China – as the rest of the world is continuously told – is poised to become the next superpower economically, politically and, perhaps, culturally, though even the most enthusiastic exponents of the nation’s “inexorable rise” balk at the latter. In the long march towards these sunny, prosperous uplands, China continues to defy economic gravity. Mandarin proficiency is a guaranteed pathway to international success and anyone who dares to raise an eyebrow risks “offending 1.3 billion people”.
Historical lessons about the ultimate value of ever-more buoyant upward predictions can be gleaned from other societies that were supposedly poised on ever-better trajectories over the past century or so. With the benefit of hindsight, those optimistic prognostications make uncomfortable reading.
In 1913, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia seemed secure upon his throne in St Petersburg, a highly effective state security apparatus having crushed any hint of political dissent, and the capitals of Europe thronged with carefree, wealthy Russians. Four years later, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution brought that complacent world crashing down. Thousands of émigrés fled the emergent Soviet horrors; European Russia – its cultural and intellectual heritage obliterated by Leninism – never recovered.
In 1946, East Asia’s most stable society and a key destination for inward investment was the Philippines. With peacefully devolved political independence from the United States, massive American aid, a well-educated population, thriving agricultural sector and import-substitution industries, the island nation had everything in its favour. As a stark contemporary comparison, a status marker for wealthy Philippine families in the post-war years was a Hong Kong Chinese maid.
Forty years later, when the Marcos-era kleptocracy was finally flung out, the Philippines’ single largest export earner was salary remittances from overseas contract workers – mostly poorly paid, indifferently treated female domestic servants scattered from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong.
In the 1960s and early 70s, Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was – unless you were a political opponent – a liberal, pluralistic society. An educated, rapidly expanding urban middle class conspicuously enjoyed internationally influenced, petro-dollar-fuelled consumer tastes and lifestyle aspirations. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned, the shah’s regime collapsed and the imposition of medieval theocratic rule saw dreams of a Persian renaissance dissolve into nightmares.
When Norodom Sihanouk ruled Cambodia, in the early 60s, the sleepy, largely agrarian country was a visitor’s paradise, populated by a graceful, gentle people who lived amid the magnificent remains of Angkor’s lostcivilisation. Violent political upheaval seemed unthinkable. Yet within a decade, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had burst onto the scene, with tragic consequences.
In the early 80s, Japan seemed – and for a while, was – the ultimate Asian economic powerhouse. Flattened militarily in the 40s, post-war Japan had decisively won the peace, the economic conqueror everywhere that they had failed to take by force. Learn Japanese, every school leaver in the Western world was told, and you’ll never be without opportunity. Sound familiar? Thirty years of economic stagnation later, Japan remains wealthy, yet learning Japanese as a foreign language is regarded as a culturally interesting academic pursuit rather than an express route to a lucrative business career.
To the naysayers, Hong Kong has been comprehensively finished – politically, socially, economically – several times in recent decades; the early 80s, before the Joint Declaration was signed in 1984, and the Sars crisis in 2003, were the most dramatic times for doom merchants. Yet, somehow, the place muddles along, despite worsening political dysfunction, an appalling wealth gap and declining youth opportunities.