Martin Jacques, a British news columnist, became fascinated by the manic modernization underway in China when he visited there in 1993. He saw construction cranes working round the clock, roads streaming with trucks and carts, and peasant women balancing wares on either end of a bamboo pole. The vibrant energy and evident willpower got Jacques musing: Would the economic boom follow the Western model? Or would China pursue modernity in its own way?
Jacques went for a holiday in Malaysia. One day, while he was out for a run on the beach, his eye chanced upon a dark and attractive woman. A 26-year-old lawyer, she was not an obvious match for a pink-skinned, pointy-headed, chronically unmarried Brit who was nearing 50. But the woman, Hari Veriah, who was born in Malaysia to Indian parents, was fearless and modern-minded, and her Asian perspective was like tinder to his spark.
As Veriah and Jacques spent time together, she challenged his assumptions and encouraged him to deepen his exploration of the East-vs.-West dynamic. His musings led to research. Trained in number-crunching and Marxist historical analysis and bolstered by extended sojourns in Asia, Jacques honed a convincing answer to his original question. For the better part of 15 years, with one tragic interruption, he dug and dug and then transformed his scholarly spadework into accessible, inviting prose.
The result is “When China Rules the World,” a compelling and thought-provoking analysis of global trends that defies the common Western assumption that, to be fully modern, a nation must become democratic, financially transparent and legally accountable. Jacques argues persuasively that China is on track to take over as the world’s dominant power and that, when it does, it will make the rules, on its own terms, with little regard for what came before.
China is growing at a tremendous rate. Yet it refuses to follow the Western model of establishing genuine elections, an independent judiciary and a freely convertible currency. In fact, its restrictive currency rules have made China the world’s leading creditor, while the United States sinks ever deeper into debt. And while the United States sacrifices the lives of its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese make money in both countries without losing a drop of blood.
Jacques is a superb explainer of history and economics, tracing broad trends with insight and skill. He does not shy away from the considerable challenges China faces. Yet he glosses over Mao’s terrors too easily. He stumbles badly when trying to describe what a new Chinese-led international order might look like, implausibly imagining a return of the old tributary system, where small neighboring states paid in gifts and gold to the reigning power: China. His theories about the significance of a Chinese “civilization” over a Chinese “nation” seem silly and misplaced.
Books about the future never get it right. But this one offers tasty meat to chew on. Its prime achievement is to identify and then annihilate what may be the greatest flaw in Western thinking today: the assumption that economic and political progress must follow the Western model. Like the Brits and the Romans before us, we Americans may be unable to see the end of empire until it is too late. Personally, I felt humbled by Jacques’s insights. As a journalist who lived and breathed China for years, I felt sure that the Communist Party, following its loss of credibility at Tiananmen, would fall to ashes. During the boom of the 1990s, I knew that economic modernization would force Chinese institutions to become accountable and democratic. I was wrong again and again. My assumptions were out of date.
Still, one can’t help wondering if China’s trajectory, as unwavering as it may look now, may fizzle. Take, for instance, China’s inability to accept or integrate outsiders — Jacques calls it “the Middle Kingdom mentality.” He explores it and China’s prevalent racism in detail, for reasons that grew from painful experience.
Jacques and Veriah married and moved to Hong Kong, where she suffered an epileptic seizure and was hospitalized. She warned Jacques that the Chinese medical staff was treating her like a third-class citizen because of her dark skin and Indian ancestry. The next day she died. Jacques later determined that negligence by the hospital staff had killed her.
Left with their 1-year-old son, Jacques was devastated. It was two years before he could pick up a pen. When he did, his work was infused with a passion that honors the woman who brought him to rethink his approach to China. Her death stands out as a symbol of China’s dark limitations and leaves us with questions about its future.
Seth Faison is the author of “South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China.”