How the East Will Rise

China Construction Bank
China World Tower 2, Beijing
Watching the pre-holiday ATM rush
1129 hrs.

In the face of a growing herd of commentators foretelling the rise of China, Niall Ferguson has identified what he believes to be the six factors that gave the west an opportunity to overtake and surpass China’s early cultural and technological lead. He shares them with us in the Financial Times:

“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.”

One could argue with Professor Ferguson’s conclusions, and as an (amateur) historian I have a problem with such deterministic models. Any number of ex post theories can be drawn to fit the facts, and Dr. Ferguson is neither the first nor the last to propose a reason for China’s failure to keep up with the rest of the world during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

For the sake of argument, though, let us grant him his six “winning” factors. In return, he must grant that had he made a case for these six factors to European leaders 500 years ago he would not have been feted for his foresight. Rather, depending on the country in which he made the case, he would been ridiculed, cashiered, excommunicated, exiled, and possibly executed.

Plainly, there was no deliberate choice or point of determination where the west consciously chose such a path. It was a series of unrelated, non-sequential choices and events that brought about these changes, each important but few if any seen at the time as critical. Indeed, as my fellow readers of alternate histories will readily point out, at any number of junctures things could have gone a very different way.

It seems equally unlikely that we could foretell with any accuracy what factors will drive the rise of an Asian or African civilization in the future, or whether they would be as palliative as the happy factors that got the west to where it is today. Indeed, to assume that the influences that brought the west to its zenith are required for the east to attain its own apogee reeks of cultural hubris, wishful thinking, or both.

The political, cultural, economic, and ideological drivers behind the rise of each successive civilization in the history of the west – Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, The Caliphate, Spain, England, and America, to name a few – have varied radically from one to the next. Certainly a professor of history at Harvard would consider that. Why might he believe this time would be different?

It is (to me at least) axiomatic that the forces and factors that will determine what nation, political system, or culture leads the world in the coming centuries are probably not what we think, and are likely not what Dr. Ferguson thinks, either. Those factors will emerge over time, and we will have to leave it to historians hence to sift such insights from our future.

No one would be happier than I if Dr. Ferguson is correct. Yet while I am warmed by Dr. Ferguson’s implicit faith in the underpinnings of western civilization, we must all acknowledge that the road to the future of China and the world will likely be paved with somewhat different ideas and institutions.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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