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...what has to be explained is not the west’s looming relative decline but its temporary pre-eminence. Of a world population approaching 7bn, the US and western Europe together account for a mere 770m. Their gross domestic product per head – a very approximate guide to living standards – is three times the world average. Such discrepancies can hardly be expected to last in an increasingly globalised planet. In 1500, just after Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery, China and India were both estimated to have had a total GDP considerably higher than western Europe’s and GDP per head only slightly lower. Earlier still, in about 1000, living standards were fairly uniform – and low – throughout the world but the estimates show China slightly in the lead.
The reversal towards an earlier norm has already started. Emerging and developing countries now account, for the first time in the modern era, for about half of total world output. Historians have offered endless explanations for the west’s temporary surge: religions that put more emphasis on the individual and his activities in this life; an intellectual climate more favourable to scientific thought; property rights that safeguarded acquisitions of wealth; less autocratic forms of government. The list is endless and doubtless all these elements played a part. In the late 18th century the government of England’s George III sent a trade mission to China, only to be rebuffed by the Chinese emperor who declared that his country had everything it required and did not need western trinkets.
But such attitudes could hardly be expected to last, faced with the evidence of an increasing western lead. What the west initiated the others would follow; and eventually began to initiate on their own.
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