uk prime minister, borisjohnson, and his finance minister, rishi sunak, have both moved to calm concerns that the post—brexit deal with the eu could damage the country's business. there are worries that the financial sector particularly could suffer once the new deal comes into force. european leaders have hailed the start of coronavirus vaccinations across the eu as a turning point in the fight against the pandemic. the first in line to receive the vaccine are the elderly and health workers, and the eu aims to vaccinate just over 6 million people by the end of the year. millions of americans have lost unemployment benefits because president trump failed to sign a massive covid relief bill into law by the midnight deadline. president—elect, joe biden, has warned of devastating consequences for the people who would have been helped by the bill, which passed overwhelmingly in congress. now on bbc news, it's hardtalk with stephen sackur.
welcome to hardtalk, i'm stephen sackur. there is plentiful evidence that covid—19 has inflicted more serious damage on the united states than on china. does that play into a wider narrative about an accelerating transition of global power from west to east? it's a question which demands an historical perspective, and my guest today, peter frankopan, brings just that. he is a professor of global history and author of the best—selling book silk roads. is the west continuing to overestimate its central importance to the past and to the present?
peter frankopan, welcome to hardtalk. you are a professor of global history, so i want you to bring your historian‘s eye on to the longer—term impacts of this coronavirus pandemic. we hear from the scientists, from the politicians. give me your historian‘s perspective. well, it's a fairly predictable thing a historian would say, but change and widespread disease are nothing new. our ancestors all lived through big pandemics, some of them which were much more lethal than coronavirus. and one of the products of living together and in high—density populations, going back as far as historical records go, is you find that there are transitions of disease from animals to human beings and they inflict damage. and that damage, typically, you measure in mortality rates, but then the economic
and social consequences of disease. there's a lot of examples of history to learn from that. the challenge with coronavirus is that it's not as lethal as we all thought it would be. so, primarily, we're looking at the economic and social dislocation that comes as a result. but global history in the history of long—term, big periods, big regions, climate and disease are two of the big—ticket items thatjoin continental histories together. but given our knowledge of past pandemics, whether it be a long time ago with something like the black death or whether it be more recently with the spanish flu of the earlier 20th century, is it surprising to you just how much economic disruption and dislocation has been caused by this particular pandemic, which, as you've just said, in terms of cost in life, is a relatively, relatively mild pandemic? well, that's partly because the health services globally have managed that quite well. but to give some sort of scale, if covid had killed at the same scale that spanish flu did, relative to the same,
population—wise, we'd be looking at 230 million deaths now, rather than just over one million. and even the economic contractions — i mean, in the us, in the great depression, the scale of gdp loss was 10% every year for four years. so by the mid—19305, the us was 40% smaller than it had been going into the wall street crash and what happened afterwards. so even now, a dip down of 4% or 5% of the us economy is huge but i think it's important to have some perspective that societies, cultures, periods are not immune from this kind of widespread disease. in fact, even in the 19505 and late ‘60s, there were two pandemics that killed more than covid has done. and the big question is how the political decisions get layered on top of what the medical and health ca re consequences are. in that sense, would it be right to see this as some sort of a test of different political systems, different styles of political leadership? and if we do see it as a test, who is passing? who's failing? well, the sort of knee jerk reaction answer to that is that china's passed, having messed it all up to start with, and now we're
doing a good job of messing it all up in europe and in the united states. the truth is that there are lots of other countries that have done quite well and they're not necessarily technocratic, authoritarian closed societies. places like taiwan and japan and south korea have done really pretty well, partly because they had exposure to the sars virus in 2003 and understood pandemics were something that were likely to come up again and therefore contact tracing, medical provision, there needed to be preparation. and i think here we were immune because it wasn't something that we lived through our past history. we talk about the black death at school, but otherwise no—one had really mentioned the spanish flu for decades in classrooms and lecture rooms until the beginning of this year. so i think when you edit out and select the bits of the historical narrative that are more interesting to you, then you forget that disease... and like i said, climate is another big issue that is constantly moving and changing. it has these long—term consequences. but is there something about authoritarianism, about the strength of central authority and its imposition
upon its peoples that has, in a sense, shown its strength in dealing with this pandemic? and i'm notjust thinking of authoritarian systems like the chinese system, but i'm also thinking of the degree to which some democracies have adopted more intrusive and, quote—unquote, "less democratic practices" as a result of trying to deal with the pandemic. well, your geographical position in the world matters. if you're, if you're geographically peripheral, like scandinavia or new zealand, then you have a different dose. you have a different level of connectivity with the rest of the world. if you're a country like the uk, which is, you know, the centre of all global flight routes, then the incidence of people coming backwards and forwards in and out of your country, you're going to spread and catch much quicker. so i think one has to factor in, before one starts to ask about political decision—making and whether authoritarian systems are better at doing it, the scorecard is very mixed and there've been some democratic systems that have been extremely resilient and robust and anticipating it and some that have got it wrong. and, likewise, i think it's very easy to think that countries that have single
state control respond well because their scorecard is extremely bad in lots of other ways in terms of identifying and dealing with problems, change, and so on, because the good thing about democracy is it allows you to work out what you've done wrong and there's accountability. well, you're now introducing thoughts which i want to get to in the course of this interview but i want to do it piece by piece. i want, actually, right now, just to have you think about history, your trade and your contention that the west has a form of history which is dangerously self—absorbed. i mean, you've written these two books, the silk roads and then the new silk roads, which focus upon your knowledge of that vast swathe of territory from china and the far east through the central asian nations to the middle east and europe. it's a vast swathe of territory. you say that we in europe have understood far too little of it and shown far too little interest in it.
