEAN summit in 2001 — known as ASEAN+1 (i.e., China) — China proposed the creation of a China-ASEAN free trade area to be established by 2010 (initial discussions had begun in 1999). [878] The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, or ACFTA as it became known, was an extraordinarily bold proposal to create a market of almost 2 billion people, thereby making it by far the largest free trade area in the world. [879] The ASEAN countries had become increasingly nervous about the effect China ’s growing economic power might have on their own exports and also their inward foreign investment: its proposal for a free trade area helped reassure them that China would not pursue economic growth regardless of the consequences for others. At the ASEAN-China summit in 2003, China formally acceded to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation — which committed China to the core elements of ASEAN’s 1967 Charter — the first non-ASEAN country to do so (India has since followed). In 2002 it also signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which rejected the use of force in resolving the disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands. [880] These had been a serious and continuing source of tension between China on the one hand and Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei on the other, culminating in military conflict with Vietnam [881] and the Philippines. [882] The agreements between ASEAN and China were to have a major impact on the political dynamics of East Asia. Prior to them Japan, which had long been the major external player in the South-East Asian economies, had resisted entering into regional trade agreements, preferring instead to operate by means of bilateral agreements. Japan now suddenly found itself on the back foot, outmanoeuvred by China ’s bold diplomacy, and ever since it has been running to catch up. [883]

Already, in 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, there had been the first ASEAN+3 summit (China, Japan and South Korea) and this was later formalized into a regular event. At the ASEAN+3 summit in 2003, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao proposed that a study be made into the feasibility of an East Asian Free Trade Area, which was accepted. [884] Following China ’s lead, in 2005 Japan started to negotiate its own Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN, which was agreed upon in outline form in 2007. In 2009 Australia and New Zealand did likewise. There is now a complex web of Free Trade Agreements in the process of negotiation in East Asia which is intended to act ultimately as the basic infrastructure of a wider East Asian Free Trade Agreement, designed to be in place around 2007 and implemented before 2020. [885] Whether this ever materializes, of course, is another question, but the progress towards a lowering of tariffs in the region — with China in the driving seat — stands in marked contrast to the effective demise of the WTO Doha round, a point lost on neither ASEAN nor the rest of East Asia. [886]

ASEAN lies at the core of the new East Asian arrangements and has provided them with their template. Although South-East Asia has always been the poor relation in the region (in 1999, for example, the GDP of the North- East Asian economy was more than nine times that of ASEAN), [887] it would have been impossible for North-East Asia to have played the same role because the latter remains too divided, riven by the animosity between Japan and China, and to a lesser extent that between South Korea and Japan, as well as distracted by the disputes over Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. As a result there is nothing like ASEAN in North-East Asia: such formal multilateral arrangements are almost completely absent. An important consequence of these various developments has been the effective exclusion of the United States from economic diplomacy in the region. This has never been China ’s stated aim, [888] but, intended or otherwise, it is what has happened in practice. The centrality that APEC enjoyed in the mid nineties, and in which the US was a key player, [889] now seems a distant memory. The marginalization of the US is also manifest in the Chiang Mai Initiative, first agreed in 2000 on the proposal of the Chinese, [890] which involves bilateral currency swap arrangements between the ASEAN countries, China, Japan and South Korea, thereby enabling East Asian countries to support a regional currency that finds itself under attack. The agreement was a direct product of the Japanese proposal for an Asian Monetary Fund during the Asian financial crisis, [891] which was strongly opposed at the time by both the United States (on the grounds that it would undermine the IMF) and China (because it came from Japan). China has since swallowed its opposition — no doubt in large part due to the strengthening position of the renminbi — while the United States, weakened by the IMF debacle in the Asian financial crisis, has not resisted. [892]

If ASEAN has provided the canvas, it is the diplomatic involvement and initiative of China that has actually redrawn the East Asian landscape. In effect, China has been searching out ways in which it might emerge as the regional leader. [893] Underpinning its growing influence has been the transformation in its economic power. This has been the real driver of change in East Asia, the force that is reconfiguring the region. Unlike the European Union, where economic integration followed politics, in East Asia economics has been the dynamo of change, with political change following in its wake. [894] In North-East Asia, intra-regional trade — even in the absence of formally binding agreements — now accounts for 52 per cent of the total trade of the five economies (China, Japan, Taiwan and the two Koreas), a situation that has been achieved in little more than a decade; the equivalent figure for the European Union is 60 per cent, which it took half a century to reach. [895] Between 1991 and 2001, world trade increased by 177 per cent, whereas intra-regional trade in East Asia, despite the Asian financial crisis, increased by a staggering 304 per cent. By far the most important reason has been the growth of China, whose share in intra-regional trade almost doubled between 1990 and 2002. [896] With the emergence of the first Asian tigers in the early sixties, followed by the later examples, including China itself, the East Asian economy used to be seen in terms of ‘flying geese’, with Japan in the lead and the others flying in formation behind. [897] But with China ’s economic rise during the 1990s, Japan ’s role as the most important economy in the region is rapidly being challenged by China. Between 1980 and 2002, while China’s share of East Asian exports increased from 6 per cent to 25 per cent, Japan’s fell from 50 per cent to below 30 per cent; similarly, while China’s share of East Asian imports over the same period increased from 8 per cent to 21 per cent, Japan’s fell from 48 per cent to 27 per cent. [898] Even at the peak of its economic power, Japan’s role was always limited by the fact that it steadfastly refused to open up its economy to exports from its neighbours (other than those from its own foreign subsidiaries) — or, indeed, to the rest of the world — so its influence was largely exercised by a combination of its own foreign direct investment in Japanese overseas subsidiaries, imports from those Japanese subsidiaries and Japanese exports to the region. In contrast China ’s influence, because it has chosen to have an extremely open economy, is far more multifarious — as a market for the products of the region, as an exporter and as a multifaceted investor.

Figure 24. Growing importance of Chinese market.

Zhang Yunling, one of the architects of China ’s new strategy, and Tang Shiping have described the aim as: ‘to make China a locomotive for regional growth by serving as a market for regional states and a provider of investment and technology’. [899] The most obvious expression of this has been the way in which, in less than a decade, China has become one of — if not the — most important market for many countries in the region: in a few years’ time, it seems likely that it will be the single largest market for every country in the region. For the ASEAN countries, the Chinese market is now three times the size of Japan ’s. [900] No country — not even Japan, whose trade with China has recently overtaken that with the United States — can afford to ignore the Chinese market, or, as a consequence, China. [901] Since 200 °China ’s imports from ASEAN have increased at an annual rate of 30–40 per cent. [902] China, for example, accounted for 13.2 per cent of Singapore ’s exports in 2001, compared with 2.5 per cent in 1993, 18.5 per cent of South Korea ’s exports in 2001, compared with 6 per cent in 1993, and 9.2 per cent of Australia ’s exports in 2000, compared with 6 per cent in 1994. [903] It was widely feared in South-East Asia that Chinese imports from the ASEAN countries would be overwhelmingly comprised of raw materials. Certainly these are very significant, a case in point being the huge Chinese demand for timber, which is rapidly stripping the Indonesian forests. [904] The most important single category of ASEAN exports to China, however, is composed of intermediate goods. China is where the final assembly of many products of foreign-owned multinationals (American, European, Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean) takes place prior to their export to their final destination. Countries like Malaysia and Thailand thus occupy a crucial niche in a complex division of labour centred on China. [905] In addition, China is assuming the role of an increasingly important investor in the region, with a large quantity of investment aimed at the extractive industries and infrastructure like railways, toll roads and refineries, in order to speed the flow of natural resources to the Chinese market. In 2002, 60 per cent of China ’s total foreign direct investment was directed towards Asia, [906] making it by far the most important destination. As a consequence, Chinese investment in South-East Asia has helped to compensate for the decline in Western investment over the last few years.

