A Point Of View: Making sense of China

Crowd of people in China

China's growing importance on the world stage means that the West needs to start speaking its language, says economist Martin Jacques.

My son has been learning Mandarin Chinese since he was five; he is now just 14.

It has not been easy. Learning Chinese has required a deep pocket and the determination of an Olympic athlete.

For nine years, he fed on the scraps of a veritable army of part-time tutors, each one lasting a year or so if we were lucky. The reason? Until 12 months ago it wasn't possible for him to learn it at school - French, Spanish German, Latin, even Ancient Greek, no problem. But not Chinese.

Even now, alas, it is very much a second-class subject. His lessons take place during the school lunch break.

The reluctance of the educational system - public and private - to grasp the Chinese nettle is a metaphor for a much wider problem: our ignorance about China and our failure to appreciate just how much it will change the world and transform our lives.

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Martin Jacques
  • Martin Jacques is an economist and author of When China Rules the World
  • A Point of View broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT

With unerring regularity, our predictions about China have proved mistaken. Take its economy. In 1980 it was one-20th of the size of the US, today it is half the size and closing rapidly. Throughout that period, the doubting Thomases were always in a large majority. It would not last, sooner or later it would all end in tears.

Why have we managed to get China so wrong? The reason is hardly rocket science. We insist on viewing it through a western prism. For the best part of two centuries, Western societies have seen themselves as the model for all others. But China isn't like us. It never has been and never will be.

The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China - not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.

Let's take one example. We assume that the nation-state, that long-standing and remarkably influential European invention, is more or less universal. True, China has called itself a nation-state for about a century. But 100 years is a mere pin-prick for a country that dates back over two millennia. Modern China emerged in 221. By the time of the Han dynasty - still more than 2,000 years ago - China's borders already closely resembled those of eastern and central China today. China is very old, the longest continuously-existing polity in the world. And for more than 2,000 years, it was not a nation-state but a civilisation-state. In essence it still is.

Our own sense of who we are, and what we are, is overwhelmingly shaped by our sense of nation, as it is for every Western country.

China is different. The things that define for the Chinese who they are and what China is are a product not of the past 100 years of calling itself a nation-state but 2,000 years of being a civilisation-state.

Shoppers in Beijing Harmony, stability and social order were Confucian ideals

China is changing faster than any other society in human history. Yet at the same time it continues to enjoy a unique and extraordinary intimacy with its own history. On my countless visits to China I am always fascinated and intrigued by this paradox. Don't be surprised if a Beijing taxi driver quotes an old sage or two from 3,000 years ago in a conversation about the present. History, even far distant history, is right there in the rear-view mirror. The values associated with Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, continue to shape and mould social attitudes such as harmony, stability, order, or the state as a microcosm of the family.

It is no accident that the Chinese write the family name first followed by the given name. It reflects the overriding importance of the family in Chinese history. Then there's the ancient roots of Chinese food and indeed Chinese medicine. Civilisation is what defines China.

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The country has another remarkable characteristic in this context. It is huge, a continent in its own right as well being home to 1.3bn people, one-fifth of the human race. Although we tend to see China as highly centralised, it would be impossible to run a country of such size and immense diversity from Beijing. Its provincial governments have enjoyed great power, with the largest having far more authority than the great majority of the world's nation-states.

But what in practice does it mean to be a civilisation-state?

The implications are far-reaching.

Here's an example.

You may remember the handover of Hong Kong by Britain to China in 1997. Under the new constitution, known as the Basic Law, China proposed that Hong Kong would be run on the principle of "one country, two systems". The vast majority of us, I suspect, hadn't got a clue what it meant. I am sure that we overwhelmingly believed that, soon after the handover, Hong Kong would become more or less indistinguishable from the rest of China.

Over 15 years later, it is abundantly clear we were wrong. Hong Kong is at least as different - politically and legally - from the rest of China as it was in 1997. The Chinese really did mean one country, two systems.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

Why didn't we believe them? Because we are a nation-state and think like a nation-state.

Take the reunification of Germany in 1990. What happened? The old East Germany disappeared. The new united Germany was the old West Germany writ large. It was the natural solution for a nation-state - one country, one system. But it is impossible to rule a civilization-state of China's scale on that principle. For 2,000 years, China has operated in varying degrees according to the principle one country, many systems. The country could not be held together on any other basis.

