Five years ago, Martin Jacques published When China Rules the World, followed by an extended paperback version in 2012. Perhaps only second to Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, published a year earlier, Jacques’ book became a symbol of the global hype around the decline of the West and the “rise of the rest”, which was fuelled by the financial crisis in the United States. China, as a ‘civilization-state’, Jacques repeated in interviews across the world, would rise on its own terms. Its impact would be not only economic but also cultural and political, leading to a global future of ‘contested modernity’. Martin Jacques’ TED talk, which summarizes the main arguments of his book, has been watched over 2 million times over the past years, becoming one of the most popular International Affairs-related presentations on the online platform. The book has been translated into eleven languages, and sold over a quarter of a million copies worldwide.

Why was When China Rules the World such a massive success? After all, the chapters that deal with the West’s, Japan’s and China’s history (2, 3 and 4) hardly reveal anything new and can safely be skipped by those familiar with the subject, even though he rightly criticizes historians who regard the rise of Europe as an endogenous phenomenon. More importantly, however, his gentle treatment of Mao is somewhat disturbing, as is his explicit admiration for China’s Communist Party. In addition, Jacques’ thoughts on the future of global order and the recreation of the tributary system are both shallow and ill-conceived.

Rather, contrary to most other analysts who see China’s rise mostly in economic terms, or International Relations scholars who engage in abstract debates about the implications for global order, Jacques’ analysis is essentially sociological and cultural, arguing that even a rich, modern and globally integrated China will never be Western:

There has been an assumption by the Western mainstream that there is only one way of being modern, which involves the adoption of Western-style institutions, values, customs and beliefs, such as the rule of law, the free market and democratic norms. 

More than that, the author affirms, the economic side of the story has lulled the West into a false sense of security. “The mainstream Western attitude has held that, in its fundamentals, the world will be relatively little changed by China’s rise,” he writes. Yet China’s political and cultural effects are “likely to be at least as far-reaching” and the West will lose its monopoly on defining modernity.

Jacques asserts that most analyses about the rise of China are blinded by Western-centrism, which leads us to vastly overestimate the importance of Western civilization as we look towards the future of international affairs. We have, Jacques writes, come to take Western hegemony for granted: “It is so deeply rooted, so ubiquitous, that we think of it as somehow natural.” He argues that

We stand on the eve of a different kind of world, but comprehending it is difficult: we are so accustomed to dealing with the paradigms and parameters of the contemporary world that we inevitably take them for granted, believing that they are set in concrete rather than themselves being the subject of longer-run cycles of historical change.

The title of the book is both overly dramatic, misleading, and was probably merely chosen to boost sales. China is highly unlikely to dominate the world culturally, partly because the Zhonghuaxing – ‘Chineseness’ – is highly exclusive, as the author readily concedes, so the world’s population will probably never be profoundly influenced by a Chinese type of Leitkultur. A title more faithful to the book’s content would have been something like “The Rise of China and Contested Modernity”, for Jacques — correctly, I believe — argues that

The rise of competing modernities heralds a quite new world in which no hemisphere or country will have the same kind of prestige, legitimacy or overwhelming force that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries. Instead different countries and cultures will compete for legitimacy and influence.The new world, at least for the next century, will not be Chinese in the way that the previous one was Western. We are entering an era of competing modernity, albeit one in which China will increasingly be in the ascendant and eventually perhaps dominant.

Some of Jacques’ predictions are conservative. He writes that

For perhaps the next half-century, it seems unlikely that China will be particularly aggressive. History will continue to weigh very heavily on how it handles its growing power, counselling caution and restraint.

Several more, however, strike the reader as fanciful (for example, that Mandarin will rival English as the world’s lingua franca), and many of them are based on very optimistic growth forecasts developed during the first years of the 21st century. As such, When China Rules the World must be read as a provocation, rather than the only source of information for a public discussion on the future of China. The author himself acknowledges that political upheaval could reduce Chinese growth, and thus its capacity to influence others. Yet Jacques is notably silent on the many signs of discontent in Chinese daily life — corruption, pollution and the growing number of protests — that anyone who will spend more time in the country will witness first hand.

Still, five years after its publication, many of Jacques predictions still seem largely valid: “One of the consequences of China’s growing economic importance has been that the great majority of countries in the region have become more closely aligned with it.”, he writes. Beijing’s recent diplomatic success, when even countries skeptical of China, such as South Korea, sought membership of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seem to support that argument.

Most recently, David Shambaugh, a leading US-American China expert, made the bold prediction that the Communist Party is about to collapse, an event that could dramatically change China’s long-term perspectives. One day, China may indeed become a democracy, like Taiwan. Such points of view need to be taken into consideration by policy makers around the world as they design their strategies vis-à-vis China. Yet it is as important that they consider Jacques’ more bullish argument.

— Oliver Stuenkel is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo, where he coordinates the São Paulo branch of the School of History and Social Science (CPDOC) and the executive program in International Relations.