Zhang Yunling and Tang Shiping have described China ’s regional strategy in the following terms: ‘participate actively, demonstrate restraint, offer reassurance, open markets, foster interdependence, create common interests, and reduce conflict’. [907] With one bold and unexpected stroke, China has succeeded, in the manner of Deng Xiaoping, in redefining the dynamics of the region and, in the process, given itself more space for its own economic development. For sheer courage and unpredictability, China ’s East Asian initiative belongs to the genre of Chinese diplomacy initiated by Mao in the rapprochement with the United States in 1971. Even the intractable problems of North-East Asia are to some extent being redrawn by the ASEAN-BASED Chinese initiative, with both Japan and South Korea now involved in the creation of the East Asian Free Trade Area first proposed by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao at the 2003 ASEAN+3 summit. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the process — or, more accurately, processes — now under way. They are open-ended and multi-layered, and could yet acquire another dimension, with the involvement of India and perhaps other South Asian countries in the future. [908] It has been suggested that one day there might be a fully-fledged East Asia Economic Union, perhaps even with a common currency, although the latter seems fanciful given the huge economic disparities across the region. [909] Nonetheless, the renminbi is likely to play a growing role in the region, especially if China further eases the restrictions on its use, as is likely over the next five years or so. In that eventuality, and assuming the dollar declines, the renminbi will increasingly be used for trading purposes, other countries in the region will peg their currencies to it, and in time it will surely assume the role of the reserve currency of choice in the region. [910] It is worth noting that in the zones around China’s borders — Myanmar, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — the renminbi, though not yet convertible, is already traded freely and used as a de facto reserve currency, sometimes instead of theUSdollar. [911]

Not surprisingly, China ’s rapidly developing economic influence in the region is having wider political and cultural repercussions. [912] Everywhere, in varying degrees, the impact of China can be felt. The willingness of China to foster interdependence, to seek new arrangements, and to take into account the needs and interests of other nations has had an extremely favourable effect on how it is seen in most countries. [913] David Shambaugh, a leading US writer on China, argues: ‘Bilaterally and multilaterally, Beijing ’s diplomacy has been remarkably adept and nuanced, earning praise around the region. As a result, most nations in the region now see China as a good neighbor, a constructive partner, a careful listener, and a non-threatening regional power.’ [914] This process has been enhanced by the stark contrast over the last decade between China ’s whole-hearted embrace of multilateralism and the United States ’ preoccupation with the Middle East combined with its shift towards unilateralism during the Bush administration. China’s overseas aid has risen from around $260 million in 1993 to more than $1.5 billion in 2004 at a time when the US has been reducing its own; as a result, China’s aid to the Philippines is now four times that of the US, double what the US gives to Indonesia, and far outstrips American aid to Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. [915] China is funding many high-profile projects, including a new presidential palace and foreign ministry building in East Timor and a parliament building in Cambodia. [916] It finances the training of Cambodian and Laotian officials in China as well as receiving a growing number of politicians and dignitaries from the region in China on visitor programmes. [917] It has opened its doors to foreign students, with over 60,000 from East Asia studying for advanced degrees in Chinese universities in 2003-4. [918] There is a growing thirst across the region to learn Mandarin, while Chinese tourists are becoming an increasingly common sight in South-East Asia, greatly outnumbering those from Japan.


One of the consequences of China ’s growing economic importance has been that the great majority of countries in the region have become more closely aligned with it. There are only two exceptions to this: Taiwan, at least until recently, and Japan. Even Singapore and the Philippines, two traditionally close allies of the United States, have moved much closer to China. Rather than countries fearing the rise of China and, as a result, choosing to move closer to the United States, the opposite has happened. Nor has there been any sign of an arms race in the region. A senior Singaporean diplomat confidentially offered the view in 2004 that:

The balance of influence is shifting against the United States. In the last decade the Chinese have not done anything wrong in South-East Asia. The Japanese have not done anything right, and the US has been indifferent. So already Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and other states are defining their national interest as ‘Finlandization’ with respect to China. The US will never be shut out of South-East Asia completely, but there is less room for it now than in the past fifty years. [919]

As the accompanying figures suggest, attitudes in the region have grown more favourable towards China, compared with those towards the US, while China is generally seen as emerging as the new power centre in the region and as likely to become the most important economic partner of most countries. To illustrate the reconfiguration of power in East Asia towards China, I will look at three very different examples, namely Myanmar, Malaysia and South Korea; and then at the remarkable way in which Australia is being drawn into China ’s orbit.

As a former tributary state of the Middle Kingdom, Myanmar has long enjoyed a close relationship with China, but since the late eighties this has become more marked. The growing isolation of Myanmar — especially from and by the West — has served to increase its dependence on China for both trade and security, with the latter now by far its biggest trading partner as well as its largest source of inward investment. The country’s Chinese minority, which has grown considerably in recent years, has played a very important role in this growing economic alignment with China. There is also close military collaboration between the two countries, the only such instance of this in the region (with the partial exception of North Korea). With their long shared border, Myanmar is an important ally for China because it gives its landlocked south-west provinces vital access to the Indian Ocean for their exports while also providing a base for the Chinese navy to operate in the Indian Ocean. For a combination of historical and economic reasons — and because otherwise Myanmar would find itself even more isolated — China’s relationship with Myanmar is, in fact, more intimate than that with any other country in the region. [920]

Figure 25. East Asian attitudes towards China and the United States (% ‘favourable’) Nov 2005.

Figure 26. East Asian perceptions of bilateral relationship with China and the United States (% ‘good’) Nov 2005.

Figure 27. East Asia’s perceptions of Asia’s future power centre (%) Nov 2005.

Figure 28. East Asia’s perceptions of their closest economic partner in 5-10 years (%) Nov 2005.

For geographical reasons, the archipelagic countries of South-East Asia have traditionally enjoyed a more distant relationship with China than those like Myanmar and Vietnam that share the same land mass. [921] Furthermore, the ethnic, cultural and religious differences between China and countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are very pronounced. Malaysia, following its independence in 1957, viewed China with considerable suspicion because of its own large Chinese minority and the fact that the Maoist regime encouraged a guerrilla war, mainly based amongst the local Chinese, against the British and, after independence, against the newly installed Malay-dominated government. With China ’s rapid economic growth during the reform period, together with its turn away from promoting revolutionary change elsewhere, relations steadily improved. Although the two countries were in conflict over the Spratly Islands, the then Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamed chose to pursue a policy of engagement with China, aware that his country could not win any naval clash. [922] He also played a critical role for more than a decade in encouraging China to become more involved in the region and with ASEAN in particular.

In the longer run any deepening relationship with China is likely to have an effect on the delicate racial balance in Malaysia between the Malay majority and the Chinese minority, who presently account for more than a quarter of the population. Not surprisingly, it is the Chinese minority who are primarily involved in trade with China, who fill the planes that fly between the two countries, and who benefit the most economically from the bilateral relationship. [923] As a result Malaysia, while seeking a closer relationship with China, is bound to remain at the same time somewhat ambivalent. (The problem of an economically powerful indigenous Chinese minority is by no means confined to Malaysia: a Chinese minority, though relatively smaller than that in Malaysia, also plays the dominant role in the private sectors of Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. [924])

The most dramatic example of the way in which China ’s rise has been transforming relations in the region, however, is South Korea. [925] After the Second World War it became an intimate ally of the United States, a relationship which was cemented in the Korean War, with no small part of its subsequent economic success due to its position as an American vassal state during the Cold War. Yet over the last decade it has been moving closer to China both at a governmental and a popular level. [926] China is now easily the country’s largest trading partner and South Korean firms have invested heavily in the mainland, with China the largest destination for Korean foreign investment. [927] Over half the students from East Asia studying for advanced degrees in China come from South Korea. [928] More than 1 million South Koreans visited China in 2003, while 490,00 °Chinese made visits to South Korea. Each week, there are over 700 flights between the two countries. [929] The crisis over North Korea and its nuclear weapons has also served to bring China and South Korea closer together, with the latter discovering that it had more in common with the cautious Chinese position of restraint than the more aggressive American approach under Bush. Indeed, China ’s handling of the crisis and its emergence as the key mediator with North Korea has enhanced its standing both with South Korea and in the region more widely. [930] The fact that the United States has meanwhile strengthened its defence ties with Japan has further alienated South Korea, which views Japan with considerable enmity as a result of the latter’s conduct during its colonial occupation of the country. [931]

