When China Rules The World

On his first visit to China as US treasury secretary, at the start of this month, Timothy Geithner attempted to reassure an audience at Peking University that there is no need to worry about the enormous holdings China has built up in US government bonds. “Chinese assets are very safe,” he declared. Geithner’s statement produced loud laughter from the largely student audience.

Unlike most western commentators, who still give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, China’s emerging elite know there is no prospect that the United States will pay back its debts at anything like their current value. The only way the US can repay its vast borrowings is by debasing the dollar – a process in which China will inevitably be short-changed. Significantly, the students’ response was not anger, but derision – a clear sign of how the US is now perceived. Resentment at US power is being replaced by contempt, as the impotence and self-deception of the American political class in the face of the country’s problems become increasingly evident.

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When Martin Jacques fell in love with a Malaysian woman, his western-centric view of the world was overturned. Nine years after her death, he has written an extraordinary book on China

The first thing you see – bump into actually – when you enter Martin Jacques’s light, roomy top-floor flat next to Hampstead Heath, north London, is a table football game. Then you trip over two violins, a sitar and a collection of other musical instruments, and find yourself staring at three teeth on a coffee-table. The owner of all these objects, Jacques’s 10-year-old son Ravi, is at school, but his presence is everywhere – in the trophies he has won for music, in his numerous books and toys, and in photographs: of him as a baby, and with his late mother, Harinder, who died when Ravi was 16 months old. An interview with Jacques is inevitably a threnody for his beloved Hari and a celebration of their son.

We are here to talk about Jacques’s meaty new book on the rise of China and how that country’s dominance will transform the world, but Hari’s tragic death in 2000 – Jacques fights back tears when he talks about her – and the years of blackness he suffered after she died initially overwhelm our conversation. What is the fate of countries beside the torments of the soul?

Jacques met Hari on the Malaysian island of Tioman in 1993. He was 47, a former history lecturer who in the 1980s had transformed Marxism Today from a dry-as-dust academic journal into a racy political must-read. Life to that point had been work and communism: a string of degrees, an unsuccessful battle to reform the Communist party, and a brilliant refashioning of the magazine – a consolation prize for not being able to wrest real power from the hardliners in the party. Hari was 26, a Malaysian of Indian descent, a lawyer from a radical family, a comet flashing across Jacques’s well-ordered universe.

“I fell in love within a few minutes of talking to her,” Jacques recalls. “There was something utterly compelling about Hari. When I met her, I knew I had met the person that my life was really about.”

For most people, though, that might have been the end of it. Jacques was there with his partner of 18 years; there was the age gap, the culture gap, the fact that they lived on different sides of the world. But he was determined not to let this sudden illumination dim. He broke up with his partner, made repeated trips to see Hari, and tailored his work to his new fascination with Asia: he had closed Marxism Today in 1991, feeling its energy had been exhausted, and was making documentaries and writing columns for the Sunday Times. “The greatest thing I ever did,” he says, “was to allow myself to fall in love with Hari and pursue it.”

By September 1994 she was living and working in London; they married early in 1996. Jacques – after an unhappy two-year stint as deputy editor of the Independent – signed a contract with Penguin to write a book about the growing power of Asia’s tiger economies; the couple moved to Hong Kong, the perfect base for Jacques’s peripatetic research; Hari got pregnant and in 1998 Ravi was born. Because of her Indian descent and dark skin, Hari experienced racism from the Chinese population in Hong Kong, but nevertheless the couple were blissfully happy.

Then, at new year in 2000, came what Jacques refers to as the “catastrophe”. Hari had an epileptic seizure and was taken to hospital for what should have been routine treatment. But as a result of what he believes was a mixture of racism and incompetence – perhaps incompetence born of racism – Hari died. She was 33.

As Jacques talks about it now, tears are never far away. “I’m a very resilient person, I never get stuck in one thing, I’m good at shifting from having lots of money to having not much money and back again – but the one thing I couldn’t cope with, ever, was losing Hari,” he says. “I’ve learned to live without Hari – I used to cry every day, then you cry less, then you cry just occasionally – but it’s just beneath the surface. You never recover from it, but you do learn to cope with it.”

