Thursday, October 29, 2009 10/29/09 - 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

"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 [which caused the
Chinese to desire to extend the Great Wall,
with its huge financing requirements,
editor's note]. 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

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


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