When China Rules the World

This is my review of When China Rules The World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World [Greatly updated and expanded] by Martin Jacques.

The fact that China will "overtake" the US in 2027 or thereabouts is clearly a topic of great importance to which we pay too little attention. Martin Jacques is very well-informed, and presents an impressive array of facts – many of which are no doubt already out-of-date in view of China's rapid pace of development. I was interested by his clear exposition of some key points to show how Westerners tend to underestimate the Chinese – the irrelevance to China of the Western-style "nation state" of fairly recent origin, the fact that China is a "civilisation state" which takes the tolerant view of "one civilisation, many systems", the influence of Confucius – even in a nominally communist state – the patient, long-term approach of its wiser leaders, and so on. However, it seemed to me that the same points were reiterated to the point of tedium, although this had the benefit that one could dip into the book at any chapter and get the gist of the whole, plus the repetition helped to fix points in one's mind.

I am not qualified to comment as an expert, but did feel that Jacques dismissed western values, particularly those of the US, in too simplistic a way – yes, it was the country which elected George Bush Junior, but it also gave refuge to Tom Paine, who wrote and debated ideas with Americans of the day in compelling language which still has the power to inspire. I know Jacques has been attacked in the press for glossing over the lack of democracy and neglect of human rights in China. He raises some valid arguments – the fact that the Chinese leadership has made the pragmatic decision to put economic development first, the fact that most western countries achieved development before they instituted democracy, and the fact that the extent of democracy in the west is debatable, particularly when practised on a large scale (as China would need to do) as in the EU. However, I think Jacques could have been more wide-ranging and reflective in his assessment of China. I recall no mention of corruption or brutality (unchecked by democracy!) or suppression of dissent – apart from brief reference to a threat to withdraw investment from Zambia if an election candidate persisted in suggesting that the country was being "colonised" by the Chinese.

On a brief visit to China, I was struck by the ugliness of much of what I saw – it seemed that much of the rich culture and beautiful artifacts of the past had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution – I formed the impression that there is more beauty in Italy than the whole of China. This brings me to criticise Jacques' casual dismissal of the fall of the Roman and Greek empires, and what little they left, when I would have thought that their abiding influence on language, philosophy, architecture and so on was considerable. He kept referring, uncritically, to the sense of superiority of the Chinese. I would ask whether, even if in "reduced circumstances", western culture would not retain its own justified sense of the value of some things which Jacques seems to dismiss too briefly, such as the concept of the rule of law, or the ideas of the Enlightenment.

It also seemed to me that, by harping on differences, Jacques failed to acknowledge the sympathy which can arise between "thinking" members of different societies.

This potentially excellent book would have gained from a more even-handed approach…..

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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