The months after her death were desperate. “It was really a battle for my own survival: could I find a reason to live without Hari? I couldn’t imagine living a day – I just couldn’t conceive of it – and they were very dark days, terrible days.” The book was abandoned, and instead he wrote a 100,000-word love letter to Hari, part of which appeared in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine in November 2002. The rest has never been published – it is too painful, too personal – but Jacques does not rule out revisiting it one day and perhaps revising it for publication.

Initially, so deep was his depression that he lost all appetite for work. His focus was on bringing up Ravi, suing the hospital for negligence, which it denies (the case is due to come to court next year), and campaigning against racism in Hong Kong – a battle that bore fruit in July last year when an anti-racism law was introduced. But gradually the desire to work returned: he was invited to become a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’s Asia Research Centre, resumed writing newspaper columns and once more picked up the book. “Deep down I’d never let go of it,” he says. “I had no timetable, but I’d never let go.”

Now, though, it was a book not about the Asian tigers but about the rise of China, the great transformative story of our age. “We have entered a new era, which I define as the era of contested modernity,” says Jacques. “We are seeing the rise of a whole series of new countries – developing countries, which are in the process of modernisation – and their modernities will not simply be reducible to western modernity. It is western hubris that there is only one modernity.

“China is the centrepiece of this. Hitherto, the Chinese story has been overwhelmingly presented in the west as an economic story. This is a mistake because the rise of China will have cultural and other consequences, the ramifications of which will be at least as important as the economic. But no one talks about them because people in the west still believe China will end up in some way like us – it’ll be democratic like us, it’ll have rule of law like us, it will become a western-style society. This is profoundly wrong. China is fundamentally different in its historical evolution and culture, and we need to understand China as a very different phenomenon from western society.”

Jacques sets out to explain the differences and to prepare us for a century in which China will be king: its economy is predicted to overtake America’s in 2027, and by 2050 its GDP will be twice as large as that of the US. India will also have overtaken the US, and the UK will be lucky to be hanging on to its place in the economic top 10.

“We’re moving into a new world,” he says. “For the last 200 years it’s been completely familiar to us, because it’s a western-made world. Now we’re moving into an era where the world will become increasingly unfamiliar and disorientating to us. We will be obliged to try and understand the logic and character of a culture that is entirely unfamiliar, and no effort has been made in this direction so far.”

He believes the rise of China, India and other developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia, and the end of the west’s stranglehold both on power and on definitions of modernity, will ultimately be beneficial. But there may be problems along the way, as the US and the traditional European power-brokers have to give way.

“It’s a very traumatic experience,” he warns. “These are declining imperial powers. But we’re blessed to have Obama: there’s a humility about America’s power under him, and because he’s black it introduces an entirely different sensibility. But this is a long process, and Obama will only last for four years or eight years. What happens next? We had Bush not long ago, and Bush was the absolute opposite: he believed we were on the verge of a new American century, and he pursued that as an objective.”

Meeting Hari in 1993, falling in love, seeing the world through her eyes, witnessing racism, changed Jacques fundamentally. He now recognises Marxism Today’s western-centricity as its greatest weakness, and his eyes are turned firmly to the east. The west is yesterday’s story. Hari, of course, is the presiding spirit of the book, and naturally the dedicatee:

“My infinite love for you is not dimmed by the passing of time. I miss you more than words can ever say.”

Rarely can love have inspired an academic thesis, yet here the two are intimately connected. Jacques fell in love with a world, as well as a woman.

– Stephen Moss

Books about China ruling the world used to be prefaced by “if”. Now, more often, they are preceded by the assumptive “when”. Such is the age we live in. Martin Jacques’ 550-pager on the ascent of China finds little space to consider the question of whether its rapid economic progress is unstoppable. It ignores almost entirely the other popular – and perfectly plausible – premise for books on the Middle Kingdom: “When China’s miracle goes phut”.

Jacques’ book is based on the extrapolation that, by 2050, China will be the biggest economy in the world, surpassing the US and India which, by then, will be third. By virtue of what Jacques calls the “merciless measure” of gross domestic product, China will be politically and militarily the most powerful country in the world.

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11/06/09 - Basil & Spice

Voter thinking this Tuesday focused on jobs and the economy, and sent a clear message of dissatisfaction with economic progress to-date. Reinvigorating Main Street America’s employment picture, however, will not be easy. Problems have been building for years, long before the sub-prime crisis. Some believe automation is the major source of recent job losses. However, it is difficult to look at the constant parade of long trains carrying shipping containers inland, or the millions of illegals turning up all across America, and conclude that this is the case.

