China's ascent '100 years in the making'

Updated: 2015-11-13 08:15

By Andrew Moody(China Daily Europe)

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US sinologist pours cold water on those who peddle doomsday tales

William Kirby, a leading US Sinologist, does not believe all the current doom and gloom about the Chinese economy.

The TM Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University says many commentators lack any sort of perspective.

"I think it is a critical time, for sure, but I am very optimistic about the Chinese economy beyond the short term.

"The international press and, many also in China, react too strongly to short-term events. After saying for years that China can do no wrong, now, apparently, everything is going to hell."

Kirby, a youthful 64, was speaking in the business lounge of the Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing's Haidian district on one his many visits to China.

"I come six to eight times a year. I have to go home for a friend's son wedding but I will be back again in 10 days," he says, as though the journey from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a short commute.

Kirby, co-author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth, written with fellow Harvard academics Regina M. Abrami and F. Warren McFarlan, is perhaps best known for presenting ChinaX, a 10-part series that covers 6,000 years of Chinese history, which is available free online. Some 60,000 students have enrolled for it.

"We are on the second series of it this autumn. It is free and ruinously expensive for the university," he quips.

Kirby makes the point in Can China Lead?, which was published last year, that China's current rise has been a long time coming.

He contrasts book titles from the early 20th century such as The Dragon Awakes and Sun Yat Sen and the Awakening of China with When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques, the second edition of which is about to be published in Chinese.

"You can draw the conclusion from this that the earlier books were wrong and that it is the 21st, and not the 20th century, that will be the Chinese century. My argument, however, is that China's current strength is not just a result of reform and opening up in 1978 but it has been 100 years in the making."

Kirby despairs that US politicians will take a lot of cheap shots at China as the 2016 presidential election gets into full stride and laments it will paint a false picture of the reality of Sino-US relations.

"It is terrible. It is such cheap currency to bash China. In every election cycle, you bash what appears to be America's major economic competitor. In the 1980s it used to be Japan.

"But you know, apart from all this rhetoric, I think most Americans grasp how important the economic relationship is. Chinese studies used to be taught at only a handful of universities a few decades ago but now it is at almost every college and university. People see China and, importantly, an engagement with China as part of their future."

Will China becoming a bigger economy than the US some time over the next decade, as forecast, be a gamechanger?

"It will be the biggest economy in the world. I don't think there is any doubt about that but it will be a very differentiated economy. You will still have areas of continued poverty. There are also many reforms that need to be made, including a stronger legal environment and the giving and protection of property rights."

Kirby was born in New York but was brought up in Stamford, Connecticut, and studied at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, before going to study history at Harvard.

He was taught by the great American Sinologist John King Fairbank, regarded as the father of modern Chinese studies in the US.

"I remember asking him as a very young graduate whether I was actually too old to learn Chinese. He said he himself had not learnt the language until well after doing his PhD. I actually worked with him and learnt to read Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) documents."

Kirby has spent almost his entire career at Harvard and was director of the John Fairbank Center there, named in honor of his former mentor, until 2013.

He says the way China has been studied in the US has changed dramatically in recent decades.

"I think it has had its strengths and weaknesses over time. It was highly politicized in the 1950s during the Cold War and then in the 1970s it was sometimes mindlessly pro-Communist, saying the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) was a wonderful thing." Kirby says the view that there was something specific and unique about Chinese history and that it was not related to international history has also changed.

"Fairbank was someone who was criticized for arguing against that but I agree with him that modern China over the past 200 years is very much part of global history. Communism, for instance, does not come from a Chinese tradition. China has actually chosen from a menu of ideas across the world."

During his career, Kirby has evolved from being a historian to a business academic. At Harvard he is also Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration.

"I always did business history of sorts, business and political history. My first book was on the relationship between Germany and China in the 1920s and 1930s and how China was looking for a different model of development."

Harvard has a number of links with China, including the Harvard Center Shanghai, which runs a number of partnership programs.

It was announced in September that Harvard is also linking up with the Said Business School at Oxford University and Guanghua School of Management at Peking University to run an executive program for Chinese family businesses.

Many businesses in China, formed in the 1980s and 1990s, are now facing the key issue of family succession.

"With many Chinese family businesses today and the one-child policy, the successor is actually often the daughter, and is one reason why women do well in business in China."

Kirby says many small businesses in China have a difficult time because they are unable to get funding from the major state-owned banks.

"If you want to start a business, you might still have to go to any one of 10 friends to raise money because no state bank will lend money to you. This is the way things worked 200 years ago but it shouldn't work that way now."

With labor costs rising in China, there is a major debate about what economic model China should follow, Germany's manufacturing one or that of the service-sector led economies like the US and UK.

Kirby, who studied in Germany and has extensive knowledge of its economy, says Germany is a hard act to follow.

"Who would not like to be like Germany? It has an excellent school system with an emphasis on technical education and despite being a high cost manufacturer, has managed to hang on to industries that the United States has just lost. China does not have this sophisticated system at present."

The academic believes the Chinese economy is more likely to evolve in a way that reflects the diversity of the country.

"I think certain parts of China will follow different models. Take a place like Zhejiang (the east coast province), which is one of the most entrepreneurial in China, mainly because it has few state-owned enterprises.

"It could be strong in both high-end manufacturing and e-commerce and be the most like Germany. You wait, in the future, the label 'Made in Zhejiang' will have more power than that of 'Made in China'."

 China's ascent '100 years in the making'

William Kirby says the way China has been studied in the US has changed greatly in recent decades. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily


William Kirby

TM Chang Professor of China Studies, Harvard University and co-author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth


AB summa cum laude, Dartmouth College, 1972

PhD, Harvard University, 1991

Dr Phil, Honoris Causa, Freie Universitaet Berlin, 2006


Professor of history as well as various positions, University College at Washington University in St Louis, 1980-91 (director of Asian Studies, 1988-91 and dean of University College, 1988-91).

University of Harvard, since 1992 (TM Chang Professor of China Studies and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration and director of the John Fairbank Center, 2006-13)

Book, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-54 by John King Fairbank and Mutual Images: Essays in American-Japanese Relations by Akira Iriye.

Film, Wizard of Oz (1939, directed by Victor Fleming) and The Last Emperor (1987, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci).

Music, Don Giovanni by W.A. Mozart

Food, Taiwanese hot pot. "It used to be called Mongolian hot pot by KMT soldiers but has fused into Taiwanese cuisine. So much of Chinese food has changed like that over the past 30 years."

(China Daily European Weekly 11/13/2015 page32)