The Secret Orientalism of Martin Jacques

Writing for the BBC, Marxist journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, joins the most important discussion foreign policy elites will have in the next ten years — how will China behave as a superpower?  Sadly, Jacques begins well, talking about the weight of China’s population upon the country’s massive economy, but then immediately falls into the same trap as Pankaj Mishra, namely, recycling the Chinese government’s own narratives about Chinese history rather than doing critical research.

The milk of Jacques’ argument begins to turn sour around this point in the article:

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

If we hold China to the same standards that America and Britain have been held to by the left, then its cultivation of client states in Africa and Southeast Asia is precisely that —  a neo-colonial power.  If, on the other hand, we discard dependency theory as warmed-over Marxism and look at China through a traditional realist lens, Chinese behavior in Africa is balancing behavior, not neo-colonialism.

And while I’m sympathetic to this argument, I can’t imagine that Jacques or other admirers of China in the new left would excuse Western behavior the same way Jacques is prepared to make excuses for China.  This is, as we shall see, the key flaw in Jacques’ argument.

We continue:

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t.

These passages are bizarrely, totally, wrong.

For starters, China, like Russia, India, and the United States, is a continental empire-state.  All of these countries grew out of a strong core nation that, after acquiring sufficient resources, proceeded to conquer and subjugate surrounding nations until obtaining a large contiguous landmass with fairly stable natural borders (e.g. mountains, rivers, seas).  Colonialism doesn’t enter into the picture like it did for, say, Belgium, because an empire-state has enough resources within its own borders that it doesn’t necessarily need colonies.

Understand that colonies qua colonialism are largely a function of distance.  If a country can control the territory of its neighbors first with puppet governments and increasing military presence, outright incorporation usually follows.  How, for instance, is China’s final incorporation of Tibet — which was an independent country for most of its history — different than what Japan attempted to do in China proper?  In fairness, Jacques goes on to acknowledge the massive growth of Chinese empire during the Qing Dynasty, yet this doesn’t trouble him because China didn’t have any colonies.  Except it did.

Let’s look at just one example.  As any good historian of Vietnam will tell you, the Ming Dynasty spent the early 15th century subjugating Vietnam, which led to a guerrilla war against Chinese occupation — a Vietnamese specialty — and the withdrawal of Chinese forces after their defeat by Vietnamese hero Le Loi.  In summary, the Chinese invaded Vietnam in 1406 and administered the country as a colony for two decades.  Perhaps this doesn’t count to Jacques because the Chinese didn’t move to crush Le’s forces with the totality of their might, but the British don’t get any credit for letting India slip away, so why should China?

Jacques gives himself a little leeway to address the Vietnam case, but never does so directly.  He continues:

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

What we see here is that Jacques, the Marxist, begins to paper over classical power relations where China is concerned, and Jacques, the Orientalist, begins to raise his ugly head.  Focus on the Chinese tributary system as a kind of benign empire that doesn’t carry the taint of colonialism was also a thrust of Mishra’s piece, so allow me to quote Dan Trombly’s excellent response to Mishra:

[C]onsidering that during the Qing period the British would pay tribute to China after its subjugation of Burma, at a period when the British had already begun their humiliation of China, treating the tribute system as a supplication to a frequently tenuous and weak Chinese hegemonic capacity is incredibly dubious. Indeed, the increasing direction in studies of Chinese international relations is to challenge the idea of the tribute system as a dominant analytic model explaining vast periods of Chinese history, rather than a relationship with incredible amounts of variance in both outcome and motives for participation. Since the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century,” it makes more sense to “talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system.”

We should also remember that many of modern China’s territorial claims, including settled questions like Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Chinese nationalist fantasies of seizing the Korean peninsula and Okinawa, are based on these lands once participating in the tributary system under their former feudal rulers.  A troubling paradigm within official Chinese scholarship treats Chinese vassal states as the equivalent of Chinese territory, and China’s neighbors understand that when China engages in political archaeology such as the Northeast History Project, the goal is the Sinification of the past to achieve the Sinification of the future.

Returning to the article, Jacques outlines the staggering reach of 19th and 20th century Western colonialism and contrasts it to humble Ming Dynasty China, which, as we have already seen, was not as benevolent as Jacques would have his readers believe.  (An aside here for my materialist friends:  how much of the power wielded by Western imperialists, compared to the Chinese 300 years earlier, was actually a function of technology rather than ideology?)  Consciously or not, Jacques reiterates Chinese national propaganda about Zheng He, the “can-do eunuch”:

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

This account of Zheng He, which closely follows the official Chinese history, would have us believe two things:  that Zheng He’s expeditions didn’t have a military function, and that the Ming saw the Chinese diaspora as pariahs.  As for the first point, history records that Zheng He was as much an enforcer of Chinese hegemony — a MacArthur figure, if you will — as he was an explorer.   His fleets pursued pirates throughout Asia, and in Sri Lanka he led the Ming forces in a two-year war against the kingdom of Kotte, installing a puppet ruler who was deposed by the Sri Lankans in 1414.  Rather than piracy, it seems the Chinese fixation on Kotte — they had invaded under the Yuan Dynasty as well — had to do with acquiring the Tooth of Buddha and taking it to China.  (Attempting to steal another country’s artifacts is downright … European.)

