The effects of China ’s economic rise are being felt around the world, most notably in the falling price of many consumer products and the rise, until the credit crunch, in commodity prices. With a population four times the size of that of the United States and a double-digit growth rate, Goldman Sachs has projected that in 2027 China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy,  although even then China will still be at the relatively early stages of its transformation into a modern economy. Breathtaking as these economic forecasts are, why should we assume that the effects of China ’s rise will be primarily economic in nature? Rising powers in time invariably use their new-found economic strength for wider political, cultural and military ends. That is what being a hegemonic power involves, and China will surely become one. The West, however, finds it difficult to imagine such a scenario. Having been hegemonic for so long, the West has, for the most part, become imprisoned within its own assumptions, unable to see the world other than in terms of itself. Progress is invariably defined in terms of degrees of Westernization, with the consequence that the West must always occupy the summit of human development since by definition it is the most Western, while the progress of others is measured by the extent of their Westernization. Political and cultural differences are seen as symptoms of backwardness which will steadily disappear with economic modernization. It is inconceivable, however, that China will become a Western-style nation in the manner to which we are accustomed. China is the product of a history and culture which has little or nothing in common with that of the West. It is only by discounting the effects of history and culture and reducing the world to a matter of economics and technology that it is possible to conclude that China will become Western.
As Chapter 5 will show, it is striking how relatively little East Asia has, in fact, been Westernized, notwithstanding the effects of a century or more of European colonization followed by a half-century of American ascendancy in the region. If that is true of East Asia as a whole, it is even truer of China. There are four key themes, each rooted in Chinese history, which mark China as distinct from the West and which, far from being of diminishing significance, are likely to exercise an increasing influence over how China both sees itself and also conceives of its place and role in the world. These form the subject matter of the second part of the book, but as a taster I can outline them in brief as follows.
In the first place, China should not be seen primarily as a nation-state, even though that is how it presently describes itself and how it is seen by others. China has existed within roughly its present borders for almost two thousand years and only over the last century has it come to regard itself as a nation-state. The identity of the Chinese was formed before China assumed the status of a nation-state, unlike in the West, where the identity of people, in both Europe and the United States, is largely expressed in terms of the nation-state. The Chinese, in constantly making reference to what they describe as their 5,000-year history, are aware that what defines them is not a sense of nationhood but of civilization. In this context, China should not primarily be seen as a nation-state but rather as a civilization-state. The implications of this are far-reaching: it is simply not possible to regard China as like, or equivalent to, any other state. I will explore this question more fully during the course of the book, especially in Chapter 7.
Likewise, China has a different conception of race to that held by the other most populous nations, notably India, Indonesia and the United States, which acknowledge, in varying degrees, that they are intrinsically multiracial in character. It is self-evident that a country as vast as China, comprising a fifth of the world’s population, was originally composed of a huge diversity of races. Yet the Han Chinese, who account for around 92 per cent of the population, believe that they comprise one race. The explanation for this lies in the unique longevity of Chinese civilization, which has engendered a strong sense of unity and common identity while also, over a period of thousands of years, enabling a mixing and melding of a multitude of diverse races. There is also an ideological component to the Chinese attitude towards race: at the end of the nineteenth century, as the dynastic state found itself increasingly beleaguered in the face of the European, American and Japanese occupying powers, the term ‘Han Chinese’ acquired widespread popularity as part of a nationalist reaction against both the invaders and also the Manchu character of the Qing dynasty. But in practice this is a far less influential factor than the effects of China ’s long history. Race is rarely paid the attention it deserves in political and cultural writing, but attitudes towards race and ethnicity are integral to understanding all societies. As I demonstrate in Chapter 8, they shape and define how the Chinese see the non-Chinese, whether within China or the rest of the world. The Chinese attitude towards difference will be a powerful factor in determining how China behaves as a global power.
Until little more than a century ago, China’s hinterland — what we know today as East Asia — was organized on the basis of tributary relationships which involved neighbouring states acknowledging China’s cultural superiority and its overwhelming power by paying tribute to the Middle Kingdom (which is the Mandarin Chinese name for China, namely Zhōngguó) in return for benevolence and protection. The tributary system, as it was known, fell victim to the colonization of East Asia by the European powers, and was replaced by the Westphalian nation-state system. Is it possible that the tributary system could return to the region? China, as before, is set to economically dwarf the rest of the region. The Europeans have long since departed East Asia, while the American position is progressively weakening. It should not be taken for granted that the interstate system that prevails in the region will continue to be a version of the Westphalian. If, with the rise of China, we are entering a different world, then that is even truer of East Asia, which is already in the process of being reconfigured in terms of a renascent China. I consider the nature of the tributary state system, past and possible future, in Chapter 9.
Finally, the most single important characteristic of China concerns its unity. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square repression it was widely believed in the West that China would fracture in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. This was based on a fundamental misreading of China. The latter has occupied roughly similar territory — certainly in terms of where the great majority of the population live — for almost two millennia. When the Roman Empire was in the process of fragmenting into many smaller states, China was moving in the opposite direction, acquiring a unity which has, despite long periods of Balkanization, lasted until the present. The result is a single country that is home to a huge slice of humanity. This profoundly affects how it sees the rest of the world as well as providing it with — potentially at least — exceptional power. The sheer size of China defines it as different from all other countries, bar India. The nature and ramifications of China ’s unity are considered at various stages in the book, notably in Chapters 4, 7, 8 and 11.
It is obvious from the profundity of these four points — civilization-state, race, tributary state, and unity — let alone many others that I will consider during the course of the book — that China has enjoyed a quite different history to that of the West. Countries invariably see the world in terms of their own experience. As they become hegemonic powers — as China will — they seek to shape the world in the light of their own values and priorities. It is banal, therefore, to believe that China ’s influence on the world will be mainly and overwhelmingly economic: on the contrary, its political and cultural effects are likely to be at least as far-reaching. The underlying argument of the book is that China ’s impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater.