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Will the West ever understand China?

updated 1:17 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It is clear that China is on the way to becoming a super power
  • Jacques believes China will become the largest economy in the world in 20 years
  • To understand China we need to accept that it is very different from western societies

(CNN) -- China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its rapid industrial progress, growing military strength, large population and steadily increasing international influence, are all clear signs that China will have a secure place among the super powers in the near future.

The question, raised in a book by journalist Martin Jacques, is not if China will rule the world, but simply when?

In the interview below, Jacques argues that in the twenty-first century, China will challenge our perception of what it is to be modern, and the West will be forced to learn from growing eastern powers.

In his view, China will become the largest economy in the world within less than two decades.

The former Marxism Today editor is a Senior Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, and a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

We are witness to the greatest global economic transformation there's ever been
Martin Jacques

His bestseller "When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order," was first published in 2009 and has since sold over a quarter of a million copies and been translated into fourteen languages. The Financial Times' Chief business commentator John Gapper interviewed Jacques at Names not Numbers 2014, an event where CNN International was a media partner.

An edited version of the interview is below.

John Gapper: Your book is called when China rules the world not if, why when?

Martin Jacques: Well, who knows what will happen, but I think that China's rise will continue. We are witness to the greatest global economic transformation there's ever been. The result of it will be that China will become, in time, the leading power in the world. But I don't think it's ever going to rule the world, I was taking poetic license with the title!

READ: What China's Xi Jinping wants from Europe

JG: It seems to me that China don't see themselves as a threat or as an inevitable power in the same way we do?

MJ: I think that's correct. The Chinese always stress the fact that they are a poor country and that they are responsible for a fifth of the world's population. There's extraordinary unevenness.

The only reason they're a large economic power is because they have so many people, so they've got a long way to go.

The way that the Chinese conceive of themselves in the world is very different from the western tradition. I imagine that most people think that as China rises it will be a bit like the U.S. in some shape or form in the way that it expresses itself, and I think this is probably wrong. The whole Chinese tradition is very different from this, they never really colonized other areas.

We tend to think the way that the West has done things is emblematic of the way everyone else will do it.

READ: Chinese tourists boost U.S. businesses

We've thought that progress is about becoming more like us... this is a tremendous weakness

JG: It's quite difficult then, to see China through a western frame. You're not Chinese how do you get to understand it? And if it's going to have such a huge impact on our lives, how do we get to understand it?

MJ: With great difficulty! The difficulty with the western mentality is that for 200 years we've dominated culture, ways of thinking, the economy and military. So we have not really been open to other cultures and ways of thinking, we've thought that progress is about westernization and becoming more like us.

And this is a tremendous weakness in western culture in an era when the center of gravity is going somewhere else, and we are going to be in the position where we will need to learn from something else.

Now we're confronted with the task of making sense of China and it is going to be extremely difficult. To understand China we need to start by accepting that it is very different from western societies and it will remain very different and only if we understand China in its specificity, can we make sense of it.

And in my view it will take the whole of this century -- this is not a short term operation.

READ: The rise of alternative education in China

Phoebe Parke also contributed to this report.

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