China’s century? Niall Ferguson says yes.

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.

The Discussion: 118 Comments

pug, I don’t believe I ever said the Chinese have stolen technology. However, many others have said it. Whether it’s true or not I can’t say but China’s attiude toward IP has been a controversial issue for years.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:18 am | Comment

Who needs proof? You can just slander China all day long, and if anyone contradicts you with facts they’re Communists and brainwashed.

What is China? What does it mean to be Chinese?

China now is of course the PRC and also the ROC, as well as Overseas Chinese, Hong Kongers, Macanese, etc. You’re Chinese if you have Chinese blood and work for Chinese interests. That’s it.

Jay’s multi-polar century is the best hope we have. Once the scales begin to tip in the CCP’s favour (and the signs are already there) they will become increasingly aggressive in their pursuit and control over resources and regions. Anyone who thinks that a CCP century will bring increased light, tolerance, understanding, human rights, and peace to this world is sadly mistaken.

It will take hundreds and hundreds of years before they’re at the level of depravity the modern West is. I highly doubt that China is going to do imperialism, they’re not ruled by Mongols or Manchus anymore. What will happen though, is that the West will be checked. First by the Chinese, then the Arabs, then the Latin Americans most likely. Your days of profligacy at the expense of others are coming to an end.

Remember, too, that freedom of expression allows discourse on the moral implications of a government’s policies

Yet for every man in the West who actually debates things that matter, there are two who will vote for Satan to keep the “bad guys under control”, like those Muslims, gays, and atheists. America’s democracy has managed to be the most aggressive and militant nation in the history of the world, as Europe profits.

@Buzz Lightyear

Only 150 million people in China earn US$10,000 or more per year, while fully 37% survive on US$2 per day

More food for thought- China taxes and redistributes wealth. To claim that 37% “survive on US$2 per day” ignores all of the subsidies given to these very same people. Something that India’s hundreds of millions of poor do not receive.

The Level and Distribution of Global Household Wealth, by James B. Davies, Edward N. Wolff Susanna Sandstrom and Anthony B. Shorrocks, NBER

For China, wealth per adult was estimated at $19,056 in 2000. That makes an average Chinese one a half times as wealthy as an average Indian. But if we take gross domestic product (GDP) per adult instead of per adult wealth, then the income of an average Chinese was only 1.18 times as much as that of an average Indian in 2000. The study says that India’s share of global GDP was 5.9% in 2000, while its share of global wealth was 4.2%.

Even more interesting are the estimates of wealth inequalities within countries. In India, for example, the top 10% of the population had 52.9% of the country’s wealth in 2002-03, while the top 1% had 15.7%. China was more egalitarian, with the top 10% owning 41.4% of the nation’s wealth. The Gini coefficient for wealth in India is 0.669, against 0.550 for China. Wealth is distributed very unevenly in the US, with the top 10% getting 69.8% of the country’s wealth and the top 1% own 32.7%. The Gini index for the US is a very high 0.801.

Taking only GDP and income is useful for macroeconomics. For social causes or whatever, wealth distribution is important.

2. China’s educational system is a sorry embarrassment. (For God’s sake, don’t look at the Chinese graduate student at MIT and then extrapolate.)

Public education everywhere is a sorry embarrassment.


Countries have had to kowtow to the US for many decades but managed to retain their own values and cultures and laws.

That isn’t true at all. You need to do some research. Chile was bombed into submission for example. America help kill Congos elected leader and replaced him with a ruthless dictator. Same goes in Haiti. Of course you will just brush this off even though all of the facts and documentation are made available by the US government itself. What good is freedom of information if not even 1% of the American population bothers to know the truth?

You don’t see Japan and Taiwan embracing tyranny and censorship

Taiwan was ruled by tyranny throughout the whole time it was developing. Chen Shui-bian’s “democratically” elected rule was a miserable joke that wasted a decade of the Taiwanese person’s life. I’d say real democracy in Taiwan only began in 2008.

