The predictor of Beijing’s rise and Washington’s decline in less than two decades from now gives his first Asian interview to China Daily
The man who says China is about to rule the world makes his way toward me at an exit of Wudaokou subway station. None of the Chinese people around us enjoying a sunny Saturday morning in this popular student hangout of northwestern Beijing would have any idea who this shaven-headed, slightly quirky figure was or even care.
They might be slightly more intrigued if they knew the man coming into view. Martin Jacques has written a book about them and their future that is already attracting major interest in the West.
Jacques in his sandals may be an unlikely vanguard for 1.3 billion people but nonetheless When China Rules the World, which argues the former Middle Kingdom will take over from the United States as the world’s leading power, is fuelling a huge debate.
He has already been invited by not just the Chinese Embassy in London, where he lives, but also, intriguingly, by that of America whose demise as a world power he predicts.
“I had a very serious two-hour discussion at the Chinese Embassy in London and it was very interesting. They were extremely interested in the book. It was a good meeting and a proper engagement,” he says.
We are now at a nearby flat of a friend of his he is using while he is on holiday in China — where else could he possibly take a holiday? Although he is returning to the UK, he is back here later this month for the Asian launch of the English language version of the book. It will be published in Chinese next year.
Jacques, a remarkably youthful 63, serves us strong “English builders’”, not Chinese, tea as his 11 year-old son Ravi practices the violin in another room.
“Even though he is on holiday he practices 6 hours a day. He is about to go and see his Chinese violin professor,” he says.
The book says China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in 2027 and become double its size by 2050.
It also argues, more controversially, as suggested by the subtitle, The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, China will begin to dominate the world culturally and politically as well as economically.
In the past, countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea have felt a need to “Westernize” in order to become more modern.
Jacques argues that by the end of this century being modern might mean being more Chinese. Being Western might just mean stuffing a hamburger into your face.
“My central argument is very simple. Western modernity is not eternal and it is not a universal model,” he says.
“It has been the universal model over the past 200 years because it has been successful but it will not be eternally successful.”
The new modernity will see the RMB as the world’s major currency, China with a strong political influence and the widespread adoption of Chinese as a second language around the world.
“Mandarin is going to become a very big language globally. Because China is going to be the world’s biggest market and (because) you have large Chinese minorities everywhere, ” he says.
Jacques argues a lot of Chinese culture and tradition such as its food (Liverpool in England having a Chinatown in the 19th century) and traditional medicine were exported well before the recent economic take-off of China.
The revenge for having US brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s inflicted upon it could be the proliferation of Chinese teahouses around the world.
“I have always thought Chinese teahouses could be an incredible success actually,” he says slurping on his heavily stewed English version.
“Chinese tea could be a very big thing and you could cater for every class, from having something simple to spending a fortune on something exclusive.”
Much of China’s advance will be at the expense of the US which he says will “significantly decline” in importance over the next 100 years. He insists the US will not become the new Ethiopia anytime soon.
“We are talking of relative decline. The average American in 30 years will be a lot more wealthy than the average American today. America will for a long time be much richer in per capita terms than China,” he says.
Jacques, who was born in Coventry, earned a first class degree at Manchester University and embarked on an academic career before becoming a journalist.
He is most famous for editing Marxism Today, which he turned into one of Britain’s foremost political magazines over a period of 14 years.
It was a forum for a wide spectrum of political ideas, not just left wing ones, but folded in 1991. He was also deputy editor of The Independent newspaper in the UK in the mid-1990s.
His interest in Asia began when he visited China on holiday for the first time in 1993.
“I was in Guangdong when it was in the process of catching fire economically. I was intrigued by the question as to whether this was simply a replica of Western modernity or something different,” he says.
The question was such a big one in his mind that he wanted to write a book about it.
In the meantime he met his future wife Harinder “Hari” Veriah, a lawyer, in Malaysia.
After setting up home in London, they moved east again when she got an offer of a job with her law firm in Hong Kong. It was then in 1998 that he signed the publishing contract for When China Rules.
Tragically, in 2000 his wife suddenly died after an epileptic fit in a Hong Kong hospital at just 33. Jacques is clearly still traumatized by the event.
“I was completely devastated. I didn’t work on the book again until 2005 but I somehow never let it go. I went back to it,” he says
He says the book is as much about his relationship with his late wife as an intellectual work.
“I haven’t written it as a love story but it is a love story. It is about the passion of meeting Hari. I loved her to pieces. Meeting her I realized what life was all about,” he says.
While writing the book, Jacques, who used to make regular appearances on television and radio, became almost reclusive.
He only emerged recently to publicize the book, starting with a presentation in front of 700 people at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales in May this year.
“I really wasn’t sure whether I could do it again. I walked into that room and far from feeling I wanted to hide, I loved doing it. Two or three years ago, I just couldn’t have done it,” he says.
The book has had its critics. Chris (now Lord) Patten, the former Governor of Hong Kong, dismissed it as a “silly book” in an interview with China Daily, one of his main objections being Jacques’ use of Goldman Sachs statistics on economic growth projections.
“I just thought, ‘Hello, hello, he hasn’t read it’. The Goldman Sachs statistics could turn out wrong for all sorts of reasons. It may take 50 years longer than the statistics I use for this momentous change to happen but that is not that important,” says Jacques.
Patten also objected to Jacques’ view that China was uniquely a civilization state and not just a nation state, asking: “If China is the world’s only civilization state, what do you call France?”
“How could he argue that France is a civilization state?” counters Jacques.
“I mean this is a failure of historical intellectual perception. France has a history as a great nation but only since the late 18th century in its nation state period. The vast bulk of China’s multi-millennial history is prior to it becoming a nation state.”
With any book like this, there is always a question whether a Westerner or outsider such as Jacques is in any real position to make definitive judgments about China at all.
“It is problematic, isn’t it? I have thought about this for a long time because I was always confronted by what seemed to be a sea of ignorance on my part. I didn’t know the history properly and I didn’t speak the language,” he says
“I am not fool enough to think my understanding of China is sufficient. It is a lifetime’s work to get out of your own skin and into the skin of another society. There aren’t so many books I have written with such engagement though, where your life is actually in the book.”
Jacques, who lives in Hampstead in northwest London, has held a number of visiting professorships in Asia, including a spell at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
He is a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and is columnist for the Guardian newspaper and for the New Statesman magazine in the UK.
“I enjoy writing columns but for me personally it lasts half-a-day and then it is gone. People don’t remember it and the old gray cells are not required to think too much,” he says.
He says writing the book over so many years was a “huge intellectual engagement”.
“It was 14 years of dealing with huge big questions. I like big picture questions,” he says.
The book is set to be one of the top selling books — if not the book — about China in the West over the next year.
Jacques is unclear whether it will be his last word in book form on China.
“I will see what happens to this. Maybe I will write something more about China. I am not saying I won’t,” he says.
Yet if only half of what he predicts comes true, China will be a story few will be able to ignore.
– Andrew Moody