South Korea’s attitude towards North Korea and China on the one hand and the United States on the other, however, remains the subject of major domestic argument: after the two liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which emphasized reconciliation with North Korea and sought closer relations with China, the election of conservative president Lee Myung-bak in 2008 marked a shift towards a tougher stance on North Korea and a closer relationship with the United States. There is also tension between China and South Korea over the precise ancestry of the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which occupied territory in North Korea, South Korea and also over the Chinese border, and is claimed by both Korea and China as part of their history. In the longer run, however, it seems likely that South Korea will continue to move closer to China and further away from the United States, perhaps to the point where eventually the US-Korean alliance will be dissolved — but that is unlikely to happen within less than a decade, probably rather longer. [932] In the meantime, it is possible that the United States will eventually withdraw its troops from the Korean Peninsula if and when a solution is found to the present crisis. [933] The rapprochement between China and South Korea is a powerful echo of earlier times when Korea was a close and important tributary state of China, a situation that lasted many centuries until China ’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. [934]

Australia cannot be counted as part of East Asia, but belongs more properly to Asia-Pacific, which embraces that region together with the Pacific countries. One of the great geo-cultural anomalies is that a country that lies just to the south of Indonesia has an overwhelmingly white majority and has long been considered a Western country. Though historically part of the British Empire, ever since 1942 it has enjoyed an extremely close relationship with the United States, for most of that period being its closest and most loyal ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the last decade, however, China ’s growing economic power has exercised a mesmerizing effect on the island continent. By far the most important reason for this is China ’s voracious appetite for Australia ’s huge deposits of raw materials, especially iron ore. Largely as a result of Chinese demand, the Australian economy enjoyed uninterrupted growth for almost two decades until the financial meltdown and would appear to be in the process of decoupling its fortunes from the Western economy, especially the United States. [935] Australia is one of the relatively few countries in the world that has experienced a double benefit from China ’s rise: namely the falling price of manufactured goods and, until the global downturn, the rising price of commodities. If twentieth-century Australia was dominated by New South Wales and Victoria, and the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, this century will be characterized by the rise of the mining states, Western Australia and Queensland, with China the reason. China ’s interest in Australia ’s vast natural deposits is not confined to that of a customer; its role as an investor is becoming increasingly important, with the purchase of stakes in Australian mining firms, including, most dramatically so far, the proposal for the Chinese state-owned aluminium producer Chinalco to buy a large chunk of the debt-laden Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto.

Not surprisingly, China ’s growing role in Australia ’s prosperity is having important political ramifications. The clearest expression of this hitherto has been the election of Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2007. A fluent Mandarin-speaker, well versed in Chinese culture and tradition, and possessed of excellent contacts in Beijing (having worked there for many years), he can be described as the first Chinese-orientated political leader to be elected in the West. Although Australia remains very closely aligned with the United States, its growing rapprochement with China seems likely to influence the nature of its relationship with Washington. [936] It is premature to suggest that Australia will at some point distance itself from the United States and in effect bandwagon with China in the manner, for example, of South Korea or Thailand, but it would not be surprising to find Australia becoming more sensitive about its relations with China and making these sensitivities known to the Americans. In that way Australia might become the Western voice of China. A key factor in this will be the course of Australian politics: Rudd’s predecessor as a Labour prime minister was Paul Keating, the first Australian premier to advocate the turn towards Asia, while his successor, the long-serving Liberal prime minister John Howard, could hardly have been more pro-American. In the much longer run, however, it is conceivable that Australia will move into China ’s orbit and become increasingly distant from the United States as the latter’s power and utility decline.


In the light of the region’s realignment towards China, we can now return to the question of how East Asia’s relationship with China is likely to evolve and, in particular, to what extent it might bear some of the hallmarks of the tributary system. The tributary system and Westphalian system are often regarded as polar opposites and mutually exclusive, the former involving a hierarchical relationship, the latter based on relations of equality between sovereign nation-states. In fact, as mentioned in Chapter 7, the Westphalian system in practice has never been quite that simple. For most of its history it was largely confined to a group of European states, since until the second half of the twentieth century the great majority of countries in the world did not enjoy independence, let alone equality. [937] Even after these countries became sovereign nation-states, in the great majority of cases they were to enjoy nothing like equality with the United States or the West European nations, a situation which was exacerbated during the Cold War, when nation-states experienced what was, in practice, limited sovereignty in their relationship with the superpower to which they owed their allegiance. Life has not been that dissimilar in the era of the single superpower, with most countries enjoying varying degrees of limited sovereignty in their relationship with the United States. Given the profound inequalities in interstate relations, the concept of equality in the Westphalian system is thus legalistic rather than real. In practice, as with the tributary system, it has strong hierarchical features. [938] Like the tributary system, the Westphalian system also has an influential cultural component, namely the idea of hegemony or soft power. In other words, the distinction between the tributary and Westphalian systems is not quite as clear-cut as one might think. Seen in these terms, the restoration of elements of the tributary system in a modernized form does not seem so far-fetched. Some of the old building blocks, moreover, remain firmly in place. Chinese culture not only continues to enjoy great prestige throughout East Asia, but its influence is once again on the rise, helped by the presence of a much larger Chinese minority than existed in earlier times, especially in South-East Asia. Furthermore, in North-East Asia, and also Vietnam, Confucianism is a shared heritage in a not dissimilar way to the role of the Graeco-Roman tradition in Europe.

Historically, the tributary system was the international concomitant of China ’s identity and existence as a civilization-state. And just as the influence of the civilization-state remains palpable in the domestic sphere, so the persistence of the tributary state is apparent in the realm of international relations. In important respects, indeed, Chinese attitudes towards concepts of sovereignty and interstate relations continue to owe at least as much to the tributary legacy as to the contemporary Westphalian system. [939]

The Chinese concept of sovereignty differs markedly from that in Western-inspired international law. Take the dispute over the sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel islands, which, though shelved for now — following the agreement with ASEAN — remains, in the long term, unresolved. [940] The Spratly and Paracel islands are barely islands at all, but a collection of uninhabited rocks, many of which are usually under water, situated in the South China Sea, the Spratlys to the north of East Malaysia and to the west of the Philippines, and the Paracels to the east of Vietnam. The idea of maritime sovereignty is a relatively recent innovation, dating from 1945 when the United States declared that it intended to exercise sovereignty over its territorial waters, [941] and it is this body of law that essentially forms the basis of the claim by the various South-East Asian states to the Spratlys and Paracels. China, in contrast, rests its argument on ‘historic claims’, namely that the islands have for thousands of years formed an integral part of the south-east frontier of the Middle Kingdom in the same manner, for example, as the land border to the north of Beijing. Expeditions to the islands have discovered various Chinese artefacts, such as chinaware and copper cash from the Tang and Song dynasties, that have been used to buttress these ‘historic claims’ and demonstrate that the islands have long been a part of China. The islands are part of the folklore of Chinese culture, kept alive, in various invocations of the Chinese frontier spirit, by articles written by Chinese journalists who regularly visit the islands. They are shown on many Chinese maps as clearly within the ‘historic claim line’ (see map on p. 293) and therefore as part of China. [942] Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China, may be China’s smallest land province, but it is also regarded — because of the extent of its maritime territory which, as claimed, reaches far into the South China Sea — as its largest ‘ocean province’. [943] In 2007 Beijing established the new Sansha municipality in Hainan Province, which has jurisdiction over three islets that Vietnam claims in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. This led to large-scale protest demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. [944] The idea of ‘historic claims’ finds expression in the Chinese use of intertemporal law, which concerns rights or wrongs in the historical past. Chinese legal scholars argue that: ‘a judicial fact must be appreciated in the light of the laws contemporary with it, rather than the laws in force at the time when a dispute arises.’ [945] This gives force and legitimacy to history rather than the present, to the laws that prevailed during the era of the tributary system rather than the present international legal system.