As for the second point, Zheng He interacted freely with the Chinese diaspora and they were vital parts of the Ming’s trading network.  If there was any schism between the diaspora and the emperor, it may have been because many of them moved abroad during earlier dynasties.  Zheng He himself referred to these overseas Chinese as “Tang Dynasty men.”  Yet they, along with local peoples in Southeast Asia, venerated Zheng He, which undermines Jacques’ characterization of overseas Chinese, and also calls into question the next passage:

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

Zheng He, while not being a hero of colonial expansion per se, is certainly a hero of hegemonic power.  His are not the only statues of a maritime hero one finds in China, however.  Monuments to Zheng Chenggong, better known as Koxinga, have been erected throughout coastal China as well as in Taiwan.  A Ming loyalist and pirate, Koxinga operated from southern China during the early Qing Dynasty before invading Taiwan in 1661 and overthrowing its Dutch rulers.  With the Europeans out of the picture, Koxinga was left with the task of brutally subjugating the aboriginal Taiwanese — a fact deemed so inconvenient to the official Chinese narrative that the Koxinga scholar Tonio Andrade was told to censor his recent book on the subject or risk being unable to publish a translation in China.

At this point in the article, Jacques makes the correct argument that Chinese rulers remain more internally focused than Western leaders; that, when Xi Jinping becomes president, his agenda “will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.” Jacques also argues, correctly, that Westerners are fixated on exporting their values to the rest of the world.  But he falters when he suggests China is uninterested in spreading its values.  The doctrine of “non-interference,” which Beijing regularly upholds with its UN Security Council veto, is itself a universal value.  The friends Beijing makes through the non-inteference doctrine leads to the contradiction of Chinese becoming more cosmopolitan as the country becomes richer, then looking at their country’s list of allies with shame. And when one of those allies abruptly changes course and becomes freer than China, the envy can be palpable.

Next, Jacques reduces Western influence over the world to a byproduct of Western (read: American) military power and argues,

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The economic power of the ascendant China will unquestionably great, and as Beijing’s shameless monkeywrenching of ASEAN shows, China has already begun to “bend … countries to its will,” but cultural power remains a giant question mark.  Chinese cultural malaise has paradoxically increased even as China grows economically stronger, which suggests that either the patterns of cultural development have changed considerably and thus economy and culture are no longer fungible, or else the current Chinese government, despite its merits, lacks the openness and vision of the Tang and Song Dynasties.  The Chinese critique, from the Heshang documentary series in 1988, to Wolf Totem twenty years later, to Han Han’s writing today, is that, for various reasons, Chinese culture is backwards and lacks vitality.  Perhaps this self-doubt will change “when China rules the world.” Perhaps not.

Martin Jacques has no room for Han Han and the fierce urgency of now, though.  By the end of the piece, Jacques the Orientalist is fully in charge, telling us that Chinese have a different way of looking at history:

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

For Chinese peasants and their feudal lords, a century was nothing.  But can we say the same for Han Han’s generation?

Primary School Colors

Following a post from John at Sinosplice, I checked out the documentary “Please Vote for Me,” part of the BBC’s “Why Democracy” film series. The film covers a democratic classroom election at a top primary school in Wuhan, China. The candidates are three children in the 3rd grade: chubby and charming but devious Cheng Cheng, the Bill Clinton of the film; the incumbent Luo Lei, who takes a “bread and circuses” approach to the election; and Xu Xiaofei, who is not only the only girl but also seemingly the most decent of the three (just think of her as the Paul Tsongas or Mike Huckabee of the race).

Though clocking in at a short 47 minutes, “Please Vote for Me” is a brilliant and potentially disturbing film, insomuch as the children — with some help from their parents — take pages from the playbook of Lee Atwater and James Carville to defeat their opponents. This BBC News article offers a good summary of what transpires, but really the film should be watched on its own to appreciate what happens.

Given that the political history of Chinese people differs wildly from the US, the film provides some ammunition for those who believe the flaws in American democracy aren’t systemic so much as the natural effects of human nature in the political system. Beyond that, it’s a highly entertaining short documentary and look at the lives of the new Chinese middle class.