China, the World's Capital

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

May 22, 2005

KAIFENG, China

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 clouds."

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 individual cities.

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 thriving business.

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 eat pork.

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 years.

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 Kaifeng-on-the-Hudson.