Map 11. Chinese Claims in the South China Sea

In 1984 Deng Xiaoping suggested ‘the possibility of resolving certain territorial disputes by having the countries concerned jointly develop the disputed areas before discussing the question of sovereignty’. [946] In other words, the question of sovereignty should not necessarily delay moving forward on other issues. Deng’s remark has frequently been cited by Chinese sources in the context of the islands in the South China Sea, where his approach has in practice been followed, and in relation to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea that are disputed with Japan; it has also been suggested in connection with Taiwan. [947] While insisting on their ultimate sovereignty over the latter, the Chinese have offered to shelve the matter more or less indefinitely, providing Taiwan does not seek to declare independence, illustrating the flexibility with which the Chinese are prepared to approach the issue. Alternatively, they have suggested that, providing their sovereignty over the island is accepted by the Taiwanese, Taiwan can continue to have its own government, political system and even armed forces. [948]

This highlights another fundamental difference between the Chinese conception of sovereignty and that held in the West — most clearly demonstrated in the attitude displayed by China towards the handover of sovereignty in Hong Kong. The transfer of sovereignty was regarded by the Chinese as non-negotiable, as in the case of all the so-called lost territories — namely, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and probably the various disputed islands too — which China regards, on the basis of history, culture and ethnicity, as rightly its own. But by Western standards its sovereignty has been exercised in an unusually pliant manner. The British — and Western — narrative concerning Hong Kong was that, following the handover in 1997, the Chinese would transform the territory into something that closely resembled the mainland. This expectation has not been borne out. For the most part, Hong Kong has changed very little. As such, it is utterly atypical of the normal experience of post-colonial transition. The key to understanding the Chinese approach lies in the notion of ‘one country, two systems’, as enshrined in the territory’s constitution, otherwise known as the Basic Law. As far as China was concerned, the issue was the recognition of its sovereignty over Hong Kong rather than whether or not the territory shared the same system of government. [949] The Western approach is different: sovereignty and one-system are seen as synonymous. ‘One country, two systems’ lies in a millennia-old Chinese tradition that acknowledges and accepts the existence of differences between its many provinces, or, to put it another way, that such differences are an inherent and necessary part of a civilization-state. In other words, the civilization-state, like the tributary system which derives from it, is based on the principle of ‘one civilization, many systems’. In contrast, the Western notion of sovereignty rests on the principle of ‘one nation-state, one system’, and the Westphalian system on ‘one system, many nation-states’ [950].

The Chinese attitude towards sovereignty is closely related to the old Confucian concept of ‘harmony with difference’, which has been revived under the present Chinese leader, Hu Jintao. Some Chinese scholars, in fact, have interpreted ‘one country, two systems’ as an example of ‘harmony with difference’. Whereas in Western discourse, harmony implies identity and a close affinity, this is not the case in Chinese tradition, which regards difference as an essential characteristic of harmony. According to Confucius, ‘the exemplary person harmonizes with others, but does not necessarily agree with them; the small person agrees with others but is not harmonious with them.’ [951] Agreeing with people means that you are uncritically the same as them: the opposite of harmony is not chaos but rather uniformity and homogeneity. Interestingly, in China the latter are often associated with the term ‘hegemony’, which is used pejoratively to describe big power behaviour — once the Soviet Union, now the United States — in contrast to ‘harmony’ which is seen as enabling and embracing difference.

In considering the future relationship between China and its East Asian neighbours, it is pertinent to take into account not only the historical legacy of the tributary system but also what might be described as the realpolitik of size. This was clearly a significant aspect of the tributary system, but it is an even more powerful factor in the era of globalization and the modern nation-state. China is anxious to emphasize its desire to exercise self-restraint and respect for the interests of other states, but in the longer run, on the assumption that China continues its economic rise, the disparity between China and the other nations in the region is likely to become ever more pronounced over time. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the inequality between the power of China and that of neighbouring states will be rather greater than that to be found in any other region of the world. Such overweening power will be expressed in a gamut of ways, from economic and cultural to political and military. This is the major factor that lies behind the suspicions latent in the region towards China: the fear not so much of what China is now — especially as it has gone out of its way to reassure its neighbours — but what it might be like in the future. [952] The chief of the Malaysian navy put it like this in 1996: ‘as the years progress, there exist[s]… uncertainty in the form of China ’s behaviour once she attained her great power status. Will she conform to international or regional rules or will she be a new military power which acts in whatever way she sees fit?’ [953] Imagine the relationship, fifty years hence, between a hugely powerful and advanced China, with a population well in excess of 1.5 billion, and Laos and Cambodia, with populations by then of perhaps around 10 million and 20 million respectively; or, for that matter, Malaysia, with perhaps rather more than 30 million people. On grounds of size — let alone the tributary legacy — the relationship between China and its region is bound to be fundamentally different from that between the dominant country and its neighbours in any other region.

What will China be like? How will it act? It is clear that China ’s behaviour towards, and conception of, the region is bound to be heavily influenced by the legacy of the tributary system and its character as a civilization-state. The influence of this way of thinking is already apparent in China ’s attitude towards the Spratly and Paracel islands, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In its own region at least, one can categorically say that China will not simply be a Westphalian nation-state. But even if that is the case, how assertive is China likely to be? Is one to judge China’s future behaviour by the restraint and relative magnanimity that is characteristic of the present regime, or will that be superseded by something altogether more Sinocentric? Could China slowly abandon its present extreme caution and become more forceful in its relations with other countries, for example those, such as India, Japan and the South- East Asian countries, with whom it has territorial disputes which for the time being it has agreed to shelve? [954] As China grows more powerful, it would hardly be surprising if it did become more Sinocentric: in fact, at least in the longer run, that is what one might expect. After all, with the present overwhelming emphasis on economic development and the desire to ensure that there are no distractions, restraint is at least partly a function of priorities: in the reform era, China ’s self-discipline has been huge and impressive. But casting our minds into the future to a time when living standards are much higher and China has established itself as the dominant power in East Asia, how might a more Sinocentric outlook express itself?

Perhaps the best way of answering this question is to look for pointers in the present, however isolated and scattered they might be. There are three examples. The first concerns the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in February 1979, which China described as a ‘punitive war to teach Vietnam a lesson’ about the proximity of Chinese power and its belief that the Vietnamese had not been sufficiently grateful for the assistance they had received from China during the Vietnam War. [955] The language of this war, the tone of imperial condescension, the desire to assert a hierarchical relationship, the need for big brother to teach younger brother a lesson, were a throwback to the days of the pre-modern Chinese world order and the tributary system. [956] In not dissimilar vein, China has used military force in the disputes over the islands in the South China Sea, against the Philippines in 1995 and most notably against Vietnam in 1956, 1974, and again in 1988, when China took six islands in the Spratly area, three Vietnamese ships were sunk and seventy-two Vietnamese seamen killed. [957] These actions all bear the imprint of the tributary system, the need to assert the natural hierarchical order of things, and, if necessary, punish those who dared step out of line. It should be noted, however, that relations between China and Vietnam have improved considerably over recent years, although the enmity between them, which stretches back many centuries, is deeply rooted. [958]

