Author looks ahead to the time when China will dominate the world
Martin Jacques finds himself in the unusual position of being something of a celebrity in China. His book When China Rules The World, which examines the implications of China overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy, has sold 150,000 copies and has achieved the most success in the country whose rise he foretells.
“Not bad, is it?” he quips. “When I come to China people talk to me about the book; lots of people have read it. It is different from anywhere else I have been to in the West. People say to me: ‘You know you are famous in China.'”
Jacques, who almost has the air of an alternative comedian, was his usual jaunty self even though it was only 8 am, having agreed to do an interview in his expansive hotel room.
CNN was on in the background and he was debating with our photographer whether he should wear a tie for the pictures (he didn’t).
“I don’t normally wear one but I am wearing one for the conference I am attending,” he says.
When China Rules the World is one of the most successful books on China that have been published in recent years.
It predicts China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2027 and that it will be double its size by 2050.
The book focuses more on the cultural and political implications of this and looks at whether the rest of the world will become more Chinese as a result.
The world has become used to the term Western being synonymous with being modern and advanced but Jacques argues by the end of the 21st Century that may no longer be the case: Chinese tea shops may by then be more common than McDonald’s across the world.
“What I wanted to do in my book was search for the future. You can’t tell China’s future without thinking of its past. During the last 100 years China has been very weak and has been obliged to conform to Western norms by its own weakness.
“This is still true to some extent, though it is changing. In the book I am asking the question what it is going to be like when China doesn’t feel like that.”
From his window in the JW Marriott hotel in Chaoyang district of Beijing, we have a panoramic early winter’s morning view of a modern Beijing skyscraper landscape.
“If you want to understand the future this is where you have to be. It feels like the center of things and London feels absolutely not like that in geopolitical terms. It might be the most important city in Europe but Europe is less and less important. It has a regional mentality and no longer a global one.
“Europe has no map of the world anymore. It doesn’t understand what is happening.”
He says when he is in China or the US – he is currently living in Washington as the Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy – there is always a sense of being where it is at.
“The United States is the world’s only superpower and even though we know a lot of America is very insular with many people not having a passport, there are a lot of people really well informed and among them there is a really interesting debate. I think you get that here (in China) as well.”
Jacques, who is a remarkably youthful looking 65, is best known for being editor of Marxism Today, which proved to be a very influential political magazine in the UK, even among right wing thinkers.
“People used to say the only Marxism in it was the title,” he laughs.
Although he admits he is of the center left, he is slightly tired of the question of whether he is a Marxist.
“I don’t really like the question. It is not because I want to disavow Marxism. Marxism is not a total influence on me, just a very important one. I recoil from it since it is a form of branding, not in the corporate sense but in like being branded like a sheep.”
Jacques went on to be deputy editor of The Independent newspaper in the mid-1990s and has since combined freelance journalism and part time academic positions with writing books.
He got the idea for When China Rules The World on a visit to Guangdong in the early-1990s when China began to take off economically and he wondered whether it was moving toward a replica of Western modernity or something different.
Work on it was put on hold when his wife Hari Veriah, a lawyer, died at 33 of an epileptic fit in 2000.
He accused the Hong Kong hospital of racism in the way she was treated and won substantial compensation last year. This case has resulted in a delay in the paperback edition of the book being produced.
“I lost a couple of months with the case, which was traumatic. I need to add another 30,000 words to deal with issues relating to the economic crisis, ” he says.
Jacques, despite his jocular manner, is widely respected as a thinker, particularly among the left.
He was recently running on Hampstead Heath near his home in north London and came across new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband running in the other direction.
“I had a long conversation when I bumped into him. I am not a member of the Labour Party but I would have voted for him based on instinct and my instincts are rather good, although not infallible.”
Jacques despairs about the level of debate about China in the UK, even in the TV programs which are meant to stand back and take an overview.
“When (British Prime Minister) David Cameron came to Beijing recently, the media discussion was all about trade versus human rights, just the same as it might have been 10 years ago. There was no sense that China had moved on at all. You would never know from the British media, that there was a tremendous debate going on in China also,” he says.
Jacques believes it is telling the sales of his book have been worst in the UK and the rest of Europe, while selling well in both the United States and Asia.
He believes many people in Europe are just oblivious to the big picture issues.
“There is no strategic concept of what is happening and how the world is changing,” he says.
“Europe is going to be a secondary question and there is no understanding of that, even among the sort of elite who ought to know better.”