It is, of course, common sense that 1989 was the defining moment of the last quarter of the 20th century. Who could possibly disagree? It closed a chapter of history that had been ushered in by the October revolution in 1917. It brought to an end the systemic challenge that communism had posed to capitalism, the belief that there was, indeed, an alternative. It allowed the US to emerge as the undisputed superpower of a new century. It gave globalization access to the former Soviet bloc from which it had been excluded.
That is an imposing list by any standards: an epochal event of enormous implication. But the most important event of the late 20th century? Let me present another candidate: 1978.
Why 1978? It was the year that Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) introduced his open-door reforms in China, which inaugurated a quarter-century of annual double-digit growth rates, resulting in the economic transformation of China. Compared with 1989, 1978 was admittedly a rather dull affair, however far-reaching its implications might have been. But 1989, on the other hand -- notwithstanding the fact that it was bloodless and atypically good-natured -- had more than a touch of the grand European political theater. It was recognizably in the European revolutionary tradition.
Nor did 1978 have the elevated political meaning that attaches to 1989. The latter did not just exude political theater: it had substance too. It closed an era of not just communist but also socialist history. From that moment on, the world acquiesced in capitalism: like it or lump it, there was no other alternative in town. The country that had carried the hopes of a systemic alternative had collapsed amid its own contradictions.
That is history on the grandest scale -- 1978 cannot possibly compare. A communist country chose to turn its back on an era of egalitarianism and embrace the market. It took the first tentative steps towards capitalism. In that sense, interestingly, 1978 mirrored 1989, or even anticipated it. Unlike the Soviet Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party chose to introduce capitalism. So in political terms, in the language of grand alternatives Europeans are so partial to, 1978 cannot hold a candle to 1989.
No, the case for 1978 must be established on quite different grounds.
Ever since Britain's industrial revolution began in the late 18th century the world has been dominated by the West, namely Europe and the US. Until well after the middle of the last century, it was widely believed that those countries that had been on the receiving end of European colonialism were destined for a perpetual status of dependency and underdevelopment. The rise of east Asia showed that not to be the case.
More dramatically, the transformation of China has decisively moved the global center of gravity eastwards. The 21st century will be quite unlike the preceding two centuries, in which power was located in Europe and the US and the rest of the world consisted of mere supplicants and bit players.
Although 1978 is still recent, we are already a long way down the road to the creation of this very different world. So far the process has been overwhelmingly economic. Europe, for example, is therefore still largely oblivious to the fact and consequences of this transformation, not least what it will mean politically and culturally for our continent. As a sign of our parochialism -- and almost historically coincident with the rapid rise of China -- we have become increasingly obsessed with the "Islamic problem."