The year before the global financial crisis, Goldman Sachs predicted China would surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2027. Journalist and scholar Martin Jacques wants to know just what this world will look like when China is at its economic and political helm.
In When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, Jacques makes his case for China’s impending rise to the top. The data behind Jacques’ predictions that China will soon be the world’s largest economy is solid—though some may call his forecast conservative when considered alongside recent estimates byPriceWaterhouseCoopers that push the timeline forward to 2020 for China’s ascendancy.
Plumbing the depths of Chinese history and contemporary culture in search of what this new world might look like, Jacques paints an insightful—and often alarming— portrait of current Chinese racial identity and nationalism. He fails, however, to paint a convincing portrait of the world when China again becomes its “Middle Kingdom.”
The Chinese account for a full 20 percent of the world’s population, four times that of the U.S., and China’s influence on global politics has strengthened exponentially over the past decade. While elucidating China’s history and new spheres of power, Jacques explores how a number of key differences between China and the West would make China a very different kind of superpower than its American counterpart.
The most fundamental of these differences for Jacques are China’s unity, racial homogeny and view of itself not as a European-style nation-state but as a “civilization-state.”
Despite the rise and fall of countless dynasties, China has maintained its core borders for two millennia, and the Chinese see their culture as extending another three millennia beyond that. With the exception of the 19th century, China has rarely conformed to outside laws or influence. Even the Mongol and Manchu conquerors soon adopted Confucian culture and Chinese dynastic government systems. China, Jacques argues, “like every other previous major power, will view the world through the prism of its own history and will seek … to reshape the world in its own image.”
How China’s culture and politics will re-shape our world is a crucial question to be asking. Basing his vision of China’s future on its dynastic history, Jacques spends a significant portion of his book considering the re-institution of the antiquated tributary system, in which surrounding powers pay monetary tribute to China. This is the most fleshed out of Jacques’ predictions, as well as his most hollow. Jacques’ scholarly explorations into China’s past are interesting, but he fails to channel these into any convincing—or even imaginative—predictions as to what a China-ruled world might look like.
For those who wish to better understand China and its trajectory toward becoming a global superpower, When China Rules the World is a solid starting point. We are at an early age in China’s rise, and Jacques is already asking all the right questions. But, unfortunately, it’s difficult to believe he holds any of the right answers.
– Blake Stone-Banks