The second example concerns the relationship between China and Chinese citizens abroad. In autumn 2005 it was alleged that a Chinese female tourist in Malaysia had been strip-searched and subjected to violent assault by Malaysian officials. The issue was first reported by the China Press, a Malaysian Chinese-language newspaper, and was subsequently taken up with such vehemence by the Chinese media that the Malaysian prime minister ordered an independent investigation, as well as instructing his home affairs minister to make a special trip to Beijing in order to explain and apologize. [959] An editorial in the China Daily, the official government newspaper, exclaimed: ‘All sensible minds cannot but be shocked by the images showing a female compatriot of ours being forced to perform “ear-squats” naked by a Malaysian policewoman in uniform. No excuse can justify brutality of such magnitude.’ [960] The editorial exercised little restraint or circumspection. Yet soon afterwards it was discovered that the woman in question was not a Chinese citizen, or even Chinese for that matter, but a Malay. [961] The Chinese response to the incident was, from the outset, both disproportionate and belligerent, and based on false information culled from the Chinese-Malaysian press. It would be wrong to draw too many conclusions from one isolated incident, but the Chinese reaction, under the circumstances, was overbearing and intemperate. The Chinese treated the Malaysian government with scant respect. They didn’t even have the courtesy to check the facts first. They behaved in an imperial fashion towards what they seemed to regard, in tone at least, as a lesser state. Meanwhile, the Malaysian government, for its part, acted in the manner of a suitably humble and deferential tributary state. As Chinese tourism in the region grows apace, the incident suggests that the protection afforded to Chinese citizens abroad will be attentive and proactive at best, invasive and aggressive at worst.

The final example concerns the response of the Chinese to the riots against the local Chinese in Indonesia in 1997. In the event, the Chinese government displayed considerable restraint, seeking to discourage the kind of demonstrations staged by the overseas Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, New York, South-East Asia and Australia. [962] Nonetheless, to judge by postings on the internet, the reaction of many Chinese was one of considerable anger. The following post is one such example:

My mother country, do you hear the crying? Your children abroad are crying out. Help them. I do not understand politics and do not dare talk about politics. I do not know what it means to say ‘we have no long-term friends or enemies, only long-term interests’, and I do not know what these interests are… I only know that my own compatriots are being barbarously slaughtered, they need help, and not just moral expressions of understanding and concern. My motherland, they are your children. The blood that flows from their bodies is the blood of the Han race. Their sincerity and goodwill also come from your nourishment. Help them… [963]

Notwithstanding these sentiments, the Chinese government acted with caution and moderation; but as Chinese power in the region grows, the relationship between the China and the overseas Chinese — who wield exceptional economic power in virtually every ASEAN country, [964] and whose self-confidence, status and position will be greatly enhanced by China ’s rise — will become a growing factor in these countries. [965] Emboldened by the rise of China, the local Chinese may seek to take advantage of their improved bargaining position in order to enhance their power, while governments in these countries are likely to be increasingly cautious about the way they handle their Chinese minorities for fear of upsetting Beijing. The historian Wang Gungwu argues that the overseas Chinese share many characteristics with other ethnic minorities: ‘But where the “Chinese” are totally different is [that] their “mother country” is near Southeast Asia, very large and populous, potentially powerful and traditionally contemptuous of the peoples and cultures of the region.’ [966]


There have been two great exceptions to the new turn in China ’s regional policy. One is China ’s most important ‘lost territory’, namely Taiwan, and the other her regional colonizer and greatest adversary, Japan. While China has pursued a strategy of engagement, accommodation and compromise with virtually every other country in the region since the turn of the century, that cannot be said of its attitude towards Japan or, at least until recently, Taiwan. [967]

China’s attitude towards Taiwan is fraught not only because it regards the island as one of its lost territories, and therefore as historically part of China; there is an extra charge because Taiwan became a bone of contention after the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist Kuomintang, with the flight of Chiang Kai-shek and his forces to the island and the declaration that it was now the Republic of China, claiming sovereignty over the whole of China. As a consequence, Taiwan represents unfinished business, the only incomplete item on the Party’s civil war agenda. This is why the return of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty is the ultimate non-negotiable for the present regime and, given the strength of Chinese public opinion on the issue, probably for any other regime one could imagine as well. [968] The road since 1949 has been tortuous, from the pariah status bestowed upon China by the West and its recognition of Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China as the true China, to the American volte-face after the Nixon-Mao rapprochement, and then the steady international isolation of Taiwan over the last four decades. But China ’s ultimate objective, namely reunification, has proved beyond reach because the Taiwanese themselves have remained firmly opposed to it, with the tacit support of the Americans.

Indeed, China ’s hopes were to be thwarted by a most unexpected development, a growing sense of Taiwanese identity culminating in the electoral defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT), which, in principle at least, had always supported a one-China policy, and the victory of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). After the election of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, Taiwan pursued a policy of desinicization and increasingly assertive nationalism. This happened to coincide with growing economic interdependence between China and Taiwan, which, though resisted for a period by Chen and his predecessor as president, Lee Teng-hui, [969] has accelerated to the point where, by 2003, half of the top 1,000 Taiwanese firms, including all the major computer companies, had invested in the mainland, usually in manufacturing subsidiaries. Around three-quarters of Taiwanese foreign direct investment presently goes to China, and there are hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese living and working in the Shanghai region and Guangdong province. The Chinese market now accounts for around 40 per cent of Taiwanese exports, a huge increase on just a few years ago. [970] Will growing economic interdependence mean that the two countries are drawn irresistibly closer together, resulting in some kind of political arrangement between them? Or will the sense of difference that clearly informs Taiwanese consciousness close off that option and lead to a growing desire for de jure, and not just de facto, independence?

A key question here concerns the nature of Taiwanese identity. To what extent is it constituted as different from and in opposition to Chinese identity? And is a sense of Taiwanese identity positively correlated with support for Taiwanese nationalism and ultimately independence? As can be seen from Figure 29, between 1992 and 2006 the proportion of Taiwanese who thought of themselves simply as Chinese has been steadily declining, while those who felt themselves to be Taiwanese has been commensurately rising. However, the group that consider themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese has been consistently large — by a narrow margin, in fact, the biggest of all — accounting for almost half the electorate. The picture is, therefore, rather complex. The fact that the largest group consider themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese suggests that the two identities, far from being mutually exclusive, are seen by almost half the population as complementary. Many, in fact, recognize that their Taiwanese identity, based on a shared sense of history, culture, place and customs, exists within and alongside their sense of being Chinese. [971] This would suggest that there is not necessarily a strong correlation between a sense of Taiwanese identity and support for independence. This is rather borne out in Figure 30. The largest group supports the status quo, with any decision on the island’s status to be postponed until later, or what might be described as a ‘wait and see’ position. The second largest group (which enjoys half the support of the former) favours the status quo now and independence later, but this is more or less matched by those who prefer the status quo indefinitely. And not far behind this group in terms of support are those who favour the status quo and unification with China later; there is minimal backing, though, for immediate unification. Only a small minority support immediate independence, and this group combined with those who favour the status quo and independence later comprise less than a quarter of the population. Furthermore, the combined support for these two positions peaked in 1999 and has subsequently levelled off or even declined slightly.

Figure 29. Changing Taiwanese attitudes towards Taiwanese/Chinese identity.

Figure 30. Taiwanese support for unification and for independence.

This suggests that Taiwanese identity is a diverse and malleable concept which means different things to different people. It does not appear to have a strong political content, otherwise there would be a closer correlation between Taiwanese identity and support for independence. [972] Rather than seeing the direction of Taiwan as predetermined, the situation is, in fact, fluid and open-ended. Taiwanese opinion is open to influence according to the way in which China behaves and the exigencies of Taiwanese politics, together with deeper underlying trends, including how China evolves economically and politically in the longer run, what happens to the Taiwanese economy, and the impact of economic integration between China and Taiwan.

