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When China Rules the World: The End of the
Western World and the Birth of a New Global
Penguin Books. 2012.
812 pages.Martin Jacques is a highly distin-
guished British scholar, writer and
columnist. When China Rules the
World, first published in 2009, is
among his most important pub-
lications. Since then the book has
been translated into 11 languages,
and sold nearly a quarter of a mil-
lion copies worldwide. The book s focus on Asian modernity
and the rise of China as a global power is of course highly
relevant for contemporary concerns and interests in globalisation,
as well as its implications for evaluating an evolution from the
economic and geopolitical "great divergence" to the recent
rapid convergence between China and the West.
Jacques argues that the rise of China has not followed the
Western model of a transition to modernity and will challenge
the global dominance of the Western nation-state. China, as
a civilisation-state, will soon rule the world. Its impact will be
not only economic but also cultural, leading to a global future
of "contested modernity."
This excellent book raises more questions than it answers.
China s growth and transformation were and are path-depen-
dant. Historians will ask: has China ever ruled the world before?
China did take centre-stage in the world economy, marking
the rise of the East in World History in the reign of Xuanzong
(r. 712-756). Nevertheless,China did not rule the world in its
golden age---the Tang and Song period (618-1279AD). The Tang
(618-907) was economically prosperous and politically strong:
the territory of China expanded and foreign trade was developed.
Literature and arts attained high levels of development. The
Song (960-1279) economy was even more remarkable for com-
mercial and technological and urban growth. However, it was
not nearly as politically and militarily successful as the Tang.
The Song came under constant threat to its borders from the
Tang-Song China has been recognised as the most prosperous
periods in Chinese history based upon cultural pluralism and
the generation and diffusion of useful knowledge (proto science
and technology) among cultural, intellectual and business net-
works. However, this efflorescence in Tang and Song China
ended in a state of equilibrium. The Tang and Song cultural
and institutional breakthrough did not continue. Cultural plu-
ralism was superseded by unity.
Although Neo-Confucianism at its early stage engaged in
debates with other modes of thought and encouraged the
studies of nature, it matured into state orthodoxy under the
Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties which failed
to distinguish between science and other forms of knowledge.
Thus unlike Europe, the study of nature in China was not
institutionalised. An entrenched civil service examination system
diverted human capital to compete for bureaucratic office.
Proto scientists and engineers did not organise themselves into
professions and their individual studies of nature were not
transformed into a collective effort. Technological capacities
(based on curiosity about the natural world and the proto
experiments of farmers and artisans) developed in Tang and
Song China did not evolve into modern forms that are based
on empirically and transparently tested scientific knowledge.
China entered into a stable and a steady state in which economic
growth depended on inputs of land and labour rather than sci-
ence and technology.
The author argues that the economic and geopolitical diver-
gence between China and Europe occurred as late as 1800. Yet
the West s surge to global supremacy was not just a late and
contingent historical outcome. Structural and institutional
divergence probably emerged in the Middle Ages. As Joseph
Bryant argued, prior to any massive-scale social transformation,
there must have been a period of preparation in which "a series
of interdependent institutional and cultural developments
unfolded cumulatively over the long-term" to allow and propel
such rapid change.
Indeed Jacques acknowledges some particular characteristics
of Europe s transition to modernity: threat from Islam, internal
intra-continental conflicts, colonialism, the transition from an
agrarian to an industrial society, and a cultural transformation
into individualism (pp. 40-43). Yet he seems to have ignored
one important factor behind the technological and economic
divergence between China and Europe; the cultural and insti-
tutional regimes for generating and circulating useful knowledge
(science and technology). There was European exceptionalism,
fortuitously but fortunately, in these regimes throughout at
least three centuries between 1500 and 1800.
So, will China rule the world again? In the spheres of inno-
vation and education, China is displaying remarkable achieve-
ments. The government has the ability to mobilise a significant
amount of resources and money to invest into high tech. Human
capital is accumulating rapidly, for example, the number of the
science and engineering degrees granted by Chinese universities
is now comparable to US total.
Yet the Chinese high-tech sphere also faces many challenges.
The US (which has now superseded Europe as a metaphor
for modernity) remains the ideal place for the Chinese elites
to further their studies and to enhance their academic or pro-
fessional careers. According to the figure from a survey by the
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Tennessee,
92 per cent of the Chinese who gained a PhD in science and
engineering in 2002 were still in the US in 2007. The US con-
tinues to retain the best and the brightest Chinese students.
Within China, becoming a civil servant remains the number
one career choice for university graduates. Pursuing alternative
careers in science and engineering or in private business sector
seems less attractive.
There are also many obstacles to entrepreneurship and inno-
vation. For example, it is still difficult for small-sized private
enterprises to access bank loans. In many cases, the nature of
the firm is unclear. The distinction between the public and the
private is blurred. Furthermore, the protection of intellectual
property rights needs to be developed and enforced. Chinese
universities are still being run as government bureaus. Directors
of universities hold governmental ranks. Space for free academic
discussion and diverse modes of thought is still limited.
Similarly, many high-tech and innovation schemes are still
directed by the top-down approach. Although to some extent
it is efficient to mobilise resources and human capital, it is not
encouraging for innovation in the long run. Furthermore, this
approach and the involvement of the government could empha-
sise quantity rather than quality for R&D.
China has become a challenge to the West (in particular the
US) and is reshaping the global economy. China will not replace
the US if it cannot make further cultural and institutional
breakthrough. When China Rules the World is a significant
contribution to enquires into these questions.
I recommend this book to scholars, students and people
outside academia who are interested in not only China and its
future but also the future of the West and the global world.
(LSE Review of Books)
Ting Xu is a lecturer in law at Queen's University in
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