In this light, it was entirely logical for China to embrace Hong Kong on the basis of one country, two systems. If Taiwan should decide at some point that its future lies with China and that it should accept Chinese sovereignty, I think the Chinese will offer the Taiwanese the same deal - one country, two systems. But they will likely go further and give an undertaking that Taiwan can retain universal suffrage and its present multi-party system. Because what really matters to the Chinese is not the system but the principle of their sovereignty.

So, let's now imagine a world in which the dominant power is no longer a nation-state, like the United States and before that Britain, but a civilisation-state. I suggest that over time - and I mean many decades - the world will come to look very different. The European-inspired nation-state system will progressively give way to a more pluralistic world. The rise of China will encourage other countries to think of themselves differently. India is not a civilisation-state in the manner of China, but it too is the product of a great civilisation. Turkey too, and likewise Iran. The decline of the West will undermine the strait jacket of the nation-state.

Words in Mandarin Chinese The study of Chinese can take twice as long to learn as a European languages

The idea of China as a civilisation-state is the key to many other aspects of China. We cannot understand why - quite remarkably - over 90% of Chinese think of themselves as of the same race without reference to it. Or why the state enjoys such authority and reverence amongst the Chinese even though it lacks a Western-style democracy.

If we persist with our present mindset, then don't be surprised if we continue getting China hopelessly wrong. Worse, with the relentless rise of China and the long-term decline of the West, we will find ourselves increasingly unfamiliar with a China-centric world and feel more and more like outsiders. That's exactly what happened to China, to its huge cost, after 1800 with the rise of the West.

Despite all the obstacles, my son's Mandarin Chinese is coming along nicely.

The task is formidable: you have to learn thousands of characters and a host of entirely unfamiliar sounds. It is estimated that it takes at least twice as long to learn as a European language. The language is a metaphor for China. Understanding the unfamiliar requires a different mentality: rather than superiority, hubris and presumption, which have I think been the dominant Western attitudes towards China, we'll need respect, humility and modesty. Will we respond to the challenge? The stakes could not be higher.

Below is a selection of your comments

I agree about the difficulty of learning Mandarin, at 70 I find it both a challenge and a delight. One progresses very very slowly, but each step forward gives a glow of real pleasure as new illumination lights the brain. It is vital for Britain's future that Mandarin be on all the schools' curricula, beginning at prep school.

Emily Dibb, London

I am a Singaporean Chinese who has relocated to Australia. I think I am an example among many South-East Asians who make a distinction between nation and civilisation with regards to our Chinese origins - we are ethnically Chinese, and proud of that fact, but we are quick to dissociate ourselves from China as a nation. Perhaps it is due to our colonised past and exposure to Western education and thinking. Reading your article has given me much food for thought, and possibly action. Perhaps by looking afresh at China as a civilisation-state, and re-examining our relationship and ties with China, I and other Chinese who think like me can play a role in affecting the nature of things to come. For the present, at least, I will be doggedly taking my children to their Saturday Chinese lessons, come what may.

Karen Lim, Perth, Australia

It is not just the British who are attempting to learn Mandarin. In Hong Kong, as part of the "one country, two systems" ideology, children are taught Mandarin at school, but the authorities are relaxed about the lingua franca still being Cantonese. Hokkien is also widely spoken. The UK is in a similar position, with acceptance of Welsh and Gaelic on signs.

Bill Walker, Portsmouth, UK

I relocated to Ningbo in Zhejian province seven months ago with my wife and three young sons. I fully accept that China will never be a Western-style democracy - not enough cohesion in this. The state of Western liberal democracies is evidence of this: fragmentation of the political process and tendency to extremism and massive voter apathy. Martin is perfectly correct about our eurocentric view of China - it is a very complex society and standard models (economic, social and political) do not apply to any good degree. This is still an ancient people and evidence of her recent emergence from a peasant culture is abundant even in her metropolitan centres of Beijing and Shanghai and a dozen more cities. China will continue to defy logic and you can see this even in the traffic management system - it looks like chaos but it works. Everything has symbolism and a strong sense of the monumental. Just look at the skyline and you get the message: China is regaining the her former status. The rise of the middle kingdom is in full swing.