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THERE have been many rivals for America’s crown as the world’s greatest power. In the 1950s the Soviet Union threatened its military hegemony; in the 1980s Japan challenged its economic might. These days the pretender is China. The evidence of America’s decline seems obvious. The limits of its military power were exposed after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the flaws of its capitalist system were revealed by the global financial crisis that started on Wall Street. The West now looks to China to prop up its financial system, and to the Chinese consumer to stimulate the global economy.

Is the long era of Western dominance, first by European powers and then by America, finally coming to an end? For Martin Jacques, a British commentator and recently a visiting professor at universities in China, Japan and Singapore, the answer is clear. The title of his book says it all: “When China Rules the World”.

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30/05/09 - Canadian National Post

A certain genre of Western literature can be summed up by the title of one of its earliest entries, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in 1918. As the title suggests, the author had a dire view of Western democracy. The defeat of fascism in the Second World War ought to have cheered everyone up, but the guns had barely stopped firing before we had books such as The West at Bay, by British economist Barbara Ward, about the “Communist challenge,” and Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, an even more sober assessment of that challenge. Chambers was sure the West was going to lose this battle for hearts and minds.

Even relatively tame Japan loomed as a menace to the West in the ’80s. I recall one book, whose title I forget, predicting a new Asian Pacific war between the United States and Japan — a classic instance of Marshall McLuhan’s rear-view mirror. Since the ’90s, the invincible Japanese, those economic if not military giants, have been humbled by their own woes and have ceased to trouble the dreams of the West, and the United States in particular.

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Here’s an uplifting read. British author Martin Jacques believes the United States will soon lose its position as the world’s dominant power to China and is totally unprepared for the change.

The provocative title of this new book conjures up visions of Asian hordes storming America’s shores. But Jacques’ thesis is far more subtle and ultimately troubling. While many Americans might be open to the possibility of China becoming top dog some day, we tend to assume that in the process, the Chinese will somehow be “Westernized,” or at least settle comfortably into the familiar Western-dominated global system.

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Renowned British author, broadcaster, scholar and journalist MARTIN JACQUES discusses his latest book, When China Rules The World: The rise of the Middle Kingdom and the end of the Western world with BUNN NAGARA in a comprehensive, 90-minute interview. Excerpts:

Is the provocative title to celebrate China’s rise, warn the West of its decline or fuel China-bashing?

None of them. It is to give a rough idea of what the book is about, to attract people’s attention.

Literal titles are boring, so it’s not a literal title. If and when China becomes the dominant power, the book shows what form of hegemony it would take.

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This week, I received an e-mail from a friend in Tokyo tagged: “Greetings from Number Three, Japan.” He was mourning the passing of an era.

The quarterly numbers he was alluding to suggest that, even in dollar terms, China is now the world’s second-biggest economy. There it will remain until, catastrophe or stagnation aside, it overtakes the US to become Number One.

Dollar comparisons are pretty arbitrary, as much influenced by currency fluctuations as by economic activity. They do not take into account that it is much cheaper to buy a house, a meal or a foot massage in Beijing than in Tokyo. In purchasing power terms, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s nearly a decade ago. But symbolism counts. And by that measure, China’s usurpation indeed ushers in a new order. For the first time since 1968, when Japan overhauled the then West Germany to become the second-largest capitalist economy, there is a new pretender to the US throne.

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In recent months, as Asia has weathered the financial crisis better than the West, and the Obama administration has taken a deferential approach toward China, numerous new books have declared that, finally, this will be Asia’s era. From Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the end of the Western World to Kishore Mahbubani’s slightly older The New Asian Hemisphere to the recent cover story in the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows, which compared China’s gleaming infrastructure to America’s potholed roads and horrendous cell phone coverage, the Asia cheerleaders are out in force.

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Updated and expanded new Chinese edition just released.

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Turkish edition just published!

When China Rules the World is the first book to fully conceive of and explain the upheaval that China’s ascendance will cause and the realigned global power structure it will create.

New edition available now from:

Amazon UK
and all good booksellers.

US second edition is available now via: 

Amazon US