Regardless of how you feel about China, one thing is clear- that it has captured the imagination of much of the world for good and bad. With its surging economy and growing global importance, there has certainly not been a dearth of writers, academics and journalists who believe China will be the next superpower. Leading UK intellectual, Asia expert and journalist Martin Jacques’ latest book boldly proclaims that not only will China become a superpower that may lead the world, but its rise will signify the end of the dominance of the West (the U.S. and Western Europe) in global affairs.
With When China Rules the World, he has written an ambitious, insightful and wide-ranging piece of work that argues that China’s rise will shake up the world order, due to its unique sense of identity and culture.
Western ideas and systems dominate the world, but it should not be mistaken as being permanent or unchangeable, Jacques says. When China does reach the top, its history and culture will ensure that it will not follow Western norms but instead that it will pursue its own ideals and establish new norms that differ deeply with the West.
To understand the future, Jacques wants you to understand the past. As such, he goes back to the Industrial Age of the nineteenth century to show when the West began to embark on modernization and soar ahead of the rest of the world. Before then, China was actually been wealthier than Europe. Industrialisation propelled Western nations like Britain and Germany to become world powers, whilst China and the rest of the world languished behind. This Western global dominance Jacques believes may come to an end due to China’s rise.
Jacques goes to great lengths to emphasize the differences between China and the West in areas like politics, system of government, and patriotism. Key to the differences is China’s status as a “civilization-state” due to its relatively unbroken existence for over two thousand years as a single entity, that allows China to transcend the values of the modern nation-state system.
Where the book is particularly strong in is its examination of issues such as China’s history and concept of identity, its grievances against the West, and the extent of its economic strength and international relations.
Some important insights are given such as that historically and at present, there are no other competing institutions such as the church, civil society, and certainly no political movements that exist in China. This, along with the fact that the Communist Party has proven to be quite flexible and adaptable in its policies, especially economic in contrast with Russia and its “shock therapy” liberalization, is a key reason how the party has managed to survive.
There are some questionable points Jacques makes such as China’s desire for harmony and tolerance for differences which has certainly not been seen with its recent badgering of nations including Taiwan over the showing of a documentary on an Uighur activist, or the assumption that many Chinese support the Communist Party. That the Communists played the key role in fighting Japanese forces during World War II is also quite contentious.
Just like with many books that emphasize China’s superpower potential, there is little on the nation’s many domestic problems, such as the lack of an adequate health care system, the endemic corruption at local levels, the lack of an independent judiciary and proper rule of law, and the staggering range of environmental pollution. China’s potential may be huge but so are its problems. Its rise to superpower status is not inevitable.
That China will continue to become wealthier and more advanced, is fairly certain but that its progress will enable it to lead the world is not. Furthermore it is never really explained how China will lead, just that it will be different.
Despite these shortcomings, this book is an immensely rewarding read that provides a lot of valuable insight and understanding.