Part Two of my interview with Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, was published today in the Taipei Times. In it, Jacques turns to the notion of “contested modernity,” Taiwanese independence, Western reactions to his theory and the possibility of a trade war between the US and China.
From this interview, and the great amount of material that was generated during our discussion but didn’t make it into the final text, my sense is that Mr Jacques equates “modernity” with brand new airports, skyscrapers and double-digit GDP growth and that the cost to the environment and personal freedoms is only of secondary importance. This definition of modernity, in my view, is rather narrow, as it does not encompass more novel notions of modernity such as environmental protection — which sometimes acts as a brake on industrial development — and personal freedoms. Based on his definition of the term, big Chinese cities, pollution and repression notwithstanding, are more “modern” than, say, Taipei, whose development may have been less striking in the past decade (of course, rapid development will be more impressive when it starts from nothing, which wasn’t the case with Taipei, whose development began much earlier). The same holds for GDP growth; gone are the times when Taiwan will experience the same rapid pace of growth that developing economies like China and India have seen, simply because Taiwan is already a developed economy, and rapid growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Jacques was a very agreeable person to be with and he seemed to appreciate being challenged on some of his assumptions. While readers are likely to find much to disagree with in Jacques’ book, there nevertheless is value in our own assumptions being challenged by a work that — in Jacques’ own words — was geared more towards Chinese readers than those in the West. Sadly, making his work “acceptable” in China, an issue that is raised in the interview, may have come at the cost of a rosier picture of the Chinese Communist Party than was warranted. In one instance, for example, Jacques claims that the communists played a prominent role in the resistance against the Japanese during World War II, a view that has now largely been discredited (I raised the matter with him, to which he replied that he had yet to be convinced by the “evidence” his detractors had shown him, adding that such questions were a matter of opinion rather than facts).