The Great Divergence & Industrialization in Western Europe and China

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Beginning gradually in the 15th century and accelerating into the main course of the 19th century, many regions of the world experienced a tremendous growth in their population, agriculture, and economy. By using innovative measures to improve technology and means of production, certain parts of the world, specifically the Western world first then China, were able to emerge into newly industrialized and modernized nations. Some significant events that triggered these developments include the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and perhaps the most influential, the Industrial Revolution. As a result of these historical movements, European powers came to dominate world politics and trade by the end of the 19th century. Due to a variety of reasons, Britain was the first nation in the world to lead the Industrial Revolution. It is widely acknowledged that the Western world was among the first to experience the “Great Divergence,” but the main dispute today remains why exactly the West triumphed over China, in particular, despite the greater technological developments China had possessed for many preceding centuries. Some proposed theories suggest that Europeans succeeded because they had not only already accumulated respectable wealth and status before industrialization, but also because they possessed a dynamic and progressive attitude towards change. A popular theory is that Europe’s highly fragmented state actually contributed to its success. Because there was no sole centralized power to dominate and limit its development, Europe’s economy was able to benefit from greater competition within states. Unlike Europe, China was under the rule of a single emperor. In an article written for Economic Development and Cultural Change, Justin Lin states “China, on the other hand, was ruled by one dominant ideological system backed by absolute political power, and no genuine public dispute was allowed. As a result, despite the fact that ‘the Chinese people have been innovative in mechanical skills and technologies, traditional China’s politico-ideological inhibitions kept Chinese people from making direct contributions to the theoretical infrastructure and methodological foundations of modern science’” (282). The main argument presented is that the Chinese did not have the freedom to openly discuss ideas and challenge others during these times. Contrarily, Europeans were free to engage in public discourse, which allowed them to foster innovations in a productive manner. Also, whereas the Chinese government was constantly intervening in activities regarding private commerce, Europeans experienced a clear division of power between local governments and the central authority. There was much more freedom and a heightened sense of competition among European institutions to please their subjects and also for military supremacy. Many scholars believe that this fundamental difference in institutions and cultures, mainly Europeans’ innovative nature and their states-system, led to their initial rise over China. According to Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence, the people of Western Europe “had vastly more capital at their disposal, especially livestock, which they accumulated by ‘holding back population growth a little below its maximum’” (31). He goes on to explain that Europeans’ capital stock was not as susceptible to destruction because Europe was fortunate enough to suffer fewer natural disasters than the Asians did. Furthermore, Europeans were guaranteed the protection of private property while the Chinese were not afforded this luxury. The Chinese government was highly involved in trying to interfere with private enterprise by controlling lucrative businesses and taking part in illegal activities such as bribery. As stated earlier, in China, there was no concept of a free market and the foundations of mercantilism were fundamentally absent. The Chinese held the view that they were highly...
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