While there is nothing inevitable about the political effects of growing economic integration, the sheer speed and extent of the process over the last few years has had a major impact on Taiwanese politics. Fear of its consequences persuaded former president Lee Teng-hui to impose restrictions on investment in China by Taiwanese companies and to hasten the process of Taiwanization in order to take advantage of what Lee saw as a window of opportunity before the dynamic of economic integration began to close down options. [973] Chen followed suit, though he was forced to bow to pressure from Taiwanese companies and ease some of the restrictions. The growing dependence of Taiwanese companies both on the Chinese market and on their manufacturing operations in China has become an influential consideration in the minds of both Taiwanese business and the Taiwanese electorate. Whereas once the country was largely dependent on the American market, this has been supplanted in importance by the Chinese market in a manner similar to China ’s other neighbours. In Taiwan’s case, though, this process has happened even more quickly and gone a lot further — primarily, no doubt, because of shared Chinese customs, culture and language, though other factors like geographical proximity are also significant. Any calculation concerning Taiwan ’s economic future, or the prospects for living standards, must inevitably place China at the centre of the equation. It is hardly surprising that in a 2005 survey almost twice as many Taiwanese were in favour of strengthening economic ties between China and Taiwan as compared with those in favour of downgrading them. [974] And China has recently sought to use these growing connections to build links with different sections of the Taiwanese population in order to influence the political climate and place political pressure on the Taiwanese government. [975]

The manifest volatility of Taiwanese public opinion has underlined the need for China to court and influence it, yet this is a matter to which the Chinese government has historically attached relatively little importance. There are three reasons for this. First, the Chinese concept of the ‘lost territories’ means that Taiwan, as in the case of Hong Kong, is seen in terms of an historic claim rather than popular sovereignty: in other words, legitimacy is regarded as a matter of history rather than the present. As a consequence of this attitude, the Hong Kong people were not represented in the talks about the handover, which were conducted exclusively between the Chinese and the British. [976] This differed from what has normally happened in negotiations over decolonization, with those seeking independence from the colonial power generally represented at the conference table. Second, the Chinese attitude towards both Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrates the overriding importance attached to state sovereignty and the absence of any tradition of popular sovereignty, a subject I discussed in Chapter 7. Third, the Chinese view of Taiwan involves a particular concept of Chineseness, which conceives of it in essentialist terms, as immutable, timeless and fixed in history, something that is inherited at birth, whether one likes it or not. This is directly related to the discussion in the last chapter about the nature of the Han Chinese, who are seen by the Chinese government as homogeneous, even though in reality the Han are a very diverse group. It follows, therefore, that the notion of a Taiwanese identity that serves to supersede or elide one’s Chinese belonging is given little or no credence. [977]

As a consequence the Chinese government, at least until recently, has made little attempt to woo Taiwanese opinion. Indeed, it has often acted in a way that served to inflame, alienate, intimidate and antagonize the Taiwanese — issuing thinly veiled threats, refusing to countenance their views, and resorting to coercive action, most notably the firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait during the 1996 presidential election campaign. [978] Recently, however, China has been more prepared to engage with the situation in Taiwan as it actually is and thereby take Taiwanese opinion more seriously. [979] This was illustrated by its wooing of the KMT leadership in the period prior to the 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections, including the visit of the former KMT leader Lien Chan to Beijing in 2005. There is now growing optimism in Beijing based on the fact that support for Taiwanese independence seems to have peaked and a view that the majority of Taiwanese are basically pragmatic — supporting, in one form or another, the status quo. The rising economic interdependence between China and Taiwan also points in the direction of the status quo or closer political ties.

China is prepared to be patient and settle for the status quo for the indefinite future, provided Taiwan does not declare independence. This would have the virtue of enabling Beijing to concentrate on China ’s economic development and sidelining an issue which, in the event of a military conflagration, could do untold damage to the country’s global and regional standing. There is a quiet belief on the part of the Chinese that time is on their side. Taiwan ’s growing economic dependence on China is one obvious reason for this, while China ’s own spectacular progress is clearly making the country steadily less unattractive in the eyes of the much richer Taiwanese. At the same time Taiwan, throttled by its lack of diplomatic recognition, finds itself in danger of being excluded from the new regional trade arrangements centred on ASEAN. [980] Another factor is the improvement in China ’s military competence and capacity across the Taiwan Strait, consequent upon the country’s growing economic and technological capacity, which acts as a powerful deterrent to any adventurist action by Taipei. Furthermore, the fact that the Bush administration consistently sought to restrain President Chen Shui-bian’s more outlandish schemes also served to reassure Beijing. [981] Most important of all, the sweeping victories achieved by the KMT in the parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2008 confirmed Beijing in its new sense of optimism. Weary of Chen’s preoccupation with independence and concerned about the weak state of the economy, the electorate voted decisively for improved relations with the mainland, not least economic, with the new president Ma Ying-jeou promising to maintain the status quo and seek a closer relationship with China. Direct air flights and tourism have followed; and it is possible that a Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, similar to the one between China and Hong Kong, might in time be agreed. [982] In April 2009 there was dramatic progress when China and Taiwan concluded new agreements on financial services, direct flights and fighting crime. This almost certainly marked a major turning point, paving the way for a much closer relationship between the two countries. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that we might witness a major breakthrough in, or even resolution of, the disputes between China and Taiwan in the relatively near future.

In the longer run it is conceivable that Washington might contemplate the idea that Taiwan is no longer a fundamental interest that must be defended at all costs. [983] Certainly, in the light of China ’s rise, Taiwan has enjoyed a declining priority in Washington over recent decades. The Chinese may also have begun to entertain the possibility of rather looser political solutions that might one day be acceptable to the Taiwanese. For some time the Chinese have essentially offered Taiwan an enhanced variant of ‘one country, two systems’, [984] but this has recently been given less prominence. Perhaps the Chinese will contemplate the idea of a Chinese commonwealth or a federal commonwealth under which Taiwan would enjoy not only a high degree of autonomy, as it would under the Hong Kong formula, but also, while recognizing the symbolic sovereignty of Beijing, in effect be granted a measure of independence and even limited autonomy to act in the international sphere. [985] For now, China ’s growing optimism is not misplaced. However, the situation remains fraught with uncertainties. If a future DPP government should at some point go for broke and declare independence, then China would almost certainly seek to reverse that action by military means, thereby embroiling the whole region and the United States in a crisis which would have far-reaching consequences. It may be unlikely, but such a scenario cannot yet be ruled out. [986]


Since 1949 Taiwan has been China ’s most acute regional problem. It is conceivable, however, that Taiwan might be placed on the back burner for a decade or more, during which time longer-term trends might effectively resolve the issue one way or another. If that should happen, then by far the most difficult issue facing China in East Asia would be Japan. [987] Until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, which was a direct consequence of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 — with Japan ’s turn to the West, rejection of its own continent, especially China, and its expansionist ambitions — relations between China and Japan had been relatively harmonious. Japan had been a long-term tributary state, duly honouring and acknowledging its debt to Chinese civilization and the Confucian tradition, even if at times it proved a distant and somewhat recalcitrant one — which, given its island status and advanced civilization, was hardly surprising. [988]

For well over a century, however, following the 1894 war, China ’s relationship with Japan has been far worse than that with any other power. Many Chinese still see that war and the subsequent Treaty of Shimonoseki as the darkest hour in China ’s ‘century of humiliation’. China ’s ignominious defeat and the extremely onerous terms inflicted on China in the peace left a particularly bitter taste. Defeat by what was seen as an inferior nation within the Chinese world order was considered to be a far greater humiliation than losing to the Western barbarians, and served to undermine the prevailing Chinese world-view. This was a case — in the Confucian discourse — of the student beating up the teacher or the younger brother beating up the older brother. [989]

