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15 October 2003

The ‘Brics’: Back To The Future

By Gwynne Dyer

Thirty-three years after China launched its first satellite, a high-tech boom-box called Mao 1 that broadcast a tinny version of ‘The East Is Red’ to an underwhelmed world, it has finally put a man into space. But the pace is picking up: Beijing is planning to put Chinese yuhangyuan (spacemen) on the Moon in just another seven years. If it stays on course, it will soon overtake Russia to become the second biggest player in space — and around 2040, according to a study released earlier this month by investment bankers Goldman Sachs, it will overtake the United States to become the world’s largest economy.

Even then China won’t be the richest country in per capita terms, but it certainly won’t be poor any more: in terms of GDP per head, Chinese citizens will be at about the same level as the richer European countries are now by 2050, the cut-off date of the Goldman Sachs study. Other big developing countries like India and Brazil will only have reached the same income level as present-day Portugal — but that’s not so terrible either, and there will be an awful lot of Indians and Brazilians by then. The Chinese launch is telling us that the world is changing in a fundamental way.

Five centuries ago, on the eve of Europe’s rise to world empire, average incomes in China and India were about the same as average incomes in Western Europe — and average incomes in the Muslim Middle East were probably higher. Then the Europeans burst out of their continent and overran the planet. They and their overseas descendants ended up far richer than everybody else, partly because of their empires and partly because they took the scientific and industrial lead. The new status quo has been around for so long that it has come to seem natural, but it is ending now.

The Goldman Sachs paper is a sophisticated exercise in prediction that takes into account factors like population growth and changing age structures, capital accumulation and likely productivity growth, rather than just doing straight-line projections of current trends. It focusses on what it calls the ‘Brics’: four lower-middle-income countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — that have big populations and already have significant industrial and technological skills and resources. And it tells us where it thinks we will all be in 2050.

The world’s biggest economy will be China’s, of course, with the United States in second place (although America may still be China’s equal in technological innovation). India is not too far behind in size — and then, a long way after the Big Three, come Japan, Brazil and Russia. Bringing up the rear, so far as the major players are concerned, are Britain, Germany, France and Italy. With the exception of the US and Brazil, ‘New World’ countries that were not home to modern mass civilisations five hundred years ago, it is a return to the same list, in almost exactly the same order, that you would have drawn up in the year 1500.

That makes a kind of sense. In a globalised society and economy where the West no longer enjoys absolute political control, you would expect the distribution of global power to return gradually to what it used to be, with the big populations on the large land masses having greater wealth and power than small Western European countries. But it will take a lot of getting used to, especially for the Western countries that have had their own way for so long.

Some of these predictions may not come true, of course, or at least they may not happen within the chosen time-frame. China has had two disastrous political adventures in the past forty years, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, each of which cost it at least a decade of growth. What if it has another?

Brazil has been the promised land of the future for at least a hundred years now, but its present never lives up to the promise. India has an abnormally high level of corruption and a ramshackle education system (though it also has the advantage of being the only ‘Bric’ where large numbers of people speak English, the global lingua franca). Even Russia might go off the rails, though it seems least likely to. But these are essentially details: most of the Goldman Sachs predictions will come to pass, even if some do not, and the world will still be a changed place.

What conclusions should we draw from all this, apart from the obvious one that the first human beings on Mars will probably be Chinese? One is that the real environmental crisis is coming at us even faster than the pessimists feared: four or five billion people in the ‘Brics’ and other Asian and Latin American countries who will be consuming at current European levels by 2050 will put huge additional stress on the environment. The time for emergency measures is probably now — not that there is any real hope of such a thing.

`The second is that we desperately need to revive and refine the kind of multilateral global governance for which the existing United Nations system is a sketchy first draft. The prospect of a world that is highly competitive economically and under acute environmental pressure — and where there are five or six nuclear-armed major powers, no longer contained within the old bipolar system of the Cold War — absolutely requires an inclusive international system that works. Rather like the one currently being destroyed, in fact.

And the third conclusion? Westerners had better start working on their manners.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Some…place”)