Editor's note: Niall Ferguson's new book, "Civilization: The West and the Rest," was published this week by Penguin Press. Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a senior research fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Ferguson spoke at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, U.K. in July. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.
By Niall Ferguson - Special to CNN
It says it all when Europe turns to China for a bailout. That was what happened last week when the man in charge of the European Financial Stability Fund flew to Beijing to see if he could interest Chinese investors in propping up the finances of the eurozone.
How the mighty are fallen. Thirty-five years ago the average German was roughly 15 times richer than the average Chinese. Today the ratio is less than 3-to-1. Back in 1980 the Chinese economy accounted for just 2.2% of global economic output, one third the size of Germany's share. By 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, the Chinese share will be 18%, six times larger than Germany's.
We are living through an extraordinary reversal of economic fortunes after 500 years when the big story was what historians call "the great divergence." Beginning in 1500, Europeans and European settlers in North America began to get richer than Asians (and everyone else, too). The gap between the "West and the Rest" widened at an accelerating rate until the later 1970s. But then - on our watch - that trend went into high-speed reverse.
So what has been going on?