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Global Viewpoint

The next 40 years will be the most important in human history

Don't underestimate the significance of China's rise. We are living through the biggest shift in wealth, power, and prestige since the Industrial Revolution catapulted Western Europe to global dominance 200 years ago.

By Ian MorrisStaff writer / December 21, 2010



London

The West is on top of the world. Only about one-seventh of the planet’s population lives in Europe or North America, but they generate two-thirds of its wealth, own two-thirds of its weapons, and spend more than two-thirds of its R&D dollars. On average, American workers are seven times as productive as China’s.

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But when Richard Nixon made his famous visit to Beijing back in 1972, American workers had been 20 times as productive as Chinese. China’s share of global production was 5 percent then; now it is 14 percent. China is now the world’s second-biggest economy (Japan is the third) and the world’s biggest carbon emitter. The world’s fastest supercomputer is Chinese. Chinese taikonauts have walked in space, and will probably stand on the moon before Americans return there.

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We are living through the biggest shift in wealth, power, and prestige since the Industrial Revolution catapulted Western Europe to global dominance 200 years ago.

Geographic destiny

The force driving the rise of the East is exactly the same as the force that drove the earlier rise of the West: the interaction of geography with economics and technology.

Back in the 15th century, new methods of sailing (pioneered in China) made it possible for ships to cross the oceans. All of a sudden, the geographical detail that Western Europe was only 3,000 miles from America’s east coast while China was 8,000 miles from its west coast became the most important fact in the world. It meant that Europeans, rather than Chinese, colonized the New World, creating new kinds of market economies around the shores of the Atlantic.

These markets generated equally new incentives that drove Europeans, rather than Chinese, to harness the power of fossil fuels in an industrial revolution; and this revolution’s steamships and railroads further shrank the world in the 19th century, unleashing the vast industrial potential of North America’s hinterland. By 1900, the USA had displaced Western Europe as the world’s center of gravity.

But history did not stop at that point. Technology kept shrinking the world throughout the 20th century. By 1950, the Pacific was no more of a barrier to trade than the Atlantic had been a century earlier. Now it was the turn of East Asia’s vast industrial potential to be released. First Japan, then South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia – and now China, too – were drawn into the global economy. By 2000, China was gaining on the US; by 2050, it may well displace it.

Back in the 19th century, there was nothing that the East’s rulers, soldiers, or intellectuals could do to stop geography from changing meaning. And now, in the 21st century, there is nothing that the West’s rulers, soldiers, or intellectuals can do to stop geography from changing meaning again.

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