The aftermath of China’s fatal high-speed rail crash in July was a reminder that the foundations of the country’s remarkable economic growth are perhaps not as solid as some may suggest.

With the outpouring of anger and grief came a series of accusations over what was to blame for the crash, corruption, cheap equipment and botched reverse-engineering among them. It was barely the best advert for a new rail network that was supposed to be yet another signal of China’s arrival as a modern global superpower.

Of course the West still looks on at China with envy; its growth rate remains at a level most can only dream of. China has revelled in the role of the white knight riding to the rescue of the global economy, buying up US and European debt and even lecturing the US on fiscal responsibility.

In recent years it has become fashionable, particularly in light of Martin Jacques’s 2009 book When China Rules the World, to look at these trends and conclude that Chinese global hegemony is inevitable. The fundamentals of the argument are always simple, often extrapolating growth rates on to China’s massive rural population.

One magazine even produced an online calculator where one could enter a different growth rate, inflation and currency appreciation to pinpoint the exact year that China becomes the world’s largest economy.

But commentators are beginning to approach such bold predictions with more caution. English author Will Hutton has argued that China can emerge as a global leader only by embracing Western tradition, even if the old dinner table gambit that economic growth will lead to democratic transition is heard far less often these days.

And now comes Why China Will Never Rule the World, a book that doubts whether China’s culture has the fortitude to lead the country to the position of sole global superpower.

Canadian author Troy Parfitt has more reason than most to view China with suspicion, having lived in Taiwan for 10 years. Lamenting the fact China seems to be all he hears about these days, he crosses the strait to find out what all the fuss is about.

The result is an entertaining and informative travelogue less concerned with number crunching than with shining a light on a culture that, for many Western analysts, is too often lost beneath the balance sheets.

There is certainly a sense that Parfitt’s views on the subject were well formed long before his arrival. His travels are interspersed with historical anecdotes that provide some context as to how China has reached its present state.

But of most interest is his damning appraisal of the national mindset, one that he argues is not conducive to the emergence of a global power. He blames Confucianism for creating a culture of unquestioning respect for authority and points to the lack of international and historical perspective among ordinary Chinese people.

At times Parfitt’s attitude towards the Chinese borders on contempt. He lets his frustrations boil over on a couple of occasions during his trip, and the book closes rather uncomfortably with Parfitt haranguing a Chinese official over the issues of Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen.

Why China Will Never Rule the World won’t earn Parfitt many friends. A reference to Taiwan in the subtitle of the book, Travels in the Two Chinas, alone could preclude a future visit to China. As the ruling Communist Party is at pains to remind everyone, there is only one China.

But on the whole Parfitt’s humour and knack for highlighting the absurd (there is plenty to be found in China) make him a likable travel companion. His insight into how cultural concepts such as the notion of saving face may affect China’s growth is also interesting. An entrenched societal reluctance to admit error may well have played a role in the Zhejiang train crash.

There are other ways in which Parfitt’s China clashes with this notion of a modern superpower. Simple tasks such as getting a taxi to a train station become ordeals. At every turn there seems to be somebody trying to hoodwink him out of a few extra yuan.

It is worth remembering that while China may be the world’s second largest economy, it still ranks in the 90s on the Human Development Index. In other words, many of its people are being left behind.

And there lies the true value of a book so openly critical of Chinese society. Regardless of whether China ruling the world is a matter of when or if, there is important work to be done in terms of bringing the country into the international community.

Not everyone may agree with Parfitt’s prognosis, but here is an effort to shift the debate away from gross domestic product forecasts and on to a society that is still dangerously misunderstood by many in the West.

 – David Bartram