but why is that so problematic? well, i don't think it's a contention. i think it's a fact. i mean, most people in the uk, if you ask them to name a chinese emperor or an arab poet or writer or persian historian or a south asian musician, film star, they can't, and although we keep hearing about how globalised we are, in fact, in practice, what that's meant is that countries that are growing are required, and they've responded well to globalisation by trying to understand other people, richer countries have tended to switch off in terms of their global exposure. so, for example, today in the uk, there are less than 1,000 students at university studying chinese, japanese, thai, turkish, arabic, persian, afghani languages, hindi, combined — less than 1,000 out of a peer group of about 800,000. and that tells you that we are not preparing particularly well to be engaging with other people's cultures and histories. and that does matter. it does matter that if you go to the streets of shanghai and show a picture of david beckham or delhi or calcutta or kuala lumpur, people will know who that is...
i'm just slightly wondering why you are the one who had to point this out when, if one gets a little personal about you, here you sit with me as the son of european nobility, educated at england's poshest private school and then oxford university, bastions of the english western anglo—centric establishment. how on earth did you come to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the history you were reading? well, i'm a child of the cold war, and i grew up, every other friday, having to hide under my desk in a drill because we were convinced the soviet union was going to launch a missile attack that would destroy the world. we weren't worried about climate change in the ‘80s, we were worried about global destruction. and when i was, again, growing up as a teenager, seeing the revolution in iran, seeing the plo trying to hijack and demand statehood in the middle east, seeing what were called at the time vietnamese boat people, and the impact of what was happening in cambodia and the end of the vietnam war, it was painfully obvious to me that we weren't studying any
of these places or people in my classroom. and i suppose the defensive answer is in rich, established countries, you've got good educational systems that encourage people to think for themselves. i think that the point of being a historian, like braudel famously said, is to be brave, and that means tackling big subjects. that means tackling regions and peoples who haven't really been written about. and that's quite hard to do. that's a very interesting answer. i just wonder whether part of your determination to look east and to tell the stories of central asia and, of course, of china was that you could see which way the wind was blowing politically, economically, culturally, even, in the early 21st century. because, of course, the great success of your book has coincided with a message coming from beijing that they are building a new china, which has much bigger ambitions than we could have conceived even 30, a0 years ago. so, in a sense, you're providing an historical backdrop that suits the chinese government and its
narrative today. well, i'm not really a china specialist. i mean, i work on russia, middle east, central asia so the key moment actually was 1989 and the berlin wall coming down. so the rise of china that everyone is talking about the last three or four years and thinking that's when the wind started blowing, we need to go back 30 years, if not more. i mean, if you are taking the long view, you'd ask, what was it the communist revolutions in 1917 stopped, and what came out the other side of them? well, actually, i'm going to stop you. maybe the key moment wasn't the fall of the berlin wall. maybe the key moment was deng xiaoping declaring that china was going to embrace capitalism and that he was going to do it while maintaining the political authority of the communist party. maybe that... when we look at the span of the next 100 years, that will be much more important. well, i would buy a book about that. and you're right. i mean, in fact, the tiananmen square incident in july 1989 happened...was almost synchronous with the berlin wall coming down and the collapse of the soviet union sent shock waves through the communist party in china. and even now xijinping is, i wouldn't say obsessive, but studies very carefully
about how the soviet union had failed to adapt and how it failed to respond to the crisis in ‘89. and there's no doubt that the modern trajectory of china from deng xiaoping onwards has been very heavily influenced by seeing what happens when there's a lack of control, lack of anticipation and trying to work out how to respond in advance, so i think that these are...these are very closely connected topics. well, they are. and i take your point that your specialism isn't china, but nonetheless, you've written two books, which in the end are about the power of china going through millennia, but particularly in the update, the new silk roads, talking about china and its relationship with the neighbourhood and even all the way to europe in the 21st century. and i would just suggest to you that maybe you are overestimating the power and influence that china wields today. so, what i think i'm writing about is the two—thirds of the world's population that live east of istanbul and the amount of attention that's being paid to those
