Author of When China Rules the World says he’s been vindicated

Martin Jacques says China doom-mongers were typically dismissive when he argued the former Middle Kingdom would have a central role in shaping the 21st century.

In his book, When China Rules the World, which some regard as a potential classic, he forecast China would become the world’s largest economy by 2027, albeit using Goldman Sachs data, and that we were all going to be living in a more Sinocentric world.

His critics said the more likely scenario was that China was going to succumb to a crisis that completely knocks it off track.

“They were right in that there was going to be one hell of a crisis, but what no one predicted was that it wasn’t going to happen to China, it was going to happen to the West,” he says.

Jacques was speaking in the sitting room of his expansive mansion flat in Hampstead, North London, an area favored by intellectuals and film stars alike.

His book is now out in paperback after selling no fewer than 250,000 copies in hardback, many in translation in China.

“It is not bad. It is better than a kick in the teeth. I remember my editor Stuart (Proffitt, publishing director Penguin Press) saying he would be very happy if it sells 10,000,” he says.

The paperback has been substantially revised, some 25 percent longer than the hard back with a new afterword to take into account the economic crisis, which was only beginning to play out when the book was first published in 2009.

“It took me 20 months to do this (additions for the paperback). It has taken into account the changes that have happened since,” he says.

He says the intervening period, if anything, supports his view about the rise of China.

“When I first wrote the book I didn’t know what the ramifications of the crisis were going to be. Now after three-and-half years, we know that this is essentially a Western crisis and not a global crisis, which it was always described before,” he says.

“Most Western economies are smaller than they were when the crisis began and there is a profound political crisis of the governing elite, which you can see clearly in Europe.”

Jacques, a youthful 66, was still barely out of breath despite returning from a run on Hampstead Heath and up several flights of stairs to his apartment, beating myself and the photographer ascending more sedately in a creaky old lift.

One of the biggest markets for the book has been China, where it has sold more than 100,000 copies in Chinese and made him much in demand as a speaker at conferences and on the lecture circuit.

Non-fiction tomes of this kind do not normally make authors that much money but it has been a commercial success for Jacques, if mostly indirectly.

“The main way you get money from a book is not through royalties. If all the sales had been in America that might have been the case but the cover price in China was just 39 yuan ($6), or about four quid,” he says.

“How it makes a difference is that I can get speaking engagements and get a good fat fee. The more demand you get, the more you can put your fee up. I am not loaded. I wouldn’t want to do it the way (Tony) Blair has done it,” he jokes.

One of Jacques’ biggest frustrations is that many of the critics of the book have never seen beyond the title and in some cases, he believes, have never actually read beyond the title.

“If you take the title literally, it is silly. People think that by reading the title, they have encapsulated the book and that is a profound mistake. Anyone who reads the book will see that it is very carefully considered, scholarly and serious. It is an analytical work that it is not in the least bit glib,” he says.

It is, in fact, the case that the book has had its worst reception among some Western China experts but is highly regarded by many Chinese academics, including leading foreign policy experts like Shi Yinhong at Renmin University in Beijing.

Jacques insists there are two central arguments in the book that still hold true.

“One is that the rise of China will mean we will no longer live in a purely Western-shaped world. Really my book was the first to argue this, you know,” he says.

“The second is that you cannot understand China in Western terms. You have got to understand the specificity and nature of Chinese culture. China is not like Western society. It is completely different.”

Although he has held a number of academic posts in Asia, including in Japan and Singapore, Jacques was perhaps best known before writing the book, as being editor of Marxism Today, which was one of the most successful political magazines in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s read by both left and right, alike.

He went on to be deputy editor of The Independent newspaper and is now a regular contributor to newspapers such as the Financial Times and the New York Times.

When China Rules The World has had a huge impact on his life, partly because he had to complete it while still grieving for his late wife, the Malaysian-born lawyer Harinder Veriah who died as a result of clinical negligence in a Hong Kong hospital, against which he has won a recent legal battle.

“I remember thinking only my closest friends would ever know what finishing the book meant to me and what hell, pain and agony I had been through,” he says.

“I have obviously taken a lot of pleasure in the fact the book has had a huge impact and that it has been argued and debated about on a number of different levels.”

One thing that has changed since the book was published is that the estimates of 2027 when China would take over from the United States as the world’s largest economy no longer seems fanciful. It has already become the second largest, usurping Japan last year.

“I remember someone saying to me in the audience at a talk that it would happen over a much larger time scale or not at all; 2027 now seems like an underestimate. Some are predicting it could be 2018.”

Jacques says he is going to continue writing about China and that his next project could be on the relationship between it and India, where he has just been promoting the book.

“I am interested in carrying on writing about China. There are many questions on my mind. I am going to write something on China and India but a book, it is too early to say,” he says.

Whatever his next project, however, Jacques, looking unprepossessing for the moment in his running shorts, seems to have made a permanent imprint on the debate on China.

– Andrew Moody