The rise of China will consign our current western-centric views of modernity to history’s trash heap

The rise of China that Martin Jacques charts in his indispensable new book will transform global geopolitics, creating an international system in which the US is only one great power among several that are struggling for control of the world’s resources. At the same time – and perhaps even more importantly – China‘s rise is bound to change the way the world thinks. The western-centric conception of modernisation that shaped thinking and policymaking in much of the world over the last hundred years belongs in history’s trash heap.

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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

As an emboldened China sees, the American dollar is gravely wounded. And the days of US political supremacy are numbered

We have entered one of those rare historical periods that is characterised by a shift in global hegemony from one great power to another. The last such was between 1931 and 1945, and marked the end of Britain’s financial ascendancy and its replacement by that of the United States. It might be argued that the cold war represented a similar period, but that is a fallacy: the cold war was an ideological struggle between two powers that were always hopelessly ill-matched. This new period is marked by the rise of China and the decline of the US. Arguably the process started around a decade ago, but at that stage it was barely noticed, such was the west’s preoccupation with 9/11 and its after-effects. Indeed, the Bush administration was thinking in exactly the opposite terms: that the world was entering a golden age of American global power.

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In the face of Thatcher’s iron will, Scargill’s decision to lead the strike without a ballot was an error that sealed the miners’ fate

The miners’ strike, which began 25 years ago this month, marked a decisive moment in the period of the Thatcher government. More than that, it was also a watershed in postwar history. The labour movement emerged from the second world war far stronger than previously. The long postwar boom which lasted until the early 1970s further bolstered the unions; this new-found strength was tested during the Heath government when the unions successfully resisted its various attempts to weaken them.

At the heart of this militancy were the miners. When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, she was determined not to be thwarted in the way that the Heath government had been and her government prepared its ground for a future confrontation with the unions with a carefully-conceived political strategy and meticulous preparation.

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Salvation does not lie in demagogic attacks. Beijing must be treated as an equal – or another Great Depression beckons

The key relationship for any global recovery is between the US and China. By the same token, any serious deterioration in their relationship would propel the world towards a second Great Depression. The Chinese citizen has funded the credit-driven American consumer boom: or, to put it another way, China’s government has enabled the US to run an enormous current account deficit by buying huge quantities of US treasury bills. If China stops this, the value of the US dollar would plunge, and a bitter trade war, engulfing the rest of the world, would ensue.

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Labour will pay at the next election for its inability to wrest accountability from vested interests in the financial sector

When the credit crunch struck once more in the autumn and threatened to bring every major financial institution in London and New York to its knees, there was wonderment at Gordon Brown’s reaction. From being a prime minister who had disappeared into his own manmade black hole and a chancellor who had been wedded to neoliberalism and all its economic wares, he suddenly displayed a nimbleness of foot and an openness of mind which had previously been alien to him. In contrast to the huge bail-out of the banks proposed by George Bush and Hank Paulson – with nothing in return for the taxpayer – the plan proposed by Brown and Alistair Darling at least gave the public a stake in RBS and Lloyds-HBOS in exchange for the huge sums of taxpayers’ money they received. Not surprisingly, its boldness was widely admired and copied, as was the decision to engage in major counter-cyclical public spending programme. That was then.

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England will never produce a true world tennis star until the sport loses its white, middle-class profile

Even now, following his tennis exploits at the US Open, there is only grudging respect for Andy Murray on the part of many. Imagine if Tim Henman had reached the final of the US Open – the media would have been going bonkers.
If we applied the same criteria to our football stars as we use for our tennis players, hardly anyone would pass muster: Wayne Rooney would be condemned as an oik, not fit to represent our nation.

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A repeat legal assault on the opposition leader highlights the current volatility. The old order is desperate to hold power

A feverish atmosphere now grips Malaysia. The country is awash with rumours. Until the resignation in 2003 of the previous prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – after 22 years in office – its politics was entirely predictable. Now it is becoming highly unpredictable.

Malaysia is one of the great Asian success stories. It has enjoyed a growth rate of up to 8% for much of the past 20 years, and the fruits of prosperity are everywhere to be seen, from the magnificent twin towers in Kuala Lumpur to the expressways and traffic congestion. Without doubt Malaysia is the great economic star of the Muslim world. The architect of this economic transformation was Dr Mahathir, but since he stepped down the country has been engulfed by growing doubts about his legacy and the emergence of a new set of priorities.

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We are but halfway through 2008 yet it has already born witness to a sizeable shift in global power. The default western mindset remains that the western writ rules. That is hardly surprising; it has been true for so long there has been little reason for anyone to question it, least of all the west. The assumption is that might and right are invariably on its side, that it always knows best and that if necessary it will enforce its political wisdom and moral rectitude on others. There is, however, a hitch: the authority of the self-appointed global sheriff is remorselessly eroding.

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Foreign policy is often dressed up in moral rhetoric, but ultimately might is stronger than right

You may remember that Robin Cook, newly appointed as Britain’s foreign secretary back in 1997, promised to introduce an “ethical foreign policy”. Such talk disappeared long ago, brought to an abrupt end by the illegalities and immorality of the invasion of Iraq.

I was reminded of Cook’s efforts by Gordon Brown’s address yesterday to the Israeli Knesset, where he uttered barely any criticisms of Israel and fulminated long and hard against Iran and its alleged nuclear policy. I have a serious problem with western hypocrisy over Iran and the bomb. We are against nuclear proliferation and yet no one breathes a word about the fact that Israel has many nuclear weapons, and has had them for a long time. So, why not Iran? One might add that Israel has always lived by the sword in the Middle East but the same cannot be said of Iran.

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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