people in those regions by not just china, but by moscow, by russia, by iran, by india, by pakistan, and by the united states, to some extent, by europe. so, my interests, i think, are not china—centric. it's about seeing what influence and impact there is in these regions. and china, for sure, is paying a great deal of attention for lots of different and complex reasons to specific industries, specific sectors, specific countries, sometimes for strategic importance, sometimes for political alliance building and sometimes with their own energy and other requirements. so it's not about china. it's almost the other way round, it's about what is chinese... what is the impact of chinese attention that's being paid to these countries and what alternatives do they have to money coming out of beijing, for example, in the belt and road initiative? right, but when you talk about the east, you seem to be suggesting that the sort of modern—day silk road, the belt and road initiative, for example, that the chinese launched in 2013, is producing a sort of coherent, integrated east which can be talked about in the same way
that we talked about the west. and ijust wonder if that's true. if one looks... even today at the hostility, for example, between india and china, if one looks at the way in which china is seen to be projecting its power into central asia and many central asian republics are deeply worried about that, is it coherent? is it integrated ? or is it actually unsustainable? well, i think all these labels are not helpful. you know, in the same way that the west, where does one start and where does one end? and the same way asia or the east, or even when one talks about the belt and road initiative, from a chinese perspective that includes the arctic, that includes oral hygiene, that includes space, right? so, these labels are designed to suggest a narrative. and there is an advantage of a narrative because it shows, suggests that there's a plan. and one of the things that is very striking to me is that in all these countries or many of the countries i work on, whether it's saudi arabia, vietnam, kazakhstan, there are long—term national plans of where the country is going and what the threats and risks are. and it's very striking to me that here in europe and arguably here in the uk,
in particular, we don't have the ability to think beyond a few months ahead because of brexit, partly, but also because the way in which democracies work precludes the idea that you can chart a course and then stick to it. so, i think some of it is not just the chinese story. it's about all these countries which have very fast urbanising populations — in india, for example, where indian development is, of course, closely linked to what's happening in china and the political military rivalries. but india, likewise, has its own huge economic boom that it's been going through over the last 30 years — the expertise in the computer and digital sectors, in particular. but the trajectory that india takes is also completely independent of developments inside china. but, clearly, the story of the past is about how well people can trade and what kind of barriers there are to their ability to buy and sell things to each other and encourage economic growth. and one of the stories about history is that you tend to see big regions, even globally, rising all together or falling all together. yeah, and one of the things that intrigues me about your historical approach is that you do put trade front and centre as a huge sort
of influencer and integrating force, bringing people across vast regions into some sort of communication and contact. but you don't really spend much time talking about ideology and the power of ideas. and, you know, going back to 1989, there was a feeling in the west that actually liberal western democratic values and ideas had somehow won and they were going to be globally exported. have you always been deeply suspicious of the power of ideas as drivers of history? er...i think one has to disaggregate. so, in fact, i'm very interested in the spread of religion and of ideas across art forms and so on. and, for sure, if we weren't in a globalised trading world, we wouldn't have had a global pandemic. you know, when people get on planes to take garments to northern italy, for example, from china, that's how coronavirus was seeded in europe. it's always brought by people moving and travelling around. and sometimes that's for touristic reasons. sometimes, a lot of the time, it's for trade, but sometimes
it's for religious pilgrimage. that's where we see the large movements of people inside india, for example, and likewise across the islamic world on the hajj. so i think the suspicion is not of... ..of ideas or ideologies, it's about the practicalities of what it is that makes people want to open their countries or close their countries and the willingness and ability and requirements sometimes to get things from abroad. but that's the very interesting thing about china and indeed other authoritarian regimes, some of them in central asia and elsewhere — they are open in the sense that they've embraced a form of managed capitalism, but they're most definitely not open, flexible, responsive cultures and societies when it comes to ideas and everything that goes with democracy, dissent, pluralism. in your view, looking across the historical piece, is there a sustainability problem with societies that are open intellectuallyjust as they are to trade, for example? well, generally, societies
that...that trade well are more tolerant, more open. and...they identify problems and fix them. that's my point about china today, it's flying in the face of that generalisation because in so many ways it's more repressive today than it even was 15 years ago. well, i think certainly the last three or four years, that's no question about that. clearly, digital tools allow for surveillance and for monitoring and for control. but the key driver is economic growth. so, from the communist party of china's point of view, as long as they can keep delivering high levels of growth and better quality of life, then there's likely to be very little pushback... really? i think that they... well... so you are, in a sense, a deeply materialist historian. you think as long as the material development and progress is there, no amount of dissatisfaction with the fact that you can't speak your mind or you can't criticise the powers that be is going to... ..is going to threaten authority so china can be sustainable in its current form, in your view? well, so there are three different answers. first, injanuary, in february
