Despite the unequivocal title of Martin Jacques’ large and detailed tome on China and its impending superpower status, we do not get a definitive statement of what a Sinocentric unipolar future will be like, if such a thing eventuates. Martin Jacques is too alert to the risks of prophesying to offer such a thing, at least in literal terms. But he is quite sure — and surely right — that China is rapidly becoming a superpower, and he thinks that its history, culture and unique form of modernity give some indications of what its superpowerdom will mean to the rest of us.

The indications in question are somewhat ambiguous ones, as Jacques himself acknowledges, though he tends towards a more rather than less optimistic reading of them. Perhaps most significantly, he does not think that being the world’s biggest state in terms of population and GDP will necessarily prompt China to exercise its dominance in military terms. On the contrary, he quotes the emollient and peaceful asseverations of China’s leadership to support the view that their country will follow what he sees as its historic example of being a benign hegemon, accepting the tribute of lesser powers and peoples and once again basking in what it has always believed to be its racial and cultural superiority. This view of China’s past and what can be inferred from it for its future — insofar as anything can — merits questioning; I return to it below.

Jacques’ account is ambitiously comprehensive. He several times rehearses the broad outline of China’s history to underwrite his judgements about it, and in particular to ground his assertion that it is a “civilisation-state” rather than a nation-state, which he takes to be an exceedingly important fact. A key aspect of his analysis is that China is developing in its own distinctive way, contrary to the over-confident expectation of Westerners that every economically developing country must inevitably become democratic and Westernised. “It is clear that Chinese modernity will be very different from Western modernity,” Jacques writes, and that therefore “China will transform the world far more fundamentally than any other new global power in the last two centuries.” This is because the Chinese model of non-democratic state capitalism is, he says, one that much of the rest of the developing world might come to find more attractive than the Western model; think for example how attractive its combination of dictatorial politics with successful market capitalism is to African countries.

To substantiate this thesis, When China Rules the World provides numerous graphs and diagrams to illustrate China’s growth, its massive hunger for energy and raw materials, its consequently significant economic relationships across Asia and Africa, its vast ownership of U.S. debt, its demographics, its out-stripping comparison to performance in the rest of the global economy, its foreign policy interests, and its impact on perceptions elsewhere in the world. The statistics iterate the story we are now all familiar with: that China’s economy has undergone in the last thirty years what the universe itself was said to have experienced in its first few seconds — a vast and ultra-rapid, indeed explosive, expansion.

It is the fact that the sleeping dragon has so dramatically awoken that prompted Jacques to examine what this means for the world. He says that insufficient attention is being paid to this question. That is surely a rhetorical flourish merely; among other examinations of China in which the challenges posed by its rise are flagged up, one can cite Jonathan Fenby’s masterlyHistory of Modern China), and I have myself been arguing in print for nearly two decades (starting with a book jointly authored with Xu Youyu, The Long March to the Fourth of June, first published pseudonymously in 1992 under the name Li Xiao Jun) that China’s rise requires that the West pay careful attention, not least because a world power which cares nothing whatever about human rights is a profoundly uncomfortable prospect.

Even so, there has not been anything with quite the broad and detailed scope of Jacques’ inquisition into China, and without doubt his book will prove a catalyst for wider debate about it, a debate which is more urgently relevant than ever. If I read him right, Jacques appears to think that such a debate is needed so that we can adjust to the inevitable, and perhaps urge everyone to learn Mandarin. I think that the debate is needed to ensure that we do not sleep while the Politburo in the Forbidden City secures the power to dictate terms to too many others.

The account Jacques gives of China’s spectacular economic gallop since 1978 is overall a positive one. He tells the story in statistical rather than political or social terms; what we get from his book is an account that leaves out those dimensions of the story that might make one more pessimistic than he is about China (at least as at present politically constituted) coming to rival the U.S. as a superpower.

This alternative and less comfortable story tells us that the ingredients of China’s economic success are these: state enablement on a massive scale — imagine how well a company fares with big tax exemptions, a state-granted monopoly, preferential prices for raw materials, every obstacle levelled and every opportunity levered open by government — no health and safety standards, no pollution controls, availability of wage-slave and actual slave labour, theft of patented ideas from abroad, limitless unlicensed copying of Western technology, unscrupulous friendship with and aid to delinquent regimes such as Burma, Angola and Sudan in exchange for access to cheap raw materials and oil, an aggressive irredentism and territorial policy which has China claiming parts of India,  the continental shelf almost all the way to Japan’s shores (for the oil and gas beneath), and the sea to a line below the Spratley Islands far to the south near Indonesia (again for the oil and gas beneath), “rights” both of which — as with Taiwan –might one day be enforced militarily.

