The sleepy town of St. Austell in the British county of Cornwall wasn’t quite where I expected to hear the world being put to rights. But over a traditional English breakfast in a small bed and breakfast this summer that’s just what I overheard.
“I don’t think we have a very good future. We just can’t compete with them,” lamented one woman, who I guessed was in her late 60s. “I know. We don’t spend anything on training, on apprenticeships. So they send the jobs there instead,” replied her companion.
“Them” were the Chinese. “There” was China. And, even in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, the extraordinary rise of the People’s Republic apparently looms large in people’s consciousness.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the Middle Kingdom, and more often than not when I speak with people about China, it’s with a sense of resignation and worry that they explain their take on what its rise means for their country.
I was born in the United States, but living in Japan for almost six years I never quite found the time to travel back there. When I finally did earlier this year, I was surprised to hear even the most measured of friends and acquaintances use a word I don’t think they would have when I had last been there, in 2005 – “scared.”
Why? It wasn’t just because of China’s growing military prowess, although war-weary Americans appear to be fully aware of the limits of what even the most powerful armed forces the world has ever seen can achieve. More, it was a sense that somehow, as stories of how the United States’ increasingly rickety infrastructure is crumbling proliferate, and as unemployment remains stubbornly close to double-digits, that the center of global economic gravity is shifting eastward.
And they’re right, of course. Decades of remarkable economic growth mean Asia now accounts for 27 percent of global GDP, according to the Asian Development Bank, which expects the region’s share to increase further still – to half the global total in 2050, at $148 trillion.
But just as China’s increasing dominance on the global stage marks a return to a position it held centuries ago, so Asia’s growing share of global wealth marks a return to the past. After all, in the middle of the 18th century, Asia accounted for 58 percent of the global economy, a share that gradually slid as the West underwent its Industrial Revolution. Rapid development in the West saw Asia’s share of GDP tumble to around 15 percent by 1952.
In a very real sense, then, what we’re seeing isn’t so much extraordinary, but getting back to the ordinary. Yet this two century swing away from Asia, and the single century swing back, masks some perhaps even more remarkable numbers. And China, as the West Country breakfast conversation underscored, is arguably responsible for the most remarkable numbers of all.