when the outbreak started in wuhan, the key thing to be monitoring was dissent online on chinese chatrooms. and, at that time, there was a great deal of pushback inside china about the need for openness, etc, etc, and clearly spooked the chinese authorities. and, at that time, we in the west were convinced this was the tipping point where china was bound to fall and go through some form of soft revolution that would see the authority of the communist party being challenged. and that was navigated quite successfully at the time because china shut down wuhan, nine, ten, 11 million people in it. and now the model of how china works is quite sellable, notjust in china, but outside, whereas the western model of how we've handled coronavirus, less so. the challenge for china .2 is that china and chinese state—owned businesses carry large amounts of debt, and whether it's sustainable globally in a competitive market is a very important question. and if they start to falter or. ..or lose the plot or go wrong, then there are consequences and so that growth isn't as easy to deliver as has been the case. and, in fact, one of
the reasons why china looked outwards towards central asia and elsewhere along the belt and road initiative wasn't about china trying to explore new alliances, and it was about displacing excess infrastructure and displacing excess load that already existed because there were already too many bridges in sichuan province, as the governor of sichuan had said, and tried to find new ways, new outlets for china's businesses. before we end, i want you to put your historian‘s eye not on the areas that you normally focus on, which is obviously central asia and the east, but actually on the west, because the flip side of the notion of a sort of ascendant east is a sort of implication of descendant west. you talk about a fin de siecle feeling in the united states and the western world. and yet i look at the stats where, you know, china's gdp per capita today is something over $10,000. in the united states, it's well over $65,000. the yawning gap in prosperity is still there.
and doesn't that actually fundamentally matter today and tomorrow? of course it does. you know, ithink what the challenge is, is that it's very easy to take median incomes. the key is how do you bring people on at the bottom in society? how do you find people who have no access to health care, no access to food and are living in conditions of poverty? and that is the mark of how a good political system works. and for all sorts of reasons the us and here in the west have not done particularly well at tackling inequality. that's fixable. it's not hard to do. it requires more aggressive forms of taxation, more enlightened forms of taxation. and, like i said, the best thing about democracy is the chance to learn from mistakes and change course, and that can be done. so, i suspect we're living through a blip where we have character—driven personalities that... you mean donald trump? well, it's not, you know... trump isn't the only populist leader, globally. you know, the attractions of finding someone who can speak their own mind or thought to speak their mind is reflected in the fact that
young people, particularly in europe today, are disillusioned with democracy. and so we need to be much better at explaining what the benefits are. we've got to do much better explaining how everybody comes along on that trip and on that course and also, what is the purpose of us having, for example, higher costs to our digital technologies, our clothing industries by being more selective about these global supply chains? but, by and large, the consumer has shouted too loud at the expense of citizens in democratic societies, and we need to become much better, more adroit at doing that. as it happens, having watched the soviet union, totalitarian and authoritarian states struggle as they reach critical size. so, the fact that there are, in 1999, not a single billionaire in china and now more billionaires in china than there are in the us shows that those inequality issues are even more pronounced in a country of 1.4, 1.5 billion people, and keeping the show on the road is not easy. and i assume that one of the reasons for that crackdown of authoritarianism is the realisation inside china that thejuggernaut, as it becomes more powerful, people's expectations rise. but, so far, the beneficiaries
of the last 30 years are all grateful to the way that the systems worked. we have to end in a moment, sadly. i just want to end with this thought. we began with a discussion of a pandemic. we've talked about the rise and fall of empires. ijust wonder, as you consider your historical work, whether you end up feeling that we humans, as a species, are heading in a positive direction, ie are you optimistic about where we're going, given what you've seen of our past? or are you actually a pessimist? you know, while we're talking, any child that's been born anywhere in the world will have a longer life expectancy than anybody else that's ever been born. the chances of access to clean water, maternal health care, literacy levels, we're at an all—time... but we're born into a world with more carbon in the atmosphere than has ever been seen at any point in human history before, with a much greater world population, heading towards eight, nine billion, we don't know where it's going to end. those, surely, are structural issues which human beings, in our societies, are not learning how to deal with.
