The title of Martin Jacques’s new book, “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” has a willfully alarmist ring to it, signaling the rise of China as the new global superpower and the coming fall of America and the rest of the West. Mr. Jacques, a columnist for The Guardian of London, argues that “we stand on the eve of a different kind of world,” and that common assumptions in the West — China will become increasingly like us, and the international system “will remain broadly as it now is with China acquiescing in the status quo” — are symptoms of Americans’ state of denial.
China’s rapid growth and sheer size, Mr. Jacques contends, mean that it “will exercise a gravitational pull and also have a centrifugal impact on the rest of the world.” As countries become hegemonic powers, “they seek to shape the world in light of their own values and priorities,” he writes. “It is banal, therefore, to believe that China’s impact on the world will be mainly and overwhelmingly economic: on the contrary, its political and cultural effect is likely to be even greater.” He asserts that China’s “impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater.”
In the course of making these provocative arguments Mr. Jacques provides the reader with a fascinating account of how he thinks China’s Confucian heritage and its sense of manifest destiny could shape its return to the center of the world stage and how its appetite for turbocharged urban change coexists with a sense of the past, given that half its population still lives in the countryside. He also makes some interesting points about how the credit crisis and banking meltdown of 2008 underscored “that the U.S. had been living well beyond its means — and relying on Chinese credit in order to do so” as well as “the fallibility of American prosperity and the shift in the centre of economic gravity from the United States to China.”
Mr. Jacques has a tendency to cherry-pick information however. While he cites a Goldman Sachs report that projects that China will have the largest economy in the world by 2050 (followed by a closely matched America and India some way behind), he fails to give serious consideration to the many problems that might hamstring China’s explosive growth, including corruption, environmental damage, internal political tensions and an authoritarian regime (which not only limits citizens’ freedom but may also circumscribe technological innovation and create unsustainable expectations of rapid modernization in a country where there is still persistent poverty). Such problems have been explored in recent books like Will Hutton’s “Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy,” Philip P. Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” and James Kynge’s “China Shakes the World,” and yet Mr. Jacques skims over these issues lightly and dismissively.
At the same time he seriously plays down the horrors of Mao’s tyrannical rule, writing that “he remains, even today, a venerated figure in the eyes of many Chinese, even more than Deng Xiaoping” and that the Communist Party “succeeded in restoring its legitimacy amongst the people” and fostered “extremely rapid economic growth,” “despite the calamities of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.” In addition he diminishes the importance of the pro-democracy Tiananmen demonstrations and dissident sympathies, arguing that there is an “apolitical tradition” in China and that “the Confucian ethos that informed and shaped it for some two millennia did not require the state to be accountable to the people.”
For many years, Mr. Jacques says, China “needed the U.S. to a far greater extent than the U.S. needed China. The United States possessed the world’s largest market and was the gatekeeper to an international system the design and operation of which it was overwhelmingly responsible for.” Cast “in the role of supplicant,” China played nice, living “according to the terms set by others” and avoiding unnecessary conflicts to focus on its own economic growth. But as China “emerges as the most powerful country in the world,” he goes on, it will eventually be in “a position to set its own terms and conditions,” acting according to its own “history and instincts.”
So how exactly would China behave as the world’s most powerful nation? Mr. Jacques is somewhat fuzzy on this question, suggesting that the country’s actions would most likely be informed by its sense of itself as an ancient civilization, rightfully returned to its place at the center of the world, by its grievances over the “century of humiliation” it suffered at the hands of foreign powers beginning in the middle of the 19th century, and by its “hierarchical view of the world” and “sense of cultural self-confidence and superiority.”
He suggests that China will emerge as the “regional leader” of East Asia, displacing the United States there, and that it will also gain influence in Africa and Latin America. China will offer itself, he asserts, as both a developed and developing nation, as a sort of role model for progress, while also posing an alternative to the United States, which thanks to the unilateralist policies of George W. Bush lost considerable prestige and influence abroad.
Throughout much of this volume Mr. Jacques makes bold predictions and uses strong, even melodramatic, language, writing that “China will become the world’s leading power” and “Beijing will emerge as the global capital,” and that the United States “finds itself on the eve of a psychological, emotional and existential crisis” as it enters “a protracted period of economic, political and military trauma.”
In the very last pages, however, he abruptly begins to soft-pedal his thesis with qualified and hedged assessments. He writes that “for the next twenty years or so, as China continues its modernization, it will remain an essentially status-quo power,” and that the decline of the Western world will not “be replaced in any simplistic fashion by a Sinocentric world.”
“The rise of competing modernities heralds a quite new world in which no hemisphere or country will have the same kind of prestige, legitimacy or overwhelming force that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries,” he concludes. “Instead different countries and cultures will compete for legitimacy and influence.” The new world, he goes on, “at least for the next century, will not be Chinese in the way that the previous one was Western. We are entering an era of competing modernity, albeit one in which China will increasingly be in the ascendant and eventually perhaps dominant.” It’s a conclusion that’s dramatically less dramatic than the histrionic title of his book suggests.