Then add the following: corruption and nepotism are rampant — nearly half the members of the present Politburo are the children of former Politburo members. In 2007 China’s State Auditor said that $7 billion had been stolen by corrupt officials from public project funds; this is almost certainly a huge underestimate. In 2007 the head of the national food and drug administration was executed for taking bribes to issue licenses for unsafe products. This relates to a well-known problem about the general quality of Chinese manufactures; about three quarters of the world’s toys are made in China, and there are frequent scares over their safety.

China’s human rights abuses are among the worst in the world, and on a scale that dwarfs the rest of the world. Corneas, kidneys and hearts from executed prisoners are purchasable on the open world market, and the supply is not restricted (there are over sixty capital offences in China’s criminal law; since they include embezzlement, corruption and unmarried sex construed as “rape” they give plenty of scope for removing undesirables). The abortion of female foetuses, the resulting imbalance in the number of women available for marriage, and the consequential kidnapping of girls for wife-hungry men, constitute one standing scandal among many others.

Let us dwell a little more on just two of these points, though all of them merit fuller exploration. First, actual slave labour (as opposed to the already familiar wage-slave labour in China’s sweatshops). All the great economies of the world took their rise from slave labour: the British and the American are two of the more recent and egregious examples, but no major historical empire has been any different. Today’s China follows suit. It is difficult to quantify how many people are subjected to forced labour in China’s gulag, the “laogai”, situated mainly in the western provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang; conservative estimates say 20 million. (The authority on the laogai system is Harry Wu, who spent twenty years in it, and whose health was broken by it.) To give a sense of its importance to the Chinese economy, one need only reflect that almost everyone in the West will probably touch something at least once a week made in one of the laogai camps — a chopstick, a label, a plastic widget of some kind, a toy, a pen. Almost all the slaves in these camps are there on “administrative detention” (which means: without trial) in order to undergo “re-education through labour” (which means: slavery). How membership of the World Trade Organisation was given to a country whose economy benefits from slave labour on such a scale would be a mystery if morality ever played a part in monetary considerations.

Secondly, pollution and the health and safety of workers. As to the latter, let anyone search the Internet for the weekly death toll in China’s mines and factories, some reports citing 6000 deaths per annum in China’s mines alone — and on average two new coal mines are opened every week. As to pollution: it is estimated that China has hundreds of billions of dollars worth of clean-up to do of its poisoned rivers, soil, air and cities, caused by the heedless rush to industrialise as fast as possible, without a thought to any human or environmental cost. In 2007 the World Bank nominated Linfen in Shanxi province as the most polluted city in the world; nationally nearly half a million annual deaths are directly attributed to pollution.

A quarter of a century ago, walking across the ice of the Songhua River in Heilongjiang Province to the dachas on the islands in midstream, I turned to look at the city of Harbin on the south shore, and could not see it for the filthy and toxic smog enshrouding it. That, to repeat, was twenty five years ago: imagine what it and all of China’s other industrial cities are like now. In 2005 when the Songhua River itself was profoundly poisoned by an explosion (no surprise there) at a petrochemical plant, decanting vast quantities of benzene and nitrobenzene into the water, the Chinese government tried to hide the incident. It failed to; think how often it succeeds.

Jonathan Fenby points out the essential instability of Chinese society. In 2007 there were 70,000 incidents of unrest each involving over 100 people, requiring suppression by the police. A huge and restive population of unemployed migrant workers constitutes a continual headache for the security services. The increasingly rich middle-classes in the lucky and mainly coastal cities of China’s economic boom are no longer so uninterested in the political arrangements by which they live, at least when these show any signs of flagging, as in the current recession.

This last point is of great significance. China’s staggeringly rapid growth has been and continues to be fuelled by two political imperatives that trump all other considerations for the Communist Party. One, as Jacques frequently reminds us, is the recovery of the national pride which China regards as its due because of the undisputed regional superiority and hegemony it enjoyed for much of its history. But the other more immediately important one is that the Party’s hold on power depends on a growth rate of 8% or more so that employment and standard of living can keep pace with population increase. Growth of 6% or lower would undermine the Party’s acceptability to the people. The point is, a drop in the growth rate is bound to happen: the current level of growth is unsustainable. Jacques quotes the figures that show that at current rates, China’s need for energy and raw materials will, in just a few decades, be greater than the entire world can produce. So a slow-down is inevitable, and with it a crunch for the Party’s tenure of the “Mandate of Heaven”.

Add further the interesting facts, carefully reported by Jacques, that China’s output consists largely of low-tech cheap goods, that 80% of its exports are produced by foreign-owned firms in China, that their presence there is premised on the plentiful cheap labour supply China offers, that wages in the coastal economic zones are rising, and that therefore industry is moving into the hinterlands to exploit the supply of cheap labour there. What of the higher expectations among those in economic zones now pricing themselves out of the employment market?

