Niall Ferguson’s most recent series for Channel 4, The Ascent of Money and Civilization, both pointed to the impact of China’s rise on the global balance of power. Its astonishing growth means that within as little as five years it could become the largest economy in the world, heralding a seismic shift of financial and political power from West to East.

What will this mean to us? In this new series Niall Ferguson travels through this vast country to ask how a fifth of humanity can live under a Communist system of government with a capitalist economy when according to all the laws of history he knows it should fall apart. He tracks down the people who can really explain what China stands for: from newly minted billionaires in China’s megacities, to the survivors of the madness of Chairman Mao, to aggressive young nationalists hacking into our computers, to the brave defenders of China’s rural poor. He looks at how China has been held together for more than 2000 years firstly by imperial rule and now by an imperious Communist Party. He investigates the cult of Mao by asking whether this nostalgia is a form of mass delusion or if it really was Mao who built modern China. And finally he answers the questions that should concern all of us: will this turn out to be the Chinese century? Should we be scared? Or will the Red Dragon crash and burn? China’s rulers from the first emperor Qin to today’s Communist Party have all shared the same fear: that protest and rebellion would tear this vast country apart. In this opening film Niall Ferguson shows how the vast apparatus of the state has always been called on to subjugate individual freedom to the higher goal of unity. On the other hand, Ferguson also examines how centralised control produces tensions that threaten to destroy this huge country.

8PM Channel 4 tonight