Gotta go through some backstory first. Bear with me and have faith that there’s a point.
IMHO, the most influential man in all of history has got to be Confucious. He was a Chinese civil servant who came up with a system of how society should be arranged.
Okay, boring stuff, right? But it was terribly influential, not least because it stated in very strong terms that the State was more important than the individual, and the people who ran the State were more important than anyone under them.
No surprise that temples were built to honor this Confucious guy a few years after his death (Even though the idea of building a temple for a primitive sociologist seems bizarre in the extreme to us today.) Most Asian societies quickly absorbed Confucianism and made it an integral part of everything they did. For 2,000 years the most advanced and populous societies on Earth ran themselves along strictly Confucian lines.
But Confucious had some serious holes in his thinking. For one thing, he thought that merchants were leeches on society since they didn’t actually produce anything. Moving goods and resources from the place where it’s common to places where it’s scarce has an obvious and immediate benefit, but he seems to have missed this. So, since most Asian cultures were built using the Confucian model, merchants were viewed with hatred and envy.
This attitude was to be found in Western society but, considering the smaller size of European nations when compared to the huge Asian empires, it’s not surprising that they soon picked up the clue phone. The one major economic theory prevalent during the West’s major period of development was Mercantilism. Moving stuff around was considered to be vital to any progress, and a great deal of attention and effort was lavished on increasing trade.
One could say that these differing philosophies clashed during the Opium Wars. Token Western military units invaded China itself in order to secure markets for their drug trade and managed to defeat anything that the more ancient and populous Asian culture could throw at them. This was possible because China had remained essentially unchanged for centuries, while technology had advanced by leaps and bounds in European countries. And one of the main reasons that technology advanced so far and so fast was through the free exchange of ideas.
The Chinese had their butts handed to them by ridiculously tiny military units, a huge blow to their pride. They were forced to give the island of Hong Kong to the drug merchants, an act that humiliates any Chinese who thinks of it even today. So they want to reform and get with the program, right? They have direct and dramatic proof that they need to become more Western if they don’t want to be left in the dust. And they’ve known this for 175 years.
During the Cold War many US intelligence and military agencies talked up the Russians as being a huge threat. Black programs to develop new technology and an almost unstoppable military meant that the free world was on the knife edge, running as fast as it could just to keep the Russians convinced that the costs of invasion and the inevitable victory of Communism would be too high.
Well, I don’t need to point out that the fall of Communism kinda consigned that particular analysis to the dustbin of history.
There’s been a fair amount of speculation that China will be a credible threat. Not now, of course, but maybe someday any second now. Better watch out!
Yeah, they can cause some problems. And they’ve made a fair amount of progress, particularly since they’ve absorbed the vibrant culture found in Hong Kong. But their system is pretty much an anchor on their advancement, and I just don’t see them as being able to catch up.