Nation at the heart of historic ‘Asian moment’ By Professor Kenneth J. Hammond 2022-12-27
For many centuries, and especially from the 10th century until the end of the 18th, China’s economy was the most productive and prosperous in the world. There were dramatic ups and downs as dynasties rose and fell, with eras of expansion and innovation punctuated by moments of disruption and transition, but the overall trend of China’s economic history was one of advance and development.
Merchants were drawn to China from all over the world, first from the rest of the Eurasian region and later from the European colonial empires in the Americas. Silver flowed into China to purchase silk, porcelain and other ceramics, tea and many other commodities in demand among consumers around the globe.
This long-established pattern of global economic relations was transformed, beginning at the end of the 18th century, and accelerating in the early decades of the 19th century, by the emergence of new manufacturing technologies that revolutionized production, first in Britain and then spreading to other areas in Western Europe and North America. This process, which came to be known as the Industrial Revolution, gave Western countries the capacity to pump massive volumes of commodities into global markets at radically lower unit costs, fundamentally reconfiguring the economic relationship between the West and the rest of the world.
China’s place as the leading global economy was rapidly eclipsed, and the era of Western colonialism was driven by the commercial and military power of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and later the United States.
So long as the Western powers could maintain their monopoly on modern industrial technologies, they could hold on to hegemonic power, dominating not only economic affairs but also political, social and cultural life for most of the planet’s people. But those people did not simply submit to this domination. There was resistance both to the imposition and then the maintenance of the colonialist system.
With the rise of the factory system and its extension in plantations, mines and other extractive activities in the colonial sphere, new forms of organization were developed by workers, both in pursuit of their immediate economic interests and, over time, in the struggles for national and social liberation that grew in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.
With the success of national liberation and revolutionary struggles in China, India and other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a new era was inaugurated, in which modernizing economies broke the grip on production that had been the basis of Western domination for a century and a half. China has been the most successful example of innovation and development, and has returned to a prominent place in the global economic order. China has also initiated wide-ranging efforts to share its successes with other countries.
This process of reconfiguring the global economic system has brought us to what is now often referred to as the “Asian moment”.The world is poised on the brink of a new era of shared development, in which the old order of exploitation and domination is fading, and new forms of economic, social and political life are emerging.
The changes taking place, however, are seen by the elites of wealth and power in the US and its capitalist allies as threats to the power and privileges that they have long enjoyed. They fear a world they no longer control. This fear endangers their own populations but also billions of people around the world. The threat of war, the ongoing devastation of the environment and the gross differentials in material conditions of life across the world are crises that must be resolved. The Asian moment is thus both one of great hope and promise, but also one of danger that calls for caution and calm moving forward.
China’s socialist system has played a key role in the nation’s recent successes. There has been a focus on improving the livelihoods of its people that has seen the massive reduction of poverty, with the country lifting over 800 million people above the United Nations’ definition of absolute poverty, and bringing perhaps one-third of its population into the middle-income group. Education, healthcare and other social services have been developed, and the lives of people have been fundamentally improved in the decades since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The “Asian moment” is not just China’s moment, but China is at the heart of the changes taking place. This is a dynamic process, and one filled with danger and challenges. But it is one of great potential for solving the great challenges that confront us.
The author is a professor at New Mexico State University’s Department of History.