The Great China Challenge

Western political leaders have recently woken up to the possibility that some time during the next 20 years, China may become the world’s leading economic power.  Many in the United States and Europe are frightened.  They see this as catastrophic change and look to their political and business leaders to stop China before it is too late.

The Chinese, on the other hand, see their country’s move towards world economic leadership as less a revolution, and more a return to the normal order of things.  They see U.S. and European supremacy as a short term historical blip which is about to disappear.  To the Chinese the concept of U.S. and European triumphalism is simply one more example of Western myopia, the inability to see that the world is somewhat larger than New York, London, Berlin and Paris, and that the world economic order has been around for a very long time.

The Chinese have a point.  For most of the past 2000 years, China has been the world’s dominant economy, and for reasons we in the West still cannot understand:

2000 years ago, at the height of the Roman Empire ­, when Western Europe accounted for about 14% of the world economy, China accounted for  25%

At the height of the Renaissance, when the new ideas, new industry and the move towards world trading Empires had increased Western Europe’s share to 18%, China’s share was still 25%

200 years ago, when the industrial revolution, the new science, and rationalist philosophy had increased Western Europe share to 23%, China’s share stood at 33%.

Imagine, without any of the benefits of Western philosophical, scientific or cultural developments which we believe were so important in the development of U.S. and European economic dominance, China accounted for one-third of world GDP

Then the Western Europeans arrived and China was driven down hill — two Opium wars, countless smaller armed conflicts, the slicing up the country by the European powers and later Japan all took their toll.  By 1870 Western Europe’s share of world GDP has risen to 33%, China’s had fallen to 17%[1].

To the people of China, their current economic success marks a final close to the 19th century European takeover.

If the  Chinese people fail to sympathize with the many economic problems currently facing the West; If instead their government offers advice to the EU and the U.S. on the need to grow up, work together and solve their economic problems; and if that advice appears to be somewhat patronizing, think of the term Schadenfreude.   The Chinese have waited 150 years  to be taken seriously — to say,  “we told you so.”  They have a right to savor the moment.



[1] In 1870 The United States accounted for 9% of world GDP.

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