China’s rise has been a long time coming, says Harvard Sinologist
William Kirby, a leading United States Sinologist, does not believe in all the current doom and gloom about the Chinese economy.
The TM Chang professor of China studies at Harvard University said 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,” he said.
“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, 64, 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 lecture series at Harvard that covers 6,000 years of Chinese history, which is available free online.
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 Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World, 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 there will be a lot of cheap shots made by politicians about China as the 2016 US presidential election gets into full stride, and he laments it will paint a false picture of the reality of ChinaUS 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 City but was brought up in Stamford, Connecticut. He studied at Dartmouth College before going to study history at Harvard.
He was taught by the American Sinologist John Fairbank King, who is 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 learned 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 said 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 proCommunist.” Kirby said 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.”
During his career, Kirby has evolved from being a historian to a business academic. At Harvard, he is also the 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.”
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.
Kirby, who studied in Germany and has extensive knowledge of its economy, said Germany is a hard act to follow.
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,” he said. Take a place like Zhejiang (an 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’.”
US Sinologist Willaim Kirby does not believe in current doom and gloom about the Chinese economy.