When China Rules the World: Martin Jacques explains to Heather Farmbrough why it is very much a case of when rather than if

As a Fellow at the LSE and visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing and a former deputy editor of Marxism Today and The Independent, Martin Jacques’ career has hardly been short of achievements. Yet it is hard to read his best-selling bookWhen China Rules the World and escape the feeling that this is the work of a lifetime.

Penguin has just launched a second edition, a monumental work at 636 pages with a new afterword and substantial revisions because so much has changed since the first edition, particularly since the global financial crisis.

“People are beginning to realise that everything is changing at extraordinary speed as a result of the rapid increase in China’s economic power,” Martin says. “I have developed that argument more in this edition with new data and the second part of the book is now overwhelmingly about the age of China.”

If China carries on developing as fast as it has, and Western countries continue to stagnate, he will soon need to update it again. He believes that the shift in global world power from the US to China since the financial crisis has been commented on far too little. “The most dramatic manifestation of this change,” he says, “was Europe going with its begging bowl to China at the end of 2011.”

Martin tells me that we are seeing the beginnings of Chinese economic world leadership and that China has taken over from the US as the major shaper of globalisation, or certainly increased its position. As before, his central argument in the book is that the West continues to seriously underestimate China’s potential impact on the world, mistakenly believing that as China’s global influence expands, it will become more “Western”

“Westerners don’t understand China because they insist on understanding China through a Western prism of culture. China has not evolved in the same way as most Western nation states, so you can’t make sense of it in that way. I use various arguments to illustrate the difference, but China is not really a nation state: it is a civilisation. Its modern boundaries stretch back over 2,000 years. Whereas Western states are shaped by their sense of national identity, what shapes the Chinese is much more a sense of values, such as Confucian ones. The key concept to understand China is civilisation, not nation.”

He believes this explains the sense of superiority the Chinese have, which has evolved from the idea of China being a civilisation rather than a nation state as so many European countries are. This is fundamental in his view because to understand China one has to think in a different way. Martin believes that the Chinese perception of race is very different because over 90 per cent of the population thinks of itself as the same race, the Han, in contrast to the wide racial disparity in other major developing countries like India or large developed economies like the US.

Moreover, the Chinese state in the eyes of the Chinese, he adds, appears to enjoy far more democracy than we see, because the state is perceived to be the defender of this civilisation. He talks about not just China’s economic strength, its dominance of the automobile and other industries, but in terms of Chinese soft power as well – the appeal of its culture, sport, music and tourism, another way in which China will establish its global leadership.

Again and again, he comes back to the same point: “We have seriously underestimated how important this will be. The rise of China will have profound consequences in every area of life. It’s no use standing in our bunker and measuring China just by our own values. China is a country with a remarkable history and culture which is very different to our own, and which will increasingly enjoy a growing influence and shift the whole nature of global values.”

Martin lost his wife Hari in 1999 at the age of 33 in hospital in Hong Kong, just after he began the book. He believes Hari’s death was unnecessary and a consequence of racial prejudice from the hospital staff. He has raised their son alone since he was sixteen months old, and it is partly why the book took him so long to write. “I managed to get back to work on China despite what had happened which was very complicated and painful,” he says. “I learnt in the course of it to think of the world in this very different way and I suppose the fact that I had this terrible emotional trauma helped me to think very differently in the long term.”

I am struck by the forcefulness of Martin’s arguments both in the book and in our interview. He sounds almost angry at times. I ask if he is. He laughs. “I am angry we don’t understand, no not angry about it, but I am forceful about it because we have got to take the scales from our eyes. The West has lived very comfortably in a fundamentally unequal relationship with the rest of the world which blinds us to things we really need to understand. We are moving into a world which will be very different for our kids, and the longer we are complacent, the longer it will take us to come to terms with it.”