[Paleopsych] NYT: Kristof: China, the World's Capital

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China, the World's Capital
New York Times opinion column by Nicholas D. Kristof, 5.

    KAIFENG, China

    As this millennium dawns, New York City is the most important city in
    the world, the unofficial capital of planet Earth. But before we New
    Yorkers become too full of ourselves, it might be worthwhile to glance
    at dilapidated Kaifeng in central China.

    Kaifeng, an ancient city along the mud-clogged Yellow River, was by
    far the most important place in the world in 1000. And if you've never
    heard of it, that's a useful warning for Americans - as the Chinese
    headline above puts it, in a language of the future that many more
    Americans should start learning, "glory is as ephemeral as smoke and

    As the world's only superpower, America may look today as if global
    domination is an entitlement. But if you look back at the sweep of
    history, it's striking how fleeting supremacy is, particularly for
    individual cities.

    My vote for most important city in the world in the period leading up
    to 2000 B.C. would be Ur, Iraq. In 1500 B.C., perhaps Thebes, Egypt.
    There was no dominant player in 1000 B.C., though one could make a
    case for Sidon, Lebanon. In 500 B.C., it would be Persepolis, Persia;
    in the year 1, Rome; around A.D. 500, maybe Changan, China; in 1000,
    Kaifeng, China; in 1500, probably Florence, Italy; in 2000, New York
    City; and in 2500, probably none of the above.

    Today Kaifeng is grimy and poor, not even the provincial capital and
    so minor it lacks even an airport. Its sad state only underscores how
    fortunes change. In the 11th century, when it was the capital of Song
    Dynasty China, its population was more than one million. In contrast,
    London's population then was about 15,000.

    An ancient 17-foot painted scroll, now in the Palace Museum in
    Beijing, shows the bustle and prosperity of ancient Kaifeng. Hundreds
    of pedestrians jostle each other on the streets, camels carry
    merchandise in from the Silk Road, and teahouses and restaurants do a
    thriving business.

    Kaifeng's stature attracted people from all over the world, including
    hundreds of Jews. Even today, there are some people in Kaifeng who
    look like other Chinese but who consider themselves Jewish and do not
    eat pork.

    As I roamed the Kaifeng area, asking local people why such an
    international center had sunk so low, I encountered plenty of envy of
    New York. One man said he was arranging to be smuggled into the U.S.
    illegally, by paying a gang $25,000, but many local people insisted
    that China is on course to bounce back and recover its historic role
    as world leader.

    "China is booming now," said Wang Ruina, a young peasant woman on the
    outskirts of town. "Give us a few decades and we'll catch up with the
    U.S., even pass it."

    She's right. The U.S. has had the biggest economy in the world for
    more than a century, but most projections show that China will surpass
    us in about 15 years, as measured by purchasing power parity.

    So what can New York learn from a city like Kaifeng?

    One lesson is the importance of sustaining a technological edge and
    sound economic policies. Ancient China flourished partly because of
    pro-growth, pro-trade policies and technological innovations like
    curved iron plows, printing and paper money. But then China came to
    scorn trade and commerce, and per capita income stagnated for 600

    A second lesson is the danger of hubris, for China concluded it had
    nothing to learn from the rest of the world - and that was the
    beginning of the end.

    I worry about the U.S. in both regards. Our economic management is so
    lax that we can't confront farm subsidies or long-term budget
    deficits. Our technology is strong, but American public schools are
    second-rate in math and science. And Americans' lack of interest in
    the world contrasts with the restlessness, drive and determination
    that are again pushing China to the forefront.

    Beside the Yellow River I met a 70-year-old peasant named Hao Wang,
    who had never gone to a day of school. He couldn't even write his name
    - and yet his progeny were different.

    "Two of my grandsons are now in university," he boasted, and then he
    started talking about the computer in his home.

    Thinking of Kaifeng should stimulate us to struggle to improve our
    high-tech edge, educational strengths and pro-growth policies. For if
    we rest on our laurels, even a city as great as New York may end up as

    E-mail: nicholas at nytimes.com

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