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Understanding Contemporary China 1/4

Duration:
10 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 12 October 2012

Martin Jacques presents a personal view on how best to understand the unique characteristics and apparent mysteries of contemporary China, its development and its possible future. In a new series of talks he sets out the building blocks for making sense of China today.

In this introductory talk, he argues that we cannot make sense of China by looking at it through a Western prism. China is not like a Western nation-state and never will be. Western nations are countries constituted on the basis of nation, China is a country constituted on the basis of a civilization. The consequences are profound and far-reaching.

In his second talk, he examines the tributary system, the historical China-centric network of international relations which involved other parts of East Asia accepting the principle of Chinese superiority in return for protection and access to the Chinese market, an arrangement distinct to European forms of colonialism. He asks whether a system of this kind is now re-emerging.

In his third talk, he explores the nature of race in China. Over 90 per cent of the Chinese population regard themselves as belonging to the same race, the Han. This is a stark contrast to the multi-racial composition of the world's other populous states. Chinese ethnic identity stems from a process of integration and of cultural identity. What defines the Chinese above all is pride in their culture and a sense of cultural achievement. The advantage of the Han identity is that it is the cement that has held China together. The disadvantage is a weak understanding of and respect for ethnic and cultural differences.

In his final talk, he asks how the undemocratic Chinese state can enjoy legitimacy and authority in the eyes of its population. He argues that the Chinese state is held in such high esteem because it is seen as the embodiment, protector and guardian of Chinese civilization. The state is seen as an intimate, a member of the family indeed - in fact, the head of the family. It is a remarkable institution which will come to exercise interest and fascination outside China.

Martin Jacques is the author of 'When China Rules the World'.

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