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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Contested Modernity

This talk is a nice summary of Martin Jacques' recent book When China Rules the World. Jacques is insightful and his opinions are worthy of consideration. He combines the depth of an academic (he's a Cambridge PhD) with the willingness of a journalist and public intellectual (his job over the last 20+ years) to take chances and make broad statements. His late wife was an ethnic-Indian who worked as a barrister in Hong Kong. From her he developed a certain insight into aspects of Chinese society (specifically, attitudes toward race, ethnicity and cultures from the developing world) that would tend to elude a European intellectual. Jacques, who used to edit the journal Marxism Today, and was a strong critic of Thatcherism, nevertheless acknowledges the ascendancy of global capitalism ("is there any other game in town?"). Rather than hold his previous politics against him, it signals to me a certain mental flexibility. I'm more likely to trust the judgement of a thinker that has changed some of his fundamental assumptions in the face of facts. (Posterior probabilities should not equal prior probabilities after a nontrivial encounter with data -- if they do that is a clear warning sign; see some of the Chicago School interviews I linked to in the previous post ;-)

The audio is also available via iTunes as a podcast, and includes some Q&A at the end which challenges some of Jacques' assumptions. The Q&A is not included in the video below.




Synopsis:

For over two hundred years we have lived in a western-made world, one where the very notion of being modern was synonymous with being western. The book argues that the twenty-first century will be different: with the rise of increasingly powerful non-Western countries, the west will no longer be dominant and there will be many ways of being modern. In this new era of ‘contested modernity’ the central player will be China.

Martin Jacques argues that far from becoming a western-style society, China will remain highly distinctive. It is already having a far-reaching and much-discussed economic impact, but its political and cultural influence, which has hitherto been greatly neglected, will be at least as significant. Continental in size and mentality, and accounting for one fifth of humanity, China is not even a conventional nation-state but a ‘civilization-state’ whose imperatives, priorities and values are quite different. As it rapidly reassumes its traditional place at the centre of East Asia, the old tributary system will resurface in a modern form, contemporary ideas of racial hierarchy will be redrawn and China’s ages-old sense of superiority will reassert itself. China’s rise signals the end of the global dominance of the west and the emergence of a world which it will come to shape in a host of different ways and which will become increasingly disconcerting and unfamiliar to those who live in the west.

See also Is there a China model?, which discusses the concept of performance legitimacy (a modern analog of the Mandate of Heaven?) as opposed to democracy.

More: Worst case scenarios and governance in China, and links here.

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