On 4 October 1957 a shiny steel sphere the size of a beach ball hurtled through the sky, emitting signals picked up by radio operators around the world. Taking the United States completely by surprise, the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first earth satellite, opening a new chapter in the space race that was met with both awe and fear. A month later Nikita Khrushchev promised that, by freeing the economy from the dead hand of Stalinism, he would create such abundance that even the United States would be left in the dust. The claims now seem extravagant, but at the time the spectre of a rising Soviet Union seemed real enough. In the mid-1970s American visitors walking through the major cities of Siberia were taken aback by downtowns that were made to appear every bit as modern as their counterparts back home. Yet by the time the Soviet Union came crashing down a decade or so later, the perceived threat to the West had already been transposed to the East. Glittering Japan was the future. Bankers predicted that a rising empire of the sun would soon supplant the United States as the world’s leading economy. Distinguished academics such as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the West, its citizens cells of an organic whole that stifled open dissent. On a more popular level, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun imagined a ruthless corporate world headquartered in Tokyo taking over American industries. By the time the book was published in 1992, Japan had already fallen into a decade of slump. Niall Ferguson is not quite sure when and where he was hit by the realisation that we are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy, but he believes it may have been during his first walk along the Bund in Shanghai in 2005, dazzled by modern skyscrapers far taller than the erstwhile symbols of Western hegemony.

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