China and Europe: The New Units of Analysis

Diversity of Peoples in China and Europe

A second way to appreciate the importance of looking at Europe and China as comparable units really comes from thinking about them from a present-day vantage point. It used to be, until about twenty years ago, that we thought of national states as the natural end-development of what a modern world looked like politically. In the last twenty years, with the gradual formation of the European Union, we are increasingly thinking of Europe creating a political structure that transcends or supersedes at its apex national states.

The European Union is growing. It is growing both in the sense of the introduction of new member states and in terms of the types of decisions that are being taken by the European Union government. From a Chinese vantage point, in other words, from the vantage point of a comparably sized geographical space that has experienced political unification over many, many centuries, Europeans today are achieving politically in weaker and more modest form what Chinese have had for centuries, namely, the existence of a central level of government that makes decisions about economics and social policy over a vast area.

Comparing Europe with China [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: If we compare England and China, and say England was a dynamic economic, expanding area, China was a backward peasant society, we're comparing a very small area with a very large one. And in so doing, we're ignoring all the diversity within a land mass as large as China, which has certain areas that are dynamic and economically growing, and it has other areas that are quite backward and primitive.

And (with) Europe as well. If we take Europe as a geographical unit the size of China, we'll find that in addition to the English expansion and commercial vitality of the 1600s, we have other parts of Europe which are basically peopled by peasants who are living in subsistence conditions. The range of economic conditions across Europe in the 1600s and 1700s is basically comparable to the range of economic conditions that takes place across China.

And thus if we're looking at economic change over time, we don't want to be blinded by current-day political borders into thinking that the proper units of comparison are a European country and China as a country. Instead we should be comparing Europe with China, recognizing that there are regions within, or subregions within, each of these large land masses, which have economic traits similar to each other, whether we're looking at advanced areas or more primitive areas.

Advanced Commercial Economies look Similar [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: What have specialists learned in the last twenty or thirty years that undermined this simple narrative? Basically we've learned that the dynamism of commercial expansion, the dynamism of more sophisticated trade organization, of financial markets, of just increasing levels of productivity, whether it's based on the productivity of the land or of labor, the use of capital—by all these measures, changes were taking place in parts of Asia, both south and east Asia, that were broadly comparable to those taking place within Europe.

Therefore, it no longer makes sense to assert that what was taking place within Europe circa 1500 or 1600 was fundamentally different from what was taking place in other advanced commercializing economies. What we've learned is that the world in, say ... between 1500 and 1700, had a set of pockets of economic dynamism.

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