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(W.E. Talk) To Understand China's Success, First Understand Chinese Civilization

2023-12-10 Editor : Wu Xinru ECNS App Download

An Exclusive interview with Martin Jacques by CNS Reporter PENG Dawei


According to Martin Jacques, to understand the success of China’s development, we must understand the Chinese civilization since China is not just a nation-state, but a civilization-state, with many of its thoughts deeply rooted in Confucianism. Westerners have been brought up to essentially believe that their way of doing things is an exemplar for the rest of the world. One fallacy of that is failing to understand how human rights operate in China.

Villagers in Linhai City, Zhejiang Province, celebrate a peach fruit harvest. (Photo: Yang Linghao from China News Service)

CNS: Is the success of China rooted in its political system or in its unique political leadership?

Martin Jacques: I don't think either of those actually explain China's success. I would say China's rise is also associated with its historical performance over a very long time. You have got to ask deeper questions like what it is about Chinese culture and Chinese society that has enabled this to happen.

We should keep in mind American political scientist Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama's theory on China’s political system, in which he states that China displays more continuity than any other country in the world. In other words, if you trace the underlying characteristics of the governing system in China, it's remained surprisingly, or maybe predictably, very similar since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC). The Communist Party of China (CPC) has been the governing force in China since 1949. But even during this period, you can still see these very powerful lines of continuity with the imperial period, the dynastic period of China.

Now, on the question, specifically, I think that you obviously need a very good political leadership. And I think China has had an extremely good political leadership over a long period. Mao Zedong recreated China, reconstituted China and that paved the way for the developments that have happened since then. Then you have Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's reform and opening-up. Deng, in my view, was an extraordinary leader who understood that China needed a very different kind of economic and political strategy. He had a remarkable impact on China and the rest of the world. 

China's system worked extremely well by creating an extremely capable governing class and leadership. Starting from 1978, when the reform started, to the present, it's extraordinary what they have managed to do by any historical standards. And for a party to be extraordinarily successful, like the CPC, it has to keep reinventing itself. It's been very good at this so far. The Chinese leadership has way outperformed the American leadership in this regard.

CNS: U.S. President Joe Biden said that the mission of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not nation-building, but the CPC has been all about nation-building to prevent China from becoming a battlefield of warlords once again. Do you think it is the role of the CPC that makes China so different, especially if you compare China with any of its regional neighbors?

Martin Jacques: I think that's obviously very important but I don’t think that's the only reason. China has had a very long existence. True it’s been divided at times, very important times, but the extraordinary thing about China is that it's huge and it stayed together. This is an extraordinary historical fact about China. To me, this is about leadership, but it's also about the culture.

In this era, there's no question that the CPC has been extraordinary. And there's no question in my mind that this era is probably the best era China's ever had in its history. But you know, it stands on the shoulders of a long history. And I think the achievement of the CPC lies in its efforts to find a way of governing China, of relating to the history of China.

It is also attributed to the characteristics of the Chinese civilization, because China is not just a nation-state, it's a civilization-state. If you don't understand that, you don't really understand anything about China.

In the U.S., a mother and son walk on an empty street wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. (File Photo)

CNS: How do you look at the misunderstandings about China's fight against the coronavirus?

Martin Jacques: When it comes to the pandemic, the first external reaction was to condemn China. It was really a shameful exercise of diversion and distraction.

Then how did China succeed so well? First, the government had a very good and clear strategy. Second, there was a very powerful tradition and sense of social cohesion and solidarity among the Chinese, something that is never discussed in the West. It goes back to Confucius and runs deep

in the Chinese. That's why they did so well. And that's why the United States, for example, did so badly, because you know they don’t have that sort of concept.

CNS: Confucianism and the role of the nation in the Chinese context are quite different from the concept in Europe. Does the West need more background knowledge to understand China in this sense?

Martin Jacques: I would say the West does not understand China, it makes precious little attempt to try to understand China. It tries to understand China in the present context but doesn't attempt a deeper understanding because Westerners have been brought up to essentially believe that their way of doing things is an exemplar for the rest of the world and the Western paradigm is superior to all others.

Take a really controversial issue as an example, like human rights. There's really no serious attempt in the West to understand how human rights operate in China. For the West, there's simply a totally different tradition and this really goes back a long time, probably to the time of Confucius. In Confucianism, the individual is not taken as the center. It stresses the concept of the group. The individual has meaning only in the context of the group and society. This is utterly different. It is the opposite in the United States. It is not completely opposite to European countries, but it's very different, still.

I think most of the argument circles around this issue of projecting a Western way of thinking onto China. That means they don't really need to understand China. They just want China to "do like us."

CNS: Why did the White House and U.S. politicians attack China on the origin of COVID-19, weaponizing it as a tool to attack China? Was it about science and real research or was it only rhetoric?

Martin Jacques: I think it was an attempted diversion. They needed to cover up the fact that they performed so abysmally. This was an international relations crisis for the West; they really had no shots in the locker except perhaps to go back to the question about the origin of the virus. I think it's truly pathetic the way Western governments and media handled it, not all of them, but too many of them played this game.

I think from this period of history you've got to draw the conclusion that Western governance is in big trouble. It was a straightforward test of governance and the West failed. So the consequence is that the West can no longer easily boast about itself. 

CNS: What's your opinion on the CPC completing its centenary in 2021? What role has it played in the Chinese rejuvenation?

Martin Jacques: This is the achievement of all Chinese. Everyone in China has contributed to this. But of course, to do something like this you need an extremely good political leadership. And the CPC has been a remarkable leader. To go from where they were in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, or in 1978, when the reform started, to where they are now is incredible. In the modern period at least, the CPC is the most successful political party in the world. I think communist parties have been getting bogged down, losing their way, and eventually disintegrating, which happened in the Soviet Union. But the CPC has been extraordinarily good at reinventing itself and regenerating itself and thereby, also reinventing China. There are no guarantees in political leadership. You have to keep moving with the times and always anticipate the possibilities. Of course, the Chinese culture is very good at this and the CPC has inherited that way of thinking ahead.

Deng Xiaoping made great reforms. Subsequently many people thought they were like Westernization. On the contrary, it was not Westernization. They created a system which was new, different, unique and remarkably successful. They helped China integrate with the world. It was a confident way of thinking because when you opened up you were competing with the capitalist world, which was richer and better educated at the time.

CNS: What's your take on China’s common prosperity vision?

Martin Jacques: I think this is a very interesting development that is confounding Western thinking. They're not sure what to make of it because they're so congenitally sinophobic at the moment. The initial reflex action is to be negative about it. But the problems that China is confronted with, in this context, are exactly the same problems the West is confronted with.

Take the question of inequality, for example. Inequality is a huge problem in the United States, but also more or less everywhere in Europe.

It's grown steadily in the neoliberal era since 1980. And so China is trying to find ways to tackle it and confront it. This problem really needs to be addressed and it really needs solutions.

Martin Jacques


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