Niall Ferguson: In China's Orbit

Roundup: Historians' Take

[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.]

...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....

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....

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