The ignominy visited upon China in the 1894-5 war was compounded and accentuated by Japan’s occupation of north-east China in 1931 and then its full-scale invasion of north-east, east and parts of central China in 1937; the scars these hostilities left have never been healed. To this day, the Nanjing Massacre defines the nature and identity of the Japanese as far as the Chinese are concerned and therefore in large measure their attitude towards Japan. It may have taken place seventy years ago, but it remains an open wound, as present in the relationship between the two countries as if it had happened yesterday. Even the numbers killed — 300,000 in the Chinese interpretation — is still a highly charged issue. [990] Of course, the reason why these questions remain so alive is because the Japanese have failed to apologize properly, or demonstrate any serious sign of confronting their own past, unlike the contrition that the Germans have shown for their behaviour in the Second World War. [991] The Japanese paid dearly for their defeat at the hands of the United States and Europe — with huge casualties, the Tokyo trials, the confiscation of its overseas assets and the American occupation — but they have shown little remorse towards their Asian neighbours for their country’s often barbaric behaviour, which was far worse than anything Japan meted out to the Western powers. The Nanjing Massacre was the worst example, with the mass killing and rape of civilians, but this was repeated on a smaller scale elsewhere in China, while the Japanese occupation of Korea was also marked by considerable cruelty. [992] The numerous apologies that Japan has given have been little more than formulaic, while the courts have refused to compensate the individual victims of crimes committed in Japan ’s name. The grudging attitude towards its Asian neighbours is symptomatic of post-Meiji Japan — respect for the West and contempt for Asia. Nor, for most of the post-war period, has Japan needed to rethink its attitudes. [993] It rapidly re-established itself as the dominant power in the region, in a different league to its poorer neighbours, while the United States, its sponsor and protector, neither required nor desired Japan to apologize to Communist China during the Cold War, given that a new and very different set of priorities now applied.

Fast-forward fifty years, however, and East Asia presents a different picture. Japan no longer constitutes the great exception, a Western level of development surrounded by a sea of backwardness. On the contrary, the first four Asian tigers enjoy a GDP per head not far short of Japan ’s, [994] living standards in the region have risen enormously, and Japan ’s old nemesis, China, has been the subject of a remarkable economic transformation. In short, history has finally caught up with Japan. [995] As a society and culture, Japan has always been at its best when its goals — and the path towards those goals — were set in concrete. But when both the goals and the path need to be adapted to changed circumstances, perhaps even subject to wholesale revision, Japan seems to find the shift inordinately difficult. [996] Rather like France, it tends to fiddle and delay until nothing short of a revolution — or, in Japan ’s case, a restoration — is required. In the face of the transformation of East Asia, and above all China, Japan has been effectively paralysed, unable to change direction, offering little other than more of the same. The ruling Liberal Democrats, who have dominated Japanese politics since 1955, have found lateral thinking virtually impossible. [997] As Chinese East Asian expert Zhu Feng argues: ‘ Japan has been less prepared for the rise of China than any other country. They can’t believe it. They don’t want to believe it. Yet it affects them more than anyone else.’ [998] For the most part, Japan has gone into denial about the rise of China, wishing that somehow it might go away or that it was perhaps a figment of everyone else’s imagination.

From the early nineties, Japanese politics began to shift to the right and become more nationalistic, a process hastened by the collapse of the Social Democratic Party, which had always been a staunch opponent of Japanese rearmament. [999] Japanese ruling politicians grew more aggressive towards China, displaying impatience with traditional deferential tendencies towards their neighbour, increased concern about China ’s rise, and frustration with what they saw as China ’s exploitation of Japan ’s colonial past. [1000] In 1996 for the first time the proportion of those saying in an annual poll that they did not have friendly feelings towards the Chinese exceeded those that did. The crisis over North Korea and its threatened development of nuclear weapons, together with its abduction of Japanese citizens between 1977 and 1983, served to harden nationalist sentiment: indeed, the North Korean threat was seen as a proxy for the Chinese threat, thereby helping to ratchet up hostility towards China as well. [1001] In 1999 an extreme nationalist, Ishihara Shintaro, was elected governor of Tokyo: previously anti-American, he quickly became rabidly hostile towards China. Meanwhile, Japan entered into a new defence agreement with the United States which was clearly directed against China and which implicitly involved Japan in the defence of Taiwan. [1002] The growing enmity towards China found its fullest expression to date during Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership between 2001 and 2006, with his annual visits in his capacity as prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine — a politically inspired memorial to Japan’s fallen soldiers, including Class A war criminals — which were intended to encourage nationalism at home while also being provocative towards China. Since Koizumi, however, both the short premiership of Shinzo Abe, previously regarded as hawkish towards China, and especially that of Yasuo Fukuda have revealed a desire in ruling circles to temper the hostility of the Koizumi era and seek a more accommodating relationship with China. [1003] It remains to be seen what course Japan will steer during the premiership of Taro Aso, who also has a nationalist reputation, but his period in office is likely to prove of short duration.

Japan, meanwhile, finds itself more or less isolated in East Asia. Although it has been generous in bestowing aid on many countries in the region, it has failed to address its wartime legacy, which is a continuing source of resentment for many of its neighbours, especially South Korea and China. It has remained, furthermore, relatively aloof from its neighbours, having refused to open up its market and resisted entering into multilateral, rather than bilateral, arrangements with them until its hand was finally forced by China ’s recent initiatives with ASEAN. [1004] There have been two recent illustrations of Japan ’s continued isolation. The first concerned its failed bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2005, when China succeeded in mobilizing most of the region in opposition to Japan’s proposed membership, thereby effectively torpedoing it. [1005] The second example was the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2005, provoked partly by Japan’s UN bid but mainly by the publication of a new school history textbook in Japan that sought to downplay Japanese crimes against China during the last war; [1006] in this case, as in that of the United Nations, the sympathies of the region were overwhelmingly on the side of the Chinese rather than the Japanese government. [1007] In both instances, the underlying cause of Japan ’s isolation is the same: its failure to address not only China ’s grievances about the last war but nearly everyone else’s as well. [1008]

China ’s rise requires a fundamental shift in Japanese thinking — indeed, Japan ’s interests would have been best served if it had been willing to address the wartime treatment of its neighbours several decades ago [1009] — but there remains little sign of it. Instead Japan has clung to variants of its post-war stance, with the result that China has succeeded, with the adroitness of its recent diplomacy in the region, in outmanoeuvring it. Meanwhile, the relationship between the two remains frozen in the manner of the Cold War, with each twist and turn being seen in terms of a zero-sum game. [1010] The issues of contention between the two are many, though the historical questions clearly predominate over all others. In terms of the present, by far the most important — and dangerous — issue concerns the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands and the similarly disputed maritime border in the East China Sea. [1011] There have already been clashes over the islands, most notably in 1990. [1012] Unlike the disputed islands in the South China Sea, there are known to be significant oil and gas deposits in the area, thereby lending them an added strategic significance. China has offered to shelve the issue of sovereignty, as it has done with the Spratlys, in favour of joint development, but the Japanese have rejected the idea. The Chinese, meanwhile, have begun exploration in a disputed area of sea. [1013] An agreement between the two countries on joint exploration and development would help to ease tension, though it would not resolve the underlying issue of sovereignty over the islands or the maritime border. [1014] Until some kind of agreement is reached, this dispute is the one most likely to provide a flashpoint between the two countries. [1015]

