It should not take a political economist to see how the scores of books being published on China’s “rise” vary in quality and outlook, reflecting as much the standpoint of their respective authors as the subject itself.

Doomsayers insist modern China will break down or collapse, Cold Warriors persistently condemn Beijing for whatever it does, alarmists panic at the thought of “communist” China succeeding at anything, pragmatists take a balanced view of the big picture, and incurable optimists see only the positive side.

In his latest book, When China Rules The World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western world, British scholar-journalist Martin Jacques almost veers from the fourth category towards the fifth. The book is rather more sober than the title suggests.

Jacques foresees China’s rise involving the ascendancy of Chinese norms and culture, even as Chinese society itself is not impervious to change. And by “the end of the Western world” he means the eclipse of Western concepts and assumptions that have for only a couple of centuries held sway in the world.

This is a consequence of China’s rapid, continued rise and the simultaneous decline in Western influence and prestige, partly also because Western hegemony has just about run its course. Both these tectonic movements in opposite directions are confirmed and sustained by the relative economic performance of China and the United States.

Critics who reject Jacques’ observations have to contend with the data in the book, which tends to be confirmed by the latest developments in China. His is one of the better-researched and more carefully-argued new studies on the country.

Jacques more than catalogues China’s development, as befits an international scholar and former think-tanker (co-founder of London-based Demos).

He also argues for new approaches to understanding China, because the old ways fashioned in the West are not appropriate here.

The author says China is not just a nation state, but a “civilisational state” that is a continent in size and mentality. China is a large country with a long history, colourful past, rich culture, complex composition, huge challenges and myriad possibilities, such that it pays to find the best way to understand it.But so far the West is not doing a good job of that. This may be woeful inadequacy at other times, but at the dawn of China’s global pre-eminence, it could be upsetting if not tragic.

Jacques also finds that modernisation need not mean Westernisation. For him, China will continue to modernise without taking on too many of the attributes of Western culture.

Some distinctiveness can already be seen in postwar modern Japan; more of that will happen with China, and on a larger scale. This should interest a developing world seeking modernity without losing too much of its own identity.

Thus China’s rise could also mean a leadership role by default, through example. Its deep-seated Confucian culture is enduring, and Jacques suggests that even Chinese communism is uniquely little more than a veneer layered over Confucian norms of governance. No book is perfect, and this one still has areas that may need more work.

For example, it could offer a closer analysis of growing economic interdependence between China and the West in a globalising world. After the title has made the reader think in terms of China-West competition, the text needs to relate more of the realities of complementarity at various levels.

The United States is beholden to China for its massive debt, but for so much of China’s reserves to be in dollars is also a burden, while its single-biggest market is the US. While China reshapes the world, the world is also reshaping China.

More aspects of today’s growing multipolarity and implications of a supposedly new tributary system also need to be considered. Again it need not be a zero-sum game between China and the West, not even militarily, since US dominance in the Asia-Pacific actively secures the sea lanes so vital to China’s energy imports and manufactured exports.

The book could also give more room to analysing occasional attempts to antagonise, bait and challenge (ABC) China, such as CIA support for the 1950s Tibetan uprising, the State Department engineering the exile of Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, direct arming of Taiwan, indirect encouragement for rearming Japan, and encircling China through allies Australia, India and Japan.

The section on democracy and China makes no mention of Beijing’s efforts and experiences in democratisation. This includes years of work by the Carter Center on bottom-up elections, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s reputation as a Zhao Ziyang closet liberal, and President Hu Jintao’s adviser Prof. Yu Keping as a democracy advocate commissioned by Hu to conduct a study on a future democratic China.

Still, the book has considerable meat to keep readers informed about the biggest historic change in Asia today. And what of the question of when China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, since so much is based on economics?

Jacques quotes the Goldman Sachs date of 2050, but more recent forecasts by various sources including Goldman Sachs have brought that projected date forward to within two decades from now.

Indeed, China is changing so quickly and so significantly that more books and further editions will be needed just to keep up.

 – Bunn Nagara