For decades, the great divergence between Europe and the rest of the world has been a subject of intense scholarly study and debate. Intellectuals were puzzled by the question of when and how European countries managed to jump ahead of the rest of the world, particularly China, during the last three centuries. While academic debate revolves around an examination of factors such as institutions and governance, social norms, innovation, or geographical luck, the tide seems to have turned again. Looking at recent changes in the global GDP share of different countries, it is reasonable to consider the notion that we live in times that is nothing short but a ‘great convergence’. Considering these developments, we might learn a thing or two about the future of Europe by looking at the factors behind the decline of China’s last dynasty.
Historical analyses point to internal erosion and external pressure as a cause of the eventual collapse of the over 300-year-old dynasty that occurred long after China’s comparative economic decline occurred. Internally, it was the bureaucratic structures, inability to reform like Meiji Japan had, as well as internal rebellions such as the Boxer rebellion that led to erosion of the Qing government under Empress Dowager Cixi. At the same time, external encroachment, particularly by European Imperial powers that imposed impactful political treaties on the Qing, deprived the dynasty of its regional spheres of influence and remaining economic wealth.
The downfall of the Qing empire in 1912 then led to roughly 40 years of unrest and civil war, in which a vast part of China’s economic prowess vanished. This period was of such significance, that even today, the Communist Party is very much aware of the factors that led to the collapse of dynastic rule and places great emphasis on policies that will avert division and instability of the People’s Republic. While history does not repeat itself in exactly the same way, it can be an insightful exercise to analyse trends in the present from within a historical perspective.
While Europe is not facing exactly the same circumstances or historical context that the Qing had to face in the earlier part of the 20th century, the problems that the European Union has to counter also revolve around internal erosion and external pressure during times of economic decline. These prospects of collapse are serious enough for the German government to prepare contingency plans and trend analyses that could be utilised in the coming decades.
Internally, the remainders of the 2008 financial crisis can still be felt in disagreement on the use of fiscal policy in the union. A deep identity crisis seems to loom over Europe that is accompanied by the rise of populist movements in several European countries and a turn to authoritarian values by governments in Poland or Hungary. Europe seems to be cut in four, divided in matters of fiscal policy into North and South and further divided in matters of democratic norms into West and East. Reading the headlines in times of Brexit negotiations and Catalonian referendum make it difficult to argue against a trend of disintegration that has not been overcome for many years.
At the same time, external pressure such as the migration crisis and Russian interests that run counter to European integration increasingly put pressure on Europe’s borders and amplify division from within. The question of how and when such pressing problems can be solved remains unanswered by European policy-makers. It seems that Europe is in crisis and struggles to offer a vision for its citizens and for the wider region. Where a vision might exist, it is difficult for citizens of Europe to internalise it.
On the contrary, in setting up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has built the foundation for its vision for both its own internal economic development as well as external expansion into a globalised world. While China itself is far away from solving all of its internal problems and regional issues, it has started to put forward a clearer message of how it aims to influence the region of Eurasia, while solving domestic overcapacity issues and developing its society within the next few decades.
Viewing BRI from this perspective shows that it is more than just an infrastructure project. BRI is a brand name, and a vehicle to transform China’s companies, its economy and the wider Eurasian region. It offers an outlook for how China will interact with a globalising world and a common vision for Chinese citizens. It is exactly what Europe so dearly is in need of – a common vision to create a brighter future through which all citizens and the wider region can benefit. How crucial this endeavour is can be demonstrated by the question of French President Emmanuel Macron: ‘What good is it to live in a paradise if people cannot see where they are?’