Wednesday, October 01, 2008 10/1/08-China Falls Behind

In today's excerpt--how China, once the world's economic and technological leader, fell behind. It closed its doors to the outside world in 1434, and with this isolation from trade in commerce and ideas, began a centuries-long period of stagnation:

"China's population of 1.3 billion constitutes more than a fifth of humanity. Asia's population, in total, includes 60 percent of humanity. Asia's fate is truly the world's fate. .., China and India are ancient civilizations that in important ways were far ahead of Europe not so many centuries ago. The rise of the West--the western part of the Eurasian landmass--was one of the great ruptures of human history, overturning more than a millenium or more in which Asia rather than Europe had the technological lead. [Today], Asia is not merely catching up with Europe and the United States, it is also catching up with its own past as a technological leader. ...

"Where did China stumble, and why? ... Around the start of the sixteenth century, just after Columbus had found the sea route to the Americas and Vasco de Gama had circled the Cape of Good Hope to reach Asia by sea, China was clearly the world's technological superpower, and had been so for at least a millenium. Europe conquered Asia after 1500 with the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, all Chinese innovations. There was nothing fated about such a turnaround. China's dominance, it appears, was squandered, and 1434 is increasingly understood to be a pivotal year.

"In that year, the Ming emperor effectively closed China to international trade, dismantling the world's largest and most advanced fleet of ocean vessels. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese fleet, under the command of the famed eunuch admiral, Zheng He, had visited ports of the Indian Ocean all the way to East Africa, showing the flag, transmitting Chinese culture and knowledge, and exploring the vast lands of the Indian Ocean region. Then, all at once, the imperial court decided that the voyages were too expensive, perhaps because of increased threats of nomadic incursions over China's northern land border. For whatever reason, the emperor ended ocean-going trade and exploration, closed down shipyards, and placed severe limitations on Chinese merchant trade for centuries to come. Never again would China enjoy technological leadership in naval construction and navigation, or command the seas even in its own neighborhood. ...

"In 1975, China's per capita income was a mere 7.5 percent of Western Europe's. Since then ... China has soared, reaching around 20 percent of Europe's income level by 2000. ... China is ending extreme poverty, and is on its way to reversing centuries of relative decline."

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, Penguin, Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey Sachs, pp. 149-151.


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