This article was first published at Exante Data’s Money Inside and Out.
China was ready for its historic opportunity.
Although a widely used aphorism, “demographics is destiny” is not strictly true in the modern era. Long gone are the days when troop size could on its own determine the outcome of a war, or when deploying manpower on a massive scale could result in a decisive economic advantage. Brute force just isn’t what it used to be. Today, thanks to advanced technology, small groups can inflict enormous damage in war, and a handful of software programmers can create billions in new wealth.
That said, demographics remains an important part of destiny in combination with other non-demographic factors.
Some of these factors can mitigate, or even completely counteract, a deteriorating demographic picture. Others can multiply the positive effects of demographics. This distinction—between demographics as a leading determinant of national stature vs. demographics as merely one of several components —can be illustrated by the following two opinions.
The first is a view promoted among others by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post-American World (2008). Here is Zakaria in a 2008 Newsweek column The Rise of the Restrepeating the theme of his book:
It is an accident of history that for the last several centuries, the richest countries in the world have all been very small in terms of population. Denmark has 5.5 million people, the Netherlands has 16.6 million. The United States is the biggest of the bunch and has dominated the advanced industrial world. But the real giants—China, India, Brazil—have been sleeping, unable or unwilling to join the world of functioning economies. Now they are on the move and naturally, given their size, they will have a large footprint on the map of the future.
The second is from Winston Churchill’s speech Fifty Years Hence. It is from 1931 but remains as pertinent as ever:
When we look back beyond a hundred years over the long trails of history, we see immediately why the age we live in differs from all other ages in human annals. Mankind has sometimes traveled forwards and sometimes backwards, or has stood still even for hundreds of years. It remained stationary in India and in China for thousands of years. What is it that has produced this new prodigious speed of man? Science is the cause. Her once feeble vanguards, often trampled down, often perishing in isolation, have now become a vast organized united class-conscious army marching forward upon all the fronts towards objectives none may measure or define. It is a proud, ambitious army which cares nothing for all the laws that men have made; nothing for their most time-honoured customs, or most dearly cherished beliefs, or deepest instincts. It is this power called Science which has laid hold of us, conscripted us into its regiments and batteries, set us to work upon its highways and in its arsenals; rewarded us for our services, healed us when we were wounded, trained us when we were young, pensioned us when we were worn out. None of the generations of men before the last two or three were ever gripped for good or ill and handled like this.
Zakaria was not wrong about the growth of China, India, Brazil and others (he was after all writing in 2008 when that growth was already evident) but he gave demographics more weight than it deserves. Zakaria saw the overwhelming success of the less populous West as an “accident of history” while “the real giants – China, India, Brazil – have been sleeping, unable or unwilling to join the world of functioning economies.”
By contrast, Churchill saw the West’s advance as no accident and as the logical result of scientific progress. Note in the excerpt Churchill’s mention of India and China, to emphasize that demographics had been overtaken by science.Read more