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Viewing China's Pre-Eminence

The emergence of China as an economic super-power, holding its own with, and surpassing, the US, is now taken for granted. However, both admirers and detractors of China, in analysing the implications, have not been able to shake off the dead weight of the commonly touted notions of politics and economics. They pine for the prospect of China somehow “mending its ways”, according to their prescriptions, and conforming to political theories, economic dogmas and social mores familiar to them.

The success of the West in imposing its model on the rest of the world so far was largely for want of a spirited effort by the countries of the Orient to contest its basic assumptions. China’s pre-eminence threatens the postulates that the West has long cherished. That is what explains both its fascination for, and fear of, China. What if the political, social and functional paradigm that it represents becomes universal and China, in effect, sets out to rule the world?


Quite a distinct possibility, avers Martin Jacques, a columnist of The Guardianof London and a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, in his book, “When China rules the world”. He argues, though not in so many words, that scholars pickled in Western notions of nation states, and fixated on what they hold to be self-evident truths driving their institutional props get it all wrong when they try to transpose them to the Chinese context. Such a self-righteous and supremacist approach has led to a seriously flawed understanding of the Chinese phenomenon.

Observers sometimes avow surprise over the rapid strides China has made. They forget that China (as much as India, be it added) has been no stranger to stunning achievements in its history of 5,000 or more years. In fact, until 200 years ago, China outshone the West in every political, economic and social parameter defining superior record of performance, be it a strong and stable government, technological prowess marked by creativity and innovation, or wealth generation..

Long before the thinkers the West swears by such as Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Paine (just to mention a few), Chinese culture and civilisation had attained a matchless depth and range, and the overarching ideals and precepts of Confucian philosophy suffused by Buddhism-inspired spiritual efflorescence had become the bedrock of the Chinese society. Indeed, China’s current brand of communism itself, despite aberrations, has mutated from all that went before it.

Thus, although the rules of the game as played by China seem outwardly arcane and untenable to Western minds and to thinkers and academics blindly emulating them, they are in fact rooted in values and traditions fundamental to its evolution, and, indeed, very existence. It is not that China is not changing, but it is calibrating that change as suits its own cultural and civilisational imperatives. That is why, in the words of Martin Jacques, China is a “civilisational state”, and not a “nation state” which is the only term the West-oriented commentators understand.


The quintessence of his thesis, to borrow from a review of his book in The New York Times, is that “the country’s cultural core resembles ancient China far more than it does modern Europe or the United States. It is accumulating wealth much faster than it is absorbing foreign ideas. China is not emerging on the world stage as a new, powerful nation-state. It is, instead… regaining ‘lost international status,’ becoming the first ancient civilisation to re-emerge and reclaim its position as a dominant power.”

In this background, it is a sign of fossilised mind to insist on the infallibility of one’s own interpretation of concepts such as the rule of law, equality before law, human rights, elections, people’s will and consent and legal remedies. It is conceivable that they may not take the same form in every context and in every place and may undergo mutation reflecting the prevailing circumstances. In any case, as Alexander Pope said: “For forms of government let fools contest/Whate’er is best administered is best”.

Will China change the world? In the sense of its rise demonstrating the failure of the existing modes of governance and making it an irresistible example in its own right, maybe. In the sense of China using its might and clout in pursuance of a deliberate policy of domination, doubtful. In the sense of steering the world towards the golden mean, probable.

(The writer is Mr B.S.Raghavan, IAS (Retd) , former Policy Adviser to UN(FAO) and Patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. This formed the basis of his Introductory remarks at the C3S National Seminar on “Leadership Changes in China : Domestic and External Impact”, held in Chennai on 2 March,2013.

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