Rachman’s home in Ealing, a 20-minute drive from London’s city centre, late afternoon, December 2016.
Gideon: Earl Grey with lemon
Afshin: English Breakfast
In a quiet and nondescript street in British suburbia, a door opens and I greet a face that I’ve seen hundreds of times over the years peering out from the comment section of the Financial Times. “Thank you for coming all the way out here,” Rachman says, ushering me into a living room with a dark red Afghan carpet, lime green couch, red sitting chair, and collection of magazines piled high atop a wooden coffee table.
A carving of George Orwell stares down from its home on the mantelpiece, the Orwell Prize nestled modestly between Christmas cards and the bric-a-brac of family life in the home Rachman shares with his wife and two teenage sons.
“I’m actually not much of a tea drinker,” Rachman says, joking about how often this disappoints people who think of Brits as a nation of tea guzzlers. “There has been a move toward coffee here, but now that I drink this Earl Grey with lemon, I see it is very good”.
Tea, he says, has settled into “a comfort drink,” something you make if “someone is having a hard time and they want to talk”.
We joke about the need for “comfort drinks” in this era, and settle down to talk about his latest book, Asia’s Industrial Revolution, Western pessimism, and the life of a columnist.
From a Bangkok job to Easternisation
My first proper job as a foreign correspondent was for The Economist, from 1992 to 1995. That was in Bangkok and it was my first exposure to Asia and South-east Asia. At the time, it was very much an economic and business story. People were interested in it because it was this incredibly dynamic place. But it was also just the time when it was becoming obvious that China was sort of following the path that had been laid out by smaller countries like South Korea and in some of the South-east Asian countries.
[A]t what point does all this economic growth begin to actually change geopolitics? Of course [in the early to 90s], that still seemed pretty distant.
China was following this foreign direct investment, export-driven boom. Also around that time, as you know, in 1991-92, was when Manmohan Singh was leading economic reforms in India. All of these funds were being launched to invest in India, or in Southern China, and I was covering it all and I kind of learned to write about finance and business, but I’ve always been interested in politics. And, so, one of the big questions in my head was, well, at what point does all this economic growth begin to actually change geopolitics? Of course [in the early to 90s], that still seemed pretty distant.
But that was always a question. And when I returned to write this book, the starting point was, well, we’ve now reached that point where there has been a shift in economic gravity in the world, not just in stats and trade flows, but also in the balance of power. And that’s really the origins of the book.
The thing that sort of unites a visit to Shanghai or Mumbai, or even Seoul or other dynamic Asian cities, is the sense that things are on the move and that people feel optimistic that things are getting better.
Asian optimism and Western pessimism
The thing that sort of unites a visit to Shanghai or Mumbai, or even Seoul or other dynamic Asian cities, is the sense that things are on the move and that people feel optimistic that things are getting better. It was put to me very well by an Italian industrialist, Carlo de Benedetti, who I quote in the book.
He said, “when I go to China now, it feels like Italy in the 1950s”. He said, “everybody’s getting their first car, their first television. They feel life’s getting better, that there’s opportunity, that their kids are going to be better off”. That sense of dynamism is very present. You can really see it’s reflected in the opinion polls about people being optimistic about the future and so on.
It’s the opposite in many parts of the West. In fact, I was just talking to my colleague in Brussels who was saying it was a bit of a depressing job because, he says, you can smell the decay. You feel things coming apart. And de Benedetti said to me, you know, he was mainly talking about how worried he was about the future of Italy.
The Chinese had become the tourists in the West.
A telling moment in Barcelona
I remember being in a hotel in Barcelona, suddenly seeing all these Spanish waiters rushing desperately around serving a party of Chinese coach tourists. I’d seen that scene in reverse so many times in Asia, of Western tourists. Now, that had flipped. The Chinese had become the tourists in the West.
Editors note: The Chinese have become the world’s largest outbound tourists, accounting for 10% of all travellers.
