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According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)
It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.
By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.