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Book of the week: When China Rules the World, By Martin Jacques

Well before it was published, even before the author had typed his final chapters, this book was causing a stir. What Martin Jacques set out to do - and has done in meticulous detail - was to challenge what he regards as a dangerously false premise: that the rise of China will be benign. Don't lull yourself into a false sense of security, he warns. China's ascent to global dominance is inevitable, and the Western world has much to fear.

In so saying, Jacques takes on a formidable global establishment and breaks a series of taboos. Chief among them is the idea that Western civilisation reflects the pinnacle of universal achievement and that the success of individual countries will forever be measured by how closely they match that model.

This ringing rejection of Western universalism is where he begins. As he puts it, "There is still a widespread view in the West that China will eventually conform, by a process of natural and inevitable development, to the Western paradigm. This is wishful thinking." By concentrating on similarities, rather than recognising difference, the Western world "excludes everything... that makes China what it is".

Increasingly, he posits, China will exemplify an alternative model for development, and one likely to spell the end of the West's dominance in every sphere: economic, political and cultural. China's differences concern the nature of the state (a "civilisation state", not a "nation-state"), its regional relationships (a "tribute system"), and a particular attitude towards race and ethnicity. China's scale, its long and consistent polity, and the fact that, even when its GDP outstrips the world, it will still be a developing country, are other elements that make China, in Jacques's view, different.

In arguing for China's difference, Jacques is treading on a lot of toes. That is all to the good. The Western scholarly and political establishment has been extraordinarily complacent about the implications of an economically successful and more assertive China. There has been a tacit consensus that, if we treat China nicely, as potentially "one of us", Beijing will return the compliment. The result has been very little real discussion of what a world with a dominant China would be like.

Jacques, as well as having extensive experience of the region, has his own axe to grind. As founder and editor of the journal Marxism Today (which he astutely wound up after collapse of communism), he has long espoused the idea that the West is not the only, or necessarily the best, model of development. So the thesis of "contesting modernities" in this book is of a piece with his overall thinking. The fact that he comes from particular philosophical territory, however, should not negate his arguments.

Insofar as there has been high-level public debate about the rise of China at all, it has been - as Jacques notes - between, on one hand, those who believe China will rule the world, but only if it adopts "our" Western way of doing things, and on the other those who argue that Beijing's modernisation will ultimately founder because China's "Chinese-ness" will get in the way. The conclusion drawn by both schools, however, is the same. "We" don't need to worry. Strong or weak, China will not challenge our way of life.

To Jacques, this is so much whistling in the dark. He agrees with Will Hutton, that China and the West are culturally quite different, but he discerns in this a potential strength rather than fatal weakness. China could, he says - indeed, barring accidents, will - rule the world. This is not a view, to put it mildly, that will endear Jacques to the many China-watchers, diplomats and investors, who like to think that China will not become an enemy unless we make it one.

It would be wrong to say that Jacques is alone in his belief that China is alien and potentially hostile. The view of China as a threat, the "yellow peril" of old, persists at a popular level in many Western countries, and in Russia. Suspicions of China's motives also abound in parts of Latin America and Africa where the Chinese have moved in to exploit natural resources. Paradoxically, these are the very places where China's developmental model may offer more of a promise than a threat.

In the industrialised West, though, the view of China's rise as unthreatening - at least so long as the West allows it to be so - is so pervasive in polite society that it is refreshing to encounter another view. So how persuasive is it?

Japan is a country that embodies the argument both for and against his thesis. That may be one reason why Jacques devotes a whole section – to my mind one of the most interesting and perceptive – to Japan and the way it modernised in the Western fashion, while retaining its Japanese essence.

It is possible to discern something similar happening in the modernising parts of the Arab world. If China follows a similar course, then its rise could turn out to be less alarming than Jacques believes. As for China's unique culture, including its attitudes to race, the state and the family, Jacques's arguments are challenging, and designed to be so. But hierarchical attitudes to race lurk in most cultures, including our own – and in Japan. The question is whether China will be able to "rule the world" from a position of exclusiveness, where its modernisation has so far relied on imitation.

A further question – of the dozens this thought-provoking book throws up - is whether overtaking the US in GDP terms will, by itself, equip China to rule the world, so long as its per capita GDP does not reach that of a developed country. If not, we could be looking not at 2050 as the timescale for the emergence of a dominant China, but somewhere much further in the future – and only then if there is no serious disruption to growth, such as a popular revolution.

Jacques's book will provoke argument and is a tour de force across a host of disciplines. It is also, a small point perhaps, commendably free of misprints; this is especially laudable, given the many different language sources. At the same time, he is not the most elegant writer, and his argument – the broad outlines of which are relatively simple – can seem quite repetitive. You can understand why Jacques needed his 450 pages of text: his is an unfashionable and contentious argument; the scholarly back-up is essential to provide credibility in circles that will doubt him. But might there be a case for parallel publication of a shorter, more populist version?

Jacques's arguments deserve to be heard; they are part of a debate the Western world should be having but for whatever reason – academic orthodoxy, political correctness or fear – has left for another time. By then, if Jacques is right, it will be too late.

China after the Cultural Revolution

In October 1976, the Maoist 'Gang of Four' were arrested. Deng Xiaoping, an advocate of market economics, was enlisted to the State Council in 1977. In 1980, many who had opposed the Cultural Revolution were politically rehabilitated. In April 1989, pro-democracy protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square until tanks cleared the Square on 4 June, with reports of 2,500 deaths. China's annual growth rate has averaged over 10 per cent in recent years. Last summer, the Olympics were staged in Beijing.