China’s rise has been a long time com­ing, says Har­vard Si­nol­o­gist

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS - By AN­DREW MOODY


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.

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