Experts agree that China’s economy appears likely to become the world’s largest within two decades. But in the provocatively titled When China Rules the World, British journalist Martin Jacques goes much further.

He argues that within 50 years China will quite likely become an economic, political, and cultural colossus, displacing the United States as the world’s leading power. As a correspondent in China in the 1980s and ’90s, I learned how difficult it is to predict this vast country’s future. Anything other than short-term predictions can go badly wrong.

I do agree with Jacques, however, that China’s rapid economic growth and its embrace of a new brand of capitalism do not mean that the country is adopting Western values. Jacques asserts that China’s economic growth, global trade ties, and creation of a middle class are unlikely to lead to anything like Western-style democracy, much less a free press and rule of law. And so far, many – although not all – in the growing Chinese middle class appear out of self-interest to have accepted the one-party state and the limits that it imposes.

Recent headlines tend to support Jacques’s predictions. China bounced back from the worldwide financial meltdown more strongly than any major nation, has just overtaken Germany as the world’s No. 1 exporter and is now No. 2 in car production. China’s growth rate is expected to exceed 8 percent this year.

But Jacques may overestimate China’s ability to innovate and may underestimate the impact China’s aging population could have in dragging down the country’s economic growth.

According to some predictions, China’s elderly may constitute more than 30 percent of the population by the year 2050. Thanks to China’s one-child policy, a growing number of young people have to care for two parents and, in some cases, four grandparents. This at a time when the communist welfare system has already rapidly declined.

Jacques describes a process of seemingly inevitable technological improvements on the part of China even as the West, and the United States in particular, continues to fall in a steady decline.

But as a recent BusinessWeek article pointed out, the country’s managerial and technological expertise have come mostly from Western and Japanese multinational corporations. Although China has some very large companies of its own, it has yet to develop such corporations.

The costs of China’s state-led capitalism – including pollution and the largest rich-poor gap of any major Asian country – have yet to take their full toll.
Finally, China’s leaders themselves do not act as if they could easily handle superpower responsibilities, much less domestic dissent. Their recent crackdown on the Internet and on dissidents, including the trial and sentencing of rights advocate Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison, don’t reflect the actions of a strong and confident Chinese leadership.

Confident Chinese leaders would not insist on demonizing the Dalai Lama and the Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer. They would release the journalists now being held in prison and would stop persecuting those who engage in peaceful religious activities, including Tibetan monks and nuns, Protestant “house church” leaders, Catholic priests, and Falun Gong practitioners.

Critics will note that Jacques is no China expert. His main sources appear to be Western financial experts or urban, educated Chinese. Notably absent are voices from among the hundreds of millions of people still classified as peasants in China along with more than 140 million workers who have moved from the farms into China’s cities. But Jacques declares with certainty that “all Chinese” hold the same Confucian view of the world, with China deservedly at its center.

At 435 pages, Jacques’s book is far too long and includes some regrettable historical inaccuracies. (For instance, it was the Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek who did most of the fighting against the Japanese in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and not the Communists, as Jacques claims)

Several of my Chinese journalist friends, when informed about Jacques’s analysis, dismissed it out of hand. But in my view, Jacques’s book does serve as a clear wake-up call. “The West,” which has grown used to setting world standards and agendas for many decades, is unprepared for the shocks that will accompany China’s rise.

And some of those shocks, as Jacques asserts, won’t be pleasant.

– Dan Southerland, executive editor of congressionally funded Radio Free Asia, is a former Asia correspondent for the Monitor and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.