Dr Leslie Taylor, Ningbo, China

If one word could describe the Chinese attitude both personal and national, it would be "pragmatic". They succeed because of their pragmatism. I learnt early on that the average Chinese attitude was "someone will always rule us", with economic and educational freedom being far more important than political freedom. A good start to viewing the reality of present-day China would be to remove the democracy blinkers and, as this excellent article states, view the country within a pragmatic frame.

Richard Thomas, Vancouver

Stating that a Chinese system is more pluralistic than a Western one is naive. The first past the post system here in the UK, and the electoral college of individual states in the US ensures the minority voice is heard as loudly as the majority one. China isn't democratic, and is largely homogenous when compared to Europe and the US. It is hardly a model for an ever-more globalised and more democratic world. China's relationship with Hong Kong is an exception; and one characterised by restraint on China's side. I'm very doubtful that such a relationship could exist between itself and Taiwan, considering their history. I'm also left to wonder where Tibet fits into this into this pluralistic theory?

Luke Prescott, London

Your general point that Europe has still not come to terms with China is undoubtedly true, but the demise of the nation state is occurring with or without China. Already the European source of the nation state has also decided the nation state is no longer viable. When the euro has survived its current local difficulties (and in one form or another it will), it will be the first genuinely international currency; backed by internationalised versions of institutions associated with nation states (central banks, courts, parliaments). The laggard is the US, with both the EU and China providing an alternative.

Tony, Wellington, New Zealand

In the 1960s a similar situation arose and man people began learning Japanese. After considerable investment in both time and money, Western businessmen and scholars found that the Japanese were learning English and other pertinent European languages. The real requirement now is to learn Portuguese, that is for those interested in doing business in Brazil.

John E Pearl, Bogota, Colombia

An interesting argument, but having lived in Japan and China for many years I disagree. These days no culture is static. There are three things that will make China a fundamentally different place in the bat of an historic eyelid: the unprecedented, rapid and uncontrolled movement of people and ideas as epitomised by the internet; change in the economic system that underpins Chinese culture and the parallel rise in the middle class; and finally, the one-child generation.

Terry Newman, Huzhou, China

If India and China are churning out one million graduate engineers every year - twice the number of engineers in Europe and North America combined, it is only a matter of time before the UK in particular will be totally sidelined - particularly while the UK focuses on "education for education sake". China's work and savings ethics make the UK and US look like total delinquents. Already some Americans are saying the Chinese "should learn how to spend" - what, to follow the US example of trillions of dollars of debt? I hope not. China is probably the wake-up call to the smug, self-centred West.

N Brown, Pelynt, UK

The main reason why the West failed to understand China (and also Japan in the 70s and 80s) is the "white man superiority" complex towards other races because of past colonisation. The emergence of Japan and China is like the "hare-the west" mentality and the "turtle-east". The difference is the turtle-east is learning how to run like a hare and keeping the hard-working and enduring hardship attitude. It is better to learn the culture of the people (refer to Sun Tsu's strategy - understand self and competitor, you have a good chance of winning). Language helps you to communicate but not necessary understanding the people.

Leslie Lee, Hong Kong

I would regard China as being a multi-tier federation - a description not a million miles from Confucius. Scotland was run on a not dissimilar system, even after the High Kings "unified" the nation, clans and the lairds within them still had enormous independence and power. England had nothing really similar - the Bretwalda system was very different from the Chinese system, it was a step in the right direction from the all-powerful king-states, but it was a step towards the nation-state. Aside from Scotland's experiment with a more federated system, you have to go back to the Bronze Age or earlier before you had societies so spread out beyond the capacity of those societies to have a national identity that whatever sense of identity existed (and it's not clear it even did) that was a purely cultural identity.

Jonathan Day, Portland, OR, USA

This is first class, however like every other sinophile you have been seduced by the China growth story. Every China watcher knows that China is unstable and must bust sooner or later. To give just one example, all the mill workers of China are about to be replaced by machines, just as they were in England centuries ago. In England it was only just containable, in China in the 21st Century?

Noel Quinn, NSW, Australia

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