Mayor Richard Daley has a favorite book. Or at least one he repeatedly recommends.

He brought it up after a press conference I attended in February in Washington and several times before that with my colleagues at City Hall. In August he wrote to the author, British columnist Martin Jacques, telling him how much he enjoyed it.

“I was very touched by it,” Jacques said.

The book is titled “When China Rules the World,” or “China Rules” in Daley-speak. The 576-page tome often startles readers by sketching a future in which China’s economy and its belief in its own superiority dominate the world.

On a flight to Davos, Switzerland, Arianna Huffington spotted former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers reading it. His take: “Interesting … and disturbing,” she reported.

After I read it, I understood why Daley called Chinese President Hu Jintaos visit to Chicago on Thursday a “big, big, big, big, big deal.” The book would lead one to believe that the mayor is hosting an emperor this week.

Many Americans believe that there is only one way to live in the modern world: Our way. Countries must adopt Western-style institutions (an independent judiciary, an elected parliament, free markets) and values (freedom of religion, racial tolerance) to succeed.

But rather than collapse, the Communist Party has displayed tremendous flexibility since the Tiananmen Square protests, barreling on with “the main task of sustaining the country’s economic growth,” Jacques wrote.

Consider that in 1950, U.S. GDP was almost three times that of East Asia and almost twice that of Asia. In 2007, Goldman Sachs predicted China’s GDP will surpass the United States’ in 2027.

Although Jacques criticizes China for its significant shortcomings — its environmental record, racism and corruption — he believes its economic trajectory will slow a bit but never waver in the next 50 years. His key point is that this growth won’t be achieved via democracy. Instead China will pursue a competing system, with an authoritarian government at its core.

We’ll really feel this change, Jacques wrote, as China starts to “enter spheres of production which threaten the jobs of skilled manual workers and growing numbers of white-collar workers and professionals.”

The quicker that happens, the quicker protectionist barriers, such as tariffs, will shoot up. The slower it happens, the more likely the conflict will be managed and defused, he predicts.

So 20 years from now, how does Jacques see the world?

China will have the largest economy but, paradoxically, plenty of poverty.

Americans will learn about key moments in Chinese history and study Mandarin in droves.

“The fact, for example, that China has been responsible for so many of the inventions that were subsequently adopted elsewhere, not least in the West, will help to dispel the contemporary myth that the West is history’s most inventive culture,” Jacques wrote.

And it won’t engage in the kind of wars that exhausted Europe.

But it might one day buy your company, thanks to its enormous reserves, or invent the next-generation electric car, thanks to enormous investments in research and higher education.

China will not colonize, but more Chinese will move abroad. Their sheer numbers will make them significant minorities everywhere.

Its government will develop close ties to Africa, where it will secure the natural resources it needs to fuel its growth without trying to depose the continent’s dictators.

The desire to “ape and copy the West” — a kind of reverse racism — is already giving way to a resurrected view of Chinese superiority.

Beijing will become the world’s dominant financial center, replacing New York.

China’s government will slowly democratize, becoming more open and transparent, and even hold local elections. But the state will remain the ultimate authority. All things will continue to flow through it.

None of this worries Jacques.

What does worry him, he says, is how tolerant and sensitive the Chinese will be to “difference.”

His concern is personal. His wife suffered an epileptic seizure in 2000 when they lived in Hong Kong. She warned Jacques that she was “at the bottom of the pile” at the hospital because of her dark, Indian skin. She died the next day.

Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed to this report.

– Melissa Harris