China is a conundrum: past, present and possibly the future. Even as it is on course to overshadow the US as the next dominant economic superpower, author Martin Jacques argues that it will never become a Western-style society, but will likely remain highly distinctive.
Accounting for this is China’s legacy as a civilisation state, where its characteristics, attitudes and values predate its existence as a nation state.
“China for the last hundred years has called itself a nation state and has developed the forms of a nation state. But it's not really a nation state. It's really a civilisation state. Or, as (China specialist) Lucian Pye put it rather well, ‘China is a civilisation, masquerading as a nation state, obliged by its weakness at the end of the 19th century to adapt to European norms.’ (Or), as I put it, its topsoil is that of a nation state; its geological structure is that of a civilisation state.”
What does that mean for China’s development? Jacques explains: “I think it introduces at the very heart of the global system a country which is much, much older than any other country in the world. The fact that it's much older means that the way it sees itself; its sense of identity, its notion of race, its sense of its place in the world, is all markedly different from that of a conventional nation state.”
“(So) the first priority of any Chinese government is to maintain the unity of the civilisation. It accepts a degree of diversity; it is bound to accept a degree of diversity within its borders that no nation state would countenance.”
A classic example is the handover of Hong Kong. “No one discussed it in this way but think of it, ‘one country, two systems’ was the maxim that was used. Which nation state would ever accept a new territory within its borders, under its jurisdiction which had another system? There's a classic example of this; the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Did the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)? Was it absorbed by West Germany on the basis of ‘one country, two systems’? Absolutely not; that was the point. It was ‘one country, one system’; that is the fiat of the nation state.”
Jacques believes that China’s dominance will pave the way for a radically new way of thinking; a new kind of history, a very different kind of culture, which is summed up by the notion, the ‘civilisation state’.
But it will not be easy for the international community to accept. “We will have to struggle with this in the West to understand it because the point is that all the concepts we've used to understand development, international relations and so on hitherto have been Western concepts, derived from Western experience, derived from understanding the problems posed by the development of Europe or the development of the United States or what have you.”
“It is wrong to think that those concepts can automatically be applied and be equally valid and useful to countries which have quite different histories and cultures. The Western conceptual apparatus does not apply in the same way to China. It's not that it can't yield anything, but there are many things it cannot explain. So you have to develop a new conceptual apparatus to understand a country like China.”
As we usher in a new era of ‘contested modernity’ of competing concepts and ideologies from various nations, it is important to remember China as the central player in this. While outcomes are hard to predict, Jacques has no doubt that it will be “a very rich situation” ahead.