well, i'm more optimistic than you are so i think that it can be fixed by science and scholarship. i do think that political willpower does exist to be able to bring those together but i'd still rather be alive in 2020 than in 1939 or 1914, or almost any other point in history. i mean, apart from the fact that we have dental care, we have long lives and we can watch things like bbc hardtalk streamed around the world, i think that we should be...we should not forget how lucky we are. and if coronavirus has taught one lesson to us all, globally, we should be grateful for what we had while we had it and that when the world gets back to the beginning, and gets going again, i think those qualities of resilience and robustness and an ability to work together are more important than ever. so, i'm optimistic. as long as we avoid warfare, confrontation and major—scale dislocation, which happens all the time, you know, the european union won the nobel peace prize about ten years ago because we hadn't fought a war for 70 years in europe, excluding the break—up of yugoslavia. and that is very, very unusual. normally, human beings kill
each other and fight and the fact that we're just arguing with each other across the table and making high drama in our political classes, i can live with that. we could carry on much longer but, sadly, we're out of time. peter frankopan, thank you very much for being on hardtalk. thank you so much. thank you. hello. the weather is taking on a decidedly wintry complexion as we head through the final days of 2020. the satellite picture shows this big stripe of cloud that brought very wet and windy weather through the early parts of sunday courtesy of storm bella, but now we've got the speckled clouds working in from the north, some shower clouds, those showers turning wintry as well
with some really cold air digging its way down. and we stick with this northerly air flow right through the coming week. so, yes, it will be cold by day and by night. there will be a mixture of rain, sleet and snow at times in all of that, some spells of sunshine. certainly a very chilly start to monday morning with temperatures widely below freezing, several degrees below freezing in places. that could well give rise to some icy stretches, and also notice this area of rain, sleet and snow across parts of wales, the midlands, down into southern england. this is going to be moving very slowly through the day, he could give some snow certainly over high ground, but even to low levels don't be surprised if you get a brief covering of snow. elsewhere, some wintry showers continuing in eastern coastal counties. northern ireland, western scotland keeping a lot of cloud. a mix of rain, sleet and snow here. it will be windy in the west, not as windy further east, but even if you get sunshine through the day it will feel chilly.
top temperatures between 2—7 celsius. now, as we had through monday night western areas particularly will see further cloud and epics of rain. some sleet and snow. some wintry showers for eastern coasts as well. elsewhere, we keep some clear spells, again a touch of frost and some icy stretches with temperatures for many dipping well below freezing. so as we go on into tuesday, low pressure will be sitting just to the east of the british isles. high pressure a long way out to the west, but that will be driving a feed of northerly winds once again. another fairly windy day across the west where we will see showers of rain, sleet and snow. some wintry showers for northern and eastern coasts. elsewhere, a lot of dry weather and some spells of sunshine come up with those temperatures still struggling below average for the time of year. 3, 4, 5, 6 celsius in most places. and we stick with that very cold weather throughout the rest of the week. a lot of dry weather around, but some showers. some of which will still be wintry.
this is bbc news with the latest headlines for viewers in the uk and around the world. i'm rich preston. millions of americans lose their unemployment benefits — after president trump refuses to sign the covid economic relief bill into law. south africa registers more than a million cases of coronavirus — hospital admissions rise steeply as a new faster spreading variant is detected. the vaccine rollout begins in european union countries — health workers and the elderly, the first in the queue. dozens of syrian refugee families are forced to leave a makeshift camp in lebanon after it was burnt to the ground during a dispute with local residents.