Last Word

Improving app-iness

Updated: 2011-06-03 11:30

By Andrew Moody (China Daily European Weekly)

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Improving app-iness

Niall Ferguson says China's rise to become the world's largest economy is inevitable. Nick J B Moore / For China Daily 

Professor argues that China's rise is a result of advancements in science, consumerism and work ethic

Niall Ferguson, renowned for being a workaholic, is a man in a hurry. A Swiss TV crew has somewhat protractedly managed to extricate itself from his shoebox-like office at the London School of Economics IDEAS center in central London and we are next on his schedule.

"It took twice as long as it should have but that is the Swiss for you," he says.

Improving app-iness

The 47-year-old, who is a history professor at the London School of Economics and at Harvard University as well as a prolific author, seems to thrive on his punishing schedule.

"It is pretty relentless at the moment. Yesterday I got up at 5:30 and got home at the end of a dinner at a quarter to 11. During the day I had written 2,000 words and given three speeches," he says.

After our interview, he was going for lunch at Westminster, followed by an afternoon flight to the west coast of the United States, where he was to stay for less than 24 hours before flying back to Berlin for another engagement.

The Scottish-born academic is the focus of attention because of his new book Civilization, which puts forward the case that China - after taking a little nap of 500 years or so - might once again be emerging as a dominant world power.

"I think China is going to become the biggest economy in the world in a matter of less than 10 years and that this is an almost unstoppable outcome," he says.

"I don't think we are going back to 1411 (the height of China's Ming Dynasty supremacy) because that would imply a massive economic preponderance of China but I think we are going to be living in a time where there will be real parity for the first time since the early modern period."

The book is also the subject of a well-received TV series in the UK of the same name that the author presented and in which he is often seen roaming around China in various locations, including the Forbidden City.

Despite the morning distractions, one has a sense of having the full attention of what must be his quite considerable powers of concentration as he sits slightly hunched in repose.

Although respected within academia, there are some who are critical of what they perceive as a bent for the broadbrush conclusions of a popular historian.

"If the alternative is being an unpopular historian, it is a no-brainer, isn't it? I don't really understand why the English have this prejudice with this concept of popular history and why it is somehow in for a dig when the alternative is, of course, rampant elitism," he says.

"I would point out also I wrote a biography of the banker Siegmund Warburg recently that was replete with footnotes to 10,00 letters and diary entries."

Civilization looks at the reasons why China and other eastern powers such as the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which once held vast swaths of territory, came to be overtaken by emerging Western powers 500 years ago.

In the book, he argues a turning point for China was when Admiral Zheng He's great voyages ended and China began to look inward on itself. Anyone who built a new ship with more than two masts risked the death penalty. China, once a great seafaring nation, became closed to the world.

Ferguson compares China turning its back on oceanic voyages to America abandoning moon landings in the 1970s.

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