Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Book Review: The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

With the advantage of writing this review 10% into the 21st century, I can point out the important factors that Friedman has missed in this book.

Friedman does not show an understanding of the Chinese culture which is rising rapidly and hence has misjudged the implication of a powerful China. He is absolutely correct that China was more like an isolated island, with difficult to penetrate borders on all sides. That is no longer true in light of modern technology. In 1421, before Columbus set sail to 'discover' the world, Chinese fleet, led by ZhengHe has already visited Middle East and Eastern Africa. The size of the ocean going junks used by ZhengHe built over 60 years earlier towered over Columbus ships. [see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI1AmTa-bV0] Until about 500 years ago, China was the world's leading economy and power.

China has been conquered by foreign powers twice in her entire history. First at Yuan Dynasty which lasted less that 100 years and the second time at Qing Dynasty [1644-1911 CE] - the last dynasty before the new China was born. The result is that the conquerors were melted into the Chinese culture and became Chinese.

The above two snippets of history tell a story which Friedman has completely missed.

1. Being geographically isolated in the past, China has to be self-sufficient in order to survive. China could not depend on conquering other people to steal wealth. For an agricultural society to remain viable, a stable society was a prerequisite. As such, Chinese is a peace loving culture. When she has the power to conquer the world, she chose not to do so.
2. Being self sufficient, it was tempting for the Emperors to close the border and focused mainly on internal affairs. Of course the closing of trade in the last 500 years proved to be disastrous for China. Chinese, thus, has learnt a lesson which is still painfully remembered. A country needs a sufficient strong defense in order to protect herself. That's the main motivation why Mao insisted on China becoming a nuclear nation.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell described a difference between rice culture and wheat culture. The southern China is a rice culture and that hard working moral has permeated throughout China. The discipline and efficiency of achievement as demonstrated by the 2008 Olympics, for instance, reflects the collective will of the Chinese people.

Can China continue to develop her economy? Friedman did not think so. I think that is his first mistake. Yes, dynasties came and gone. But China has remained as a unity. As Kissinger, correctly observed, China is more a culture than a nation state. It will not fragment as Friedman suggested.

Chinese economy started at a very low level. Until her per capital income is in par with leading economy, her economic growth is easy. She does not need to make mistakes which are typical at the "cutting edge". When Chinese per capital income is in par with USA, her economy would be 4 times larger than USA - just by size of the population. Recent global financial crisis indicates that USA economic strength is not at powerful as Friedman would have wished.

With a powerful peace loving nation in place, the world would be safer. Unless some leaders in a country are insane, waging war against a nuclear nation is MAD. There has been no world war since the invention of nuclear weapons speaks volume to the danger of major conflict. USA's navy power could not be used to force her will onto China, nor be used to limit Chinese economic grow.

Just by the size of the population, China is producing more PhDs in Science and engineering than USA. A report in 2002 predicts that by 2010, China will have more PhD graduating than USA. [source: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200210/21/eng20021021_105393.shtml] The consistent relatively poor performance of USA students in all educational measures points to a weakening intellectual capacity of USA. The best students in USA choose to study the soft easy subjects such as commerce and law. The best students in China choose to study the hard sciences. The intellectual strength of China will only increase while the same cannot be said to USA. The limiting factor to Chinese growth is resources and energy. The lower living standard in China means Chinese manufacturing can afford to pay more for the scarce resources than USA. In a world where military might could not be used to steal other nations' resources, China will compete on economic terms with USA for energy and resources.

China is the largest foreign creditor of the USA government. Chinese strategic dumping of USA Treasury bonds into the market can influence the interest rate at which USA government can borrow money. If there is any leverage a government can put on another, it would be China having an upper hand than the USA.

21st century will not be an easy century. The climate change will have significant impact on relationships between nations. Friedman has completely ignored this factor in this book. The world has already warmed by 0.8 deg C and there is a 1.6 deg C locked in even if by a miracle every country on this planet wake up tomorrow morning and take the most serious steps to fight climate change - which is not likely to happen. There will be large population displacement and serious "natural" disasters due to the effect of extreme climate. Economic resources will be stretched.

The declining of fossil fuel will also significantly affect the economic development. China has put renewable energy source as her main strategic goal and determined to be the leading manufacturer of renewable energy. Independence of fossil fuel has been a national agenda since President Carter. The domestic politics of USA has been delaying any action in reducing USA's dependence on oil. That's not a sign of a power nation.

From history point, USA is young, very young. In the wild, death at young age is not uncommon. Being young does not imply powerful.

If USA policy is informed by Friedman, she will be in very dangerous water. USA needs to learn from UK how to survive in a world dominated by power other than USA.


Downes said...

> China has been conquered by foreign powers twice in her entire history. First at Yuan Dynasty which lasted less that 100 years and the second time at Qing Dynasty [1644-1911 CE] - the last dynasty before the new China was born.

What about the Mongols?

Albert Ip said...

Qing was the second time. The first by Mongols in the Yuan Dynasty.