China Power

How We See Ourselves

Why China isn’t (always) as different as we think.

For my first entry it’s tempting to try and come up with something profound on the need to write a dedicated China blog and what we’re hoping to achieve. But I think the blog title speaks for itself as does the brief intro at the top of the page. So I’m going to just dive in and pick something for today, and as the weeks and months go on I’ll try (with some assistance from our China correspondents, among others) to cover not just the breaking headlines from China–and there’s always something–but some of the stories just under the daily news radar.

Fortunately, yesterday there was an interesting opinion piece by Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post that goes right to the heart of the subhead of the blog ‘A New World Order’, or to put it another way, this idea of a G2 and how well they will (or won’t) accommodate each other.

Samuelson draws heavily on ideas in Martin Jacques’ major work ‘When China Rules the World’. I think Jacques goes too far with some of his analysis–his idea that Mandarin will replace English as the international language is far-fetched, not least because it seems to disregard the importance of that other rising giant India, with its enormous, well-educated, English-speaking population.

But what’s really interesting is that what Samuelson writes points to me to a real problem the two face–that the way they see themselves doesn’t always mesh with the way the rest of the world sees them.
Take, for example, Samuelson’s assertion that: ‘China accepts and supports the existing order when that serves its needs, as when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Otherwise, it plays by its own rules and norms.’ Having lived in Britain through the build-up to and launch of the Iraq War (which I supported at the time, incidentally) I can assure Samuelson that a sizeable share of Europeans would have said exactly the same about the US and the United Nations.

He goes on to say: ‘Most American-Chinese disputes reflect China's unwillingness to endanger domestic goals for international ends. It won't commit to binding greenhouse gas cuts because these could reduce economic growth and…jobs’ (I don’t recall NGOs falling over themselves to praise US leadership in Copenhagen) and then ‘the Chinese have an innate sense of superiority, Jacques writes. Americans, too, have a sense of superiority, thinking that our values — the belief in freedom, individualism and democracy — reflect universal aspirations’ (a frustrating but not uncommon snatching of values that are by no means exclusive or original to the US).

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My point here isn’t to belittle the United States (believe me, I went regularly into painful bat in debates over the US position on said Iraq War), but rather to underscore the problems a country will have rubbing along well with others if the worldview of even its well-informed voices is based on an apparent lack of self-awareness.