China is rising, and we don’t know what kind of world its ascendancy will bring. This new work by Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, takes the debate a step forward with an argument about China’s impact, in terms of not only hard power but especially the soft power that emanates from its vast economy. In translation, this book may do extremely well in China, but in the West it is likely to become a reference point in a mainly negative sense.

Jacques argues, in line with conventional sinology, that traditional approaches don’t understand the Chinese state or the Chinese people. His core thesis is that China is set to overtake the US and the West, so modernity as we currently understand it will be transformed and “the West will be obliged to learn from and incorporate some of the … insights and characteristics” of East Asia, and China in particular.

Indeed, what is good and impressive about this account is that it locates China’s rise economically, politically and historically in its East Asian context. Jacques is able to demonstrate, with some empirical support, that this transformation, involving a decline in the regional power and influence of the US, is already well under way.

He is surely right that China will come to dominate a growing regional economy and that its modernity will only partly resemble that of the West. But to most observers, what Jacques sees as a major claim – namely, that there will be a new hybrid modernity heavily influenced by China’s rise – is an obvious point. Japan is the most palpable example of how we are already conversant with East Asian hybridity.

Furthermore, the book is infused with a perception of Western approaches to China that seems at best out of date and is in fact probably wrong. Jacques labours still on the absurdities of the central thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History”. The straw man of Western assumptions about China – has anybody said China will “in due course become a typical Western nation”? – undermines opportunities for nuanced analysis of the real connections and relations between the West and China. Coupled with this is a simplistic, undeveloped view of the West, demonstrating little understanding of the nature of the panoply of Western-inspired institutions and regimes of governance and the co-operation of Western and other states and non-governmental organisations in their functioning. Indeed, civil society at the global level and in China itself is absent from this state-centric account. The role of the European Union – the world’s largest economy – is massively downplayed, too. All this means the thesis propounded here lacks the complexity many scholars would expect from a book on this theme.

 Another key problem is that the author glosses over the inherent weaknesses in the Chinese economy. Basing his thesis about its rise on a single and repeatedly cited Goldman Sachs forecast, nowhere does Jacques offer a critical analysis of even the main issue haunting China’s prosperity: the overvalued currency it has artificially sustained for years.

Moreover, Jacques adopts a rather too easy and uncritical attitude towards a regime with arguably the worst human rights record in the world. It is rather staggering to read that “there is little demand for democracy from within China. Indeed, if anything, there has been a turn away from democracy since Tiananmen Square.” The author should know that when the strong state he so admires gives the order for troops to run over peaceful protesters with tanks, shoot and imprison their sympathisers and suppress all forms of communication between dissidents, the reduced “demand for democracy” could well be the effect of that repression, rather than some kind of organic shift towards authoritarianism.

Indeed, human rights are largely absent from this account. And Jacques seems oblivious to the long-term effects of state propaganda on the Chinese people’s ability to think beyond the constraints that the state imposes. The question of whether there can be independent public opinion in China is not one that appears to have crossed his mind.

He refers to polls of Chinese opinion across a range of issues as if this is how the Chinese really think. It is gross and naive to state, as Jacques does, that “the attitude of the people mirrors that of government: political authoritarianism complements the authoritarian and compulsive circumstances of everyday life, with its inherent lack of choice”.

As China rises, the nature of a state and society that will come to play a more important role in our lives needs to be fully investigated and understood. When China Rules the World is an incomplete offering, but one that will certainly be remembered in future debate on China’s ascent.

– Gregory Kent