The “hi” has me feeling relieved. I’ve been wondering about the Chinese way of greeting people. After all, I’m meeting someone who’s written a bestseller called When China Rules the World.
“It’s not literal,” Martin Jacques, the author of the book now in its second edition, hastens to explain when I ask him how soon he expects China to take over. “It’s a great title, but if you take it literally it’s a problem.” Aah, a bit of journalistic licence there, I ask the former British journalist, though he sees himself more as an intellectual or academic. “Yes, thank you,” he laughs.
The book, he explains, is about what the world would be like if China becomes the most influential country. “That is going to happen.” China’s rise, he argues in the book, won’t be primarily or exclusively economic in nature. Like all “hegemonic powers” — which China will be — it will use its economic strength for wider political, cultural and military ends, he maintains. Hegemony is his preferred word — “not dominance, hegemony,” he insists when I use the former word.
Jacques, 66, challenges the conventional view that globalisation will mean an increasingly Westernised world, characterised by free markets and liberal democratic political systems. China, he holds, will defy that and set its own terms and conditions.
As India warily watches China investing in English language training, Jacques points to the Confucius Institutes set up across the world to teach and promote Mandarin. And because people tend to imitate those who are economic successes, the world, he avers, will aspire to be more like China.
China came into his life on his first holiday outside Europe in 1993 to Hong Kong, South China, Singapore and Malaysia. That became the “biggest turning point” of his life. For someone whose world had been “bounded by the West”, the extent of change and modernity in East Asia was fascinating. Guangdong in South China, he recalls, was just catching fire. “The energy of the people was amazing. I thought the Industrial Revolution must have been like this. But this is times hundred.”
The holiday was a much-needed one. He had worked for 14 years as the editor of a journal, Marxism Today. He had been active politically, but realised in the Seventies that the Communist Party of Great Britain had no hope and so he threw himself into the journal. The circulation soared from 3,000 to 2,50,00 and it became the most influential journal of the Left, he says. “It was innovative and a lot of fun. It was not boring, pedantic and leaden as the title would suggest.” The book too is quite a racy read, the graphs, charts and 140 pages of notes and bibliography notwithstanding.
When the journal closed in 1991, Jacques started a think tank called Demos along with a friend. The idea was to come up with policies, to counter the criticism that Marxism Today was great at analyses but did not suggest any policies. Two years later, he went off on his East Asian vacation.
The vacation changed his life in other ways as well. Towards the end, while running along a beach in Malaysia’s Tioman Island, he fell in love “at first sight”. The self-confessed “quick-witted” Britisher found himself at a loss for words when Harinder (Hari) Veriah, a Malaysian of Indian descent, told him at their first meeting, “You were running through the village; only a white man would do something as stupid as that.” This was at the start of a jungle trek and by the end of it, Jacques had “entered her magnetic field… and never ever left it”.
That is evident even now, 12 years after she died in Hong Kong in 2000 because of negligence at a hospital following an epileptic fit. By then they were married and parents of a 16-month-old son, Ravi. Behind his spectacles, Jacques’ eyes fill up and he warns me that it’s difficult for him to tell these stories without crying.
Her death brought him face-to-face with racial discrimination. “Hong Kong is an international city but it is not a multi-racial city. It is a bi-racial city where the whites and Chinese are accepted and others are treated badly.” Hari sensed she was being neglected because of her colour and told Jacques, “I am bottom of the pile here.”
The book, which he had started working on in 1996, took a backseat for five years as he fought a legal battle for Hari from Britain. It took 10 years for the hospital to agree to a settlement. The case — and Hari’s words — became a rallying point for groups fighting against racial discrimination in Hong Kong, which got its first anti-race discrimination law in 2008. The legislation hasn’t helped change attitudes very much, rues Jacques. “I think if Hari was in hospital today and in that situation, the same thing could still happen.”
Her death was a personal catastrophe and staying alive and looking after Ravi became Jacques’s biggest challenge. He returned to the book, which Hari had been keen on. It was conversations with her which had opened his eyes to the difference in modernity in the West and in the East. That is what he had initially set out to explore and writes about in the first few chapters of the book.
Isn’t the China-versus-the-West argument a tad overdone in the book? He concedes the point. “I think a criticism you could make of the book is that it sees it in rather binary terms. And so the future is painted in overly schematic terms.” He has tried to address that in the second, paperback, edition.
The skew happened because of the drama of China’s rise — which was only the second part of the book. “In a way, the reality hijacked that part of the book and made it the book.”
The old-style hegemony of the colonial powers and even the way the United States has exercised influence over the world is no longer possible, he concedes. “Nations, cultures and histories that have been shut out of global discourse are now finding their voice, gaining respect, recognition. The rise of China has to be seen in that context.”
India could be a counterweight to China, since it too has an ancient civilisation and is also growing rapidly, he says, but laments that it “punches below its weight”. Because of so many years of colonisation, Indians have a soft spot for the British, he notes.
“They’re in love with Oxford,” the PhD in economic history from Cambridge says with mock horror. He went to Cambridge after studying economics at Manchester University and taught there briefly.
Jacques believes Indians have a “deferential attitude” to the West. “The Chinese have a sense of who they are and, despite the colonial ravages, they are more confident.” What he liked about China was that the Chinese didn’t defer to him as a white man.
The writer finds the relationship between India and China, which have a lot in common, fascinating. But he believes that India has not come to terms with the bruising it got in the 1962 India-China war. “This is a problem for India. Somehow it has to sort out this border issue and mentally move on.” India, he believes, should have a strategy for its relationship to China which is not based on paranoia or hedging China’s rise by cosying up to the US.
He’s equally distressed at how China doesn’t seem to be thinking enough about India. “The Chinese look down on India and that bugs me.”
Economists have questioned the sustainability of China’s growth story, even as others have wondered whether the authoritarian state would be able to hold its own against growing internal dissent. Is it fair to dismiss all this as the West’s refusal to face up to reality, as the book appears to suggest?
Internal problems can affect China, he concedes, but points out that politically, the country has changed beyond recognition. “The state has been reinvented. It is hugely accountable and representative and more transparent than 30 years ago.” Corruption among the top leaders has increased but the Chinese, he says, are far more alert about this than in many other countries. China, however, will never become a Western-style democracy, he insists.
Whether China can stay ahead of the game will depend on important questions such as whether it can deal with the effects of Westernisation and whether it can move from being an imitative economy to an innovative one.
The publicist from Penguin interrupts us for the second time in 15 minutes — I’m well past my appointed time. Time and another interviewer are clearly not deferring to China.