I’ve always had mixed feelings about Niall Ferguson, the bad-boy of world history, always trying (often successfully) to pull the rug out from under our conventional belief systems and shatter our sacred illusions. His great history of WWI, The Pity of War, was a wonderful if infuriating read; infuriating because he constantly speculated about “what if,” and even arrived at the conclusion that Germany was meant to have won the war and the world would have been better off if it had. (Who knows? But he certainly makes an elegant argument.) He has especially ruffled feathers for praising colonialism and empire.
At the end of his 2006 history of 20th century wars, Wars of the World, Ferguson states matter-of-factly that the age of Western ascendancy has ended, and that of Eastern ascendancy begun. I read the book in Beijing when it came out during the Bush administration and it made perfect sense – America was caught in an impossible place, bleeding money, choked by debt and snagged in two seemingly endless wars. And I was seeing with my own eyes what China was capable of. Now, nearly three years later, things look considerably worse for America, something that didn’t seem possible in early 2007.
The article by Ferguson that I’m looking at today is absolutely a must-read. I know already who it will infuriate and who it will delight. I hear all the praise and all the objections. Allow me to offer a longer-than-usual snip. (I’m tempted to simply paste the entire thing it’s so interesting.)
Back in 2004 I warned that the US had imperceptibly come to rely on east Asian capital to stabilise its unbalanced current and fiscal accounts. The decline and fall of America’s undeclared empire might therefore be due not to terrorists at the gates nor to the rogue regimes that sponsor them, but to a fiscal crisis at home.
The realisation that the yawning US current account deficit was increasingly being financed by Asian central banks, with the Chinese moving into pole position, was, for me at least, the eureka moment of the decade.
When, in late 2006, Moritz Schularick and I coined the word “Chimerica” to describe what we saw as the dangerously unsustainable relationship between parsimonious China and profligate America, we had identified one of the keys to the coming global financial crisis.
The illusion of American hyperpuissance was shattered not once but twice in the past decade. Nemesis came first in the backstreets of Sadr City and the valleys of Helmand, which revealed not only the limits of American military might but also, more importantly, the naivety of neoconservative visions of a democratic wave in the greater Middle East. And it struck a second time with the escalation of the subprime crisis of 2007 into the credit crunch of 2008 and finally the “great recession” of 2009. After the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the sham verities of the “Washington Consensus” and the “Great Moderation” were consigned forever to oblivion.
And what remained? By the end of the decade the western world could only look admiringly at the speed with which the Chinese government had responded to the breathtaking collapse in exports caused by the US credit crunch, a collapse which might have been expected to devastate Asia.
While the developed world teetered on the verge of a second Great Depression, China suffered little more than a minor growth slow-down, thanks to a highly effective government stimulus programme and massive credit expansion.
It would of course be ingenuous to assume that the next decade will not bring problems for China, too. Running a society of 1.3bn people with the kind of authoritarian planned capitalism hitherto associated with the city-state Singapore (population 4.5m) is fraught with difficulties. But the fact remains that Asia’s latest and biggest industrial revolution scarcely paused to draw breath during the 2007-09 financial crisis.
And what a revolution! Compare a tenfold growth of gross domestic product in the space of 26 years with a fourfold increase in the space of 70. The former has been China’s achievement between 1978 and 2004; the latter was Britain’s between 1830 and 1900. Or consider the fact that US GDP was more than eight times that of China’s at the beginning of this decade. Now it is barely four times larger – and if the projections from Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, prove to be correct, China will overtake America as soon as 2027: in less than two decades.
I am not convinced it’s true that China “scarcely paused to draw breath during the 2007-09 financial crisis.” I think the crisis dealt China a severe blow from which it’s still reeling. But…. I still think Ferguson is essentially right, that the pendulum is swinging in anew direction and the balance of power is shifting faster than anyone would have believed just a decade ago.
China is going to have to deal with unbelievable problems. (And yes, so is America.) China’s key cities are in the middle of a property bubble; its environment is so fragile whole swathes of the ecology may be doomed; corruption is so rampant even the central government recognizes it can undo much of the progress of the past three decades; and there are still some 650 million living in deep poverty.
Predictions of China’s collapse appear in the news every day, as do prediction of America’s. I don’t pay these predictions much heed. Things happen far too slowly, with far too much lethargy, for either China or the US to go down in a blaze. Recessions, unrest, turmoil, misery, strife, bankruptcies, economic upheaval – we may see all those things, but I don’t believe we’re going to see either system collapse. What we will see and are seeing, as Ferguson says, is a tipping of the scale, with China gaining influence as US influence wanes. Where the scales will stop is anyone’s guess. I still can’t imagine China as an economic equal – it simply has too much poverty and lack of spending power – but I do see it creeping upwards, at times imperceptibly. It has been better than the US in making sure it gets what it needs to keep the engines roaring, even if it means coddling some of the world’s most unsavory dictators and rogue regimes. And somehow, for all its impossible headaches, it keeps on going.
Ferguson, after making the case for China’s ascendancy, ends on an ambiguous note.
What gave the west the edge over the east over the past 500 years? My answer is six “killer apps”: the capitalist enterprise, the scientific method, a legal and political system based on private property rights and individual freedom, traditional imperialism, the consumer society and what Weber probably misnamed the “Protestant” ethic of work and capital accumulation as ends in themselves.
Some of those things (numbers one and two) China has clearly replicated. Others it may be in the process of adopting with some “Confucian” modifications (imperialism, consumption and the work ethic). Only number three – the Western way of law and politics – shows little sign of emerging in the one-party state that is the People’s Republic.
But does China need dear old democracy to achieve enduring prosperity?
The next decade may well answer that question. Then again, it may take another 500 years to be certain that there really is a viable alternative to western ascendancy.
I think China has already shown it doesn’t need “dear old democracy,” no matter how apoplectic that may make some of its critics. It will lean more and more in that direction, especially as incomes rise and people realize they are not as dependent on the government as it would like them to believe. But democracy as we know it and rule of law – well, despite many encouraging stories of reform, I’m not going to recommend anyone hold their breath.
All in all, I think Fergie gets it right. Looking at China’s history and its staying power, and at its sheer industriousness and optimism, I have to discount the reports of China’s imminent demise. And America’s too. I just think America will keep drifting lower as China edges higher, with lots of painful stumbles along the way.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.