Li Nan


Is China becoming more like the West on its way to modernization? British writer, broadcaster and speaker Martin Jacques doesn’t think so, rejecting the assumption as “wishful thinking.”

In his book When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Jacques argues that China’s modernity arises from history and tradition different from the West. Moreover, it will exercise a powerful global influence that will be as much political and cultural as economic, exerting its own impact on the world.

When China Rules the World was first published in 2009 by Penguin Books. It has been translated into 15 languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Latvian, Portuguese and Turkish. It has been reprinted several times, becoming one of the bestsellers on China. According to the author’s personal website, more than 300,000 copies have been sold.

The landscape of world power has shifted dramatically since the book was first published. In 2012, Jacques expanded and updated the book with nearly 300 pages of new material, backed by more recent statistical data.

The new Chinese edition was published by China CITIC Press in March 2016, with a special chapter on the underlining reason for the differences between the “Deng Xiaoping Era,” which Jacques believes lasted from 1978 to 2012, and the “Xi Jinping Era,” a phase starting from President Xi’s election in 2013.

Jacques, described as “the first scholar to conceive of and explain the impact that China’s ascendance will cause” by Yan Xuetong, Director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations, is not a sinologist. A senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and a columnist for many newspapers, Jacques’ interest in East Asia began in 1993 with a three-week holiday in China, Singapore and Malaysia, where he fell in love with Harinder Veriah, an Indian-Malaysian, and subsequently got married. “Those three weeks changed my life forever,” Jacques said in an interview with Beijing Review.

He started formal research on the book in 1998 when he settled in Hong Kong with his family. In the following year he traveled extensively in China and tried to learn some Chinese. But it took him 10 years to complete the book due to twists and turns in his life.

The first interruption was the death of his wife in 2000. Stricken by grief, Jacques couldn’t work on the book for five years. When he eventually resumed work on it in 2005, his inability to read Chinese characters frustrated him. Fortunately, there were a lot of English sources on China and many Chinese scholars spoke English, making statistics and information accessible. The manuscript was completed in December 2008.

“I had been through hell and back writing this book. It was like climbing Everest without oxygen,” Jacques said, asked how he felt when When China Rules the World came out. Mount Everest, known as Qomolangma in China, is the highest peak in the world with an altitude of 8,844 meters.

Rise of non-Western societies

“The highlight of the book is the argument that the ‘Chinese model’ is a non-Western-style system, exploding the myth that the West has a monopoly over modernity,” Sun Yuning, leading translator of the book, told Beijing Review.

Jacques argues that the concept of modernity has become diversified, given the fact that it has arrived in different parts of the world and in diverse cultures. He believes an era of contested modernity is approaching, in which Western-style modernity will be only one of the several possibilities and the histories, cultures and values of non-Western societies “can no longer be equated with backwardness or, worse still, failure.”

In Jacques’ view, China’s modernity is a hybrid of foreign and indigenous elements, depending not simply on furniture and fittings borrowed from Western modernity, but on its own distinctive culture and long history. Therefore, China is different from the West in state, politics, and moral outlook.

“The key difference in China’s case concerns the role of the state,” Jacques argues in his book. “The state has always enjoyed a pivotal role in the economy and been universally accepted as the guardian and embodiment of society.” The Chinese state provides assistance to private firms and state-owned enterprises, manages the process of the yuan’s slow evolution toward full convertibility, and is the architect of a national economic strategy that has driven the country’s economic takeoff. Jacques predicts the Chinese model will exercise a powerful global influence, especially on the developing world.

He told Beijing Review that China’s rise on the global stage with its huge population and high economic growth rate has mainly a positive impact on the rest of the world, stimulating overall global growth. Consumers are benefiting from inexpensive Chinese goods. Though some industries were displaced by Chinese competition, more and more countries are finding new business opportunities with China to expand their national economies.

Also, Jacques points out that while China’s demand for natural resources has sparked concerns over depleting the world’s stock of raw materials and raising their price, the price rise, however, has a beneficial effect on primary producers, many of which are from developing countries.

A civilization state

Jacques writes that to understand the modernity and ascendancy of China, one cannot use a methodology developed in Western society. The key to appreciating what the rise of China means lies not only in China’s economic growth, but also in its history, politics, culture and traditions.

He echoes American sinologist Lucian Pye’s argument that “China is not just another nation state in the family of nations. China is a civilization pretending to be a state.” It’s this civilizational dimension that makes China special and unique. Most of China’s main characteristics—the overriding importance of unity, the power and role of the state, its centripetal quality, the notion of Great China, and the idea of the family and familial discourse—are a product of its existence as a civilization state.

“As a civilization state, China embodies and allows a plurality of systems, as exemplified by Hong Kong, that is alien to nation state, which demands and requires a much greater degree of homogeneity,” Jacques writes.

From this civilizational dimension, the role of the state as the architect of national development strategy is both natural and legitimate.

When China Rules the World was followed by both acclaim and controversy when it was first published. Though Jacques said China is both a developed country—by virtue of its GDP size—and a developing one—by virtue of its GDP per capita, some scholars hold different views.

Chinese people still believe that China remains a developing country and has a long way to go to become a developed one. “The book should shed more light on China’s problems,” Yuan Luxia, a senior editor with the Beijing-based Center for International Communication Studies, told Beijing Review.

On, a popular Chinese social networking website for posting book, movie and music reviews, some readers said the title sounds exaggerated and provocative.

Jacques admits that no one will actually rule the world. But one of the reasons he chose the title is that “rule” is widely used in Western popular culture, and there is even a famous song, If I Ruled the World. In addition, he believes a book title should have a wide appeal, provoking the person who sees the book into reading it.

“You can write the best book in the world, but if no one reads it, it’s a shame, isn’t it?” he said.


Martin Jacques, born in central England’s Coventry in 1945, is a British writer, broadcaster and speaker living in London. He is a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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