‘When China Rules the World,’ a love story

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Writer and academic Martin Jacques is shown with his late wife, Harinder Veriah. Veriah was an attorney whose death profoundly affected Jacques and his writings. (Photos provided by Martin Jacques)

For many, the title of Martin Jacques’ new book, “When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World,” brings a sense of dread. However, Jacques is not afraid to present bold ideas.

“I don’t see this as a work of fortune-telling or prediction. I see it as a contribution to understanding China,” said Jacques. “I see myself as handing on — ‘Okay, here is what I think. Here is the baton. Now discuss it.’ ”

Jacques’ first trip to China in 1993 was to Guangdong and Hong Kong, a trip that would occupy his thoughts and research for years to come.

“I was really taken aback by the sheer buzz of excitement in Guangdong, the energy that people were displaying as their province was literally transformed before [their] eyes. I went back at the end of my holiday and the question in my mind was, ‘It’s so modern, but is it Western?’ ” said Jacques.

He ended his trip with a visit to Singapore and Malaysia, where he met the woman who encouraged him to further explore his theories.

“That trip was also when I met my wife, the 21st of August 1993 — the greatest day of my life.”

Jacques met Harinder Veriah in Malaysia. Veriah, an Indian Malaysian, was an attractive 26-year-old attorney with a fearless and modern perspective. In 1998, Veriah and Jacques had a son named Ravi.

Martin Jacques and his son, Ravi.

“I think one of the difficulties for Westerners to understand China is that we’ve gotten used to a way of thinking, which is essentially about Western universes. We are the bearers of the modern, and everyone else will come behind and will eventually evolve into what we have. This is a very flawed way of thinking and is also intellectually arrogant,” said Jacques at a lecture hosted by the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

“What it means is that you end up thinking that Western concepts can understand and express the totality of the human experience. But they can’t. You cannot make sense of China in these terms.”

Jacques defines the deeply rooted aspects of Chinese identity as Confucianism, the ideographic language, social relationships, and old customs. “We believe that becoming a global power is all about technology and modernity; however, it is equally about customs and culture,” said Jacques.

People across the world have viewed China’s accelerated growth with curiosity, awe, and uncertainty. While events like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square have caused many to define China’s power as cruel and unjust, global leaders and citizens may find that not understanding China may mean not understanding the future.

Martin Jacques, author of "When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World," presented a lecture at the University of Washington on May 13. According to even the most conservative estimates, Jacques says, China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by 2027. (Photo by Tiffany Ran/NWAW)

“What I’m saying is that we’ve got to look at the question of the state in a broader way rather than just saying, ‘Why don’t the Chinese have to vote or why don’t they have a multi-party system?’ ” said Jacques. “If you just look at it like that, you’ll never understand China and you’ll never learn from China.”

As the Roman Empire fell and divided into many entities, China worked to keep the country unified in the face of colonization, war, and suffering. Jacques asserts that unifying the country remains the driving force behind their single political value and the way the country operates. This is why the “return of the lost territories,” as China calls it, of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan resonates strongly with the Chinese, he explains.

Jacques moved to Hong Kong with Variah and nine-month-old Ravi. In 2000, Veriah was sent to a hospital after suffering a grand mal seizure. While at the hospital, Veriah complained to Jacques that she was treated as “the bottom of the pile,” which Jacques believed was her way of saying that she was suffering from racial discrimination. Variah passed away the next day. Overcome with grief, Jacques was unable to work on his book. He did not write for five years.

“I was very stricken by grief after Hari’s death. I loved her to pieces. It was a disaster. But I was very clear, when I could get my mind together, that my first priority was to take care of Ravi.”

During that time, Jacques and Ravi traveled to Malaysia at least twice a year so Ravi could learn about his mother. When Jacques resumed work on the book, he completed the main chapter, entitled “The Middle Kingdom Mentality,” in one sitting.

“This is a very painful book because there was such a personal tragedy soon after I started. One of the difficulties of doing it was the way Hari died and the fact that she suffered such negligence. I’m absolutely convinced that the reason for the negligence was racial prejudice,” Jacques explained. “I felt so angry with Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong Chinese. I knew I had to try and understand what happened to Hari and explain it for the book. I wouldn’t have been able to do it until I calmed down. Otherwise, I would’ve written it out of bitterness, and I didn’t want to do that.”

In his lecture, Jacques asserts that China will remain fundamentally different, both in its strength and formidable problems, and that their ideas, institutions, and forms of power will have global influence over time. He predicts that China could be more democratic over time, increasing in transparency, availability of the press, accountability, elections, and even universal sufferance. However, he warns in his lecture against complacency.

“I would council you not to think that even if that were to happen, that Chinese democracy would work the same way as Western democracy.”

“As [the Chinese] feel more comfortable with their position, they don’t need to exist on sufferance. They don’t need to appeal to the Western world or the United States for admission to organizations like the WTO. The Chinese will feel more comfortable with what they are, who they are, and their separate and distinct characteristics,” said Jacques.

As is typical of many authors writing on China, Jacques drew his conclusions from years of scholarly research and journalistic observations. However, unlike other  books, part of his analysis arose from love and loss.

“Most of these books are formidable scholarship, but mine isn’t just that. Some people in England have described it as a love story,” said Jacques.

The idea was not lost to the students at the University of Washington, where one student in particular asked Jacques to write her a love letter in lieu of signing her book. He took the request in good humor and laughed.

“In all my book tours, I’ve never had a request like that!” said Jacques.

“I’m sorry it’s not very passionate,” he said to the student.

Jacques returned her notebook with a note that thanked her for supporting the book, which he has dedicated to Variah: “My love for you knew no limit nor has it dimmed with time. I’ll miss you more than words could ever say.” ♦

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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