Born out of sorrow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 September, 2009, 12:00am

The dubious raising of an eyebrow might be an understandable response when an intellectual decides to write a romance. That is the reaction Martin Jacques risks when he declares his new book a love story.

Any frivolous thoughts on When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, are aborted, however, as Jacques weeps while he explains why the volume is 'driven by immense pain and passion'.

'It's dedicated to Hari, my wife, who died in Hong Kong. I started it before she died - when we moved there for her job, and where we had our son. But I couldn't get going on it until years later. Now, here it is,' says Jacques in Beijing.

It has taken the Guardian columnist and university lecturer 11 years to complete. The book asks readers if they can imagine the planet 'not being Western', then advises them to get used to the idea. Jacques argues that the age of universal European enlightenment and its nation-states is on the wane.

'Competing modernities' from the developing world will replace them, he says, with China - boasting a powerful political force and sense of racial ascendancy - the trailblazer.

'The Western world is over. If the calling card of the West has been aggression and conquest, China's will be its overweening superiority and the hierarchical mentality this has engendered,' he writes.

Race and racism have been preoccupations for the 63-year-old former editor of Marxism Today. Jacques is the widower linked to Hong Kong's first law against racial discrimination, passed by the Legislative Council last year.

His wife, solicitor Harinder Veriah, 33, collapsed and died during the 2000 New Year holiday in Hong Kong. New Year's Eve was her birthday and the eve of 'China's century'; an hour into it she suffered an epileptic fit and was taken to Tang Shiu Kin Hospital, Wan Chai. She was transferred to nearby Ruttonjee Hospital, where she died on January 2 'of natural causes', according to the coroner's report.

But Jacques claims his wife, a Malaysian of Indian descent, was a victim of Hong Kong's deep-rooted racism, and medical negligence.

His subsequent campaigning led to successful petitions lobbying for anti-racist legislation.

On Thursday, Jacques will be discussing his book at a Foreign Correspondents' Club lunch in Central. He will return next year to have his day in the High Court.

'I am suing [Ruttonjee] Hospital, where Hari died. It will be very painful going back but the real pain is losing her,' he says.

Pain is often etched on his face as he contemplates the last decade. The sudden loss of his wife and his love for her 'is all over the book', he says, although she receives only two brief mentions, one on the dedication page.

Jacques conceived of the book in 1997. 'It was commissioned in 1998 when we moved, coincidentally, with Hari's job from London to Hong Kong,' he recalls.

Jacques' world collapsed following his wife's death. The extrovert became reclusive. The political commentator, who had regularly appeared in the media and been a staple on the lecture circuit linking universities around the world, gave up public life and writing to grieve and raise his son.

'I couldn't imagine living a day without Hari ... I didn't understand how she could just die. She was 33.'

There was also frustration at his professional intellectualism. His 'consensus apparatus' - a mind engineered to fathom complex issues and generate understanding - failed him when he needed it most.

'My personality changed. It was a horrible experience. It was unimaginably painful and always will be,' he says. 'I loved Hari - I loved her to pieces. The idea of losing her ... it was dreadful.'

Their son Ravi is now a precocious 10-year-old who has just won a scholarship to a leading British public school.

'It took me a long time to recover, to start writing and work again,' says Jacques. 'It took two-and-a-half years after Hari's death before I could write 1,500 words, such was the sense of overwhelming grief. It's indescribable. At first I couldn't cope with the pain, it was disabling. The pain never goes away. Then slowly I learned to live with it. You learn to handle it in a way that doesn't drive you up the wall.'

By 2004, his thoughts had returned to the book.

'Somewhere deep down - though I did not know it - I'd obviously never let go of the idea of completing it,' he says.

So he returned from Britain to Hong Kong for another year.

'People asked: why would you want to go back? I wanted to return to the book and had to travel to the mainland for research. But I also went back to find out why Hari died.'

'I worked on the book until spring 2005, researching, then another three-and-a-half years writing it,' he says.

The book was published recently to mixed reviews, some critics objecting to his assertion that the mainland's world domination can be qualified by 'when' rather than 'if'; the American edition will be released in November.

'Up to 2005, I knew there was too much emotion in me and there would be no point writing the book. What would be the point of being prejudiced? It would only add to the problem,' says Jacques. 'I had to try to understand, to find a frame of mind where I could analyse and not simply be emotionally driven.'

In the chapter titled The Middle Kingdom Mentality, under the heading Denial and Reality, Jacques refers to his wife directly. It is also where he invokes racism in Hong Kong and says the government was 'finally forced' to acknowledge it as 'a serious problem', and 'in 2008 belatedly introduced anti-racism legislation'.

He writes: 'There is a widely held view ... in East Asia that racism is a 'white problem' ... in China and Taiwan the official position is that racism is a phenomenon of Western culture, with Hong Kong holding a similar view. This is nonsense.'

Jacques says: 'It's a profound book - and it's not just the title; that's the editor's choice and at first I winced. But then I thought that the title had to command attention. But it's driven by something other than intellectualism.

'Hari's death gives the book some passion but not in the conventional sense. It obviously influenced how I saw the issues.' He says race and ethnicity greatly influence how all countries and societies are governed, and that these will be key components of the mainland's pre-eminence as it draws on its history to construct its modernity - and the world's future.

'I know this is a very serious argument, claiming China will rule the world. Whether I am right, only time will tell. All I offer really is another way of seeing China's rise,' he says. 'But it's also a love story because this book is about my life with Hari, about coming to terms with her death, and the cause.'

Writer's notes

Name: Martin Jacques

Age: 63

Born: Coventry, England

Lives: Hampstead, London

Family: late wife Harinder Veriah; son Ravi

Genres: politics, East Asia

Other jobs: columnist for The Guardian and New Statesman; visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and its Asia Research Centre; documentary maker; co-founder of think-tank Demos; chairman of the Harinder Veriah Trust, established in memory of his late wife, which gives financial support to under-privileged children in Malaysia

Latest book: When China Rules the World (2009)

Other publications include: The Forward March of Labour Halted? (co-author, 1981), The Politics of Thatcherism (co-editor, 1983), New Times (co-editor, 1989)

Current project: international promotion of When China Rules the World

What the papers say about When China Rules the World: 'Martin Jacques' 550-pager on the ascent of China finds little space to consider the question of whether its rapid economic progress is unstoppable. It ignores almost entirely the other popular - and perfectly plausible - premise for books on the Middle Kingdom: when China's miracle goes phut.' Financial Times