As for Japan, there are videos of leftist politicians being assassinated and silenced through force. Asahi Shimbun has been bombed before. America funnels billions into the LDP. It’s because of this that the LDP was been in power for over 5 decades. That’s not the West’s idealized democracy, just as the PAP of Singapore is not the West’s idealized democracy.


as we are already beginning to see, through the coercion of economic blackmail.

Because America *never* does that. How did those sanctions on Cuba work out? I know how they worked out in Vietnam, hundreds to thousands of babies died when they were denied infant formula. Bravo bravo, I bet Miss Thatcher would be so proud of you old chap.

And anyone who believes the PLA won’t be adopting a more aggressive posture in the coming years is sadly deluded.

Excellent support for your wild unsourced assertions as usual stuart.

or threatening to withhold investment if Buddhist monks aren’t silenced.

Kinda like certain countries threatening to withhold investment if Muslim imams aren’t silenced.

to a lesser degree, US globetrotting in the last half century.

Because the Indochina Wars, Operation Menu, support for dictators all over the world, assassination of democratically elected heads of state, Afghanistan and the Iraq War are all exemplary. By that measure, the CCP in the past 30 years have been saints.

And stop selling them to dodgy leaders in exchange for resources that guarantee Africa will remain the most impoverished continent on the planet.

The actual mass murders in Sudan are caused predominantly by US support of rebels in that country. The bulk of the violence ceased before China got involved. Now, people are dying of starvation and malnutrition- NOT violence. These are the lingering aftereffects of US imperialism. Using the same methods to extract the 400,000 figure for Sudanese deaths, we arrive at 1,200,000 Iraqi deaths. You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

If they were educated more openly and were free to express dissenting opinion it wouldn’t be perceived in that way.

It’s the Overseas Chinese who have never set foot in a PRC School who are raising their eyebrows the most.

He really should have consulted me on this.

You have no credentials except an inflated racial ego and a bag of stale euphemisms.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:39 am | Comment

Whether it’s true or not I can’t say but China’s attiude toward IP has been a controversial issue for years.

Controversial because the West manufactures the “controversy”. Even if a minority player speaks the truth, it will be drowned out by the West’s multi-billion dollar international propaganda apparatus.

As far as IP goes, most developing countries don’t respect them. Hell, from my grandmother’s house in Taichung I can find streets lined with bootleg movies, video games, music, almost entirely unregulated.

China is taking IP more seriously in the sense that it’s interactions with international IP organizations is increasing and the volume of patents they are creating is growing at 15% yoy (faster than any other nation).

It’s just the typical West to ask China to shoulder developed world burdens that the West itself is disproportionately responsible, in exchange for even more slander and lies and venom directed at China.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:43 am | Comment

How much do you want to bet that the multi-billion dollar, international, American propaganda apparatus will start blaming “Communist barbarity” for the 1.2 million deaths in Iraq once they decide to start recognizing facts instead of fantasy?

The average American still believes only 10,000 people died in Iraq. How would the world see Germany if the media and electorate believed only 100,000 died during the European theater of world war 2?

January 6, 2010 @ 12:48 am | Comment


Countries have had to kowtow to the US for many decades but managed to retain their own values and cultures and laws.

That isn’t true at all. You need to do some research. Chile was bombed into submission for example. America help kill Congos elected leader and replaced him with a ruthless dictator. Same goes in Haiti. Of course you will just brush this off even though all of the facts and documentation are made available by the US government itself. What good is freedom of information if not even 1% of the American population bothers to know the truth?

Are you insane? I was making the simple point that although a country is strong and has influence, the countries it influences don’t necessarily adopt its culture and tastes. And here you are ranting about bombing Chile. (Did the US ever bomb Chile? And if it did, what does it have to do with my comment on culture?)

You are consumed in your own false dialogue, a gushing geyser of hate and idiocy. Other than that, we all love you.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:51 am | Comment

For the record, since some love calling me a Communist when you can’t refute any of my points, yes I was born in Taiwan.

Went to America when I was in grade school. Only time I’ve spent in China is in the rural North, doing volunteer work. Never been to BJ or SH.

