The subject of this long (much too long) book is important: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a fast-rising power and the rest of the world had better take note. China’s challenge to the democratic world is perhaps greater than the Soviet Union’s ever was, because of its economic success. The mixture of autocracy and capitalism is an attractive model to authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians everywhere.

Martin Jacques, however, is not concerned with politics. Culture, history, tradition, roots, race, “China’s genetic structure”, are what interest him. He believes that a future clash between “the West” (a concept he does not define) and China will be a cultural one. The Chinese, he writes, have always regarded their civilisation as superior, and the rest of the world as barbarians. To be Chinese, he explains, is to belong to a superior race. This means China’s world leadership will result in a “cultural and racial reordering of the world in the Chinese image”. Apart from the fact that “race” is a relatively modern concept, I’m not sure what this would mean. That the African lingua franca will be Chinese? That foreign diplomats will have to offer tributary gifts to the Communist party secretary in Beijing? The main point seems to be that western norms will no longer be regarded as universal. But if we leave politics out of this, the significance remains obscure.

There are few individual voices in the book — let alone clashing views within countries. Instead, China is imbued with a “mentality” that has existed “since time immemorial”. And “the West”, we are told, or “Europe”, has not been much concerned “with dealing with the Other”. This might come as news to generations of European scholars who have done little else but deal with the Other, but so be it. We are dealing with broad brushes here.

There is something curiously old-fashioned about Jacques’s writing, redolent of German thinkers between the world wars talking about national character and all that. One problem with this cultural approach to economic and political affairs is that currently received opinions — in this case, Chinese elite opinions — are given the status of an unchanging mentality, rooted in thousands of years of history. It would follow from this, for example, that China is not ready for democratic institutions, because they have not existed before, or because China is too big, too complex or too Confucian.

This is what many Chinese officials and businessmen will tell the foreign observer, and Jacques faithfully repeats their clichés. Alas, for a writer who takes history and culture so seriously, he is rather badly informed on these matters, something he has in common with many Chinese government hacks who bamboozle themselves and foreigners with proud talk about “5,000 years of history”.

Confucius looms large in Jacques’s account. He thinks that the first centralised Chinese state, the Qin (221-206BC), was based on his teachings. In fact, the Qin emperor, a legalist, detested Confucianism, had Confucian scholars buried alive, and burned their books. Chinese Confucianism, Jacques believes, was “more doctrinaire” than the Korean and Japanese versions, which explains why democracy is more alien to China. Actually, it is the other way round: doctrinaire neo-Confucianism really took off in Korea and Japan. The Chinese communists “played the key role” in resisting Japan during the second world war. Wrong, it was the nationalists who ended up doing most of the fighting, while the communists bided their time in remote rural areas.

And so on, into our own times. One of the few mentions of the “Tiananmen massacre” suggests that the protest was confined to the square in Beijing, and “had surprisingly little impact on the country as a whole”. Actually, there were huge demonstrations and subsequent killings in every main city in China. Since Jacques deals with mentalities, and not politics, the reader is never much informed on what the protests were all about.

These errors would be less annoying if Jacques made less of a point of sneering at “western” ignorance. A more serious consequence of his focus on race and history is that it is unable to explain change. How did South Korea, perhaps the most Confucian society in East Asia, manage its transition to a vibrant democracy? What about Japan? Or Taiwan? Japan’s Meiji restoration (1867) was not a “coup by the elite”, as Jacques believes, but a revolt against the Edo shogunate by provincial samurai, which prepared the way for a flawed but functioning democracy, briefly in the 1920s, and less briefly since the war.

If the fate of nations were entirely determined by culture and tradition, it would be hard to explain why Germany has one of most open democracies in Europe. China may be a “civilisation-state”, as Jacques puts it, bigger and more encompassing than the more common nation state. To be Chinese is indeed as much a matter of culture, or family bloodlines, as of citizenship. But in terms of politics, the PRC or Taiwan are as complex as any other society. History and tradition have roles to play, but so do interests, ideologies, class conflicts, regional differences and so on. It is simply not true that China has “no tradition of independent organisation”. Clan associations have a long tradition. It is not for nothing that Mao’s communists did everything to crush family loyalties. This tendency to crack down on all forms of independent organisation, religious, cultural or political, is one of the few things today’s communists still share with the Maoists.

Those who believe that authoritarianism is more effective than democracy, and thus bound to rule the world in future, might be persuaded by Jacques’s book. But it is also possible that the lack of freedom will hold China back. Without freedom of speech, or a civil society, Chinese development will be hampered. China might indeed one day rule the world, but not without overcoming obstacles that I would regard as political, and Jacques as cultural. If culture is the problem, what should we say to those citizens of the PRC who would like to be as free as the South Koreans, or the Taiwanese? What about the journalists of the Communist party newspaper who marched the streets in 1989 with banners that read: “No more lies!”? What about the many brave lawyers who want to live under the rule of law and often go to prison, or worse, as a consequence? We can dismiss them, of course, and claim that such aspirations are simply not in China’s genetic structure. But wouldn’t that smack a little bit of, well, for want of a better word, racism?

– Ian Buruma