China and contested modernity

I think I am noticing something of a theme in the Economist of late. On 28 May they noted:

“How times change. When George Bush’s treasury secretaries first visited China, Wall Street was booming, America’s economy was growing and the president’s emissaries routinely lectured their Chinese hosts on the need for freer financial markets and a more flexible yuan. But as Tim Geithner, the current treasury secretary, prepares to make his maiden trip to Beijing on May 31st, Wall Street is synonymous with greed and failure, America’s economy is on its knees and it is the Chinese who have been doing the lecturing. With America’s budget deficit soaring and the Fed’s printing presses running at full speed, China is complaining loudly of the risks that inflation and depreciation pose to its huge stash of dollars, and arguing for an alternative to the greenback as the world’s reserve currency”.

This came after 21 May when the magazine revisited the notion of decoupling: “emerging economies (have) become more resilient to an American recession, thanks to their strong domestic markets and prudent macroeconomic policies”. This was a popular thesis a year ago but lost ground as the global slump hit. However, the Economist argues that the idea may be regaining credibility, with China key to this regained credibility.

“China is exhibit A of this new decoupling: its economy began to accelerate again in the first four months of this year. Fixed investment is growing at its fastest pace since 2006 and consumption is holding up well. Despite debate over the accuracy of China’s GDP figures (see article), most economists agree that output will grow faster than seemed plausible only a few months ago. Growth this year could be close to 8%. Such optimism has fuelled commodity prices which have, in turn, brightened the outlook for Brazil and other commodity exporters”.

Anatole Kaletsky has also noted the significance of economic linkages between China and Brazil, as well as China and South Africa.  

“Commodity-producing countries such as Brazil and South Africa have obviously benefited from China’s overtaking of the US and Europe as the world’s main consumer of raw materials. As long as the Chinese economy keeps growing, Brazil is assured of demand for its iron ore and soya, South Africa for its platinum and coal. Thus the success of the huge fiscal stimulus package announced by the Chinese Government in December has turned out to be much more important for these countries than similar measures in the US or EU”.

So, as Kaletsky puts it, this has meant that America has sneezed but much of the world seems germ-free. The role of China in this trend might suggest that in contrast to decoupling, we are witnessing a coupling of economies to China rather than the US. Kaletsky goes on, however, to make an observation that is more supportive of the decoupling thesis:

“Even more important than the growth of trade with China is that many of the emerging economies, including Brazil and South Africa, have had the financial resources to implement their own independent stimulus packages”.

This capacity of emerging economies to take forward their own stimulus packages appears to be part of a changed world order, with China – twenty years after Tiananmen Square – pivotal to this changed order. Yet, as Martin Jacques, will argue in a new book that he will launch with an event at the RSA on 22 June, “we have barely begun to understand what life will be like when China rules the world”. The blurb on the RSA website about this event goes on to state:

“For well over 200 years, we have lived in a Western-made world, one where the very notion of being modern is inextricably bound up with being Western. The twenty-first century will be different. The rise of China, India and the Asian tiger economies means that, for the first time, modernity will no longer be exclusively Western. The West will be confronted with the fact that its systems, institutions and values are no longer the only ones on offer.

“The central player in this new world will be China. Continental in size and mentality, China is a ‘civilization-state’ whose characteristics, attitudes and values long predate its existence as a nation-state. Although China is clearly influenced by the West, its extraordinary size and history mean that it will remain highly distinct, and as it exercises its rapidly growing power it will change much more than the world’s geopolitics. The nation-state as we understand it will no longer be globally dominant, and the Westphalian state system will be transformed; ideas of race will be redrawn”.

This is why Jacques argues that we are moving into an era of contested modernity. But Kaletsky still frames the rise of China in somewhat western terms by observing:

“The story of South Africa and Brazil in the past decade (has enabled a) transition successfully to pluralistic, liberal free-market democracies.

“Whether China ever manages a similar transition is, of course, the great historical question of the 21st century. But if it forces China to direct economic development towards the needs of its own citizens, rather than the tastes of US consumers, the financial crisis is likely to accelerate China’s evolution into a pluralistic market economy, rather than slowing it down”.

“Car ownership in China – an important badge of middle-class status – is only 2-3 per cent”, as the Financial Times recently observed. The economic development of China will expand this middle-class, which may lead to the kind of transition that Kaletsky envisages. That said; China has already changed massively in the past twenty years but the grip of the Communist Party upon power in China seems more secure now than it did at the time of Tiananmen Square. Why? 

“As a result of the effective combination of governance reforms and co-opting the rich and the middle class”, the Financial Times explains, “few analysts believe the party will face a serious threat over the next decade”. These governance reforms mean that the Communist Party is a very different beast from what it was twenty years. Change in China is likely to be such that it will face further calls to evolve in coming years. This will lead, claims the Financial Times, to “pressure to introduce deeper political reforms”. But will these reforms lead to China taking the kind of transition to western democratic norms as foreseen by Kaletsky or will they result in the Chinese producing a governance model that takes the “highly distinct” form anticipated by Jacques?

As well as the internal management of the increased power held by China, there are, of course, questions to be asked about the external use of this power. On the eve of Barack Obama’s much heralded speech to the Muslim world, for example, it is interesting to note that the Economist also recently concluded: “If China is at all serious about joining America as a global leader, this is the time for it to shoulder its responsibility by helping to punish Mr Kim”. Mr Kim, of course, is the leader of North Korea. Things which definitely can’t be decoupled are the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The ambitions of the later are a key point of context to Obama’s speech. However, the coupling of North Korea and Iran also, in turn, couples together the efforts of the US and China to respond to the ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

This is a profound change to the world order but is to say nothing of the “neo-colonialist” tendencies that some see in Chinese “land grabs” in Africa. We have grown used to the empire of liberty, as a current Radio 4 series describes the US, dominating a unipolar world order but, perhaps, we should be preparing for another empire, quite possibly with less regard for liberty, as liberty is generally understood in the west, to be a significant player in a multipolar world of contested modernity. Given that we have elections to the European Parliament tomorrow, one wonders what Europe’s role will be in such a world. Sadly, marginalised, I fear, unless we can quickly raise our game very dramatically.