And yes my parents were raised on rabid anti-Communist hatred under the KMT.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:54 am | Comment

Are you insane? I was making the simple point that although a country is strong and has influence, the countries it influences don’t necessarily adopt its culture and tastes. And here you are ranting about bombing Chile. (Did the US ever bomb Chile? And if it did, what does it have to do with my comment on culture?)

You, perhaps inadvertently, implied that kowtowing to the U.S was harmless. Like a fucking walk in the park. And yes, America did bomb Chile and get its elected president killed.

To be fair, he was a Communist.

January 6, 2010 @ 12:55 am | Comment

Whenever you have free time to read:

The Chilean coup d’état of 1973 was a watershed event in the history of Chile and the Soviet-American Cold War. On 11 September 1973, the government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military in a coup d’état.

The coup occurred two months after a first failed attempt, the Tanquetazo — Tank putsch — and a month after the Chamber of Deputies condemned President Allende’s breaches of the Constitution.

The US[1] backed military junta took control of the government, composed of the heads of the Air Force, Navy, Carabineros (Chilean police force) and the Army led by General Augusto Pinochet.[2]. General Pinochet assumed power and ended Allende’s democratically elected Popular Unity government[3][4]

During the air raids and ground attacks that preceded the coup, Allende gave his last speech where he vowed to stay in the presidential palace.[5] The official cause of death was suicide.[6][7] After the coup Pinochet established a military government marked by severe human rights violations that ruled Chile until 1990.

Main article: 1973 Chilean coup d’état

In early September 1973, Allende floated the idea of resolving the constitutional crisis with a plebiscite. His speech outlining such a solution was scheduled for September 11, but he was never able to deliver it. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military staged a coup against Allende.
[edit] Death
Main article: Death of Salvador Allende
Statue of Allende in front of the Palacio de la Moneda

Just prior to the capture of La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), with gunfire and explosions clearly audible in the background, Allende gave his (subsequently famous) farewell speech to Chileans on live radio, speaking of himself in the past tense, of his love for Chile and of his deep faith in its future. He stated that his commitment to Chile did not allow him to take an easy way out, and he would not be used as a propaganda tool by those he called “traitors” (he refused an offer of safe passage), clearly implying he intended to fight to the end.[50]
“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
President Salvador Allende’s farewell speech, September 11, 1973.[5]

Shortly afterwards, it is believed Allende committed suicide. An official announcement declared that he had committed suicide with an automatic rifle. In his 2004 documentary Salvador Allende, Patricio Guzmán incorporates a graphic image of Allende’s corpse in the position it was found after his death. According to Guzmán’s documentary, Allende shot himself with a pistol and not a rifle.

Initially, there was some confusion over the cause of Allende’s death. In recent years the view that he committed suicide has become accepted, particularly as different testimonies confirm details of the suicide reported in news and documentary interviews.[51][52][53][54][55] His personal doctor described the death as a suicide, and his family accepts the finding. The notion that he was assassinated persists and is referenced in the Michael Moore film “Bowling for Columbine”[56]

I copied and pasted the text so you can’t use the excuse of “CCP censoring wikipedia” to not read it 🙂

January 6, 2010 @ 12:58 am | Comment

I condemn US intervention in Chile, Iran, Guatemala and elsewhere. But the US never bombed Chile and you are sloppy and full of rage. Once again, you’ve derailed a thread and once again your comments are going to be screened. I won’t let the crazy ones in, sorry.

And I’ve never accused China of censoring or manipulating Wikipedia. You’re making things up again. In case you haven’t noticed, this post is not at all “anti-China.” None of my posts are, jackass.

January 6, 2010 @ 1:07 am | Comment

Ferin is back from holidays

January 6, 2010 @ 1:36 am | Comment

He’s not back. I’ve gone well out of my way to bend the rules for him and Hong Xing, etc., because I want diverse comments, but he seems hellbent on sabotaging every thread.