At times of crisis, the Chinese government has tried hard to restrain popular attitudes of resentment towards Japan for fear that they might get out of control; sometimes, however, they have spilt over, as was the case with the large and angry demonstrations that took place in several Chinese cities in 2005. While Taiwan and the United States have been important factors in Chinese nationalism, especially in the 1990s, its growth has been driven, above all, by feelings of resentment and hostility towards Japan. These remain much stronger than the enmity displayed towards the United States. [1016] Apart from the Korean War, there is no history of conflict between China and the US. Moreover, the two countries succeeded in 1971 in remaking their relationship and putting it on an entirely new footing that has survived to the present day. They are also, of course, geographically separated by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In contrast, the bitter enmity between the Japanese and Chinese has existed for over a century without interruption. There is simply no modern tradition of compromise or coexistence between them and yet they are by far the two most powerful countries in East Asia. [1017] The Chinese may not particularly like the Americans but they generally respect them; in contrast, as I have frequently found, the Chinese — including the highly educated — will often volunteer that they hate the Japanese. [1018] The rise of China, moreover, has if anything served to harden attitudes towards Japan. As Shi Yinhong has observed, the view is now widely expressed that: ‘If China concedes to Japan it means that China cannot rise. What is the point of rising if we have to concede to Japan?’ [1019] It is, nonetheless, strongly in China ’s interests to play for time. Notwithstanding that Japan remains East Asia’s largest economy (according to GDP by market exchange rates) and by far its most advanced, time, as always it would seem, is on China’s side. Assuming that China continues to grow at a brisk pace, the balance of power between the two will continue to move in China’s favour, [1020] with the latter steadily emerging as the fulcrum of the East Asian economy. [1021] Even for Japan, China is now of great economic significance: it became Japan’s largest export market in 2008, overtaking the United States, with the value of Japanese exports to China doubling between 2000 and 2003, [1022] and it has also become an important manufacturing base for many Japanese multinationals. Japan, in short, is being drawn into a relationship of growing economic interdependence with China. But this does not mean that relations between the two countries will inevitably grow more harmonious: the underlying antagonism between them is far too deeply rooted for that.

Map 12. The Disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

So how is the relationship between China and Japan likely to evolve? There are several possible scenarios. [1023] Hitherto, Japan has essentially regarded itself as different, and apart, from the region. As we have seen, that has been the case ever since the Meiji Restoration, with Japan looking up to the West and down on Asia. The fact that this mindset has been a fundamental characteristic of Japan ever since 1868 makes the task of changing it even more difficult and daunting. [1024] Since its defeat in the Second World War, Japan’s detachment from Asia has been reinforced by its military dependence on the United States, with the American defence guarantee obliging Japan to look east across the Pacific Ocean rather than west to its own continent, thereby encouraging it to think of itself as an Asia- Pacific rather than East Asian power. This is illustrated by the fact that in 2007 it concluded a security pact — its only other being with the United States — with Australia, the US’s closest ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Though both unstated and denied, the obvious target of the agreement is China. [1025] Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the terms of its security and defence arrangement with the United States have been significantly strengthened over the last decade. [1026] The most likely scenario is that Japan continues along this same path. For the Japanese it has the great advantage of enabling them to carry on with the status quo and postponing the day when they are required to engage in a fundamental rethink — by far the biggest since 1868 — of their relationship with China in particular and East Asia in general. In China ’s eyes, however, the US-Japan alliance is only the second worst solution, the worst — such are China ’s fears of Japanese history — being a Japan that increasingly aspires to become a military force in its own right. [1027] The latter process is also under way, but it is taking place slowly and within the context of Japan ’s alliance with the United States, rather than separately from it. In the long run, however, dependence on the United States may be unsustainable. The growing economic, political and military strength of China could at some point oblige the Japanese to rethink their attitude towards China in a more positive way, while the United States may also be persuaded at some stage that its relationship with China is rather more important than that with Japan and that its alliance with Japan should effectively be downgraded, shelved or abandoned. But any such outcome, should it ever happen, still lies far in the future. [1028] The one scenario that seems inconceivable is that Japan emerges as a stand-alone superpower to rival China: it is simply too small, too particularistic, too isolated and too weakly endowed with natural resources to be able to achieve this. [1029]


The elephant in the room or, more precisely the region, is the United States. The latter is not even vaguely part of East Asia, being situated thousands of miles to its east, but with its military alliance with Japan, its military bases in South Korea and its long-term support for Taiwan, not to mention the Korean and Vietnamese wars, it has been the dominant power in the region ever since it replaced Europe in the 1950s. That state of affairs, however, has begun to change with remarkable speed. A combination of 9/11 and the new turn in Chinese foreign policy in East Asia, together with China’s emergence as the fulcrum of the regional economy — one of those accidental juxtapositions of history — has transformed Chinese influence in the region, while that of the United States, hugely preoccupied with the Middle East to the virtual exclusion of all else, it would seem, declined sharply during the Bush presidency. [1030] Given that the period involved has been less than a decade, the shift in the balance of power in the region has been dramatic. In a few short years, every single country has been obliged to rethink its attitude towards China and in every case — excepting Japan and Taiwan (though, since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president, perhaps even there too) — has moved appreciably closer to it, including Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea, all of which have formal bilateral alliances with the United States. [1031] China ’s star in the region is patently on the rise and that of the United States on the wane. [1032]

It would be wrong to assume that the future will be a simple extrapolation of these recent trends. The precipitous, for example, certainly cannot be excluded, especially in light of the open-ended nature of Sino-Taiwanese relations. Less apocalyptically, the process of change witnessed over the last decade could slow down, or alternatively perhaps accelerate. The United States could try to restrain the momentum and direction of that change by engaging in a more imaginative and proactive strategy towards East Asia under Obama. More speculatively, if relations between China and the US in East Asia should seriously worsen at some point in the future, the United States might seek to contain China. [1033] If this should happen, then it would inevitably have serious ramifications for their global relationship. [1034] But nor can the possibility be excluded that the US will in time become reconciled to its declining influence in East Asia. Should that be the case, there is little evidence so far to suggest that the region will become more unstable as a consequence: on the contrary, during the period that has coincided with China’s rise, East Asia has been, at least hitherto, strikingly conflict-free. Given that East Asia was characterized by long-term historical stability during the tributary period as a result of China ’s overwhelming power, this should not necessarily be regarded as surprising. [1035]

Figure 31. American troops in East Asia 2007.

Figure 32. Naval capability, 2007.

As things presently stand, China is already established as the dominant land power in the region, while the United States remains, at least for the medium term, the dominant regional maritime power. [1036] While this naval strength clearly serves to contain China’s power in the region, it is also a sign of the US’s increasing weakness, with land power an expression of China ’s growing economic and political clout and maritime power almost solely a function of the US ’s hard power. Indeed, it would seem that China is not so far away from achieving hegemony within the region in most respects (economic, political and cultural) other than military. By far the most important US ally in East Asia remains Japan, and, a little further afield, Australia is still an American intimate, notwithstanding its closer relationship with China. The US has also been working very hard to try to recruit India to its side. Between them these constitute a formidable counter to China, albeit ringing East Asia rather than, except in the case of Japan, being part of it. Both Russia and India overlap with and abut East Asia, and therefore can also be regarded as significant players in the region, but I will consider their relationship with China’s rise in the next chapter.

10. China as a Rising Global Power

Not far from Renmin University in the north-west of Beijing, there is a gargantuan Carrefour hypermarket which sells everything from clothes and refrigerators to sports equipment and food, and which takes a lifetime just to walk through let alone shop in. It is the largest supermarket I have ever used and throngs with many thousands of Beijingers every day of the week. Carrefour, French-owned and the world’s second largest retailer, has 112 such hypermarkets in China, though they vary considerably in size. In April 2008 Carrefour found itself the target of a protest which spread like wildfire across China, with demonstrations taking place outside stores in Beijing, Wuhan, Heifei, Kunming, Qingdao and many other cities. The origin of the anti-Carrefour campaign was a few brief postings on China ’s internet bulletin boards which claimed that the retailer and one of its shareholders, LVMH, the French luxury group, had financed the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile in India. Coming hard on the heels of the riots in Tibet, it was an incendiary campaign, which was given added charge by the anger felt towards the protests in Paris against the Olympic torch relay and suggestions that President Sarkozy might boycott the Games. The large crowds that gathered outside many Carrefour hypermarkets urged shoppers to boycott the stores. Demonstrators carried pictures of Jin Jang, a wheelchair-bound Chinese athlete, who