China will soon possess the world’s largest economy, and cultural influence will follow economic power. Martin Jaques argues in his book ‘When China Rules the World’ that this change will shape the next century. But what does it mean for the future of Buddhism?

What is the most significant development in the world over the last three decades: the end of the cold war? The clash between the West and militant Islam? Economic booms and crashes? Martin Jacques’ answer is the rise of China, which has quietly gathered momentum since 1978. When China Rules The World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order argues that, sustained by a population of 1.3 billion, China will be the dominant power of the 21st Century.

When this book’s first edition appeared in 2008 reviewers doubted its prediction that the China would overtake the US and become the world’s largest economy in 2027. But when developed economies stalled after 2008 China’s economy continued growing at 9-10 percent a year and the date when China is expected to take the lead is now 2018. We daily read of Euro-zone leaders imploring China to fund bailouts and the US dollar being saved from depreciation by Chinese-owned Treasury Bonds. Power is flowing from west to the east: welcome to the future.

Jacques makes a persuasive case for China’s future leadership role, though it’s worth noting that that many commentators are more sceptical of China’s capacity to sustain its rate of growth or to avoid fundamental reforms. But why is this relevant to a Buddhist blog? The first answer is that the changing power balance will profoundly unsettle western countries because it challenges our unconsidered assumptions. Those views – what the Buddha called ditthis – have shaped western responses to Buddhism, along with everything else.

Jaques argues that China will become increasingly modern without resembling a western country. The Chinese will look less to Europe and the US than to their own 2000 year-old traditions, finding ballast in their long-standing sense of superiority and centrality; the country’s size and diversity; the traumatic experience of colonisation; China’s sense of itself as a civilisation rather than a nation state; and its profile as both a developed and a developing country. So, Jacques argues, if we equate modernity with western-style liberalism, social democracy and capitalism, we’re in for a shock.

In fact, western ideas of modernity have fractured over several decades, but Jacques is good at articulating the fresh dimension that will come from shifting geopolitics. In the future, no single culture will shape our ideas of what it looks like to be modern, and in that sense, Jaques suggests, we are entering a period of contested modernity. That’s relevant to anyone concerned with how Buddhism needs to re-express itself in the contemporary world. The reference points are changing wherever we look.

Then there is the enigma of Buddhism in China. Religion is largely absent from When China Rules The World and its discussion of Buddhism is largely confined to a few pages o Tibet, which actually focus on political issues. But the heart of Jacques’ argument is his contention that China’s future will be shaped by its past and its culture, of which Buddhism is an important part. Estimates of Buddhists in China start at 100 million and most hover around 300 million though all commentators note the difficulty of assessing numbers because of a paucity of data and the nature of Chinese popular religion (which typically mixes elements of folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and even Christianity). But 300 million, if we take that as a baseline, is a quarter of China’s population and as many people as the total number of Buddhists in the rest of the world.

I know too little about the true state of Buddhism in China to comment further, and friends who know much more than I do agree it’s very hard to get a true sense of it; these days, I am told, making money is the religion of many educated Chinese people. However, it seems that China’s Buddhist traditions and the long-standing connection with Buddhism of many Chinese people have survived Communism and  the Cultural Revolution. When China Rules the World  argues that China is not leaving behind its cultural past as it modernises, but drawing it into a new kind of modernity. The future of Chinese Buddhism is bound to be a central factor is the future of Buddhism as a whole if only because of the sheer scale of everything in China. Taiwanese Buddhism is a significant presence in Buddhist Asia, but China’s population is fifty times greater.

Much depends on how China changes culturally and politically. It can scarcely be called ‘communist’ any more, but an exceptional degree of, sometimes repressive and corrupt, political control remains over the whole of society. History shows that Buddhism doesn’t require democracy to thrive, but a degree of religious freedom is essential. The repression of the 100 million-strong Falun Gong, and basically Taoist, organisation offers a cautionary example.

That brings us to Tibet. Understandably, the issue of Tibetan freedom frames how most western Buddhists regard China. But if it’s plausible to entitle a book When China Rules the World it is surely implausible to imagine that China will stop ruling Tibet. That doesn’t make it right (though Jacques’ discussion of China’s sense of nationhood helps explain why they see Tibet as an integral part of the Motherland). But it is inevitable, and that’s reflected in the Dalai Lama’s reduction of his demands from independence to ‘meaningful autonomy’. The Chinese refuse to countenance even that (and we’ve just heard of the failure of the latest round of talks), and the situation of the Tibetans continues to deteriorate. However, in principle at least, the issues of Tibetan independence and religious freedom are distinct, and it may be that the most realistic hope for Tibetan Buddhists is change within China as a whole.

That intriguing prospect is speculation. However, the speed of the changes we see in the world all around us have eroded our certainties. Jacques’s enthusiasm for China is so undiluted that he sometimes seems an apologist for it – and he is far too weak on China’s faults and limitations. But his subject is not justice but power: the forces that will shape the future whether we like them or not.

When China Rules The World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order
Martin Jacques
Penguin 2008; Second Edition, 2012