[Paleopsych] NYT: Kristof: China, the World's Capital
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Sun May 22 17:03:44 UTC 2005
China, the World's Capital
New York Times opinion column by Nicholas D. Kristof, 5.
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
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
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
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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