The Historical Significance of China's Entry to the WTO

CAMBRIDGE: Yesterday, America joined Europe in agreeing on the principles of economic reform in China that will permit China to enter the World Trade Organization. This sets the stage for China's membership in the WTO by the end of 2000. China's addition to the WTO brings 1.3 billion people - more than one-fifth of humanity - formally into the mainstream of the international economy. This is an epochal change of direction for China's relations to the world that trace back to events five centuries ago.

For economists and historians with a long view, China's situation in the world poses a puzzle. Simply put, why is China so poor today? GNP per person averages around $3,200, compared with around $25,000 on average in the US and Europe, when such calculations are made at a standardized set of prices. The puzzle is that, from 550 to 1500 AD, Chinese civilization once led the world in technology and probably in economic well-being. China's relative decline for the last 500 years is one of the greatest themes of world history.

Turn the clock back six centuries, to the early 1400s. China could boast technological wonders - the compass, navigational abilities, the printing press, fireworks and explosives - that barely touched the rest of the world. China's state had been unified for more than 1500 years; its statecraft was considerably sophisticated. Chinese fine arts, exemplified by its porcelains that would be craved by the world for centuries to come, were remarkable by the standards of any age. Perhaps the greatest symbol of these accomplishments in the early years of the 15th century were the great naval expeditions of the Chinese fleet, in which ships of monumental proportion sailed the routes of Southeast Asia, to India, and even to East Africa during the years 1405 to 1431. Archeologists today find Chinese porcelain shards in Kenya and Tanzania.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.