After Ophelia, and especially after a Fianna Fáil ard fheis, don’t forget that the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China opens in Beijing today. It may be more important.

After all, China is the rising power. The West in relative terms, is in decline. Certainly, the hegemony of the 20th century is over.

A combination of the steam engine and colonialism drove Western power around the world.

The Americas had been colonised centuries before. So overwhelming was the impact on indigenous peoples there, that it remains permanently part of what in the loosest sense might be called the Western world.

That is doubled down on by the dominance of the United States. Their application of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 opposing European colonisation in the Americas, was last best exampled in the Cuban missile crisis. It’s America’s backyard.

The context of China’s rise is astonishing compared to the recent past. In his recent book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, the Financial Times journalist, Edward Luce, points out that in 1978, China’s share of world trade was barely a blip at 1%.

By 2013 it was the world’s leading trading nation, accounting for a quarter of annual flows. The fact of wealth, of trade and technology accruing at such pace is an astounding shift in power.

In a Western world where our mindset was shaped by the new normal of the 20th century, the sense of displacement is acute. What Luce’s book is good on, is how that discombobulation coupled with static or falling living standards for many who feel left behind here, in an age of economic growth globally, contributes to Brexit, Trump and much else besides.


Our western liberal values depend for their coherence not just on affinity with principles, but on access to the means of enjoying a lifestyle we feel entitled to. If there is a hinterland of others, we have traditionally over-lorded and can continue to look down on, so much the better.

An Irish corollary of the Luce view is describing as “austerity” a necessary correction in the public finances, required because we could no longer afford, and arguably never could, levels of public expenditure we had become accustomed to.

Reality changes but acquired expectations accrue as rights. Rights to housing, rights to healthcare, rights to education are what rich countries may choose to invest public money in.

But the use of the word “right” to describe the sense of entitlement is as much a measure of delusion as of the quality of our civilisation.

It’s all very recent, but it need not be very permanent.

Relative change is underlined by the fact that China’s rise will, as Luce put it, “only restore it to the relative weight it has enjoyed for most of human history”.

For most of the last millennium until the Industrial Revolution, China accounted for about a quarter of the global economy, and an even higher share of estimated production. Twelve years ago I went to The Three Emperors 1662–1795 exhibition in London’s Royal Academy.

This was to see the treasures of civilisation on a scale that would make the contents of most contemporary European palaces look dowdy.

I still have the enormous coffee table book, with its colour plates, published as a companion. To turn the pages is to see the culmination of a government system, a belief system, technology and culture.

It is hardly strange then, that always attentive Jesuits should have made their way to the court of the Quialong emperors. China was always the great prize.

By the 19th century the West’s machine was superior and the rest is history. Except history never ends. The model of 19th-century colonialism, which we inherited in the 20th is over.

Globalisation has overrode if not nationalism, certainly the nation state. China, the United States, Russia and perhaps India have sufficient scale to retain distinct global as distinct from regional interests.

For the rest it’s the quality of water in the slipstream we swim in that matters. If Europe is in relative decline, it is still not a bad neighbourhood to live in.

Over the coming weeks in Beijing, key decisions will be made about who is in or out of the leadership, and what is the shape of that leadership for the future. Xi Jiping is in power now for five years.

This congress seals his influence for another five, and puts in place those who might succeed him. He is still a youthful 64, and given the thoroughness with which he exercises power, it is an open question whether he plans to step down after 10 years, in 2021.

If he doesn’t it completely changes the nature of the Chinese polity, and makes the continuous smooth transition much more challenging eventually. If he doesn’t leave in five years’ time, like Putin, he must leave eventually.

If China accounted for a quarter of the world economy before the Industrial Revolution, it has been united for only half of its existence. Continued economic growth may seem inevitable now, but political stability is not assured.

Regardless of how skilfully the leadership avoids disruption, will a rising middle-class eventually succumb to the individualism of the West, breaking with the collective sense of Chinese society?

It’s a place, where prioritising individual rights doesn’t make sense, because it is the community at large, not the person, which is central.

Theories about the rise of China, as distinct from a rebalancing back to its proportionate global weight overlooks another fact. The two great technological developments in the last three hundred years have been the combustion engine and the contraceptive pill.

The combustion engine broke the connection between transport and the natural elements; thence the ease of 19th-century colonialism. The contraceptive pill displaced the likely consequence of procreation from the act of fornication.

In China, that was doubled down on by a one-child family policy. Now its population is aging faster than anywhere on earth, even Europe.

Forbes published an analysis stating that China’s dependency ratio for retirees — those aged 65 or older divided by total working population — as at 2015 was 14%. The UN estimates this could rise as high as 44% by 2050 with the number of those over 65 rising from approximately 100m in 2005 to approximately 330m in 2050.

This is not inexorable rise.

In 1985 an exhibition called the Terracotta Army came to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

A vast army guarding the tomb of China’s first emperor from more than 2000 years ago; it demonstrated astonishing powers of might and mass production.

Mortifyingly, one was broken here. Our great Irish ceramicist Desiree Shortt was called on to repair.

But the fundamental point is, there is no inexorable rise in history, just hindsight. The terracotta warriors were not Dad’s Army, but that is the army it might have in decades to come. China is more complex than we think.

The fundamental point is, there is no inexorable rise in history, just hindsight


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