Jacques rightly says that this imposes a need for China to raise its technological game and to move into higher-value production, following the lead of the developed West. In some respects necessity has already pushed it into such development: its immense energy-hunger has encouraged it to become an innovator in alternative energy, and its automotive industry promises to lead the way in hybrid cars. But the question is a crucial one: a Big Bang expansion of low-end manufacturing is one thing, but can its scientific and technological research and development catch up with a West which is already so far ahead?

In short, there are plenty of bumps on the road ahead for China and its ruling caste’s aspirations to become a world power, still less the world’s economic (and even less still its military) hegemon. Too little of this is emphasised by Jacques, though he is careful enough to place the occasional “if” in his prognostications — only then to forget them and to assert with confidence that China’s economic development will transform the future. Yet these remarks about the home-grown bumps on the Chinese road are made in the absence of pointing out that the U.S. and Europe, to say nothing of India, the Middle East and Africa, are scarcely going to sit by placidly while China races ahead.

For, first, it is a little early to be speaking of U.S. decline. Secondly, Europe is only at the beginning of an equally inevitable, though long-term, journey to greater unity, ultimately towards a federation on the U.S. (or German) model, the consequences of which have yet to be thought out. And even closer trans-Atlantic political and economic ties are on the cards too, as one likely response to the emergence of Asian giants. Thirdly, India’s economic lift-off will not take long in making it a major competitor, as Japan still is, to China’s ambitions to be even so much as a regional hegemon. Fourthly, Africa is already uneasy about the barrier to its own progress represented by being a dependent exporter of raw materials to China and an importer of its finished goods — a reprise of the old colonial economic imbalance that ultimately works to the detriment of the weaker partner in the exchange.

One could go on, but these points — again, too little discussed by Jacques — should by themselves be enough to suggest that although China is soon bound to be a very big fish in crude terms of GDP as it already is in population, there are no inevitabilities about what follows from this fact apart from the mentioned problems it entails. Viewed in this light, Jacques might have reached a different conclusion: instead of saying that China is tomorrow’s superpower, wielding a history-changing influence on models of statehood, economies and cultures, he could have described a coming massive problem for the stability and health of the world economy and the balance of international political arrangements, as an autocratic polity with an over-heated economy and a bloated population runs out of control and implodes.

This alternative is suggested even by the description, accurate in all essentials, that Jacques gives of China today. His different and more optimistic (for China) conclusion is based on the supplementary claim that China represents a new form of modernity. Arguably, however, it represents no such thing; arguably it is an essentially nineteenth-century industrial-revolution state with essentially nineteenth-century ideas about power and world status — among which are ideas about the ultimate utility of “hard power” military capability. Also, Jacques emphasis the length and continuity of Chinese history as a factor in its uniqueness. Arguably again, Western civilisation is as ancient and continuous, its originating civilisational framework having been forged as long ago as China’s was — namely, in classical antiquity, whose language we still use in the conceptual vocabulary we think in today (“politics”, “democracy”, “ethics” and so on: not just Greek words but ideas). “Christendom” was a more unified domain than he allows; and interestingly, its partial post-Reformation fragmentation resulting in the Westphalian settlement was a precursor to its industrial and technological rise, not a barrier to it.

Moreover, Jacques ignores some striking parallels: in the same period from the sixteenth century CE onwards in which Europe was acquiring empires, so China was doing the same — conquering vast abutting territories and extending its own empire over neighbouring peoples and lands. The fecundity of the Han gives today’s appearance of homogeneity in today’s Chinese land empire, but as Jacques himself points out in passing, the cultural and linguistic diversity of that empire is not much different from Europe, though both China and Europe are internally also much more linked than they are different.

These thoughts suggest that China is not as exceptional, in the end, as Jacques wishes to insist. Any casual visitor to today’s China of Western-style cities, Western-dressed people, with its Western-style industry and Western-style business, would be a bit puzzled by his insistence on a “different modernity”. What is different is the continuation by another name of China’s traditional form of governance — in name a Politburo, in function an Emperor — and the question is: will a growth rate of less than 8% show that it or indeed any country can, in the end, really do without Western-style political institutions? That is a question When China Rules the World does not ask.

But even if Jacques is right about China as a future world-changing superpower, perhaps even as THE world superpower, the next and final question is: will that be a good thing, if it does not also start caring about human rights, civil liberties such as personal autonomy and free speech, and the rule of law? Since the answer that any rational person must give is No, it follows that if Jacques is right, we had all better sit up and take twice the notice.

A.C. Grayling