China and the Thucydides Trap
Editor’s note: In 2013, Rachman joined a delegation of Western luminaries to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the meeting, Xi refuted the Thucydides Trap idea that the US and China were fated to clash. The Thucydides Trap, a theory espoused by Harvard scholar Graham Allison, notes that established powers tend to clash with rising powers, much as the Greek historian Thucydides observed in the battle between Sparta and a rising Athens in Ancient Greece.
I’m very struck by the fact that [the Thucydides Trap] is talked about so much. I was part of a group that met Xi Jinping. He gave a speech to this group of CEOs and ex-politicians and a couple of journalist hanger-ons. He specifically talked about the Thucydides Trap and how it was everybody’s responsibility to avoid it.
[Y]ou have a leader of China talking almost directly about the possibility that his country will never go to war with the US.
It struck me later, here you have a leader of China talking almost directly about the possibility that his country will never go to war with the US.
I think it’s a very interesting way of… defining the problem. I think it’s worth discussing if only because the leaders are thinking about it, and indeed planning for it to some extent.
That’s kind of interesting, particularly when you see bits of it beginning to play out in the South China Sea with the island-building programme by the Chinese and the freedom of navigation operations by the Americans. So, this sort of theory begins to impinge on reality, but the question is: How far can it go and what is the underlying thinking for the two countries involved?
Can they control it and how does the rest of the world define itself as this interplay takes place? Because, in the more optimistic period of globalisation, which ended around, say, 2008, and the financial crisis, you had a theory that economic forces were so powerful and so mutually beneficial that this kind of conflict would be a thing of the past. Post-2008, it seems to be coming back. How far it will go, we don’t know.
There’s a turning point happening now.
Asia’s Industrial Revolution and political power
There’s a turning point happening now. The European imperial age maybe started in the late 1400s, with Vasco da Gama, Columbus, and the great European voyages of exploration.
It lasted for maybe 500 years in the sense that you have the rest of the world really being shaped by what’s happening in Europe and then in the US. That was the case even after 1945, because although the European empire dissolved, America was basically an offshoot country of Europe and it continues to dominate.
I think, in very crude terms, what happened is that the industrial revolution took hold in Asia – and not just in Japan, which was the one country that had done it before, but also in other countries.
Up until that point the concentration of wealth and power and technology in the West was so intense compared to, say, a China that was living in a very backward state under Mao [Tse-Tung], or an India that hadn’t really taken off economically in its early years of independence.
In the long run, the accumulation of economic power is closely related to political power.
At the point where you have these countries really maturing economically, the central gravity of the global economy begins to shift, and that’s happened.
In the long run, the accumulation of economic power is closely related to political power.
Book Excerpts: Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century
“Globalisation has helped Asian nations to lift hundreds of millions of people, but it also seems to have contributed to social inequality all over the world. The leaders of East and West have a shared interest in establishing a more equitable form of globalisation. The mutual economic interests binding Asia to to the US and to Europe remain the best hope of avoiding conflict.” (p. 254)
[Y]ou know, it’s odd to be well paid to do stuff that millions of people do for free and probably quite competently.
The Life of a columnist: “Excessively respected and excessively reviled.”
In some ways, I feel like I’m in a very privileged position; a position that’s sort of dying. I mean, I’m like the last generation of French aristocracy. I’m only able to live on my estate. My kids are not going to be able to do that because, you know, it’s odd to be well paid to do stuff that millions of people do for free and probably quite competently.
On the other hand, I remember when I was starting as a journalist and I was a freelancer in Washington, DC, and writing about international politics. At that point, Tom Friedman was the State Department correspondent for The New York Times and close buddies with then-Secretary of State James Baker.
[Tom] had fantastic access to the secretary of state and so he had brilliant stories. Now, because I’ve got the Financial Times name behind me and I’ve been doing the job for 10 years, it gives me good access.
That makes the job easier, certainly, and more interesting. As for the anger directed toward the mainstream media, it gets odd. Initially, because I worked anonymously for The Economist, I was not exposed to that sort of anger. Then, you know, you put your email address at the bottom of a piece and you get angry emails.
You also get a lot of bile in the comment pages. Initially it was a bit unsettling – and still is, occasionally – but, you know, it toughens you up. You get scraped and you forget it. But it’s interesting to be both excessively respected and excessively reviled.