Walking & racing to modernity

Two quantitative facts of note from When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order:

From page 33:

Although the passage to modernity universally involves the transition from an agrarian to service-based society via an industrial one, here we find another instance of European exceptionalism. European countries (sixteen in all)...are the only ones in the world that have been through a phase in which the relative size of industrial employment was larger than either agrarian or service employment. In Britain, industrial employment reached its peak in 1911, when it accounted for 52.2 percent of the total labor force...the peak figure for the United States was 35.8 percent in 1967 and for Japan 37.1 percent in 1973...From a global perspective, a different and far more common path has been to move directly, in terms of employment, from a largely agrarian to a mainly service society, without a predominantly industrial phase....

From page 103-104:

...In 1950 79% of South Korea's population worked in agriculture...by 1960 the figure was 61%, and today it is it around 10%. In the late 1960s the farming population still comprised half of Taiwan's total population, whereas today it accounts for a mere 8%...In 1950 76% of Taiwanese lived in the countryside, whereas by 1989...that figure had been almost exactly reversed...The urban population in South Korea was 18% in 1950 and 80% in 1994...In China the urban population represented 17% of the total population in 1975 and is projected to be 46% by 2015....

Compared with Europe, the speed of the shift from the countryside to the cities is exceptional. Germany's urban population grew from 15% in 1850 to 49% in 1910...and 53% in 1950...The equivalent figures for France were 19% in 1850 and 38% in 1910 (and 68% in 1970). England's urban population was 23% in 1800, 45% in 1850, and 75% in 1910. In the United States, the urban population was 14% in 1850, 42% in 1910, and 57% in 1950. If we take South Korea as our point of comparison...the proportion of its population living in cities increased by 62% in 44 years, compared with 52% for England over a period of 110 years, 34% over 60 years for Germany (and 38% over 100 years), 19% over 60 years for France (and 49% over 120 years), and 28% over 60 years (and 43% over 100 years) for the United States....

The author emphasizes the extreme rapidity of the economic transition from an agricultural economy to a post-industrial one in much of East Asia, with the long slow simmer of the British Industrial Revolution as a contrast. He points out that the relative gradual nature of industrialization in Europe likely explains the historic and antique aspects of its cities; evolutionary change allows for preservation and appreciation of the past, while very rapid economic growth as has been the norm in East Asia since 1950 tends to overturn the old order in its haste. I would suggest though that the ephemeral nature of East Asian architecture, with its dependence on wood, is something which has a deeper historical basis. But in any case, I think it is plausible that the extremely rapid shift from agrarian to post-industrial societies makes East Asians particularly open to novel technologies and fads.

When China Rules the World is interesting, it occupies a space between The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and The End of History and the Last Man. The title is a bit hyperbolic, and doesn't really reflect what's within. In fact the subtitle is far more an accurate reflection of the content.

Note: The author points out in the book that the Jin Dynasty was Mongol. It was not, it was Jurchen, the same group which gave rise to the Manchus.

More like this

This is not shocking and the conclusion of the author is likely valid to an extent, BUT...

In Japan for example, people don't like to buy old homes, unlike in much of Europe and North America. There are two reasons.

1) They believe spirits could be in the home, Japanese don't like to live in "some else's house"
2) earthquakes are common and it is better to demolish it and build a new one on the land because houses weaken overtime due to the quakes.

So in some ways they don't value the "old" as much.

What the author points out is likely true in that every East and Southeast Asian city I have been to (Tokyo, Osaka, Shanghai, Beijing, Saigon, Seoul...well maybe not Beijing as much) is very "random". It almost appears like their is no zoning, let alone commonality in builds or color. It looks like people through up buildings anywhere that they could find space. Some very nice building are next to old and rundown ones. Rich people's homes are surrounded by poor apartment buildings, etc.

By Dragon Horse (not verified) on 10 Mar 2010 #permalink

Very fascinating! Thanks for the post, now the book is my reading list.

The reason for Asian countries' much faster urbanization is that the blueprint for industrialization already existed while western countries were making it up as they industrialized.

Countries like China are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of scientific, engineering, and organizational advances, mostly from the West, that have long been in the world public domain. It is a legacy that is worth trillions of dollars to the Chinese - one that they, of course, would never acknowledge.

What will be interesting is what happens when they get close to parity with the West and need to make their own scientific and engineering advances to continue their growth.

Needless to say, 10% annual growth will be a distance memory by that time, much as it has been over the last 20+ years in Japan.

By Ron Strong (not verified) on 10 Mar 2010 #permalink

Very true about the speed, but there is also a downside: China will get old before it gets rich. Granted that is easy to fix -- one child policy is a law that can be changed, but we are seeing that in Japan and also in Korea as well.

The Chinese standard of living is being kept artificially low by trade and currency policy. This allows them to export a lot, keep people employed, grow their economy, and build up capital. It also means that the US standard of living is being kept artificially high.

So if there is a crunch, China will have reserves and also will have a population which hasn't developed expensive habits. The US will have a spoiled population and no reserves, though its economy will still be the world's most productive by any standard.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 11 Mar 2010 #permalink

It is a legacy that is worth trillions of dollars to the Chinese - one that they, of course, would never acknowledge.

Perhaps they will be like some in the West that never acknowledge the valuable Mediterranean legacy and claim that rather it was actually their own Nordic ancestors that advanced everything in the Mediterranean civilizations - that everything and everyone of note was actually Nordic.

Or be like modern Westerners, who don't acknowledge that the technical side of their greater "renaissance" was made possible by the Chinese compass, gun powder, printing, paper.. It is a legacy that is worth trillions of dollars to the Euro-Americans - one that they, of course, would never acknowledge. And blah blah..