When China Rules the World, by columnist and international relations expert Martin Jacques, was published in hardback in 2009 and has been selling like hot little pastries ever since. A new and expanded paperback edition, released by Penguin in 2012, is to be found in bookstores across the U.K. Not since Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story has a volume from the East Asian section of the U.K.’s literary emporiums, usually discreetly located near the fire exit or adjacent to the restrooms, generated enough attention to claim a spot on the bestsellers’ table.

In the preface to his second edition, Jacques expresses surprise and bewilderment at the popular reception of a work that was, no doubt, initially targeted at globetrotting academics on the international relations circuit. But clues to its popular appeal can be found even in the title, which boldly tolls the death bell of Western supremacy and signals the beginning of a new age of Chinese global dominance.

The title is not just a sensationalist label added to disguise the contents of yet another monotonous account of China’s economic recovery since the opening up and reforms of 1978. Jacques’s book really does do what it says on the tin, driving home how, in the years to come, China will reign supreme not only in terms of economic influence and military might, but also in the exportation of cultural and moral values. Is your child learning Mandarin? Jacques, needless to say, has already subjected his son to the tyranny of Chinese cramming school. We are advised to do the same.

Modernity, with Chinese characteristics 

The book is divided into two parts: “The End of the Western World” and ‘The Age of China” and professes to distinguish itself from other recent studies by tracing the trajectory of China’s development and reform relative to China’s own history and native traditions, rather than through the adoption of foreign ideas and institutions. China, Jacques argues, will not, despite the wistful hopes of human rights activists and proponents of democracy, pander to the ideals of Western civilization as it establishes its own “Chinese modernity.” Jacques also gives an in-depth analysis of China’s economic growth and recent foreign policy, replete with a dizzy array of statistics, bar graphs, pie charts and a hefty slug of footnotes, occupying a good 100 pages of this 800-page book.

The work’s breadth is commendable. The first part, which sets the scene for China’s leap into modernity, gives an admirably concise history of Sino-Western relations since the nineteenth century. A chapter titled “China as an Economic Superpower” draws the alarming contrast between the extent of China’s economic success and the stagnant growth of the West. Meanwhile, “A Civilization State” offers a whistle-stop tour of China’s imperial history, and importantly highlights its transition from a cultural empire bound by history and language, to a modern state shaped by ethnicity and newfound nationalism. While necessarily simplistic, sometimes at the expense of historical accuracy (mistaking the first emperor Qinshihuang for a stalwart Confucian), it nevertheless does a competent and succinct job of introducing the relevant key threads of Chinese history.

Past is not always prologue

Jacques first gets into trouble when he overzealously employs China’s past as a template for her future role. While there is no doubt that China, with its ancient traditions and increasing prominence on the international stage, will draw on history to inform its position as an emerging superpower, Jacques is too keen to highlight the consistencies between the truisms of an imperial past and the complexities of today’s globalized world. He asserts, for instance, that we must look to China’s long history of tributary relations with alien peoples for clues as to how it may conduct diplomacy in the 21st century. China may indeed approach relations with its bordering nations with an increasing sense of cultural superiority and confidence in years to come, but this archaic form of diplomacy is too simplistic a metaphor for the intricacies of foreign relations with modern nation states of varying agendas and ambitions.

The book also champions the relative historical stability of the tributary system. It’s true that China did maintain its position as the dominant power in East Asia for the better part of 2,000 years. However, the tributary system routinely broke down, not least significantly with the invasion of the Mongols and the Manchus. A glance at “Garrison Poetry” (边塞诗) from any dynasty shows how border towns in the Chinese empire were under constant threat from “barbarians” who could and would invade, rape, and pillage the moment the channels of tributary relations turned sour. Is this the form of diplomacy that modern China wishes to pursue with its neighboring states? It’s a particularly poor model in a pluralistic world–the challenge of Chinese foreign policy is not limited to the U.S., and China’s history as the sole hegemon in the region will offer no inspiration.

Jacques is also naively optimistic about China’s ability to rekindle its cultural past to serve as the moral foundation for modern society. He is particularly enamored of former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s rhetorical invention, “harmonious society,” in which Jacques sees the strength of Confucian tradition in reconciling differences and contradictions in a country with an ever increasing gap between rich and poor. Jacques apparently hasn’t heard that most Chinese view the call for a “harmonious society” as a bad joke, a cheap varnish to gloss over serious differences that need to be addressed rather than tolerated. In fact, the verb, “to harmonize” has become synonymous with censorship, i.e.: “My blog was ‘harmonized’ last week because I inadvertently made reference to Hu’s poor choice of hairstyle.”

The author is entirely justified in highlighting the core aspects of Chinese culture (the tendency towards autocracy, the loose rule of law, the importance of kinship and family ties) to illustrate how China will reform and develop in years to come. But he fails to account for the contradictions between the moral values of traditional culture and the accepted norms of modern day China. The most glaring of these is shifting treatment of the Confucian adagewei fu bu ren (为富不仁), meaning “to become rich is not benevolent,” a teaching conveniently forgotten since Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern tour heralded serious economic reform.

Jacques also argues that the heritage of traditional Chinese philosophy (Xunxi, Laozi, Mengzi among others) will take on increasing importance in defining the political structures of tomorrow as China discovers renewed confidence and pride in its past. While Chinese politicians do and will continue to draw inspiration from these ancient thinkers in their public oratory and rhetoric, just as members of the British parliament might employ the strategies and structures of classical Greek debate, modern problems will require modern thinking and solutions that will fall outside of the framework of traditional Chinese thought.

There are more serious lacunae in Jacques’ analysis. The only mention of censorship is of its “lighter touch” in recent years. But censorship in today’s China is undoubtedly more stringent that it ten yeas ago, a fact highlighted by the recent protests by journalists and editors from the reformist weekly, Nanfang Zhoumo. The author fails to speculate sufficiently upon how demographic shifts, the one child policy and an ageing population could lead to greater political instability, or to expand upon the problems of corruption and environmental pollution. Jacques is strongly confident in China’s ability to transform from an imitative economy into an innovative one within the confines of its present political structures. But without an independent judicial system, how are new companies to protect their intellectual property rights, essential for this transition? How are universities to outdo their Western counterparts if censorship and propaganda still play a role in education? This is not simply a litany of jaundiced Western questions: many Chinese people harbor the same doubts.

Grassroots, where art thou? 

The book’s biggest disappointment, however, is that for all its analysis it leaves the reader with no palpable sense of what it is like to be Chinese. A previous review of the book by Fareed Zakaria claimed that the book was “full of provocations and predictions,” but for the most part it reads like a long and predictable paper, as found in any local Chinese political journal, declaring that in China it will be business as usual, only at this round of negotiations, China will be calling the shots. Bar graphs and pie charts show the ostensibly outstanding support that the government enjoys among the people, but the lack of coverage on the ground, with people in the flesh, confronting their everyday problems, can make for dry reading.

The only personal encounters that Jacques relates are with a pair of students from the elite Tsinghua University, who repeat the same dull platitudes that no doubt earned them high marks on the politics portion of their entrance exam, and a taxi driver who tells Jacques—perhaps in an effort to drive up the fare—that the speed of real estate development means that he can’t keep up with the maps. The energy of China—its grandeur and its squalor, the boisterous love of life and food that is apparent to any visitor–does not shine through on the page.