China's Challenge

By Browne, John | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

China's Challenge


Browne, John, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Most visitors to China are left with two vivid impressions. The first is the vast geographical size of the country, the huge buildings and numbers of people. The second observation is the infectious feeling of enthusiasm, of human energy and serious ambition.

Many Western observers assume that China is somewhat of an upstart among important nations. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The first hominids in China date from about 2 million years ago, with Peking Man known to have used fire. Modern China has its problems, but it has an old, glorious and sophisticated heritage. Its world leadership challenge is likely to be awe-inspiring.

For the last 50 years of the 20th century, the United States was the major world superpower. For the previous 150 years, that position was held by Great Britain. However, for at least 300 years before that, China, then almost unknown to the Western world, had perhaps the most socially advanced and powerful economy on Earth.

In China, the Anglo-American world faces a formidable commercial, financial and political challenge, not from a young, uncertain country, but from the reawakening of a once-mighty empire that achieved an economic equilibrium that so far has eluded both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Ancient China was one of the few early societies to develop writing. Under the culturally rich Song dynasty, it was the first society to use paper money and perhaps to map the entire globe. China's invention of such world-changing items as gunpowder, the magnetic compass, paper, the automatic water-powered spinning wheel and even soccer long preceded their introduction into the West.

Combined with vast knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering, these inventions made China by far the most advanced nation in the world by the 14th century. One might ask why such an advanced society failed to experience the Industrial Revolution and fell so far behind the developed world.

The answer has two parts and is intriguing. The first is economic. The second is political.

By the 17th century, China's economy had achieved great efficiency. In addition, its growing population had ample new land to cultivate. As the population flourished, labor became plentiful and cheap. …

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