January 6, 2010 @ 1:44 am | Comment


Yes, unfortunately, the link you provided is mostly about China stealing US military Secrets. Since China can’t buy it, surely it provides someone an incentive to steal it. This is understandable.

Why is putting an embargo on selling China green technologies is beyond me. I would not be surprised if someone will steal it too since US companies won’t sell it to them.

January 6, 2010 @ 2:18 am | Comment

I don’t excuse such embargoes. I’m not really sure how we ended up talking about China stealing/copying other technologies – no one in this thread ever accused China of doing this.

January 6, 2010 @ 2:39 am | Comment

China hasn’t needed to steal technologies so much as Western greed, naivety and short-termism has handed it to them on a nice silver platter. As for the Lou Dobbs comparison, I’m not even American. And I don’t see how analyzing America’s destruction of its own middle class courtesy of a convoluted China/globalization policy has anything to do with slandering Chinese workers. It’s a comment on American political economy more than anything else. How is rebuilding America’s manufacturing/industrial base anti-Chinese? Is there a law of nature which states that importing Chinese goods is a moral obligation? I must have missed that. Besides, if China sorts out its domestic situation enough the American market will be a distant afterthought. Give the Americans a break, they need to sort out a whole host of domestic issues without drowning in anymore credit-bought imported goods.

January 6, 2010 @ 2:50 am | Comment

PB, to Ferin and some others any reference here to China is ant-China, and even if you criticize the US you are pro-US. I’ve been trying to say for months that I see China doing better than the US, but you look at Ferin’s comments and you’d think I were from the John Birch Society, trying to plant the stars and stripes over Zhongnanhai.

China hasn’t needed to steal technologies so much as Western greed, naivety and short-termism has handed it to them on a nice silver platter.

That’s the point I was trying to make way up above, when I said US companies have to give away the store.

On another note, China Daily comes out today and says the number of China’s poor is actually much higher than the statistics indicate:

The number of people in China defined as poor would at least triple if not for the country’s decades-old poverty line, a top agriculture expert said.
Country’s poverty line misleading, expert says

“The poverty line in China has not been changed for 20 years in step with the pace of economic development,” said Li Xiaoyun, dean of the Center of Integrated Agricultural Development of China Agricultural University.

China’s poverty line of 1,196 yuan ($175) per capita net income a year is said to be too low compared with the country’s economic development and living standard.

The country’s economy is expected to surge by 8.3 percent this year despite the global economic downturn, according to experts in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But the poverty line has failed to reflect the average standard of living, Li said. At the end of last year, China had 40 million people living below the poverty line, accounting for 4.2 percent of the total rural population, according to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development.

However, the actual picture is far more worrying, mostly because of the outdated standard.

“We are now measuring a poor person with the standard of 30 years ago,” Li said.

That’s China. Rampaging economic titan, star in the ascendant, impoverished backwater, and more.

January 6, 2010 @ 3:34 am | Comment

@ feromerp

I highly doubt that China is going to do imperialism.

I recommend that you consult an optometrist at the earliest opportunity.

Just about every other response of yours was a reversion to the usual logical fallacies. So I respectfully refer you to the closing remarks of #105:

You are consumed in your own false dialogue, a gushing geyser of hate and idiocy. Other than that, we all love you.

Peace, old sport.

January 6, 2010 @ 7:24 am | Comment

I really do try to be nice and give Merp and Hong Xing and Math a platform. And I don’t care if they disagree with me – just look at all of the commenters up above who disagree with me, like pug, Buzz, HX, Serve, etc. I love dissent. It’s hysterical knee-jerk stoopidity that I have a low threshold for. Like the US bombed Chile. Imagine the reaction if I said, totally falsely, that China bombed Tibet.

This thread has gone on long enough. Please use the new thread two posts above this one.

January 6, 2010 @ 7:46 am | Comment

[…] China credit for its accomplishments. Several posts down you’ll find a piece about this being “China’s century.” But I also can’t ignore the bad, and thus below you’ll also find a post on the […]

February 11, 2010 @ 5:05 am | Pingback

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