Not many years ago, a visiting politician made an important speech in Paris. His words are worth recalling:

When I was a young man, I developed a keen interest in French culture, particularly French history, philosophy, literature and art. By reading Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, I deepened my understanding of how progress of the mind propels progress in society. By reading Molière, Balzac and Hugo, I have better appreciated life with all its joys and sorrows. Learning about French culture has also helped me better appreciate both my own culture and the profound nature and rich diversity of human civilizations.

The man who uttered those words was Xi Jinping, the President of China.

I can’t think of any British business or political leader who could visit China and demonstrate the same level of understanding – or even interest – in the Chinese civilisation. And yet this detailed level of knowledge about Western culture is not unusual for a Chinese politician.

When Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, came to visit David Cameron, he brought a copy of a book by Adam Smith. But he did not bring Smith’s ‘Enquiry into The Wealth of Nations,’ where he famously likened the market to an ‘invisible hand’ determining prices. Instead, Wen brought the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ – much less well known in the West – which suggests proper limits on the market and he quoted from it at length. Wen’s first request was to visit Stratford-upon-Avon where he asked for a performance of King Lear.

“I read and reread many of Shakespeare’s plays as a young man,” he said, “such as Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello and King Lear. His works were not to be read only once or even ten times. They must be read up to a hundred times to be fully understood.”

The Wall Street Journal thought that Wen was making a wider point, when it reported:

“Mr. Wen also delivered a political message during his Shakespeare outing, noting that China also has great literary works. “By reading about China’s history and culture,” he said, “you will learn more about my country and the road it has traveled, including how it became strong and powerful and the great sufferings it has gone through. People need to respect history and the fruits of other people’s intellect if they are to build a strong foundation for true friendship.”

This might seem like some elaborate propaganda exercise, or a complicated double bluff, but I doubt it very much. It’s too pervasive. I have seen Deputy Mayors in obscure townships come up with similar remarks and extemporise at banquets, glass in hand, given half a chance. We have a tremendous catch-up on our hands.

We have a tremendous catch-up on our hands.

In his remarkably timely book, Professor Brown reminds us of the psychologist’s old adage that ‘all learning after the age of eighteen takes place at moments of crisis.’ If this is the case, Britain faces an exceptional learning opportunity.

As the country recalibrates its long established international relationships, it is worth remembering that China and the UK have much in common, not least that, as the author wryly observes, ‘both are trying to be old and modern at the same time.’ But there is a terrible and potentially lethal asymmetry to the relationship and the stakes could hardly be higher for both sides. For Britain, a constructive relationship with China in finance, intellectual partnerships, sport and the creative industries could provide a path to a brighter future. For China, a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with a mature, democractic, capitalistic economy such as Britain might act as a template for others and allay concerns about how one can deepen relationships with China without losing sovereignty. The world is watching and, if China assumes a hectoring role – or worse, reveals its ‘bared teeth’ – everyone else in the world will know what happens if you become too dependent on China.

There is an extraordinary knowledge imbalance in the relationship between China and the UK. No one knows exactly how many people are studying English in China – it could be a hundred million – but the number of students of Chinese at Britain’s universities has remained static, despite the exponential growth in China’s economy, at 300 (yes, that’s 300!) for more than a decade. Meanwhile, there are 150,000 Chinese students studying here. This just can’t go on. The potential calamities and benefits at this crossroads in history call for a supreme effort; Britain must up its game on China. It’s a matter of survival; and I believe that we can do it!

We need look at China as it really is – warts and all – not just through the lense of our own gilded history; China changes too quickly for that. We need to recognise China’s achievements as well as its deficits. We must smash through the broken syllogism: ‘Communist countries fail. China is Communist. Therefore China will fail.’ Above all, we need to demystify it and grasp the basic logic that has endured in its political and social systems for more than two thousand years. China is perfectly intelligible to Westerners and does not require ‘a lifetime of monk-like devotion’ to understand; as the author notes, far more young Brits would study Chinese if they knew that ‘it has no genders, no declensions, no irregular verbs, no tenses, no possibility of spelling mistakes and involves drawing lots of interesting pictures rather juggling a boring alphabet.’

One of China’s most famous texts says that ‘a nine-story tower can rise from a heap of earth.’ The better known line that follows says ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’ At this critical moment, Britain faces the prospect of a daunting but unavoidable journey. There is no going back; but at the same time there is no roadmap to help us navigate the rocks and whirlpools ahead. But as we leave more familiar terrain and bid farewell to our comfortable certainties, this book must act as a crutch – a compass – a lodestar! – for our beloved country, as as it sets out on this long, arduous and absolutely necessary new journey.