In China’s Orbit – by Niall Ferguson (Wall Street Journal – November 18, 2010)

The Wall Street Journal is an American English-language international daily newspaper. Published in New York City by Dow Jones & Company, the Journal has the largest newspaper circulation in the United States.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. His next book, “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” will be published in March.

After 500 years of Western predominance, Niall Ferguson argues, the world is tilting back to the East.

“We are the masters now.” I wonder if President Barack Obama saw those words in the thought bubble over the head of his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, at the G20 summit in Seoul last week. If the president was hoping for change he could believe in—in China’s currency policy, that is—all he got was small change. Maybe Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner also heard “We are the masters now” as the Chinese shot down his proposal for capping imbalances in global current accounts. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke got the same treatment when he announced a new round of “quantitative easing” to try to jump start the U.S. economy, a move described by one leading Chinese commentator as “uncontrolled” and “irresponsible.”

“We are the masters now.” That was certainly the refrain that I kept hearing in my head when I was in China two weeks ago. It wasn’t so much the glitzy, Olympic-quality party I attended in the Tai Miao Temple, next to the Forbidden City, that made this impression. The displays of bell ringing, martial arts and all-girl drumming are the kind of thing that Western visitors expect. It was the understated but unmistakable self-confidence of the economists I met that told me something had changed in relations between China and the West.

One of them, Cheng Siwei, explained over dinner China’s plan to become a leader in green energy technology. Between swigs of rice wine, Xia Bin, an adviser to the People’s Bank of China, outlined the need for a thorough privatization program, “including even the Great Hall of the People.” And in faultless English, David Li of Tsinghua University confessed his dissatisfaction with the quality of Chinese Ph.D.s.

You could not ask for smarter people with whom to discuss the two most interesting questions in economic history today: Why did the West come to dominate not only China but the rest of the world in the five centuries after the Forbidden City was built? And is that period of Western dominance now finally coming to an end?

In a brilliant paper that has yet to be published in English, Mr. Li and his co-author Guan Hanhui demolish the fashionable view that China was economically neck-and-neck with the West until as recently as 1800. Per capita gross domestic product, they show, stagnated in the Ming era (1402-1626) and was significantly lower than that of pre-industrial Britain. China still had an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, with low-productivity cultivation accounting for 90% of GDP. And for a century after 1520, the Chinese national savings rate was actually negative. There was no capital accumulation in late Ming China; rather the opposite.

The story of what Kenneth Pomeranz, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, has called “the Great Divergence” between East and West began much earlier. Even the late economist Angus Maddison may have been over-optimistic when he argued that in 1700 the average inhabitant of China was probably slightly better off than the average inhabitant of the future United States. Mr. Maddison was closer to the mark when he estimated that, in 1600, per capita GDP in Britain was already 60% higher than in China.

For the next several hundred years, China continued to stagnate and, in the 20th century, even to retreat, while the English-speaking world, closely followed by northwestern Europe, surged ahead. By 1820 U.S. per capita GDP was twice that of China; by 1870 it was nearly five times greater; by 1913 the ratio was nearly 10 to one.

Despite the painful interruption of the Great Depression, the U.S. suffered nothing so devastating as China’s wretched mid-20th century ordeal of revolution, civil war, Japanese invasion, more revolution, man-made famine and yet more (“cultural”) revolution. In 1968 the average American was 33 times richer than the average Chinese, using figures calculated on the basis of purchasing power parity (allowing for the different costs of living in the two countries). Calculated in current dollar terms, the differential at its peak was more like 70 to 1.

This was the ultimate global imbalance, the result of centuries of economic and political divergence. How did it come about? And is it over?

As I’ve researched my forthcoming book over the past two years, I’ve concluded that the West developed six “killer applications” that “the Rest” lacked. These were:

• Competition: Europe was politically fragmented, and within each monarchy or republic there were multiple competing corporate entities.

• The Scientific Revolution: All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology happened in Western Europe.

• The rule of law and representative government: This optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.

• Modern medicine: All the major 19th- and 20th-century advances in health care, including the control of tropical diseases, were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.

• The consumer society: The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.

• The work ethic: Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

Those six killer apps were the key to Western ascendancy. The story of our time, which can be traced back to the reign of the Meiji Emperor in Japan (1867-1912), is that the Rest finally began to download them. It was far from a smooth process. The Japanese had no idea which elements of Western culture were the crucial ones, so they ended up copying everything, from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonizing foreign peoples. Unfortunately, they took up empire-building at precisely the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. Other Asian powers—notably India—wasted decades on the erroneous premise that the socialist institutions pioneered in the Soviet Union were superior to the market-based institutions of the West.

Beginning in the 1950s, however, a growing band of East Asian countries followed Japan in mimicking the West’s industrial model, beginning with textiles and steel and moving up the value chain from there. The downloading of Western applications was now more selective. Competition and representative government did not figure much in Asian development, which instead focused on science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic (less Protestant than Max Weber had thought). Today Singapore is ranked third in the World Economic Forum’s assessment of competitiveness. Hong Kong is 11th, followed by Taiwan (13th), South Korea (22nd) and China (27th). This is roughly the order, historically, in which these countries Westernized their economies.
Today per capita GDP in China is 19% that of the U.S., compared with 4% when economic reform began just over 30 years ago. Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore were already there as early as 1950; Taiwan got there in 1970, and South Korea got there in 1975. According to the Conference Board, Singapore’s per capita GDP is now 21% higher than that of the U.S., Hong Kong’s is about the same, Japan’s and Taiwan’s are about 25% lower, and South Korea’s 36% lower. Only a foolhardy man would bet against China’s following the same trajectory in the decades ahead.

China’s has been the biggest and fastest of all the industrialization revolutions. In the space of 26 years, China’s GDP grew by a factor of 10. It took the U.K. 70 years after 1830 to grow by a factor of four. According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s share of global GDP (measured in current prices) will pass the 10% mark in 2013. Goldman Sachs continues to forecast that China will overtake the U.S. in terms of GDP in 2027, just as it recently overtook Japan.

But in some ways the Asian century has already arrived. China is on the brink of surpassing the American share of global manufacturing, having overtaken Germany and Japan in the past 10 years. China’s biggest city, Shanghai, already sits atop the ranks of the world’s megacities, with Mumbai right behind; no American city comes close.

Nothing is more certain to accelerate the shift of global economic power from West to East than the looming U.S. fiscal crisis. With a debt-to-revenue ratio of 312%, Greece is in dire straits already. But the debt-to-revenue ratio of the U.S. is 358%, according to Morgan Stanley. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that interest payments on the federal debt will rise from 9% of federal tax revenues to 20% in 2020, 36% in 2030 and 58% in 2040. Only America’s “exorbitant privilege” of being able to print the world’s premier reserve currency gives it breathing space. Yet this very privilege is under mounting attack from the Chinese government.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Wall Street Journal website: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704104104575622531909154228.html

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