Martin Jacques on the rise of China

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Former TED speaker and expert on China, Martin Jacques came to Lancaster in December to give a lecture in conjunction with the Confucius Institute.  After completing his doctorate at Cambridge, Jacques fulfilled an incredibly established career as a journalist, writing for the Sunday Times, the Times, the Guardian as well as serving for a time as the deputy editor of the Independent.  Jacques is also co-founder of the leading think tank Demos.  However, now he dedicates his time to the rise of China and building his perspective on the subsequent economic, political and cultural impact.  Here, SCAN discusses with Jacques his core arguments, the impact of the rise of China on higher education and future job prospects as China’s economy grows.

You are here to talk about China.  What is the main argument that you will be presenting?

I suppose there is two main arguments.  One is to understand the rise of China and that it is for real.  There is always a suspicion in the West that it is not going to last; that the wheels are going to fall off.  This has been true since 1978. Thirty five years later, people are still saying the same thing.  I think, the point to stress is that it isn’t going to fall apart.  It’s not going to carry on growing at this speed, but it’s going to carry on growing and it is going to become… Well, it is has already over taken America as the largest economy of the world.  In 1978, it was one twentieth of the size.  It’s the most extraordinary economic transformation you’ve ever seen.  So, to understand the rise of China is for real, it will carry on and it will change the world.  Not just economically, I mean in every sense it will change the world.  It has been projected that by 2030, the Chinese economy may well be twice the size of the American economy; a third of global GDP, and it will still have, probably, less than half of the standard of living of America because the population is so large.

The other argument is to try to understand China, because the trouble in the West is that we have had a mentality for a long time that, basically, everyone is going to be like us.  There is one way of being ‘modern’, and it is our way, which is very arrogant and extremely ignorant.  If you’ve travelled around and you know anything about, not just China, but that region, modernity is shaped by history and culture as well as markets and technology and competition and so on.  So really the other point is that the reason we get China wrong so often is because we don’t try and understand it.  Well, we try and understand it in Western terms, we try and understand it through a Western lens.  If you have a conversation on China here, the first thing people say is ‘what about human rights?’, ‘what about the lack of democracy?’  They are projecting our concerns onto China.  It’s not that our concerns are irrelevant.  You have got to understand China on their terms.  You can’t project us onto them, because you’re just going to get it all wrong.  China is profoundly different; always has been and is now.  Although there are certain prefinities, it will remain profoundly different.  The second argument is that you can only understand how China is going to change the world: politically, ethically, morally, intellectually, militarily, by understanding what China is, opposed to thinking perpetually that it is going to be a version of us.  That requires a huge intellectual revolution on our part.

Currently, the movement of students tends to be Chinese students coming to British and American institutions and not vice versa.  Does that indicate that Western values are still enduring in that respect, or could we see slowly a movement in the rise of Chinese higher education?

What it suggests is that China is hugely committed to learning from the West and the Chinese students are the personification of this.  University is a function of funding, and China has been very poor and so universities have been poorly funded.  If you came with me to Beijing, to Peking or Tsinghua University you would see these huge universities now that they are putting huge amounts of money into them.  Chinese students tend to go there for their first degree and here for their second degree.  They are improving very rapidly.  Westerners still tend to go to Chinese universities to study Mandarin and not to study another subject.  In the region, in East Asia, not so much Japanese students, but Korean students and others from around the region, their numbers have increased hugely in Chinese universities.  The initial gravitational pull is in the region.  Not South Asia, but East Asia.  A third of the world’s population lives in East Asia.  I think we will see a big increase in the teaching of Mandarin [in the UK].  The idea that you have a Confucius Institute here – I came to give a speech here in 1988 – then you wouldn’t of dreamt of having a Confucius Institute.  It’s starting with language, and I think in ten years’ time, Mandarin will be taught at a lot of schools and a lot of people from the UK will go and work in China at some point – you might.  Job opportunities in some ways are fantastic, because it is growing so quickly, but you have got to accept that it is a poorer standard of living.

Do you think there are any benefits for students here at Lancaster now [for going to China]? What will the relationship be with China in 30, 40, 50 years’ time?

You mean like you two?  What do you want to do? [Between us we suggest journalism and banking/financial services.] Let’s start with financial services.  The renminbi, by the time you are forty, I would be very surprised by then if it wasn’t the dominant reserve currency in the world, replacing the dollar.  You would be trading and Shangai would not be the financial centre and not New York.  So, it is quite possible if you went into that sort of banking, you would work in Shangai for a period.  It is going to greatly shape your life.  Trade with China is going to be so important.  At the moment, everyone talks about it, but Britain still trades more with Ireland than with all the BRICS countries.

Journalism.  Now, there is a lot more coverage than there was [20 years ago].  I will tell you a little toe in the water thing.  When my book came out in 2009, I noticed quite a few Westerners working for Chinese news outlets, usually English language Chinese outlets.  There are two Chinese newspapers, ‘China Daily’ and ‘Global China’ which are English language editions.  They had gone out there because there are no jobs here because the industry is contracting.  They found they could get a job, it was exciting, a different culture, and different stimuli.  This is still the very early stages.  A lot of people go to China now or spend time in China.  When you are 40 or 50, China will be very important in the world, not in every respect but in certain respects, so you need to know about it, you need to cover it.

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