A Talk with Dr. Martin Jacques

On October 18th 2016, members of the Tsinghua – SAIS program had a talk with Dr. Martin Jacques, visiting professor at Tsinghua University. Dr. Jacques split his talk between two subjects: first, the diverse life experiences which led to the writing of his most successful book, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order; and second, the central arguments of that book and the ways it has changed since publication in 2009.

'When China Rules the World was published in 2009, during the global financial crisis, which affected the West far worse than China. Initially predicted to have a small circulation by the publisher, favorable reviews in newspapers such as the Guardian led to it becoming a widely translated bestseller. He cites the pessimism of the economic recession and an increased public interest in today’s China as factors in its success.

His book has several key arguments which challenge the common theories about modern China. He thinks the most important is his conceptualization of China as a “civilization-state” rather than a typical nation-state. According to this idea, China’s unique history and culture dating back through its imperial era will cause China to modernize differently than other nation-states. Following this logic, modernization will not lead to Westernization in China’s case, as is often believed. Certain Western standards of modernization, such as democratic and human rights, are not inevitable in China due to its sheer size.

He also stressed China’s growing economic power, which by the most generous forecasts predict China’s GDP by PPP to be double that of the United States by 2030. He believes that economic power will be a prelude China’s rise as an all-around power, and that this prelude has arguably already begun. Beyond economics, China has also begun influencing some other countries in issues like education and development. China has experience of rapidly industrializing from which other developing countries hope to learn, and its education system has been highly successful in raising math and science scores. Dr. Jacques thinks that China will eventually begin to influence foreign systems of government, though it is unclear what form this would take.

Dr. Jacques elaborated on his disagreements with the general consensus of Sinologists in the West. He strongly believes that China’s rise to become the dominant superpower is a question of “when,” rather than “if,” and cannot foresee any circumstances which would prevent that outcome, only delay it. He cites his experience of British society’s reluctance to let go of its imperial supremacy in the 20th century and applies it to American scholars, believing they are reluctant to think as unconventionally about the future of Chinese power.

In revising the book’s arguments since its 2009 publication, Dr. Jacques argued that the more assertive leadership of Xi Jinping has accelerated the process. Increased tension over the South China Sea is an example of China beginning to exert greater power in international affairs. He thinks this will advance the timeline of China surpassing the United States.

There are important challenges to this theory of inevitable Chinese supremacy, however. The rate of growth of the Chinese economy has slowed. Also, as China is not yet an all-around power, it is not clear what Chinese political power could look like on the global level, based on the Chinese practice of non-intervention in all but a few issues. Additionally, predicting the global balance of power decades into the future is normally quite difficult, given the potential for unforeseen political, social, and technological changes. Despite these questions, Dr. Jacques’ theory remains a compelling case on the future of China and the world.